Friday, November 19, 2010

Curmudgeonly Crankiness...

Look, it’s surely not my place to tell other folks what to believe. If people want to hold to six-day creation, the value of chastity before marriage or other unlikely notions, it really isn’t any of my business. Still there are a few ideas in the Pagan and magical scene that really piss me off when self-proclaimed teachers assert them, not just because they are plainly mistaken, but because they do, in my opinion, damage to the ability of students to get the most out of the work. Of course the main reason it pisses me off is that my own opinions differ sharply. So, since I have my little soapbox, I’ll get up on it.

1: Religion, Magic and Spirituality.
As far as I can tell, the opposition to the concept of ‘religion’ among magical people is based on nothing more than personal emotional anger toward specific religious organizations, and perhaps toward one or two streams of specific religious doctrines. We hear that ‘religion’ involves rote and empty ritual, ossified doctrine and dogma, money-greedy materialism and power hungry hierarchy. This leads some folks – folks who are busy meditating, working with spirits, doing rituals and having opinions about the nature of things (i.e. doctrines) – to say that they don’t do ‘religion’.

I have come to make an important distinction between ‘religion’, ‘a religion’ and ‘a religious organization’. ‘Religion’ is a scholastic category that assumes some degree of commonality between human styles of relating to the spiritual or metaphysical. Many sweeping statements are made about ‘religion’ (by me, occasionally) but it's very difficult to make generalizations of religions. It is so difficult to find commonalities, even of the things people object to. For instance, Hinduism generally does not mandate ‘belief in’ specific doctrines or models of metaphysics – hundreds of different models are contained within it. Modern evangelical Christianity has little or no ritual of any kind, unlike traditional styles of religion. Many tribe-based religions, such as Judaism or Zoroastrianism, actively reject converts, and do not proclaim that their way is for everyone.

‘A religion’ is a specific body of practice and doctrine intended to produce specific spiritual effects. If one has a unique and totally personalized spiritual practice, it might be more apt to call it ‘spiritual practice’. In fact we could restate and say that ‘a religion’ is a specific set of spiritual practices, especially those shared among a group.

A ‘religious organization’ is created and managed to practice and promote a religion. It is a body of humans trying to run an organization, and is subject to the same problems as any arts or sports organization. Asshole behaviors never fail to occur occasionally, even among the wise. Centuries of power and privilege can lead to corruption.

Most of the complaints people have about ‘religion’ seem to actually be about ‘religious organizations’. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church isn’t a religion – it’s a religious organization. It has financial officers and secretaries and owns a bunch of stuff that it manages. There are plenty of Catholics who aren’t Roman – Catholic Christianity is ‘a religion’ in the way Hinduism is – an umbrella term that includes several specific religious traditions and a number of organizations. ADF isn’t ‘a religion’ – we’re an organization created to build and promote Pagan Druidry, or whatever we might call it this week.

So when a magician or witch takes up any orderly work of relating with the spirits, of doing regular meditation and trance, of group celebratory or worship ritual, she is doing some religion. Perhaps it might be possible for some folks to kind of duff at it, taking a little here and there as they please, and have that be sufficient for their spiritual support. But I think many Pagans are in it for the doing of it, and end up looking for a more focused spiritual practice – that is, a religion. So face it, if you’re in a coven or worship group, or even if you just work alone at your home shrine, you’re doing religion. You may not create a religious organization for it, though some level of organization is inevitable if a group continues, but what you’re doing is religion in every sense.

A religion involves a body of skills that a person must work with. From simply knowing the prayers, small rites and symbolism of the path, to study of its texts and sources, to higher-order skills such as bigger or public ritual, meditation and trance, etc, religions require effort and attention on the part of their folk. That’s because they are training systems, meant to allow the individual to develop their own spirituality.

The result of keeping a spiritual discipline is ‘spirituality’ in my opinion. Now, there are many kinds of spiritual discipline, and the kind of arty and formal ritual I like won’t be everyone’s cuppa. That’s why there are many ways, but all involve at least a certain amount of focused work - even ‘not-doing’ is a method.

If ones keeps at a religion, and does it well, one will develop a personal spirituality. In every faith, even the most dogmatic, those who succeed in developing a personal spirituality will have their little touches, the things that make the path their own. In Pagan religions these can swing pretty wide, as folks alternate through periods of discipline and periods of expression.

That means we should stop bashing ‘religion’ as a category. Asserting that one is ‘more evolved’, or ‘not of the herd’ because one has replaced ‘religion’ with ‘spirituality’ is just a misunderstanding, in my opinion. It’s not a matter of ‘evolution’ (whatever that means in that context), but rather of the growth that happens when you practice a skill. If you’ve reached a mature personal spirituality, don’t look down on those who still enjoy the traditional work, or on beginners, or even on the imperfect organizations that exist to help other people find their way.

2: The Nature of Magic.
I’ve ranted about this, so I’ll keep it short. Magic (or magick, if you still must…) is something you do. It isn’t some quasi-substance or spirit that instills everything, it isn’t another word for the Life in Everything. At least, never in the history of the art has it been used that way, until some fantasy-soaked modern kids started doing it. Now it’s appearing in otherwise-not-awful pop magick books. Damn it!

Magic is a body of human skills, that allow us to work with spiritual powers under our own wills. It’s a category of human art like science, or woodworking, and it has its methods and customs, its tips and tricks. Magic isn’t something you ‘attune to’ – magic is something you do. Even in the above sentence, the ‘attunement to’ would be the magic part – so what is there to… never mind.
I can hardly think of a more misleading teaching than to refer to magic as some current in the world, rather than as a skill you use. It seems likely to lead students more toward lala-whatever-feels-nice country than to the actual effort that magic requires. I guess I just dislike completely redefining terms to suit some romantic notion.

OK, told ya it was cranky stuff…

1 comment:

Gwynt-Siarad said...

I can handle your kind of Cranky. ;-)