Sunday, May 7, 2017

Choosing Not To Mix Paganism and Christianity....Why?

Ancient of Days, by William Blake
"Thou shall have no other gods before me"
-Exodus 20:3 (King James Bible)

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a professed Pagan in terms of my identity as a magician. For me, what this means, is that the spirits I have both a reciprocal and devotional relationship with are gods that are considered Pagan deities (the Egyptian gods specifically). I worship in a Pagan style of prayer and offerings that sometimes involves petitioning the gods for some boon while at other times are merely done out of sense of joy and gratitude.

My gods aren't wholly of another kind than myself, they are more like older siblings or even parents who I honor because they are who they are. But, more than that, not only are they persons, in the sense of having individual identity, but they are also principles that allow me to exist not only in terms of having breath, but in terms of all the experiences of being alive.

For example, a very simplistic snapshot...

Ra is sovereignty and the life giving power of the Sun while also being a distinct divine person. Hathor is sexuality, joy, and aesthetic beauty, while also being a distinct divine person. Osiris is the power of resurrection and renewal while still being a distinct divine person. Sekhmet is the power of war, aggression, disease, and healing while also being a distinct divine person. Each of the gods is a principle, or set of principles, as well as a person.

Goddess Isis
There is a complex panentheistic, polytheistic, and animistic metaphysics underlying my system of sacro-magickal belief and practice that is the result of education and practice over many years.

For me, religion and magick are fundamentally inseparable insofar as I work with my spirits in nearly all acts of magickal practice. For example, the act of consulting the tarot for guidance is proceeded by an invocation to Thoth who, while being a divine person in his own right is, quite literally, the personified qualities of the insight as wisdom I seek when doing divination.

Such a way of interacting with the gods and spirits one has a relationship with has a very particular way of reorientating one to the world. This is an immediate and tangible means by which to accomplish the re-enchantment of the world.

I've always suspected that the ahistorical separation that exists in the modern mind between religion and magick is largely artificial, an artifact of an age wherein magick was seen as inherently transgressive and outside the will of God. The only acceptable supernatural aid (in the Western world) came from petitioning saints for intercession or praying for a miracle directly from Jesus or God Himself. The magician/sorcerer was one who interacted with spirits that granted power and boons outside of the direct auspices of God (and the church), and whose work was not religious in the way those of this time understood religion.

 Edward Kelly and John Dee
summoning the dead for divination.
It does seem true that nearly all cultures have a demarcation regarding acceptable and unacceptable, permitted and transgressive, magick but only in the modern world is the magician seen as fundamentally and archetypally other than priest or priestess. The archetypal magicians of the Western world, whether real or fictional, such as Merlin (seen as a druid, but very much the mage), Agrippa, Dee, Gandalf, even very modern incarnations like Raistlin Majere, are all outside the purview of priestcraft.

Even those mainstream religionists who allow for the existence of miracles (fewer and fewer with the growing influence of materialism and scienceism) will still claim that the intercession of a saint isn't magick because magick is power granted by forces other than their God. According to the party line, priests don't do magick, priests pray and hope for the best. According to this paradigm, the magician/sorcerer is transgressive, the very opposite of the priest, by nature.

Though obviously I don't share the ahistorical outlook that there is, by nature, a necessary separation between priest(ess) and magician, I have an admission to make. I too share a certain ahistorical outlook influenced by the very same paradigm that created the polarized line between priestcraft and sorcery.

My ahistorical hangup has to do with mixing Pagan and Abrahamic concepts. I don't.

I've always kept my Paganism and Abrahamism separate. Even when I sojourned into Golden Dawn based ceremonial magick for a period of about three years, I set aside my devotional Paganism completely, said farewell to the gods I had been worshiping (there was no jealousy, no anger on their part, only a peaceful allowing) and embraced my new paradigm as fully as I could. I wanted to see what it was all about, the qabalah, the angels, the Hebrew Letters, YHWH, and I both devoured knowledge and practiced with gusto.

However, despite myself, I was always fighting a sort of inner resistance and after about three years, and even after a profoundly moving experience of Christ while meditating on Tiphareth, (a story for another time perhaps) I put away my ceremonial magick books and came back to Paganism. Despite the deep intellectual satisfaction that ceremonial magick gave me, as well as the obvious spiritual power of the rites, it simply wasn't my spiritual home.

Like a Prodigal Son, I had to leave so that I could return more appreciative of my home, my relationships with the spirits, and grateful for the relationships that had somehow deepened even with my leaving. I, more than ever, felt closer to my gods in a truly Pagan animistic sense. No longer was Isis, Osiris, Anubis, Horus, Ra, Thoth, Nephthys, and the other gods  fundamentally transcendent, if approachable, they were here now, immanent and present in the world. Their reality had become tangible in a way it had never been before. Certainly they had transcendent aspects, but they were here now, with me, ever-present.

