Monday, February 2, 2009

Paganism, Magic & Religion

I was interested to read this article, “Walking the Broken Path” by Jimmy Two-Hats in the monthly on-line of the new Thorn Magazine. (I’m excerpting it heavily, so I suggest reading the whole thing there) I’ve said before that I have little use for articles the point of which seems to be “You’re not doing it right” – here’s one with the chutzpah to say so in so many words. I’ll italicize portions of the original article, and write some thoughts.

I'm probably not a very good Pagan because I'm far more interested in magic than in religion.

Whatever a ‘good Pagan’ means… I don’t think modern Paganism has any model by which one is good or not based on what one believes, or what version one practices. That said I do agree about finding magic more interesting than religion broadly. On the other hand, I mainly consider religion to be a special case of magic. Usually a few magical methods (such as concentration through prayer, consecrated symbols, etc) are employed in service of a specific mythology to produce effects for the villagers, or congregation. In order for a priest/ess to successfully operate a religion on a local level, I think she needs a solid grounding in what westerners call ‘magical’ skills, but what systems like Hinduism or Voodoo simply think of as part of their ‘religion’.

To me, the idea of an important distinction between magic and religion seems unlikely. I just can’t see a clear dividing line, except perhaps that magic is operative. Magic isn’t something you ‘believe in’ it’s something you *do*. Since the invention of ‘faith based’ religion it’s possible to identify as a member simply by holding a set of opinions. In that sense I suppose there is a difference, but when it comes to getting results I can’t see much split between the two. For me ‘Pagan religion’ (Wiccan or otherwise) is magical in that sense – it isn’t about what you believe, it’s about how you practice.

Personally, I work to make sure that Paganism (at least in some forms) is the sort of religion that embraces specialized or occult spiritual skills (‘magic’), and applies them consciously to its religious work. I work to encourage Pagans to think of ‘being devout’ as including meditation, personal shrine practice, and relationships with the spirits. I don’t think Pagans need to ‘believe’ things as much as to do things to build spiritual skills and apply them to our lives.

I don't worship anything, even though I believe supernatural beings are real.

‘Worship’ means ‘give respect to’. I’d like to see the Pagan movement reject modern notions of ‘worship’ as abasement, humiliation and groveling. That’s just not what the term meant to the old Pagans, and there’s no reason why we should use it that way. We give respect to the spirits, both by our casual deeds and by the formal offerings of ritual. The arts of ritual worship are, themselves, a specific technique of magic. Crowley wrote a lovely guide to working worship and devotional magic in Liber Astarte . Every magical system from ancient Egypt through the OTO has recommended worship for the magician. As a magician I want the friendship and alliance of the spirits. I don’t want to get this just by ‘commanding’ them, but by befriending them. Worship is one of the methods by which we make alliances with the spirits.

… my work has more to do with the forces behind Pagan beliefs than it does with the ceremonies and the trappings of those beliefs.

I guess I know what that means… Certainly some of us are interested in the ‘how’ of metaphysics and esotericism, the rather abstract issues of what the spirits ‘really’ are. I’m more concerned with how they act than with what they’re made of. Personally, I have found that what some modernistic versions of magic call ‘energies’ are more accurately described as personal beings, with personal wills. So the individual doesn’t “use” them, but rather enters into relationship with them and relationship includes worship. The discussion between an ‘energy’ model of magic and a ‘spirits’ model is an interesting one, and both models work just fine for getting results.

I know that the physical trappings of rituals can be very efficient, with effects that qualify as legendary in scope--but most of them, like the crystal rods of Wyrd Science and the wands, athames and chalices of Wiccan ritual, are effective only in imagination.

OK, noted; you think that there can be powerful magical objects, but you don’t think Wiccans know how to make them. I guess I agree, if the sort of Wiccans you mean are folks who read a few books and decide that they want to ‘believe in Wicca’. There are certainly enough books that teach students that they don’t have to do any serious consecration or blessing of their ritual objects. However my impression is that plenty of Wiccans still seek magical skills inside their religious practice. I think that Wicca is generally trending the way I’d hope, with everyone encouraged to learn at least a little magic, and some people going further. I know there are people in modern Wicca and Paganism that would like us to go a more rationalist route, but I’m not among them.

… Magic circles filled with worshipers can become as empty of magic as a church full of Christians on Sunday morning.

Yes, that’s possible, I suppose, if the leadership has bought into some reductionist notion that Paganism is a ‘belief system’ rather than a ‘method of contacting the Gods and Spirits’. The thing is most human beings are never likely to make spirituality one of their lives’ primary pursuits. Those of us who are drawn to serious personal effort, like most magicians and many Pagans, are willing to spend our free time meditating, reading, doing personal rituals, etc. Many people who might benefit from a dose of spiritual experience (i.e. ‘religion’) will simply never have the level of interest to take up serious long-term spiritual work. I think Paganism does well to serve those people by encouraging our trained magicians to take up the work of priestcraft – the work of facilitating religious experience for the general population. Of course the reverse is equally true – anyone who wants to be a ‘priest’ in a Pagan system should be skilled in magic, as well.

But there has to be a balancing force in the world. People who believe in the power of life … need to actively work in those old realms that no one officially believes any more.

Just so, and one of the best ways to do that is to use our magical skills to bring understanding to those who would otherwise not experience the power and beauty of the web of life. By creating public opportunities for “lay” Pagans to participate in powerful invocation, trance and blessing – to actual experience the ‘energies’ or the ‘spirits’ (whatever) – we can help to lead toward a more magical world-view for all. The most effective way I know of to provide those experiences to groups is through rites of worship. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to make initiates out of the whole population – most folks will always be more interested in material life than in the spiritual path. That doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from religious experience.

