by James Gordon
Frater Parrhesia recently wrote on “Our Sacred Duty: On The Accommodation Of Families And Inclusion Of Children In The O.T.O.” I think this is a solid article and well worth reading. The list of points under “Children in the Order” bears strong consideration and presents some good ideas, and there is some excellent discussion. I am certain I have a few minor points of disagreement here and there, but for an article that covers much ground I think emphasizing its very strong points is more useful than picking minor nits.
I wanted to take the time to broaden the discussion to the wider world of Thelema, rather than O.T.O. in particular, while illustrating viable approaches to integrating children in a responsible and respectful fashion.
Children in Thelema
In the time I have been involved in Thelema, I have seen a lot of people suffering from imposter syndrome: Priests and Priestesses who didn’t feel like they were “real” clergy in the same manner as the Preacher or Priest at their childhood family church; people who took Thelema quite seriously but shrugged when asked why it didn’t have the same legal status as other minority faiths. In many cases, I think the absence of children was a factor. The failure to provide a birth-through-death cycle for Thelemites, whether they chose to remain within it or not, gives a feel of a sham church which no fancy robes or trappings can entirely offset.
The issue of including children in Thelema has a dimension beyond the simple supposition that if one is born to Thelemic parents one might remain a Thelemite. That is a basic and obvious reason why children are important, but it is not the sole or even most pressing reason. When children are excluded, lower and middle class parents are largely excluded, or must struggle to remain active. Christian churches provide support for families, while Thelema imposes a burden. Statistically a majority of Americans still become parents. How likely is a group to retain stable, moderate, membership when it excludes parents in principle if not in fact, when it provides hurdles rather than assistance in their burden? We become an organization driven by the young, the childless, and the old. A vast block of mainstream society is inherently excluded from our dialogs, or finds it exhausting to simply to make a few events, left without the energy and zeal to work actively to enrich the groups they are members of. And if we exclude parents in their prime, how many quality people will come back to us when their children are grown?
The issue of children in Thelema came up as one of several priorities at the recent Leadership meeting of The Thelemic Order (TTO) on April 29, and with this article I focused on two goals:
- To provide a high level outline of the issues and challenges with children in Thelema. The article addresses most of these, but doesn’t really provide a systematized breakdown which seems useful in keeping issues which stand separately from getting muddled together.
- To discuss in some detail TTO’s divergent approach to those problems, not with the focused goal that people should join TTO, but as an example of potential solutions because the model, and even the language is freely available to anyone who wishes to adopt it.
In responding to the article, which referenced Crowley’s ideas about Children in Thelema, a few people have made the point that a lot of things don’t work like Crowley envisioned them. Certainly that’s true and we could add that Crowley was abysmal at childcare or safety and generally left it to others. but that’s beside the point. We are not Crowley. In practice NO SECT OR GROUP which screens out children is going to be successful for more than a generation or have much growth potential. It loses its young members when they become family people and only gets them back in middle age when their kids are grown up. That argues for horrifically slow growth.
Issues or Challenges with Kids in Thelema
Background: The Satanic Panic
Key to understanding the issues is understanding the Satanic Panic which shaped the leadership philosophy of a generation of esotericists. If you’re not familiar with the Satanic Panic (formally “Satanic Ritual Abuse” or SRA), read up on it here.
This was a very real thing which saw numerous people locked up, while many others lost their jobs and careers. Statistically, while it would be hard to assess, probably as many people were hurt by the Satanic Panic as by the 1950s the Hollywood blacklists. SRA was never officially repudiated and vestiges of the panic around it still remain today.
This phenomenon accounts for a lot of what is wrong with some mainstream Thelemic Groups and, more widely, neopagan leadership. Thelema was really only emerging as an organized group in the 1980s and, while it was head of the curve of some other pagan bodies, it was clearly not up to the task of taking on the rising panic about SRA, both legally and in terms of acting as a spokesman. The leaders at the time had just achieved some measure of stability and seem to have generally elected to keep their heads down and “hide in plain sight.” Realistically this was probably the only workable course of action for a nascent organization.
The fruits of this time period are visible inside and outside of the sphere defined at the time by O.T.O.: the banalization of ritual to purge any hint that might be taken as diabolic or necromantic, confused standards about sexual content that lead to a dangerous double message, where sex exists “behind the scenes” but is not admitted, while any public sexual element is militantly shut down, and especially confusion over children. There are a few empty rites that seem to include them, but overall there is a wholesale rejection and cold shoulder to any program that would actually include them in the meaningful way of any other faith group.
It probably didn’t help that the sexual mysteries of Thelema, veiled out of legal necessity during Crowley’s lifetime, were only unwrapped publicly about a decade before “Michelle Remembers” triggered the Panic. It could be argued that the revelations of the reality of sex magic in the 1960s and early 1970s, as well as indiviudals who experimented inappropriately with those revelations, provided the fodder for the Panic of the 1980s and 1990s.
