Everything is a symbol of course, it could not exist if it were not a symbol, but the fundamental symbols are those which express eloquently aspects of the Supreme Truth and the Supreme Way.
In this monograph Mary Ferrell Bednarowski examines a half-dozen religions of variously “alternative” status, inquiring into their different conclusions regarding traditional theological topics such as the character of the divine, the nature of humanity, human existence after death, and the cornerstones of ethical reflection. Her six example religions are carefully chosen, not only to illustrate a profound variety, but also to demonstrate some parallels: three originated in the 19th century and three in the 20th, and she sets the triads up so that each has a match in the neighboring century. The result is as follows:
19th Century : 20th Century ::
LDS (Mormons) : Unification Church (“Moonies”) ::
Christian Science : Scientology ::
Theosophy : New Age Movement
In the case of the first pair, there is an emphasis on the finitude and anthropic qualities of God, along with the need for human participation in an ongoing historical process of redemption. Both place emphasis on families and marriage as the critical locus of society, and both have engaged alternative notions about marriage in contrast to American mainstream culture.
At first I thought the second pair seemed more alike in name than substance, but it turns out that the early establishment of Christian Science under Mary Baker Eddy was marked by organizational secrecy and centralization to the point of paranoia, quite reminiscent of the Hubbard-Miscavige institution. The similarity of name betrays a shared emphasis on a formalized knowledge that the evident material world is an inaccurate reflection of mental-spiritual reality, which is the real locus of power.
The chief problem here is with the third pairing: the New Age Movement doubtless appeared to have more durable substance in 1989 than it has since demonstrated. But more importantly, it’s not clear that the Theosophy and the New Age Movement are significantly different entities for theological study, since the Theosophical Society and its organizational progeny are reliable entries in any list of groups contributing to the New Age Movement. Bednarowski does show some appreciation for this weakness, but I think she could have still made a respectable case for her larger thesis by substituting Neopaganism for the New Age Movement. In that case, both would emphasize the recovery of wisdom from non-Christian sources, and both include a “magic-positive” outlook that includes the possibility of esoteric initiation. “Theosophy”–taken as a broader milieu than orthodox Blavatskianism–comprehends a considerable range of theologies and organizational approaches comparable to the amplitude of Neopaganism in the late 20th century.
So, while I had been fairly skeptical at the outset, I ended up impressed with the gist of Bednarowski’s pairings. The upshot is that since there is no direct doctrinal influence of Mormonism on the Unification Church, or of Christian Science on Scientology (or, in my proposed revision, of Theosophy on Neopaganism), she has identified three distinct–though not necessarily exhaustive–varieties or types of “theological imagination” among “new” religions.
Curiously, she doesn’t name these three species. I was reflecting on how I might reference them, when it struck me.
Theosophy/Neopaganism : CCXX Chapter I ::
Christian Science/Scientology : CCXX Chapter II ::
Mormonism/Unificationism : CCXX Chapter III !
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tantra for Westerners: A Practical Guide to the Way of Action [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Francis King; newer edition Tantra: The Way of Action. A Practical Guide to Its Teachings and Techniques. [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library].
Francis King’s treatment of Tantric practice in this volume is more attentive to authentic source materials and ethnography than most Neo-Tantric literature of the last few decades has been. Even so, he seeks to universalize it beyond its original south Asian context. His emphasis on what defines Tantra as such is not so much “sex” (as the typical Neo-tantrist would have it) as it is a dualist metaphysic and transgressive method.
Tantra is compared to ritual magic of the Golden Dawn school throughout the book. In particular, there is a claim that the tattwa materials that circulated in the GD were rooted in the Bengali Tantric text Nature’s Finer Forces published in English by the Theosophical Society. King carefully examines the correlations between the sat chakras and the qabalistic Tree of Life made by Aleister Crowley, J.F.C. Fuller, and Dion Fortune, rendering his own verdict and recommending related practices. He also weighs in on whether Crowley should be viewed–in King’s terms–as “an authentic, if unorthodox, tantric” (76), ultimately answering in the affirmative and citing (without details) various secret instructions of O.T.O. to support the point.