Leaving and returning had been so important to my relationship with my gods that I sense it is entirely possible that they pushed me out of the nest so that I could experience what I needed to experience so as to enter into deeper relationship with them upon my return.

The gods, they work in mysterious ways.

Even since my reunion with my gods, I'll be the first to admit a deeper than ever aversion to mixing my Paganism and its spirits with Christianity and its spirits. Even the idea of continuing my devotion to my gods while keeping Abrahamic based practices (such as traditional grimoiric evocations) entirely separate feels off. I know that there are some Pagans, Christians, and even Buddhists who are dual practitioners but, for me, that seems awkward, clumsy, and internally contradictory.

Because my Pagan magickal practice is a manifestation not of a Will to Power, but instead a manifestation of a religious impulse directing me to an ever deepening relationship with the Numinous as manifest in my relationship with the gods, dual practice seems, for lack of a better word, wrong. It seems like a bastardization of both my Pagan spiritual path and the Abrahamic path embedded in much of the Western Esoteric tradition.

And because I am self-aware, I recognize that my aversion to all things Abrahamic is ahistorical, especially in terms of late Pagan magick as clearly demonstrated in The Greek Magickal Papyri, but the aversion is there and it's visceral. My aversion to all things Abrahamic isn't animus toward Christianity, Judaism, or Islam per se (especially in their mystical manifestations) or practitioners of these faiths. It's a paradigmatic aversion that rejects the cosmology and metaphysical assumptions of these faiths.

Christian Mystic Thomas Merton

I share a lot of common values with, and have a great deal of respect for, Christians who are good and compassionate people, Christian mystics, and Christian magicians. Christian devotional mystics like Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Richard Rohr have made me a better Pagan by clarifying the nature of kenotic meditation practices I still use (it's good tech). Understanding the means by which a piece of magickal/spiritual tech works then stripping it down to its core components (ie. the parts that do the work) is smart, historically sound, sorcery. 

Unlike many who profess modern Paganism, I was never Christianized. My mother is a non-Wiccan Witch and my father was nominally Christian, but no longer. I was raised with complete freedom to seek for myself without any pressure to accept the spiritual beliefs of either my father or my mother. My mother did manage to keep me away from her Witchcraft books until I was twelve years old, for safety reasons. And, to be fair to her, though I didn't appreciate it at the time, I believe her decision, in retrospect, was the right one. No telling what sort of trouble a magickally inclined nine year old could have gotten into.

However, despite never formally being part of Christianity and never having been baptized, I did go to Catholic school for eight years (which started me on the path to being a Christian theology geek) and, like anyone born into Western culture Christianity is part of the background noise of life. The culture-wide holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the turns of phrase we use to express ourselves (often from the KJV), those who usually surround us as family and friends, even the way we swear when we're angry or stub our toes reflect Christianity as deep, unavoidable cultural substrate, to a greater or lesser extent.

It isn't lost on me that my aversion, may be, quite ironically, an artifact of being part of a Christian culture wherein the idea of mixing pantheons is not merely verboten, it is unthinkable. The other team is the enemy and one just doesn't pick and choose aspects of each team based on one's preference. You are on Yahweh's team or you aren't.
Oil and Water

"And in all things that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth."
-Exodus 20:3 (King James Bible)

Christianity is, at least historically, a path of orthodoxy even more than it is a path of orthopraxy. In other words, Christianity is about belief (a profession of faith) primarily and secondarily about practice (works). Though there is extreme, even historically murderous, divisions between Catholicism and Protestantism regarding the exact means by which divine grace and and one's works converge so as to produce the state of being saved, there is no division regarding the fact that faith is of preeminent importance in a way not seen in orthopraxic faiths like nearly all of modern Paganism or other practice heavy faiths like Theraveda Buddhism.

Personally, I grapple with the idea of using Christian spirits, or indeed any spirit, in a purely utilitarian fashion utterly divorced from the theology  and context (ie. underpinning beliefs and metaphysical assumptions) that makes them in any way coherent. That kind of "use them because they work" approach reminds me too closely of the lists of gods one would find in old Wicca 101 books (for your love spell, just choose "Ishtar, Isis, Hathor, or Aphrodite"). No cosmology, no metaphysics, no relationship, just tools in a toolbox to use and set aside when finished. This is fine if the gods and spirits are merely personifications of one's personal unconscious, but strikes me as wildly disrespectful if they are, as I believe, extant beings with agency and personality. 

Curiously enough, this manner of practice was the very kind of wild magickal/spiritual eclecticism that was decried and mocked by countless Pagans and magicians throughout the 80s and 90s for it's mix and match, gods and spirits as tools, with no concern for incompatible theologies or metaphysical assumptions. I'm not surprised to see that what was old is new again, because everything in occulture is cyclic, but I'd suggest that a lot of baby Pagans who were mocked for their eclectic practices during the 1990s by those "in the know" are owed an apology.

