2009 Parliament of Religions
I write from Melbourne, Australia: I have come to attend the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, an international conference held every few years, which starts tonight. I come in the company of friends, including Pagan author and teacher Thorn Coyle, whose Solar Cross project—a nascent effort to provide community resources to Pagans in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond—I have done some work to support. Thorn has her own mystery school, tons of spiritual mojo, and a small measure of fame in the Pagan universe, while I just have a blog with a few dozen readers and a few steps on my own slow road to enlightenment, so if I expect to pull my weight on this trip I had better get back to blogging daily, to report on my Parliament experiences. (Of course, Thorn has already started saying some interesting things about the Parliament on her online journal, so I really have to make an effort.)
In the hope that I will have a few readers coming by to read about the Parliament who don't already know me, and in recognition of the postmodern distrust of the disembodied authorial voice taught to me in school, before things get started I feel obligated to situate myself a bit.
I am, in increasing specificity: A Pagan, a magickian, a student and practitioner of Western Hermeticism, and a participant — if only an occasional one — in a Golden Dawn lodge. I hope that readers either will forgive a bit of rambling long-windedness as I dig into what that means, or will just jump ahead to my description of events at the Parliament.
It's a strange and surprising place to find myself. When I was young, I regarded myself as a skeptical atheist and an assimilated American Jew. Yet in truth that has only shifted a bit in the years; replace “skeptical atheist” with “skeptical Pagan” and that still describes me. My father was the scientistic-rationalist child of first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, my mother a less vigorously skeptical lapsed Catholic. A lover of the natural sciences, who majored in physics in college, I long took after my father's cranky religion-is-bunk atheism. Who needed faith when you had the verifiable and no less wondrous natural world?
But I also had a fascination with religion, counting it among my many dilettante interests. In college I baffled (and, it seemed, occasionally charmed) Baptists at my local dorm lounge Bible study by quoting John and Exodus, comparing Christianity to Islam, and explaining the Hindu conception of karma. That fascination, combined with a voracious reading appetite and a parallel interest in (for want of a better term) weird stuff meant that by the early '90s I had my head bubbling with a brew of things typical for a certain kind of geeky White American with a foot in both the bourgeois and countercultural worlds: the smart popular Buddhism of folks like Alan Watts, the attempted grand synthesis of Ken Wilbur, the not-entirely-crazy-after-all chaos magick of folks like Peter Carroll and Robert Anton Wilson, the surprisingly sober-minded Golden Dawn influenced magick of folks like Israel Regardie and Donald Michael Kraig. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I met actual Buddhists and Witches and Thelemites and so forth, some of them obviously thoughtful people who had something real going on. I saw and experienced some uncanny stuff. All which gave me an itch.
David Simon, the creator of The Wire, says that good police detectives in real life, unlike in TV and movies, aren't really motived by justice or catching bad guys; rather, their motivation comes from a kind of intellectual vanity. You thought that you could get away with this? That I wouldn't be smart enough to catch you? So too, from then until today my quest for enlightenment has reflected less a hunger for the numinous than a frustration with the mystery of the Mysteries. I see a truth lurking under here, and I insist that I can make sense of it. After a couple of decades of knocking around with that itch, I still have in no proper sense a faith, a religion, or a path, but I have things I like better: some operating assumptions, some practices, and a clear picture of my project.
I still love the special kind of understanding of the world which only the natural sciences provide. But the question of human experience does not respond to those tools. My own subjective experience is one long un-reproducible result. And what I see when I look at human experience is that we have strange encounters with subtle, non-human forces in the world: The Job Market, The Artistic Process, Morale At The Office, Murphy's Law. The ancients called these bodiless forces spirits, angels, gods, and so forth; they are names for the ways in which humans experience and process these encounters with the forces in the world. And just as the New York Stock Exchange is real — a non-human entity, a pattern in the world, with a certain character, with things we perceive as preferences, intentions, and even moods which a person can interact with — so too the gods of the ancients like Hermes, Thor, or Jesus are real. So too even “made up” entities like Santa Claus or Chtulhu are, in an important sense, real.