In this book, King has an awful lot of opinions for someone who does not make any direct admission to being an actual practitioner. Most of them sound quite sensible, but it’s reasonable to wonder about the nature of King’s authority when encountering his authoritative tone. His historical speculations on the relationship between the Tantras of different religious traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain) fall within what I understand to be the range of current scholarly views on the topic.
A set of appendices cover such diverse issues and items as psychedelic drug use in “Western tantra” (King’s basically against it), a revision of the invocation of the “Bornless One” for goddess devotions, and a comparison of Taoist “internal alchemy” to parallel Tantric practices.
I found this 1912 book to be surprisingly worthwhile. It’s a set of lectures by Harvard academic Josiah Royce, with a scope situated somewhere between philosophy of religion and religious psychology. It is not theological or sectarian. When Royce observed that “It is useless to make some new sect whose creed shall be that there are to be no sects” (294), I could not help thinking with amusement that he was indicting the Plymouth Brethren, just such a sect, as well as their “non-denominational” successors among “Bible-believing” Christians.
Speaking during the later part of the Progressive Era, Royce refers to William James as “my dear friend” (27), and particularly in the book’s fourth section “The World and the Will” he is at some pains to explain how his views both accord with and differ with those attributed to philosophical Pragmatism. In an earlier section on “Individual Experience and Social Experience” he also details his particular understanding of James’ theory of religion, as well as providing a surprisingly generous and sympathetic gloss on Nietzsche’s “Titanism” (60 ff.).
Although Royce’s willingness to class Christianity and Buddhism as the “higher religions of mankind” (8) and his use of the search for human “salvation” as the touchstone of religion as such seem like stigma of a thinker with whom I would find few if any points of agreement, he develops his argument with a good deal of care and patience. In the culmination of his fifth lecture “The Religion of Loyalty,” he arrives at what I consider to be cardinal truth: “For our attention is now fixed, not on a condition to be called salvation, but on a rule for doing something in accordance with our own true will” (188). Before the lecture concludes, he progresses from this pivot to insisting that “your true cause is the spiritual unity of all the world of reasonable beings” (205, italics in original).
The final lecture is concerned with what Royce calls “The Invisible Church” which transcends all limited doctrines and specific cultures, although he gives no signal of having drawn on esoteric thinkers such as Eckartshausen and Lopukhin for his use of this phrase. Royce is sufficiently scrupulous in his avoidance of theological identification that it is impossible to tell if he originally took “Invisible Church” from the contexts in which it has been used as a gloss on Augustinian anti-Donatist notions supposed to be common to all Western Christianity, or if he was specially receptive to the Protestant usage which allowed for institutional legitimation via a supra-historical avoidance of Roman Catholicism. In any event, Royce uses it in neither sense, and he is explicit that he extends “membership” in the Invisible Church to those “loyal” to non-Christian religions, as well as to the “cynics and rebels” who attack “the narrowness of our nature, the chaos of our unspiritual passions, the barren formalism of our conventions” (285).
So, while there are any number of points where I feel my views to be in friction with those of Royce, I found his treatment on the whole to be both coherent and productive of useful reflection. I would recommend it to clergy, scholars of religion, and others willing to give serious thought to its questions.
Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan is a slender book, but one with a lot of valuable content. As the title suggests, it is constructed around a pair of liturgical texts by the eminent early twentieth-century occultist Dion Fortune. These appear to have been her only forays into dramatic ritual for public audiences or untutored congregations, and they were produced by her at “the Belfry,” a converted church building in the Belgravia district of London. The full rituals are included, and framed by four chapters of editorial text from Gareth Knight, who provides a history of these rituals and delves into the manner in which they were epitomized in Fortune’s principal occult novels: The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess, and Moon Magic.
