07 November 2010

Why Ogres are Like Onions, or Gnosis and Swimming.

Alright, I'm not actually going to talk about Ogres and Onions.  But I do want to draw a parallel between Gnosis and learning to swim.

I think that there is a tendency to think of Gnosis as something that is acheieved, and once you've "gotten it," you "keep it."  I also think that this is totally wrong.  I do hold that Gnosis positively transforms the one who seeks after it insofar as she reaches that kind of knowledge, but the process is ongoing.  Gnosis is a faculty of human (though perhaps not only human) consciousness that allows us insight into the most fundamental being of a phenomenon. To attain Gnosis in this regard is to behold the being of the thing, and to understand it, as it were, from the inside out.  But this process is always ongoing, just as learning to swim is always a process.  When I learn to do the crawl, or not drown when thrown into a pool, one can say that I have "learned to swim."  But I don't stop there.  I continue to learn more and more, and to perfect that which I've already learned.  To have attained Gnosis is to have learned to swim.  It is the beginning of Initiation, not the end of it.

We often imagine that the attainment, or fuller attainment, or a certain degree of attainment, of Gnosis guarantees certain effects.  Perhaps I will become more compassionate toward my fellow beings.  Perhaps I will survive death.  Perhaps my head will glow with the uncreated light.  Rather, I would suggest that the attainment of Gnosis opens possibilities.  It is, for this reason, and this reason alone, desirable and salutory.
Take for example the idea of persistence after death.  The idea of conditional immortality as put forward by many traditional forms of initiatic practise and by contemporary authors like Julius Evola, suggests that the default state of human beings after death is simply dissolution.  To die is, for the profane, to simply end.  The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out...  On the other hand, the initiate attains immortality and survives death. Evola in particular characterises this as a simple cause-effect reaction.  I would submit that the process is more sophisticated.

It is true that if I don't learn to swim, if you throw me in the middle of the ocean, I will drown.  Perhaps I will survive by chance, or luck, but odds are I'm going down into the deep.  On the other hand, if I learn to swim, that's no guarantee that I'll survive.  This is true especially if I've only learned the American Crawl.  However, even that basic knowledge of swimming technique opens up possibilities for my survival that simply wouldn't be present without that knowledge.  The more I strive after Gnosis, the more I attain, the more possibilities open up.  As a swimmer, when I'm thrown into the drink, I've got more possibilities. Maybe I'll swim to safety.  Maybe I'll tread water until a boat passes by.  Maybe I'll just be able to keep my wits about me long enough to figure out that the water's only six feet deep.  Or maybe I'll decide to drown, and let myself sink into the embrace of the Nereids.

Perhaps initiation and Gnosis offer me the possibility of survival post-mortem.  Perhaps I will stand before God and sing his praises unceasingly.  Perhaps I will be dissolved into divinity.  Perhaps I will reincarnate on this planet, in this reality, or some other.  Perhaps I'll just sleep.

The point is, when I learn to swim, I open up possibilities that I wouldn't have otherwise. When I attain to Gnosis, the universe opens up for me in little and big ways.  It's all about possibilities.

Oh, and Onions have layers, and Ogres have layers.

In case you were wondering.

22 September 2010

What use is God?

Eminent physicist Prof Stephen Hawking recently made the bold statement that "science makes God unnecessary." This is a bold statement, and I think, intended to be so.  Since what I surmise Prof Hawking means is that we don't need God to explain the origin of the universe, I'm even liable to agree with him.  The problem is that this statement, taken, as we should never take statements, in vacuo, seems to suggest that the only purpose that God serves is to explain what cannot be, or what has not been, explained by science.

I've seen this kind of argument before, though, in moral form.  "Because people are perfectly capable of being good without God looking over their shoulders", the argument goes,  "we don't need God at all."  This presumes that the only function of a life of faith is to prevent us from being horrible people.  I have to admit, I choose to not lie, break promises, rob liquor stores or kill my neighbours not because of some big bad God who's going to kick my arse at the end of time.  And I don't imagine that my atheist friends are off on multi-state murder sprees because they're not afraid of going to hell.

Similarly, it is sometimes claimed that the purpose of religion is to bind together primitive cultures or to comfort us in times of difficulty.  Certainly religion can serve all of these purposes:  it can give us explanations of phenomena that science does not, it can encourage us to be virtuous, it can give people with no natural commonality a sense of belonging, and it can assuage our fears in times of need.  However, I stand with my atheist colleagues when they say that in the modern world there are other mechanisms that take care of these important social needs much better than relgion does for the thinking human being.  Where I part ways with many of them is the conclusion that this is what faith is in toto.

