By Nic Laccetti
Why was the Book of the Law renamed Liber AL vel Legis from Liber L vel Legis? More importantly, what is the meaning for us today of the interplay between AL and LA, “God” and “nothing,” as the key to the Thelemic holy book? It’s my contention that understanding Thelema as a form of Death of God theology — and putting it in dialogue with past iterations of Death of God theology, especially around the interpretation of the “key” to the Book of the Law — will help us to understand the implications Thelema has for debates about religion, divinity, transcendence and immanence in the Aeon of Horus.
From Liber L to Liber AL
The answer to the first question above is clear in terms of the historical context: Charles Stansfeld Jones, better known as Frater Achad, discovered the “key” to the Book of the Law in 1918 — the number 31, which equals both “AL” (God) and “LA” (nothing) — and eventually relayed this information to Aleister Crowley. Crowley wrote back, accepting Achad’s solution: “Your key opens Palace. CCXX has unfolded like a flower.” Crowley thus renamed the book from Liber L vel Legis to Liber AL vel Legis in 1921, as he explains in The Law is for All:
“In the first addition this Book is called L … This title should probably be AL, ‘El,’ as the ‘L’ was heard of the voice of Aiwaz, not seen. AL is the true name of the Book, for these letters, and their number 31, form the Master Key to its Mysteries.”
Achad, for his part, compiled a magical record, Liber 31, to detail his discovery, and in it he speculated on the qabalistic meanings of the number 31 in the interplay between LA and AL. In this text, Achad was the first to suggest that “Nuit be considered as LA and Hadit as AL,” directly connecting the number 31 and its meanings with the content of the Book of the Law.
Later on, in 1936, Crowley would write in The Equinox of the Gods that Frater Achad understood that the Book of the Law “was, so to speak, a vesture or veil upon the idea of ‘not.’ In Hebrew ‘not’ is LA, 31, and AL is God, 31, while there is a third 31 still deeplier hidden in the double letter ST, which is a graphic glyph of the sun and moon conjoined …” Crowley goes on to explain the complex background to discovering the third 31 (3 x 31 of course equaling 93, the Word of the Law, Thelema) in the “double letter ST,” and various numerological mysteries in the Book of the Law that can be solved through this formula.
All of this is fascinating if you like gematria. It might also explain a little about our question of meaning — the Book of the Law was renamed Liber AL because 31 (= LA = AL) had been discovered to be the key to the book and, in the wake of Crowley’s later discovery of “a third 31 still deeplier hidden,” you could interpret each 31 as representing a chapter (or a godform) of the book, with 93 as the sum total.
This would be the first 31 as LA — not or nothing — for Nuit, the second 31 as AL — God — for Hadit, and the third 31 as ST for Ra-Hoor-Khuit. (However, in at least one place in The Equinox of the Gods, Crowley identifies the third 31/ST as corresponding with “Set or Satan” — and usually these godforms are identified by Crowley with Hadit or Aiwass, not Ra-Hoor-Khuit. This complicates the identification of ST with the third chapter.)
As clever as all this might be in terms of a book title, it still doesn’t do much to explain whether there is a deeper meaning or import behind LA and AL — especially their ultimate equivalence — for us today. Of course, the copulation of Nuit and Hadit, resulting in Ra-Hoor-Khuit, is central to Thelemic metaphysics, but is the relation between LA and AL just an alternate way to signify those two Thelemic divinities? Or is there more to the interplay between “nothing” and “God,” and to their identity with each other, which can give us broader insights into theological questions in the Aeon of Horus?
Thelema and Death of God Theology
Death of God theology, which had its academic heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, drew on Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous pronouncement that “God is Dead,” but was also the culmination of a longer history of discourse about God’s death stretching back to the theosophical movement of the 18th century, to William Blake’s visionary poetry, to the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, and to 20th century theological forerunners like Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some of these theologians used the death of God as a metaphor for our current secular age, in which traditional religious belief has (supposedly) become untenable, while other, more daring theologians suggested an actual death had occurred — God had been alive, but is now dead.
