Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Reluctant Thelemite



I am a member of the O.T.O. and I am sometimes active in my local body. For me it is social engagement and also a mechanism through which I can get some degree of peer review and swap ideas about magic and occultism. While the methodologies that I use to perform magic are quite different than those of my fellow Thelemites, I feel a degree of alignment with the purposes and focus of many of the members of this order. I am a ritual magician with peculiar beliefs and practices, but despite my different approach and occult perspectives, I can find a welcoming place in the local body with my fellow lodge members. That being said, I can also state that I am probably a poor representative for any kind of classical approach to the O.T.O., since I am, at best, something of a reluctant Thelemite.

There are reasons for my one-off approach to magic and occultism, and even polytheism, when it comes to the classical Thelemite approach to these disciplines. In a few words, as one O.T.O. member once said, I “stink” of Witchcraft. That means my magical practices, occult ideals and polytheistic tendencies are grounded in my first love, which was British Traditional Witchcraft. Yes indeed, I do stink pretty foully of Witchcraft, and it colors everything that I do. It also makes me a reluctant Thelemite, since my whole approach to magic, paganism and the occult is firmly within the Witchcraft world-view. Allow me to explain what these differences are in greater detail. Let’s also keep in mind that I don’t consider myself an expert regarding Thelema or the canon of the O.T.O. As a reluctant Thelemite my understanding of this creed could be considered quite flawed.

As a Witch, I do not consider myself “one of the people of the book.” Witches don’t possess or adhere to a sacred document considered to be sacred writ and wholly unchangeable. We have a Book of Shadows, but that is a book of liturgy that was never meant to be changeless, since liturgical rites can and should be modified to make them better fit the times and the places where they are performed. As a comparison, the Catholics have radically changed their primary liturgical rite called the Mass, but they have not changed the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Yet Witches don’t have a testament or any kind of sacred writ, so as polytheists, our knowledge of the sacred is to be found in the actual experience and direct encounter with our Deities. Presence of Deity at a specific place and time represents the greatest mystery and the source of our spiritual faith, the other mysteries are about the fundamental attributes of human life (and all life in general), which is birth and death. It might be somewhat different for each and everyone of us, but that is the nature of a true polytheistic faith. Words get in way if they attempt to concretely define something that cannot even be adequately described.

Perhaps one of the primary characteristics of Monotheistic religions in the West is that they are exclusively a counter or protest religious movement against the status quo of the time. Jews created a counter movement against ancient Egyptian polytheism. Christians created a counter movement against classical Greco-Roman polytheism, Protestants rebelled against Catholicism, and Islam created a counter movement against Semitic/Arab polytheism. Each of these religions proposes an absolute Deity and an absolute religious truth, and although the Deity that they identify with is pretty much the same, their differences are the basis of a disagreement of opposing absolute truths. It is the foundation of monotheism (and the source of its problems) that a single absolute deity must be the one and only deity, and that the religious canon based on that deity must and should be written down into sacred writings, representing the one and only version of the truth.

Those of us who have rejected this notion of a single and absolute religious truth see the folly of these minor distinctions between monotheistic creeds and understand the need to achieve religious tolerance and a peaceful coexistence. (We do this for no other reason than to ensure our own survival.) I have also previously stated that the foundation of the world religions is based on the same kind of human interactions with the phenomenon of spirit, and that either they are all correct or none of them are correct. Since religions are continually nourished by people having personal religious experiences, one could conclude that the very existence of this phenomenon would preclude any kind of scientific dismissal. The truth is that billions of people have these experiences every day. Yet while the religious based myths are open to question among non-believers, if they remain in the context of religious myths then no one can actually refute them. They are subject to criticism especially if they are promoted as historical facts verified only by faith, such as how monotheistic religions represent their myths. A point of irony here is that science itself has been shaped by the monotheistic philosophies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, so it could hardly function as a counter movement to the spiritual “opiates” of western religion.

One exception to this particular examination of monotheistic religions having sacred writings is, of course, Hinduism. The sacred writings of Hinduism, however, are more the exponents of liturgy, philosophy and meditation techniques, as well as embodying many religious myths and stories that are assiduously kept bounded in that wondrous domain. What Hinduism doesn’t have is a historical narrative of a single absolute deity intermixed with various associated absolute religious truths disguised as laws. Perhaps the most salient point that the religion of Hinduism makes is that there are a myriad of deities everywhere and no actual absolute truth, but many great truths bound together within the various cultic religious centers. Hinduism might be a good representative of what western polytheism would ultimately achieve if it continues for the next several centuries. While sacred writings are important to Hinduism, the foundation for that religion is to be found in the various shrines and religious cultic centers where the presence of deity is maintained at all times.   