Fortune’s rituals with Knight’s study and commentary constitute roughly the first half of the book, and the second is a set of a half-dozen papers and addresses by Fortune that are relevant to her rites. Three of these were originally published as articles in The Inner Light Magazine, but a couple of them seem to be from previously unpublished records of the Society of the Inner Light that Fortune founded, and the very first appendix is the significant 1933 essay “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” that originally appeared in The Occult Review.
Although Knight avoids crediting Aleister Crowley with any influence on Fortune’s dramatic rites, “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” provides ample circumstantial confirmation that Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis were a significant model for her (at least as much as the 1899 “Rite of Isis” by Mathers cited by Knight, 8). In that article, Fortune classes herself with Crowley and Regardie as the “unholy trinity of revealers of the Mysteries” (86). She praises the contents of Crowley’s Equinox, which included his Rites of Eleusis, and even calls on Regardie to perform the editorial work by which he would later produce the digest Gems from The Equinox (91). She writes:
“To speak any word in mitigation of the general condemnation of Crowley is a thankless task, for panic-stricken people immediately conclude that one is in league with the devil. Nevertheless, Mr. Regardie has had the courage to do this, and I should like to add my voice to his. To make use of a man’s work without acknowledgement is no better than picking pockets.” (Ibid. That final sentence would become ironic a few years later, when Regardie would quote a full page of text from Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah in his own The Middle Pillar, attributing it only to “One very clever expositor.”)
Like Crowley in his Rites, Fortune drew poetic passages in her own from the work of Swinburne, specifically “The Last Oracle” (14). Her original contributions as a poet are decidedly less sure than those of the Beast. I suppose I winced physically when I encountered her end rhyme of “path” and “Daath” (74).
Other articles among the appendices supply Fortune’s own extensive analyses of the esoteric infrastructure of her fiction. “In an attempt to compromise between the symbolic and the rational modes of presentation I decided to avail myself of the form of fiction as being a mode of presentation which could approach the subconscious levels of the mind, which think in images, without losing touch with the conscious levels of the mind which think in words, thus making contact once again with those potent levels of the mind that have fallen into disuse in modern civilisation” (103). Her discussion of The Winged Bull in particular highlighted the magical potency of English places in ways that put me in mind of the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair (115-6).
Fortune’s dramatic rituals and her novels alike rely on sexual polarity as the chief engine of magic, and she has the lector of her Rite of Isis declare, “All the Gods are One God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (70). The God can evidently be summarized as Pan and the Goddess as Isis, with these two rituals (each of which features officers of both genders) sufficient for her purpose–which aims more at integration than analysis.
… a vain and illusory knowledge, which indeed comes from nothing and leads to nothing.
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism by Rudolf Otto.
This book was developed from Otto’s lectures presented at Oberlin College in 1923-4. It principally consists of a detailed attempt to compare and contrast two prominent mystics: Śankara from the Indian East and Meister Eckhart from the European West. In so doing, Otto proposes to demonstrate that there are distinct forms of mysticism which reach across boundaries of religion, culture and geography, and also that any mysticism will be essentially inflected by its particular religious basis—the soil in which it grows, to use Otto’s recurrent metaphor.
“Part A” of the text emphasizes similarities between Śankara and Meister Eckhart, and Otto manages to detail many of these. First, he points to their shared orientation to ontological ideas, and develops the technical and theological parallel
Śankara:Brahman:Isvara:Ātman::Eckhart:Godhead:God:Soul (14, 77-78). He also compares Śankara’s “Maya” to Eckhart’s “creare” (95). Otto emphasizes the religious, salvific, and theistic qualities of both thinkers’ systems, and points out that neither prescribes a “method” of attainment (29). He proposes a couple of idealized “schemas” of mystical experience, claiming that Śankara and Eckhart each engage both schemas (52).