Atheist colleagues and friends often tell me that they don't experience a void in their lives that they need God to fill, and I believe them.  I don't think that God fills some lack in my life either.  For me, my experience of the divine opens up possibilities for my flourishing;  it doesn't close them off.  My life is richer for the presence of God in it.  God doesn't just answer my questions about the universe and give me an imaginary friend to talk to when things get tough.  My faith doesn't teach me right and wrong or provide me with a reason to cherish and respect my fellow living things that I wouldn't otherwise have.  My faith opens up my experience of the world and colours it with a richness and depth that is hard to put into words.  My faith affords me a profundity of life that comes only with the recognition of the vastness, majesty and beauty of the world.  My faith allows me to stand in the presence of the holy and the magnificent without seeking to dominate, control or have mastery over it.

For too many people, religion is a crutch on which they lean, or a surrogate for living their lives to the greatest extent of their own potential.  Insofar as this is true, and insofar as religion becomes an excuse to cut off the possibilities of my own and others' lives, it is a bane and a danger.  I say, however, that to dismiss faith as if this were the sum total of its possibilities represents a failure:  a failure of understanding, a failure of charity, and a failure of imagination.

Prof Hawking has driven science forward into new and wonderful realms, and every thinking person owes him a great debt of gratitude.  I have no doubt that there are more great insights to come from the man who once held the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, but there are more things in heaven and earth, Stephen, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  And my world bristles with life because of them.

27 April 2010

Science, Magic and speculation

I've found that those interested in magic and the occult are often much better versed in contemporary particle physics than the average intelligent layperson.  At first glance, this seems like a peculiar combination.  Scientism often stands in starkest contrast to spiritual inquiry.  One has only to read the screed of someone like Richard Dawkins to see the extent to which a certain kind of scientific mindset holds itself as in absolute contradiction to any kind of spiritual belief or knowledge, or really any knowledge outside of its own limited sphere.  However, the furthest reaches of scientific inquiry are opening up the scientific community to an understanding of reality that is much closer to that espoused by esotericists.  Concepts like "other dimensions," "multiverses," "retrocausality" were once exclusively the province of science-fiction and esoterism.  These are now an accepted part of the scientific lexicon.

One of the reasons that I love far reaching research in theoretical physics and why I believe it is very often of interest to those with an interest in esoterism, magic and the occult, is that it participates in the tension between wild speculation and observability that characterises so much research into spiritual practise. Both theoretical physicists and magicians start their research in the mind, not the lab.  The thought-experiments of particle physicists and the speculations of occultists happen exclusively in consciousness.  And yet...ultimately, both have to have something to do with praxis.  As a physicist, your equations and speculations will remain academic curiosities unless real work is put into demonstrating their predictive or falsifiable properties.  As an esotericist, your magical models of the universe are nothing but day-dreams if you don't put them to work.

Some try to reduce all spiritual practise to sophisticated science, and as opposed as I am to the kind of rabid scientism that I mentioned above, I don't think that this is entirely misguided.  I personally don't think that magical work can be entirely understood in scientific terms, but contemporary science has elements that are sufficiently mysterious that I can't simply dismiss the possibility out of hand.  There is simply too much we don't know.

My Idealist roots compel me to take the role of consciousness very seriously, in a way that pre-20th century science never did.  Contemporary science, at least since General Relativity and the Uncertainty principle, on the other hand, is deeply invested in the idea that consciousness is part of the equation. I think that this is very much in keeping with esoteric work and research, which ultimately rests on the axiom that the macrocosm (manifested reality) and the microcosm (consciousness) are intertwined, or, to use the terminology of particle physics, entangled.  Change in one doesn't just precipitate change in the other.  Change in one is change in the other.

As a layman, I don't pretend to understand the complexities of particle physics.  To do so would not only be a lie, but an insult to the sophistication and hard work of so many people doing such wonderful work in the field.  But I am fascinated by it, and while the ways in which we as esotericists make contemporary science  dovetail with ancient magic may inspire many good scientists to smash their heads against their blackboards, I think ultimately the convergence is a productive one.

09 April 2010

History and Myth, or Jesus and the Kraken.

I had two experiences this week that have brought to my mind the question of the relationship between history and mythology. In my professional work, I am more of an historian than anything else, so the question of history is an important one.