In the early 1990's … (some) people were adamant that Wicca was not a religion, social gathering or a ceremony of worship; to them, Wicca was the practice of magic.

I was there too, and for a decade before that, and I can’t really say that I recall most traditional Crafters arguing against Wicca as religion. The basic model of Wicca is of a religion that uses magic – since there’s no conflict between those categories that makes perfect sense. Once again I agree that religion without magic is a weak thing, but magic without religion is, in my opinion, only a little better. At least it produces results, but without the element of relationship between the magician and the cosmos (which is the core of religion) magic becomes mere engineering.

… Some covens still talk about raising cones of Power and make a token effort to manifest the Watch Towers, but the usual focus today is self-discovery. I have no interest in that.

You think magic amounts to anything without self-knowledge? Where did you hear that? I mean, you can cast spells and fiddle with spirits ‘til the cows come home, but if you aren’t working on your own mind and soul it just amounts to cute special effects – always nice, but of limited value. A good spiritual system should do both – lead the student to self-understanding, and teach them the methods of wielding power - two sides of the same coin.

For the old witches and warlocks, raising a cone of Power … raised a vortex of energy that the members of the coven could see and feel, … that they could imbue with purpose and send to accomplish a goal. Without that Power, it's all just empty ceremony.

The ‘cone of power’ used in traditional Wicca is just one sort of energy-based magic, among many kinds. Personally I’m inclined to think that Gardner invented the cone of power, and that it wasn’t a part of magical practice before him. There are lots of ways for a coven (or temple of Pagan religion) to do magic that don’t involve it.

I suppose you can do ‘spells’ purely with the so-called ‘magical energy’ of the Cone of Power model, but there’s so much more to work with. I guess I’d say that without the alliance with the spirits a Pagan ceremony doesn’t amount to much. It takes magic to make those alliances, but the business of working with them is precisely what the ancients meant by ‘religion’.

The secret that has been so closely guarded from us is that we are the catalytic force that makes things happen--we are the beings of light who can change the world.

At least we’re one category of such beings. I’d never suggest that the Gods and Spirits aren’t themselves such beings. In fact, I don’t think any individual can make much change at all, without relationships with the Powers, with the Deities, and with other human beings. Since there is no Supreme God in a polytheistic (Pagan) model, then no human being can be supreme, even if we *are* Gods. We need relationship to make the world work, just as does the divine.

Real magic is a very powerful force. All it takes is a few people who know. The rest of the beings of light are welcome to play games and pretend other things-- I think it would be nice to have a world left when the game is done. The rest of us are here to keep the balance.

To me Paganism, and certainly magic, have always been systems without a ‘save the world’ mission. The Old Ways don’t exist to lead humanity into some bright new future – we don’t have a notion that reality needs to be saved from a cosmic enemy. The Old Ways, to me, have always been about maintaining the balance, about making people happy now. Now, those with the inclination to practice magic gain more skills that allow us to fiddle with our lives if we like. But using one’s spiritual skills to build a relationship with the divine – with the Gods and Spirits – brings in intelligences and resources far outside of mortal human reality. That’s why as a magician, I work to create powerful working worship rites and as a Pagan I work to develop modern Pagan forms of magical practice suited to our models.

I guess I can’t really be upset about the rise of even the most eclectic, anything-goes sorts of Wicca – better to have the kids thinking polytheistically and magically, even at the simplest level. Out of each batch of “I like Wicca” kids will come a smaller number of committed practitioners, and it would be my hope that at least some of those will make it their (our) business to keep standards high in the community. I see it as the job of those of us who do have magical skills to infect modern Paganism with them. Those who want Paganism to remain a results-based, ritualistic, magical set of systems (as it has mainly been) need to make it our business to teach and lead.

So, I guess I don’t exactly disagree with Jimmy Two-Hats about much. I guess the main point of disagreement is that I don’t see anything in the current state of the movement as ‘broken’ or ‘not the way it should be’. We’re growing and changing, and the influences that those who care bring to bear this year could have effects for times to come.
• There *is* a trend toward viewing Paganism (especially ‘eclectic Wicca’) as something one ‘believes in’. I hope we can encourage the understanding that without actual practice – meditation, ritual, divination, etc. there isn’t much point to Paganism or Wicca.
• Personally, I think Neopaganism should fight hard against demythologization and against reductionist rationalism, in favor of a mythic reality and a magical world-view. It’s more fun to live in a world of poetry.
• Since I work in ADF no-one will be surprised that I prefer formal training and practice to informal ‘learning from the trees’ whatnot. I hope that at least some branches of Paganism become the sorts of religion that encourage real study, as well as real practice.

What I didn’t like, I guess, about Jimmie’s article is the attempt to split magic and religion into competing ideas. I think they’re totally complementary ideas. Magic is the set of skills that makes religion possible. Religion is the set of results that makes magic humane and mindful. Worship means respect and formal recognition of value, not abasement and devaluation of the self.

I also disagree that the Neopagan movement is 'broken' in any important way. We're growing and changing, and many challenges are before us. In my opinion one of those challenges is how to integrate the 'esoteric' or 'occult' techniques of magic into a spiritual and religious system for the 'lay' person.

I guess I am interested in discussing what Paganism (I’m not Wiccan per se any more, so I use the larger category) “should” be. The movement is what it is, and I’m committed to the work of the community whether or not I like the way it’s going this decade. As a Druid I’m committed to the restoration of the worship of the Old Gods in the modern world, in ways that will last for centuries to come, and grow in strength and depth as it grows in influence and social presence. To do that I expect us to need all the magic we can get.

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