It is arguable that the continued burial of those non-secret “secrets” was not in the best interest of Thelema, but it must have seemed quite reasonable at the time. In the present day it could well be argued that failure to fully disclose the nature and extent of sexuality within Crowley’s initiatory structure to all Thelemites constitutes what borders on a consent violation. The mysticism of the 1890s which mandated a slow progress to the “realization” that sex was a principal mystery can be seen in today’s world as a breach of trust and failure to disclose. Nevertheless, many Thelemic leaders who came up in the 1980s or 1990s saw themselves in the crosshairs, and one cannot blame them for cleaving to time tested methods of keeping out of the line of fire. If innocent teachers could be prosecuted what would authorities think when they found actual ritual items?
The solution was simple: Don’t be sexual. Have nothing to do with anything not “mainstream” like diabolism or necromancy. Act like the Freemasons. Keep children at arm’s length or further away. And, really, that probably was the only solution at the time. Neopaganism was still very formative at the time.
Because Thelemic Organizations tend to be rigid and top-down, they suffer from aging leadership with little ability for young people to change that. The payoff is that the current generation of leadership in top down organizations was coming of age during the Satanic Panic. Now, forty years after “Michelle Remembers,” we’re in a position to not only incorporate children into Thelema but to ensure that no future generation of Thelemites has to “hide in plain sight,” by trying to be as dull and Freemason-like as possible.
The issue isn’t dead. I know of people who became inactive as Thelemites because of concern their activities would be used against them in custody cases. There may be less risk of going to jail, but there is still a real and legitimate fear of being seen as a “cultist” of losing custody cases, of social ostracization that leads to “don’t include children,” as the default best choice. In any case we’re left with two profound issues:
Thelema is Inherently Sexual
Thelema is a sexual mystery. That doesn’t mean everyone who practices Thelema has to be sexually active, and who they are active with, if anyone, is up to them. But you can’t remove sex from Thelema and be left with a meaningful system.
One solution is to keep the sexual elements entirely high-minded and theoretical. As long as we focus on “active” and “passive” principles, but never explore how those actually interact with human sexuality, we’re pretty safe. But of all the teachings that derive from the 19th century revolution in esoteric thought, Thelema is the most open about a direct sexual component. This is complicated by the covert nature of Thelema’s sexual teachings. While sexuality as an intimate part of religion was a trendy concept among bleeding edge intellectuals and artists in the 1920s and 30s, there was still strong enough resistance to the concept in mainstream culture that it was seen as de facto evidence of criminality, and this necessitated secrecy in Thelema, particularly in regards to non-heternormative sexuality.
I see several keys to resolving this issue:
First, and I think the author understood this, we need to draw strong lines. “Try to stay theoretical about the sex stuff around kids,” isn’t a guideline. Nor is “keep sex out of Thelema” practical. The actual result of this is the Thelemic world has been a ‘worst of both worlds” muddled mess of imperatives that ends up coming out as “don’t do anything sexual,” and “don’t have kids around Thelema anyway.”
In a perfect world, we’d have a very evolved and nuanced stance on this. Each individual would understand that talking to kids about sex doesn’t mean involving them in sexual activity and is part of a healthy process of coming of age. The standard would be of normalizing the idea of sex while protecting them from inappropriate contact or conduct so that they can have healthy sexual lives as adults, alleviating the sense of shame that pervades contemporary sexual mores. We don’t live in that perfect world, nor are we likely to in the next fifty years.
In the current generation, our approach at TTO has been to erect an “firewall” called the “Policy on Absolute Separation of Minors and Adult Content.” This may at first seem a more draconian approach. In fact, the existence of a formal firewall gives important permission that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Thelemic community. It says “be as sexual as you want as long as there are no minors,” and “involve minors all you want as long as there is no adult content.” Rather than send the message “well it’s probably not best to do either,” the message is “full steam ahead, but don’t cross the streams.” It also provides a strong policy that anyone involved can point at, in court or elsewhere, to say “no, absolutely, my membership in this organization does not involve exposing my children to inappropriate themes or materials.”
The policy is not merely an empty set of words, but contains a detailed discussion of how a real, functional, meaningful firewall should and can exist. It addresses the fact that nudity is not inherently sexual and, allows for it in a static ritual context, provided that the custodial parent or guardian is fully informed and consents, while providing blocks to creating ambiguous situations that might be interpreted by outsiders as allowing for any sort of sexualized environment in proximity to minors.
It even allows for the eventual development of sexual education provided it is administered by legitimate and credentialed educators, and conforms to standards and guidelines set forth by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). While there is no such program at the moment, it allows for the development of healthy sex education curriculum that cannot be confused with any sort of laxity in separating minors from any adult environment or contact.
We all have Different Standards about what is Appropriate for Kids
Frater Parrhesia hits on several additional related issues which I think it is useful to break out separately.
While we can hopefully all agree that children should not be exposed to any sort of sexual setting, there are many other social issues that fall outside the realm of “sexual,” that still create issues. These are things which are sometimes matters of law, but more often of custom.