Some Death of God theologians combined these views. For example, Jewish rabbi and theologian Richard L. Rubenstein, drawing on Kabbalah, claimed that God was best conceived of as a “Holy Nothingness” — the En-Sof, “that which is without limit or end” (After Auschwitz, 298). At the same time, Rubenstein wrote about the death of God as a “cultural event experienced by men and women . . . No longer able to believe in a transcendent God who is sovereign over human history and who rewards and punishes men and women according to their desserts” (294). For the Jewish community, this event occurred in modern history at Auschwitz. Views like Rubenstein’s, in which God (AL) is understood as nothingness (LA), while also recognizing a historical moment in which this conception has become dominant, mirror similar ideas in Thelema — for example, we can compare the role of Auschwitz in Rubenstein’s theology to Crowley’s recognition of the bloodiness of the early 20th century as reflecting the birth of the Aeon of Horus, after which humanity can no longer put its faith in God as a transcendent “Wholly Other.” Furthermore, Frater Achad’s speculations about the interplay of LA and AL in Liber 31, including his initiatory experience of being “taken back to the Beginning of Things” which sparked the discovery of the key to the Book of the Law, clearly draw from the same kabbalistic well as Rubenstein’s definition of God as a “Holy Nothingness.”
However, more fascinating to me is the category of theologians who believed that God had existed, but has now died — in part for the sheer audacity of their viewpoint, but also for the mystical and apocalyptic nature of their ideas. The most prominent of the Death of God theologians in this category, and for my money the most brilliant, was Thomas J.J. Altizer. His theology suggested (drawing heavily on Blake, Hegel, and Nietzsche) that God had truly died — starting in creation, God commenced a process of self-emptying which was completed in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, in which Christ “gave up His spirit” to the world (Matthew 27:50). After this moment, the world is suffused with the total presence of divinity, an absolute immanence.
Even though Altizer remained identified with Christian theology and the theological academy throughout his life (though his writings were declared heretical by numerous Christian denominations in the 1960s), it is not surprising that Altizer’s Death of God theology and Crowley’s Thelema are natural dialogue partners. Both Altizer and Crowley were raised Protestant Christians, and both had experiences as young people in which they identified strongly with the “evil” characters of the Bible — Crowley with the Great Beast, and Altizer through a mystical experience as a student (he called it “an epiphany of Satan”) in which Satan consumed and absorbed him “into his very being, as though this was the deepest possible initiation and bonding, and the deepest and yet most horrible union” (Altizer, Living the Death of God, 4). Since that experience, Altizer made discovering a coincidentia oppositorum between Christ and Satan his “deepest theological goal,” an emphasis on the dialectical coincidence of opposites, of good and evil, that is not at all alien to Thelema’s dialectical mysticism, including the coincidence of AL and LA.
On a more prosaic level, both Altizer and Crowley had similar intellectual influences — William Blake, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Buddhism, to name a few. Both were forced to grapple with the historical crises of the early 20th century, and what they meant for religious practice and the experience of divinity in a rapidly secularizing age. Of course, Crowley’s cultural and spiritual context was ultimately very different from Altizer’s — where one of them was a late Victorian decadent who drew his aesthetic trappings and spiritual language from his early years in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (among other sources), the other was a Christian academic theologian in the United States, still writing in the vein of systematic theology as a discipline even as he radicalized its meaning.
The Equinox of the Gods as the Apocalypse
Yet it is clear that Altizer’s vision of the death of God, though still written as a form of Christian theology, is not the Aeon of Osiris’ formula of worshipping the patriarchal Father, of the vicarious atonement of the dying and rising god, but a complete giving over of the world to the individual and his or her own immanent divinity. What this resembles is the Aeon of Horus. As Altizer describes it in an analysis of Nietzsche:
“… the proclamation of the death of God — or, more deeply, the willing of the death of God — is dialectical: a No-saying to God (the transcendence of Sein) makes possible a Yes-saying to human existence (Dasein, total existence in the here and now). Absolute transcendence is transformed into absolute immanence; being here and now (the post-Christian existential “now”) draws into itself all those powers which were once bestowed on the Beyond.” (Radical Theology and the Death of God, 97–98)
The post-Christian existential “now” drawing into itself “all those powers which were once bestowed on the Beyond” — is this not existence as pure joy, or Liber OZ’s statement that “There is no god but man”? Not only that, but the dialectical interplay between No and Yes here (a recurring theme in Altizer’s theology) closely resembles the interior experiences described by Achad in Liber 31 — a constant dialectic between LA and AL, which leads through a number of qabalistic speculations that ultimately reveal (to use Crowley’s description) the Book of the Law as “a vesture or veil upon the idea of ‘not.’”