In the process of comparing Śankara and Eckhart to each other, he distinguishes their type of (speculative) mysticism from other usual sorts: affective mysticism (72-73) and nature mysticism (73-74). Then, in the “Transition from Part A to Part B,” he uses specific schools of Indian mysticism to demonstrate the “differentiation of mystical experience in general,” showing that the similarities between Śankara and Eckhart are not common to all mysticism. Other individual mystics who play supporting roles for contrast include Plotinus and Hallaj.
Finally, in Part B, Otto provides some contrasts between Śankara and Eckhart. In these (generally shorter) chapters, the difference is usually expressed as a valuable quality or sensibility that is present in Eckhart but absent in Śankara. According to Otto, Śankara’s mysticism lacks dynamism, vitality, religious conscience, sense of righteousness, positive regard for the world, agape-love, and pastoral sensibility. In this portion, Otto remains engaged in the sort of “comparative religion” that he produced in Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy, 1923) : he creates a basis for comparison in order to conclude which is better, and it is no surprise that a German Christianity is better on the scale of this theologian from the University of Marburg.
Otto notes that Mysticism: East and West presupposes ideas and positions that he advanced earlier in Das Heilige (vi). That work has become especially identified with “the discourse of sui generis religion,” which has been criticized (e.g. by Russell McCutcheon) for setting arbitrary boundaries between “religious” phenomena and other spheres of personal and/or social activity and ideas, as well as a tendency to abstract religions into essences. Such problems remain evident here, e.g. in the hypothesized/ hypostasized doctrinal conflict (82), the valuation “peculiar to all religion” (94), and the elision of economics and politics from caste doctrines (120).
The “soil” metaphor persists in this book’s efforts to characterize the source of differences between instances or types of mysticism—apparently, the “seed” is mystical capacity or aspiration, and the soil is the religious and cultural context. Otto claims, “the very different ground upon which mysticism rose in Europe also colors the highest mystical experience in a way which is Christian and not Indian” (162). But he does not demonstrate a relevant, describable difference between “the soil of Palestine” and “the soil [of the entire subcontinent!] of India” (206) I don’t doubt that this trope is either a conscious or an unconscious invocation of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:18-23. Note also: Eckhart had been a poster-child of the ‘German mystique’ since the early 19th century, and Alfred Rosenberg called him a paragon of the “new, reborn Teutonic man” in 1938.
Otto insists, “The difference between [Brahman mysticism and Atman mysticism] is not to be reproduced in intellectual conceptions and is only comprehensible in the mystical experience itself.” (146) I find myself dubious that he has experienced all of these diverse mystical attainments among which he professes to discriminate for scholars! If “intellectual conceptions” cannot effectively communicate the differences between various mysticisms, what possibility is there for scholarship to assert or explain such differences? Ultimately, I must suspect Otto of using a globe-spanning erudition to reinforce his own metaphysical prejudices. [via]
Create Your Own Religion: A How-To Book without Instructions by Daniele Bolelli, from Disinformation Books, is a new release you may find interesting.
“Create Your Own Religion is a call to arms—an open invitation to question all the values, beliefs, and worldviews that humanity has so far held as sacred in order to find the answers we need to the very practical problems facing us.
Writer, philosopher, and professor of comparative religion, Daniele Bolelli, leads the reader through three thousand years of mythology, misogyny, misinformation, and the flat-out lies about “revealed truth” that continue to muddle our ability to live a peaceful life, free of guilt and shame and the ultimate fear of death.” [via]
The email announcement about this book from Red Wheel Weiser was sent with both the provocative subject line “Avoid the Pitfalls of Blind Faith” and tag line of “Ditch the Dogma and Create your Own Spiritual Blueprint.”
I’m reminded of a paraphrase of the K & C of one’s HGA as becoming the priest of one’s own religion. This may appeal to those with a general interest in open source spirituality and open source religion, such as the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn; and, also, perhaps, those people who would be attracted to Rev Ivan Stang’s Cult Creation and Management focus in his Maybe Logic Academy course SubGenius Initiation.