We can get clever about how, in our human experience, we interact with these entities: how we think and act to get the response from the world that we want. That process, after spooky old Aleister Crowley's usage, is convenient to call “magick,” because its methods are the things we associate with the word: rituals, symbols, and meditation. If that seems silly — and frankly, there are times when it still seems silly to me — I consider that in college I learned to predict the movements of cannonballs and invisible electrons by meditating on occult symbols drawn on a blackboard. That's magick.
Westerners who take seriously magick and engagement with a range of gods and other entities have a funny name: Pagan. And okay, that's me. I'm now at a point in my life where that funny name doesn't seem too awkward to apply to myself: sure, it's easily misunderstood, and puts me in a category together with some pretty embarrassing folks ... but doesn't any language in talking about spiritual experiences have that problem? Heck, most Christians feel that way, and they have a much bigger propaganda machine than Pagans do.
Also characteristic of Pagans—and of me—is an immanentist rather than transcendent understanding of divinity and the spiritual project. The transcendent school is more familiar to most folks: the divine is distinct from the mundane, and contact with the divine is an escape from the merely material world. The immanentist spiritual orientation regards the divine as inseparably manifest in the material world, and the worthy project is not escape from materiality but rather deeper engagement with and sacralization of the material.
Now most Pagans—most religious people of all schools — have what I would call a devotional project: they engage in practices to bring them into communion with the numinous as they understand it. I do a bit of that — f'rinstance, every day I make a little offering to Hermes, god of communication, transportation, commerce, fast talk, skilled crafts, magick, and (these days) the Internet — but for me that ultimately serves to support a developmental project, the attempt to transform myself in order to transform my relationship with the world. A Zen monk seeking enlightenment is engaged in a developmental spiritual project, transforming his or her self. My developmental spiritual project also centrally concerns seeking a certain kind of enlightenment.
In my understanding, gleaned from mystics I respect, it's useful to distinguish two different kinds of enlightenment. There's a “higher” enlightenment that I like to refer to as the experience of the non-dual: the realization of a profound cosmic unity ... “i am thee and you are me and we are she and they are all together” ... neti neti ... one taste. Less familiar to most folks is a “lesser” enlightenment that many folks in my sphere refer to by the somewhat goofy name “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel:” a fully integrated Self, liberated from psychological traps, buoyed with bliss, and empowered with clear purpose and fierce compassion. “Know your dharma, live your dharma.” The pursuit of this is often called the Great Work.
So far I have not achieved Knowledge and Conversation, but the Great Work is my spiritual project. Having concluded that it is possible, it seems to me to be an utterly compelling pursuit. There are of course many ways to pursue the Great Work. When I registered for the Parliament, the website asked me to identify my tradition, and I found it a bit of a tricky question. My central practice is in the Golden Dawn tradition, but I'm too syncretic for that to be an adequate description of where I'm coming from. The Golden Dawn practices are a particular manifestation of the Hermetic approach, which also includes things like Renaissance magick and alchemy, and arguably connects all the way back to ancient philosophers like Pythagoras. So I told the Parliament, “Western Hermeticism.”
This school seeks to order the practitioner's consciousness through rituals and meditations that give him or her a vivid set of symbols for understanding their experience. In this way, the relationship between the mind, perception, and action can be clarified, and refined, inviting in the change in consciousness of Knowledge & Conversation, and making the transition to that different consciousness as smoothly and effectively as possible. All the sigils and symbols involved appeal to my mind and temperament: it simultaneously makes me feel like I'm doing Real Spooky Magick ... and yet also feels to me of a piece with when I studied physics.
Plus, on top of that: still Jewish. I don't go to shul, but every year I co-host a seder for Passover: wine, food, ritual, prayer, storytelling, theological debate, and more wine. If that ain't magick, I don't know what is.
Okay, that's more than enough about me. Next up: The Parliament begins.