Even more significantly, Altizer describes the death of God as an apocalyptic event, a liberation from history: “Only when God is dead can Being begin in every Now” (Radical Theology and the Death of God, 99). In Thelema, at least in historical terms, this event took place with the reception of the Book of the Law in 1904 — what Liber AL vel Legis calls the Equinox of the Gods:
“Abrogate are all rituals, all ordeals, all words and signs. Ra-Hoor-Khuit hath taken his seat in the East at the Equinox of the Gods; and let Asar be with Isa, who also are one. But they are not of me. Let Asar be the adorant, Isa the sufferer; Hoor in his secret name and splendour is the Lord initiating.”Liber AL I:49
In this sense, like the death of God in Altizer’s thought, the Equinox of the Gods is itself an apocalypse, the death of the old creation and the beginning of a new creation, in which Godhead is found in the sovereign individual, the Crowned and Conquering Child, not the transcendent Father. Crowley says so explicitly in his description of the transformation of the 20th trump card in the Tarot from the traditional symbolism of The Last Judgment to the Thoth deck symbolism of The Aeon. In The Book of Thoth, Crowley describes the relationship between the apocalyptic Last Judgment with The Aeon this way:
“The old card was called The Angel: or, The Last Judgment. It represented an Angel or Messenger blowing a trumpet, attached to which was a flag, bearing the symbol of the Aeon of Osiris. Below him the graves were opening, the dead rising up. There were three of them. The central one had his hands raised with right angles at the elbows and shoulders, so as to form the letter Shin, which refers to Fire. The card therefore represented the destruction of the world by Fire. This was accomplished in the year of the vulgar era 1904, when the fiery god Horus took the place of the airy god Osiris in the East as Hierophant …”
According to Crowley, then, the apocalypse essentially occurred in 1904, with the reception of the Book of the Law and the start of the Aeon of Horus. This was not just a rhetorical statement for Crowley, but an experiential reality. In the same chapter of The Book of Thoth on Atu XX, while describing the events of the early 20th century, Crowley characterizes the birth of the New Aeon as a “catastrophic transition,” marked by historical crises, extreme warfare, and major advancements in technology and communications. It is the end of one world, and the start of another. It is also, in the traditional sense of the term “apocalypse,” an unveiling — of a new religious formula, that of the Aeon of Horus.
Of course, in the terms of Christian eschatology (even in traditional Christianity), the apocalypse or Last Judgment already began 2,000 years ago — in the event of Jesus Christ, especially his crucifixion. For Altizer, it is this apocalyptic event that completes the death of God and launches humanity into a new age, though humanity would not be able to reconcile this reality until the 19th and 20th centuries. Though Crowley, with his personal trauma around Christianity (a trait shared with many post-Crowley Thelemites) would like to consign the importance of Christ’s life to the Old Aeon, radical theologians like Altizer have found the seeds of the apocalyptic death of God in the New Testament itself. Altizer suggests that, once the Christ of Christianity is done away with, the figure of Jesus from the gospels actually resembles “a kind of naive forerunner” of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. In Thelemic terms, it almost seems that Death of God theology is Christian theology “purged by the prophet,” as the Book of the Law says (Liber AL II:5). In any case, the apocalypse of the Equinox of the Gods is already prefigured in the apocalypse of the crucifixion, when the Spirit passes into the world.