The first was a television programme on the History Channel about the “True Face of Jesus,” which involved the Shroud of Turin. I love these sorts of shows, and this one didn’t disappoint. Watching these artists and scientists work their magic on the image of the Shroud was a wonder to behold. The one theologian who spoke made a point about the Shroud that I have heard many times, and which goes to the heart of the meaning of the artifact. That point is that ultimately it doesn’t matter if the cloth is “Authentic” or a “Fake.” What matters is what it represents, which is the suffering of Christ and ultimately the inherence of the divine in the human. I think that some people expected that with the carbon-dating of the Shroud to the 13th century, former believers in the authenticity of the shroud would be broken into two camps: those who were no longer believers, and those who denied facts staring them in the face. I think these two groups actually represented only a small minority of those who venerated the Shroud. More numerous were those who challenged the methodology without challenging the method (e.g. those who claimed, as many now believe, that the carbon-dating was done on a repaired piece of fabric that dated from much later than the original cloth) and those for whom the “authenticity” of the Shroud didn’t matter one whit to their faith. The latter are attesting precisely to the idea that what the Shroud means is much more important than what it is; that the myth of the Shroud is greater than its facticity.

The second was the opportunity to see the movie Clash of the Titans. I fully expected this to be as much of a cheeze-fest as the original, and this too did not disappoint. I also expected to be frustrated by the mish-mash of myths cobbled together to form a story could be told on the big screen in 118 minutes. I found that this expectation was unfounded. I am not sure if this is due primarily to the skill and artistry of the creatives behind the movie, or to my realisation that I was treating Greek myth as if it were a monolithic construct that oughtn’t to be changed in the minutest detail; I was treating mythology as if it were fact. The reality is that Greek mythology is itself a mish-mash and is often self-contradictory and open to wide variation. What the movie did do, and this I never expected, was tell a story that meant something rather profound; a story that taught us that there is a nobility in human beings that does not require even the gods to validate it. It created its own myth which stands on its own, no matter what its relation to the myths of Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus and others.

So what do these things have to do with history and myth? The brute “facts” of history are particulars, and as such they tell us nothing outside of themselves. They only become meaningful when they themselves are subjected to the process of historiography, in which they become not data but meanings, not facts but myths. In this process they become universals expressed in concrete form, existential absolutes. The myths are true. The facts that make them up are merely, at best, correct. This is a distinction that is attested to in the language of the Greeks and Romans; it was present in our thought but we have lost touch with it in an age where many believe that only scientific “facts” are true. As Heidegger writes in his The Question Concerning Technology, “the correct is not yet the true.” This statement is very telling: it is not that the correct and the true are opposed, indeed they share an opposite, namely the false. It is not that facts have nothing to do with truth. It is only that facts are only on the way to being true. It is myth, even when it gets its facts wrong, that speaks truth, and when we lose our myths, we lose our capacity for truth.

20 March 2010

Inside - Out, part II, or, A Tale of Two Martins.

The interior method:  meditation, introspection, quietism and the Way of the Heart.

The exterior method:  ceremony, ritual, invocation and the path of magick.

Any esoteric practitioner worth her salt will, if you push hard enough, admit that both have the same goal and ultimately both are effective, but you may have to push really hard.  Most esotericists or occultists will privilege one over the other, even if it's just in terms of their own work.  Even while admitting that the other path "might work for some people," they'll tell you that their experience clearly demonstrates the superiority of one over the other.  I frankly have no idea how the lines are drawn.  Personally, I've encountered more who prioritise the interior method, but I have no idea how representative is that experience.

The relationship between the two is one that is more than a little problematic, and I've worked to puzzle it out for myself for a long time.  I won't insult anyone's intelligence by suggesting that I've come to anything like an answer, but I will say that I value both.  Which one I privilege might vary on a daily, even hourly, basis.

On the one hand, the interior method works on precisely the thing which should be the object of all of our work:  our own souls.  We can see the changes that take place in ourselves as a result of even a few days of regular meditation.  Say the Jesus Prayer a hundred times and you're damn right you feel a little more holy. When we think of those who have attained the heights of spiritual advancement, we think of the monk, the hermit, and the saint.  After all, are we really going to waste our time drawing ridiculous circles on our floors and reciting long winded invocations to spirits that we don't really believe exist?  Louis Claude de Saint-Martin was not unversed in ceremonial theurgy but turned away from it toward the mystical practises that make up the Way of the Heart. The path to reintegration is one that leads inward, to the very soul of a human being.  If anything, the exterior method is a kind of crutch.  The symbols, the incense, the weird incantations all serve to put us in a state wherein we get a glimpse of what the interior work does.  Eventually, we "graduate," as Saint-Martin did and we don't need to training wheels of ceremonial anymore.

