Over recent weeks I had the chance to read Wouter Hanegraaf’s ‘Western Esotericism A Guide for the Perplexed’. In this relatively unsurprising and very academically composed overview on such a vast subject I stumbled across one chapter that truly stood out from the rest. It is called '3. Apologetics and polemics’ and follows directly on a very short overview of main trends and developments of Western Esotericism.
In previous and subsequent chapters Hanegraaf’s highly scholarly lens on the subject rather hinders him - like so many other academics - from getting to the heart of the matter: the subjective gnostic experience of the practitioner. In this third chapter, however, his clinical perspective which dissects historic myths into tangible names, events and sources proofs to be invaluable. In fact it is the first time I have come across such a fascinating overview of the development of Christian faith from its onset to the 19th century. It is because of this chapter only I really recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of the faith that almost exclusively shaped our modern Western cultures.
Right at the beginning of this particular chapter Hanegraaf clarifies a fundamental aspect of Christian faith - or any traditional religion as we know it. Let me quote the passage for you in full:
“It was a general conviction of the age that any religion worth its salt had to be rooted in ancient and venerable traditions: everybody, including the Jews, agreed that nothing could be both new and true. By claiming that their faith had originated very recently, with Jesus Christ, Christians were therefore inviting ridicule. For example, a second-century pagan philosopher called Celsus was making fun of them as a people without roots, who ‘wall| themselves off and break away from the rest of mankind': ‘I will ask them where they come from, or who is the author of their traditional laws. Nobody, they will say.’ And a century later, the Neoplatonist Porphyry was equally puzzled by a community of believers who thought that they could just 'cut out for themselves a new kind of track in a pathless desert’. Christian apologists took such accusations seriously and felt they needed to have an answer. They found it in what we have referred to as Platonic Orientalism: the widespread belief that Plato had taught not just philosophy but an ancient religious wisdom, rooted not in his own Greek culture but ultimately derived from the most ancient and venerable traditions of the Orient. Egyptians pointed to Hermes Trismegistus as the original fountain of such 'ancient theology', Persians to Zoroaster, Greeks to Orpheus or Pythagoras; but Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr, Tatian. Clement of Alexandria, Origen or Eusebius of Caesarea argued that all those gentile philosophers had ultimately depended on the ancient wisdom of the Hebrews, codified by Moses at Mount Sinai, which had now attained its final and full splendour in the teachings of Jesus Christ.
This argument implied that Christianity was not radically new. It was a revival - after a long period of decline due to the influence of demons, whom the pagan nations kept worshipping as their gods - of the true ancient religion rooted in Mosaic wisdom. That religion had been inspired by the eternal Logos, the divine Word, from the very beginning, long before it was finally 'made flesh, and dwelt among us' in the person of Jesus Christ (Jn 1.1-14). A particularly eloquent statement of this position comes from one no less than St Augustine: ‘The very thing which is now called the Christian religion was with the ancients, and it was with the human race from its beginning to the time when Christ appeared in the flesh: from when on the true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.’” (Hanegraaf, loc.908)
We have spoken about faith in the previous post, yet it struck me there is another, essential aspect we didn’t touch upon. For some reason it is us as humans ourselves who turn our faith slow and powerless - by not allowing it to breathe in the present moment. For some reason we are driven by a desire to tie back our faith into history, into ancient myths, into times long past. For some reason our continuous belief that a mysterious power was accessible once and has vanished today seems stronger than our belief in the power of the present moment? What Wouter Hanegraaf states so well is not only true for Christians 2000 years ago, but it remained true for most of our ancestors ever since and many of us today: Rooting our faith in the present moment seems to come with the fear of inviting ridicule. Not so much the ridicule of others maybe, but even worse - the ridicule of ourselves.
Why is it that the new and present seems so fragile and vulnerable faced with the ancient and old? Well, maybe it is the same reason why we as living humans feel fragile and vulnerable when faced with death? Skin is more delicate than bones after all. And yet it is the former that carries life and not the latter. But because we want our faith to last - to even outlast ourselves - we continue to anchor and root it in the dead...
Here is what I think I missed to call out in the previous post on faith - and what Hanegraaf’s wonderful chapter helped me realise: As a gnostic you are faced with the essential fact that all of your faith’s ties to the past need to cease to exist - for any true experience to come to life. Walking the path of the gnostic takes courage more than anything. Because what it takes is exactly what the Neoplatonist Porphyri had suspected: Each one of us needs to ‘cut out for themselves a new kind of track in a pathless desert’.
A pre-requirement for any magic to work is for the mage to be fully centred in the present. If magic ultimately is a synonym for a vast array of Techniques of Freedom - none of them can come to life in the past. Instead, each of them need to be re-invented, re-imagined and re-enacted in the present moment. Magic doesn’t require any roots in tradition whatsoever. Neither tradition nor history matter to it. What matters to magic is the roots it grows within you.
The best a tradition can do for us is to act as an entrance point. It turns into a gate through which we step and then walk beyond it. In a recent blog post Josephine McCarthy described exactly that and how this wisdom is mirrored by the tarot trump The Hermit:
“That ‘growing beyond’ is what is depicted in the tarot trump of The Hermit. After climbing the mountain of dogmas, training and paths, the hermit eventually understands that it is the single light of their own direct experience and wisdom that lights the way ahead. The only way ahead is to step off of that mountain top and trust in Divine Power.” (Josephine McCarthy)
7 weeks without...
Now, I'll promise you'll very rarely hear me advocating initiatives of the Christian Church - may it be Catholic or Protestant. However, today I am - at least to follow their line of thinking for a moment: Just like every year during the seven weeks before Easter the German Protestant Church (Evangelische Kirche) has called to join their lenten fast initiative 2014. This year their motto is '7 weeks without false certainties'.
When I heard a radio report on their initiative to my surprise I learned that they not only called for their members to question their own everyday habits, parenting rules or the decisions of their bosses. Instead the priest invited everyone to also give up any traditional religious certainty during these 7 weeks: to not use the word God, Mercifulness, Lovingness, to not read or quote from the Bible and to give up any empty notions or religious cliches of which our everyday lives are so full. Why? Because most of us replace living faith with following a tradition. And by putting our feet into the tracks that others have left before us we make ourselves believe we follow our own path rather than theirs...
I am delighted by the radical idea of this lenten fast - and invite each one of us to join! Seven weeks without anything taken for granted in our spiritual worlds: no mentioning of HGA, of True Will, of the Abyss, of the Sephiroth or 93. Seven weeks during which we show the courage to push all established patterns into the background. Only for us to embark on the adventure of seeing what will take the stage instead.
Magic offers a whole armoury of Techniques for Freedom. But just like anything you wear for too long there is a risk we begin to identify with our armour. Sometimes it is good to walk naked for a while. Not because wearing an armour is bad, but because we may not forget how it feels to walk without.