The author mentions foul language, smoking, and other concerns. We can divide these into roughly two categories. The first is “encouraging kids to do things which may cause problems in the community at large,” like cursing. The second is issues like smoking which might encourage kids to model bad behavior. Obviously, some issues like smoking are controlled in most areas. But there are still points to consider. Frater Parrhesia discusses smoking in some detail. In most places, one cannot smoke indoors, especially when minors are present. If a site has a designated smoking area, some people still may not want their children to see people who could be role models puffing away outside. At the same time, in a jurisdiction that allows medical marijuana, someone who has profound anxiety may feel rightfully inhibited if they are asked not to smoke in the designated area for fear children will see them. We haven’t set forth rules for TTO in these areas, nor are we likely to.
What we have done is remove the system which exists within some other Thelemic Groups to grant suzerainty over a geographic area to an individual. There is no barrier to two TTO groups operating across the street from one another. The basic level group is suitable for a family or household and is designed to be small and require little formal upkeep. We expect over time that many members will be active with both a local, potentially private, Priory, and with other local groups some larger some smaller. This allows groups to tailor their policies to the comfort of their membership, and for groups with slightly different needs to co-exist and potentially come together for joint events. Rather than create a one-size-fits-all structure at the expense of options and local preference, we opted to allow for the creation of focused or special interest groups that retain their vital local flavor and characteristics.
One need we foresaw in developing this organizational scheme was that groups that operate principally “family friendly” events may wish to operate independently of groups that operate principally more adult focused events. This allows members to crossover freely, following the house rules wherever they are. Thus a local Master can set rules regarding language and behavior and, even in extremis, exclude people who cannot obey said rules, without causing major rifts or national controversy. Essentially, rather than construct a battlefield in which what happens at the local body is a matter of a winner-take-all struggle, we’ve argued for smaller, healthier groups in which local customs can cheerfully prevail without prejudice against other groups who may do things differently.
This does mean a lack of uniformity of experience. It means going between one group or another may lead to some culture shock but, frankly, we’re socially complex people. We’ve all been to parties and clubs with various rules. Thelema is built on respect for the individual, not the imposition of a norm from on high. By removing the pressure to fight over the question of “how Thelema will happen in the place I live,” we allow for everyone to practice as they will.
We also avoid creating an artificial circumstance where someone can pour their heart and time into a local group only to find that their children are not welcome, or conversely that the presence of one member with a child puts a “wet blanket” on their feeling of freedom to express themselves. We can all respect what others have built and choose to visit, or not visit, as we will. We can recognize someone as a sibling without necessarily wanting to be part of their band or play music exactly the way they do.
Toward a Broader Thelema
This isn’t a call for people to rush out and form TTO groups, though we certainly welcome that. TTO policies are published under a Creative Commons license. Other individuals can use them. We think the basic model is one which is responsive to the needs of Thelema in the current era. In the end on an even larger scale, we envision not one great Thelemic organization, but an ecology of Thelemic Groups interacting harmoniously and meeting different needs.
While that may seem absurd, the fact is that in the West the one-size -fits-most model of Roman Catholicism has been deeply eroded by Protestant Christians doing just that: forming groups, networks, and alliances able to act together in large matters but independent and flexible on a local level. In South America, once a stronghold of Catholicism, this model has threatened to literally topple the Church, to the extent that the Pope has put forward the possibility of suspending rules against married Clergy in areas where modern “prosperity Gospel” churches have decimated Catholicism.
Prosperity Gospel and Evangelical, Dominionist, Christianity are odious. Thelema is one of many solutions to the existential threat they pose to society. But a hegemonic model of Thelema has not worked either to build a strong central structure or to promote intergenerational Thelema. The rise of people who, like Mormons, Swedenborgians, or other divergent groups, can claim their stake in the mainstream because they are an established inter-generational tradition.
Children are the future, and they are the future of Thelema. A Thelema which is forced to organize around non-parents, parents whose children are grown, and non-custodial parents is a hollow shell; an organization which will be hard pressed to outlive its generation. Such organizations are prone to premature greying by concentrating authority in the hands of older members with grown children which drives stagnation and lack of resilience.
The answer to a future for children in Thelema does not stop at family friendly events. It means publishing age-appropriate learning materials that explore the basic concepts of Thelema while keeping the sexual at an abstract level. It means focusing organizational resources on children’s issues, advocacy, and planning. It means making sure that individuals with children have seats at the leadership table. Most of all it means shrugging off the fear of the late 20th century and stepping away from the impostor syndrome that I see in so many Thelemites who, in the back of their minds, feel that what they practice is “not quite real” when compared to the Baptists, Catholics or even the Latter Day Saints
Thelema is real. It is vital and it has great potential to provide both an intellectual and organizational focus to the broader pagan movement in North America and abroad in the 21st century. Our ability to integrate children into our groups and practices is key to the realization of our potential.
- Our Sacred Duty: On the Accommodation of Families and Inclusion of Children in the OTO
- A Body for Children is a Body for All: Further Thoughts on Children in Thelema
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