The Book of the Law, then, throws us from the AL of the Aeon of Osiris, with its transcendental Being, to the LA of the New Aeon, with its absolute immanence — and yet at the same time this is a movement from LA to AL, a No-saying to God that leads us to a Yes-saying to human existence in this world. Frater Achad already seemed to have hinted at this in Liber 31, in his description of the initiatory moment in which he first experienced the movement between, and the equivalency of, AL and LA:
“Later, came the drawing of all to a Single Point of Light (Hadith) in the Centre of Breast. And I was taken back to the Beginning of Things and discovered how in Truth there was No Beginning and No End. In particular I must mention how I was taken back to the beginning of Words, and I Parzival (the Fool or Zero) was the WORD and even that was disintegrated so that the final Mystery Was AL = GOD and then that too disappeared in LA = NOT. THEN came the Flash of a New Creation and again the Flash – the solution of the Mystery of CHANGE and also of the SELFLESSNESS which is SELF.”
This, too, appears to be a kind of death of God experience, an apocalyptic No-saying to God which leads directly to the lightning flash of the New Creation, which eventually is disintegrated again, and on and on. It also closely resembles Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Recurrence, an important influence on Altizer’s theology of the death of God. In fact, Altizer’s analysis of this idea explicitly uses the language of passing from an Old Aeon to a New Aeon, a radical reversal of “both the being and the values of the Old Aeon of history” which makes possible “even now a participation in the New Aeon of grace” (Theology and the Death of God, 99). Ultimately, it was this experience of Achad’s which led him directly to the realization of AL-LA as the key to the Book of the Law.
With both Altizer and Crowley heavily influenced by William Blake, meanwhile, one wonders if Altizer’s later work on the “Western epic tradition” of Dante, Milton, Blake, and James Joyce, and how it expresses the apocalyptic death of God, could actually apply to Crowley’s own corpus of holy books, including the Book of the Law itself. Altizer sees the epic tradition as “a full conjunction of revelation and history, a history that is a revolutionary history, and a history that is at once an interior and a cosmic voyage, and a cosmic and interior voyage ever more fully and more finally embodying the finality of apocalypse itself” (Altizer, The Call to Radical Theology, 156).
This description could apply to Crowley’s prophetic works as well. For Altizer, the epics of figures like Blake and Joyce “enact the death of God, an apocalyptic death of God realizing absolute apocalypse, or that total apocalypse which is all in all … Godhead itself becomes all in all through absolute apocalypse, for the ‘Self-Annihilation of God’ is itself the apocalypse of God” (Altizer, The Call to Radical Theology, 127). Like these epics, Crowley’s holy books release and realize “that absolute subject that is a coincidentia oppositorum of an interior and of an exterior totality” — one that Blake, for example, named as a coincidence of Christ and Satan, Joyce as a coincidence of “Here Comes Everybody and Anna Livia Plurabelle,” and the Book of the Law names as a coincidence of Nuit and Hadit, LA and AL.
Someone reading this far might now see how the interplay and equivalence between LA and AL is a deeply important insight into the status of divinity in this New Aeon in which we live, and in fact can easily be put into dialogue with Altizer’s radical Death of God theology that had similar influences, and came to similar theological conclusions, as Crowley’s Thelema, though in a very different religious context.
But a few words might still be in order about why I think a dialogue like this is important for both Thelema and theology, even outside of the specific ideas outlined in this article.
From the side of Death of God theology, this is a theological tradition that made a big splash in American popular culture and academia in the 1960s before fading into oblivion again in the decades following, especially with the ascendency of evangelical Protestantism in the United States from the 1980s on. With that political rise, the notion that we were living in an age in which most people experience God as dead seemed naive at best. I know I felt that way when I first encountered Death of God theology in the course of my theological education at a mainline seminary (for many years the only places where you would ever hear about or study this theological tradition).
But this now appears to be changing. For one thing, Death of God theology in general and Altizer more specifically enjoyed a minor revival in the early 21st century due to philosophers like Slavoj Zizek openly citing and drawing upon its ideas; at the same time, the death of God again appears to be on the rise as an existential experience here in what feels like the last days of the American Empire, especially among younger people. And even though evangelical Protestantism is still politically powerful, the age of Trump seems to have been a nail in the coffin in the idea that that religious movement really has any relationship to an experience of God as anything other than bald-faced power. Even if this Christian nationalist God isn’t yet dead, it seems clear — as Death of God theologians like William Hamilton have suggested — we have an urgent need to murder Him.