Getting back to the theme of this article, I have made the point that monotheism relies on sacred writings and represents a spiritual break from or antithesis to the status quo. I have also stated that I have rejected the absolute qualities of the theology and canon of such religions, since they would seek to cancel out the truths that I possess based on personal experience with my Deities. If religious tolerance is to be maintained then those who are not part of a religion must reject these stated absolute truths and instead declare that they are actually relative. Taking this kind of stand makes me an outlier to all forms and creeds of monotheism. It also makes me a reluctant Thelemite.

As I have stated, monotheistic religions have a common cause or origin in that they are religious protest movements against the status quo. Yet in many ways, Thelema is also a protest movement against 19th Christianity, particularly the strict dominionist practices and beliefs of the Plymouth Brethren. Crowley’s natal church was the Plymouth Brethren, and it could be said that the religion that he founded was a particular antithesis movement to that kind of strict Protestant Christianity. Yet Aleister Crowley was not content to just break from his family’s church and faith in order to engage with a different religious perspective, much as what many of us did back in the 70's and 80's. He created a powerful anti-Protestant Christian movement that used the tropes of that religion to found his own religious perspective. He called himself the “Great Beast - 666” and reveled in the very symbols of the Apocalypse as laid down in the New Testament book “Revelations.” It was the Protestant Christians who made this book into a kind of revealed truth about the forthcoming end times, and the Plymouth Brethren were particularly engaged with this theme. The themes and ideation of the book of Revelations were suffused into the Book of the Law and also powerfully colored Crowley’s experiences as depicted in the Vision and the Voice, where he evoked the spirits of the Enochian Aethyrs. Crowley believed that he was the prophet of a New Aeon who would bring forth a new religion that would countermand and even abrogate the religions of the status quo. This was also affirmed by various passages of the Book of the Law.

If we take Thelema as based on Crowley’s exegesis then we can see that it becomes a specific protest movement against Protestant Christianity. It takes the themes and tropes of Christianity, especially the messianic formulations of the end times, and inverts them so that the New Aeon represents the end of Christianity and the birth of Thelema. The Great Beast becomes a prophet of the New Aeon, the Whore of Babylon becomes the chief priestess and initiator. The Crowned and Conquering Child is not Jesus, the Lamb of God, but the Anti-Christ as the proponent of the New World Order. The Book of the Law thus becomes the sacred writ of this new creed, and the canon is established as a kind of prophetic absolute truth - not to be changed or modified. While the practice of magic and exploratory occultism are the primary religious practices of this new creed, and coincidentally there are no attempts at purifying or forcibly unifying the beliefs of those who nominally accept this creed and perform this magic and speculative occultism, the model for Thelema is based on the monotheism of Protestant Christianity. What that means is that this apparent inclusiveness could change to become a kind of rigid exclusiveness based on the sacralization of the writings of Aleister Crowley. Some have gone so far as to see in the Book of the Law a kind of inculcation and promotion of a form of religious fascism.

Despite its promotion as a limited kind of polytheism (based on a trinity of primary Deities and two human representatives), Thelema is similar to a kind of monotheism, thus having more in common with its adversarial creeds than with what would be considered a purer or detached kind of revised polytheism. Crowley was vigorously and angrily reacting against his natal faith and the church of his family, and this unfortunately has impacted everything that he wrote. An objective examination of Crowley’s writings and even the Book of the Law shows this to be a clear and even obvious case. These anti Christian elements of Thelema are problematic to me because I have rejected the tropes and creed of Christianity altogether. What I don’t want to do is to have to revisit them once again in the guise of a supposedly polytheistic and occult based religious system.

Curiously and ironically, we are today suffering from the affects of the dominionist creed of Evangelical Protestant Christianity that was spawned by the Plymouth Brethren. That version of Christianity has invaded our nation’s politics and has bolstered the white supremacy movement to produce the troubled combination of right-wing politics and the ascendancy of the presidency of Donald Trump. Perhaps Thelema might be considered an antidote to the terrible times that we live in, but it would have to become much more popular than it is to culturally oppose and defeat Evangelical Christianity. Then there would be the problem that in order to be so popular, Thelema would have to be modified to be ever more like Christianity, which would certainly end my interest in it.