On the other hand, the exterior method has a long and honoured tradition and it seems reasonable that we should, in our state of separation, have recourse to those beings who care closer to the source than we are.  Great and wise men and women have prayed to the angels and saints, and for many of us there can be no greater spiritual operation than the celebration of the sacraments.  The high ceremonial of ecclesiastical practise is a central spiritual experience many, and it is hard to deny the power of such ritual.  Breathing into our navel is great, but really that's just acting on the physical plane, and never moves us out of our own space. Martinez de Pasqually was the great teacher of Saint-Martin, and it was through the ceremonial methods of Martinez that Saint-Martin came to have a glimpse into the nature and purpose of the human soul.  Our journey to reintegration is one that leads outward, to our origin, to the source of our being.  If anything, the interior method is preparatory.  The physical calm, the breathing exercises, the mental focus all serve to equip us to call upon the messengers of God.  Eventually, these things become a natural consequence of stepping into the temple and drawing the circle, and we begin to do the real and often dangerous work of exorcism and conjuration.

On the third hand, what the hell do I know?  And why do I have three hands?  I don't have a good answer.  I know that for the most part, I have always been drawn to the exterior path, and I admit that I find the interior work more difficult and less rewarding.  At least today.  Martinism in its various forms seems to recognise the value of both means without elevating either one to an end in itself.  This, after all, is the real danger:  that the practise becomes the goal, and we lose sight of why we practise.  No conjuration, no pranayama, no liturgy and no quiet prayer will do us any good if we forget that our goal is to elevate ourselves and recover the divinity which we have obscured from ourselves.

Inside - Out

Recently, I was asked in a group setting what practises were most important for contemporary Gnostics.  Several colleagues and friends offered intelligent and useful suggestions regarding their own work, and I think the asker was well satisfied.  But something bothered me.  There seemed to be a real emphasis on interior practise (meditation, centering prayer, Hesychasm) to the exclusion of theurgical practises. 

Let me say that I have nothing against those interior practises, and consider them to be an important part of the spiritual toolkit of any working esotericist:  γνῶθι σεαυτόν.

I am enough of an Idealist, though, to believe that the "external" world has something to do with ourselves and our spiritual development to suggest that the turn outward is as much a turn inward as these introspective practises. The invocation of the celestial and angelic intelligences that is a significant part of the continental theurgical tradition is a path toward the divine just as much as meditation and mysticism.  While I think that the division between magic and mysticism or the inward and outward path is deeply fraught, I also would suggest that it is often useful.  So long as we remember that it is one perspective and not the perspective on spiritual work, we can deploy it in order to ensure that we are not blinkered in our own work.

When we invoke an angel, a spirit, or an intelligence and treat it as something other than ourselves, we acknowledge our own limitations and seek to overcome them.  We turn to the universe for guidance and assistance and admit our own frailty in the face of the All.  Many modern "occultists" object to this attitude, preferring instead the assumption of the authority of God.  Admittedly, it can smack of the self-flagellating "oh-my-dear-God-I-suck-so-much-let-me-tell-you-how-full-of-suck-I-am" kind of self-debasement that makes up a significant portion of that to which esotericists object in exoteric religion.  I am a vessel for the Sacred Flame, the divine burns within me and my birthright is my spiritual homeland, the Pleroma.  But can't I affirm this and at the same time admit that I'm not there yet and that there are forces and powers that surpass my own that could be of help?

"As above, so below."  We hear this all the time.  But often we fail to really take it to heart, and dismiss out of hand as "magick" or "superstition" or "thaumaturgy" those practises which seem to point to the existence of powerful forces outside of ourselves.  As I said, I have a strong Idealist streak (I wrote my dissertation on Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin after all) and I would suggest that as much as those forces are outside of ourselves they are within us as well.  I'm not willing to go down the psychologist route that suggests that angels, demons and intelligences are simply aspects of our own consciousness, but at the same time I'm not willing to say that there isn't something to such an approach. 

So when we want to develop our own spirituality, and forge our path back to God, let's not ignore the possibility that we can do with a little help from our friends.