Death of God theology thus seems to me to be an important mode of theological thought for our current era, but it still has little purchase (for obvious reasons) in most Christian churches and seminaries. Thelema, as itself a kind of radical Death of God theology, might be a way of operationalizing its insights in actual practice.
From the other side of the dialogue, I think what the above helps to make clear is that even the densest and seemingly most specific concepts in Thelema — in this case, the “key” to the Book of the Law and the Equinox of the Gods — can actually still be put into dialogue with the broader discipline of theology, rather than remaining solely in the Thelemic subculture as internal concepts that have no meaning in wider conversations about religion, divinity, transcendence and immanence in the contemporary world. If Thelema is to be a tradition that has any impact beyond the occult community, it will need to be able to translate its ideas into the terms of debates that are going on in the broader culture; and using the language of radical theology is one way to do that.
After all, Crowley did say that the promulgation of the Law of Thelema — and with it the truth that in the New Aeon, there is no god but man — is one of the core duties of those who would call themselves Thelemites. Rather than keep it to ourselves, we should spread the good news that God and nothing are one, and that, after the death of God, there is no part of us that is not of the gods.
Nic Laccetti is a Thelemite, a theologian, and a writer based in New York City. He is the author of The Inner Church is the Hope of the World: Western Esotericism as a Theology of Liberation (Resource Publications, 2018), and holds an M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary. You can find more of his writings on his personal website, The Light Invisible.
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4 thoughts on “AL and LA: Thelema and the Death of God”
Interesting. I have not run into a mention of Death of God philosophy in a long time, since undergrad in fact.
To address your larger point, I agree that Thelema must begin to engage in theological dialogue. We are so determined not to “tell others what to believe” that we often refuse to even discuss philosophical or theological issues, and many people who profess to be Thelemites seem to see it as little more than an excuse for hedonism and postmodern and relativistic meanderings. The fact is that the contentions of Thelema bear philosophical and theological freight, and that these contentions must actually be wrangled with if one is actually serious about pursuing the Great Work.
We must, for example, if we are to actually consider ourselves “initiates”, contend with what the term “initiation” describes and make cuts as to what initiation is and it is not. Initiation is literally one of the most important notions to the Great Work…to allow it to remain implicit but undiscussed because of some fear of stepping on someone’s toes or having someone disagree is nothing but base cowardice.
And for those poor souls—yes, I believe in souls, I know, so regressive of me—who fall apart into nervous fits the moment they are asked to define a term, accede to a premise, or follow the premises they have already agreed with tacitly to their conclusions, all I have to say is: what will you do when a real ordeal of initiation comes upon you? Bear yourselves up and do the goddamned intellectual work implicitly and explicitly demanded not just by Crowley or Aiwass or our trinity of Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-hoor-khuit, but by every initiatory system since the beginning. We are supposed to be the wise…have the courage to do the work to claim that name!
This is very much in line with things I’ve been saying, especially of late.
Although try to explain this to leadership in OTO, and you’ll be met with obfuscation and denial. As just one example, see this absolutely bizarre exchange on Twitter just the other day: https://twitter.com/IAO131/status/1455269721578688512
The renaming of Liber L vel legis was an error by Crowley. One of his few. But he was very excited by this new talent, Fr Achad, so much that his disappointment would become just as strong, when Achad got started upon his work.
I dont mean to annul the writings on number 31, as its still the root of 93 and its important words, but 31 is not so important as 93.
The reason for me to say so, is that the name ” Liber L vel Legis” counts up to 666 while the AL version counts to 667.
30+10+2+5+200 +30 +6+5+30 +30+5+3+10+300 = 666
Crowley couldnt have seen this or even calculated its number, but it is as pointed out by the book itself, that he was blind to himself. Additionally his text using the sub figura 666 was a diary of him and his heroin intake, – completely irrelevant to the nature of the beast, i would say.
But by giving the book of the law a false name, confusion was added.