Since the current O.T.O organization allows for a plurality of beliefs and perspectives within its ranks, I can belong to this organization without having to strictly adhere to its canon and beliefs. I am certainly a practicing magician and occultist who is seeking to discover the truth for myself. I acknowledge many of the ideas put forth by the religion of Thelema, but I also have a lot of doubts and points where I am not in alignment with that faith. I am puzzled by the Book of the Law, liking some passages, rejecting others, and then finding yet other passages that are confusing or unclear to me. Since I don’t accept any specific book as representing my beliefs or my faith, I am unable to accept the Book of the Law wholly and completely as holy writ representing my religious beliefs. I suspect that other Thelemites also question various passages of the Book of the Law, and that the necessity of following or adhering to one’s true will (“Do What Thou Wilt Is The Whole of Law”) abrogates any kind of surrender to a strict adherence to this book. I also belief in “Love” as the primary force that draws us all together and mitigates our differences, but I believe that a complete surrender to this emotion is folly, therefore, “Love Under Will.” 

In accepting these basic premises one could say that I am a Thelemite, but I would claim to be one that is plagued by doubt, different perspectives and different religious experiences. I cannot accept the creed of Thelema without also keeping these differences and objections at the fore-front of my mind. If I belonged to a Christian or Islamic sect, I would have been forcefully ejected quite some time ago, since I would have refused to adopt a strict adherence to the basic creed. I also still have the terrible habit of asking too many damned questions, and this certainly got me kicked out of Sunday school when I was a troubled and disruptive adolescent.

Additionally, as part of my own magical exegesis I discovered that Thelema was only one of a four-part gnostic perspective on magical truth. The other three were Agape, Eros and Thanatos. These would represent Will, Love, Desire and Death, respectively. The central unifying gnostic attribute was Astreas, or the Star, which represents the fusion of all four gnostic qualities into a singular spiritual expression. Every man and woman might be a star, but then so are the deities, and so is the representation of the One. It was this theme that inspired me to write up five different Mass rites and their associated liturgies, and I continue to work with them to this day.

I do find common cause with Thelema and Thelemites, and I also find their magical workings and occultism to be quite excellent and relevant to my own. I consider Aleister Crowley to be one of my many spiritual ancestors and I still read his writings to this day. I have a different perspective and also different practices to be sure, but I also have a basic understanding that dovetails quite nicely with Thelema as I understand it. As long as Thelema and the O.T.O. promotes self-discovery and doesn’t try to coerce a single definition and creed upon its members, I believe that I will continue to work with them and be a somewhat active member. I might be a reluctant Thelemite, but I do acknowledge those with whom I have common interests, practices and beliefs. May this relationship continue during this difficult and challenging time in which we live.

Frater Barrabbas

3 comments:

  1. As a not-at-all reluctant Thelemite and senior member of the same local body, I would say that in my experience, Thelemites such as those you describe here are few and far between. I certainly don't think they should be held up as some sort of exemplar. In my opinion, "fundamentalist Thelemite" is a contradiction, and certainly nothing to aspire to.

    Your perspective is always welcome at our local body, and I hope that you will continue to be active in it. Tons of people in OTO also consider themselves Pagan, so you are by no means alone.

    If the OTO ever were to turn into a coercive cult, I would resign too. And that's coming from someone who has sworn to dedicate his life to the establishment of the Law of Thelema. Fortunately for both of us, I am quite confident that it will never happen.

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    1. Scott, you are in one a a few rare locations, entirely due to the people (such as yourself) making it better than it is for most in a bubble of local quality. There is plenty of coercive cult action happening elsewhere in the OTO to go around. That said, I do understand the difficulty of approaching a body of work obsessed with rejecting world views and religious assumptions I never had. Rather than 'breaking me free' it brings the very rejected ideas into a mindscape that never knew or wanted them at all, and imposes a need to understand this christian religion in order to make sense of all the details in the practice that are tailored around imitating and reinterpreting christian ideas, even when they are outright mocking or inverting them. It can be frustrating to be informed it is needed to immerse myself in a supposedly objectionable mythology I never knew to free me from it's influence that only begins and grows with the study to critique it- in order to break assumptions, limitations and paradigms I never had. Sexual expression is another great example- having to learn 'book rules' and 'dictated standards' of what I must do to be free, obsess on what people are ashamed of and then mime sexually rigid roles and limiting passion plays to induce me to loosen up and get a thrill from thwarting the morality I never had, when I was utterly lacking those limitations to start with, actually becomes controlling and restrictive in ways I was not to begin with, all the while with blind men telling me to submit so that I might be 'saved'.

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  2. Frater Barrabbas, Could you point me in a direction for further study on your statement that "Thelema was only one of a four-part gnostic perspective on magical truth. The other three were Agape, Eros and Thanatos. These would represent Will, Love, Desire and Death, respectively." The central unifying gnostic attribute was Astreas, or the Star, which represents the fusion of all four gnostic qualities into a singular spiritual expression." This is fascinating to me and I want to know more.

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