The wild west of the occult scene of the 80s and 90s, and its anything goes eclecticism, does bear a greater similarity to the manner in which magick was practiced in late antiquity than it does to more recent efforts at striving towards internal consistency and coherence within broader modern cultic or personal practice. Despite that, I do prefer coherence, as well as internal and aesthetic consistency tending as I do to prefer systematic syncretism to wild eclecticism.

So, like all of us, I've been impacted by Christianity but not in the manner in which I've suspected for a long time. I suspected, for a long time that my aversion was rooted in the adverse effects Christianity has had on culture (for example):

  • The religious imperialism that annihilated Paganism from Europe including the various mystery schools...absorbing and co-opting ideas isn't merely preservation when it extinguishes the original source.

  • The religious imperialism that destroyed indigenous cultures, often enslaved adults, and forced indigenous children to live away from their families and forget their spirits, traditions, and cultures.

  • Forcing my ancestors on my father's side to be Christian via the lash.

  • The misogyny as demonstrated by the pro-life movement and "traditional values" cults like the Quiverfull movement.

  • Attempting to force anti-science creationism into school science classes.

  • Legislating demonstrably useless abstinence only sex education in schools.

  • The Christian religious litmus test that does exist in terms of anyone seeking the office of president. No non-Christian has any hope of being elected president in the United States.

  • The soulless and useless Christianity defanged of its fierce compassion that allows millions and millions of professing Christians to unashamedly support legislators that would vote to remove vital health services from millions of their countrymen and women.

  • The soulless and useless Christianity that attacks homosexuals while ignoring the grievous sins of those whose asses warm the pews...the liars, cheats, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, etc. 

  • The twisted transcendentalism of millions of American Protestants who feel that protecting the environment is unnecessary because Christ is coming back to fix it...all while we are in the midst of a man-made great extinction. 

  • The Christianity that wraps itself up in the American Flag while ignoring the plight of refugees from war-torn nations, edifies the rich and demonizes the poor. 

  • And so on and so on...

Though many of my European friends will not be able to relate to the kind of Christianity I'm describing, it assuredly does exist and it is, in the United States, no mere outlier. In fact, it is the twisted heart and soul of the Conservative Evangelical Christian movement that in played a large part in getting Trump and his cronies elected.

I know there are many who will be thinking, "but that's not real Christianity!"

G.K. Chesterson's,"
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting
 it has been found difficult and not tried," notwithstanding, the "No True Scotsman Fallacy" is piss poor apologetics. This sort of apologetics is nearly utopian in its clinging to an ahistorical version of Christianity that has only, if ever, existed in the heart of Christian mystical adepts.

Christianity, like all faiths, is, for good and ill, as it is practiced, not as it is on paper or in the hearts of those that are sometimes better than the tradition they profess. There is good and there is bad in Christianity and BOTH of those things are Christianity as magickal egregore, spiritual tradition, and mystical path. Any argument to the contrary ignores both history and current reality. 

Getting back to my point, the inner aversion that causes me to reject the idea that Christianity and Paganism are like chocolate and peanut butter (ie. great together) is rooted in the fact I take theology, metaphysics and cosmology rather seriously (I want my personal theology/cosmology to be coherent) and believe these things represent the heart and soul of a given spiritual path much more so that do the smells, bells, outer regalia, spells, icons, and accouterments that many occultists find appealing. Those things are the icing on the cake perhaps, but the beating heart goes deeper than that. The beating heart is the narrative metaphors that introduce us to, and define the roles of, the spirits and gods of a given path whether ancient or modern.

Myth is spiritual metaphor, and some metaphors can, in my opinion, make poor bedfellows 
even if they share a common ancient roots due in no small part to thousands of years of cultural accretions that influence how we understand a given spiritual tradition, in this case Christianity. Thousands of years of history and impact do not magically disappear because, according to speculative history, 50,000 years ago all extant religions came from the same Lurasian root source myths. Using the Lurasian theory as argument to justify simply choosing mythic motifs in a utilitarian fashion is an interesting perspective but one that points in a direction I suspect that very few people would appreciate if taken to its logical conclusion.

That's a conversation for another time.

So, is my choice to avoid mixing Paganism or my reluctance to engage in dual Pagan and Christian practice ahistorical?

For the Paganism of late antiquity, at least in some cases, yes.

However, I've never made claim that my practice was meant to be a mirror match for either early Paganism or the Pagan magickal or spiritual practices of Late Antiquity. My practice is that of a 21st Century Pagan Magician, based as much as possible on lore, but rooted primarily in my relationships with the gods as both devotee and sorcerer. My path is a results orientated magickal and spiritual path/practice (theory must support results, not the other way around), and is inspired by many, yet beholden to no other, spiritual or magickal traditions.

There are sound reasons for the choices experienced magicians make even if those choices run counter to the zeitgeist of the moment.