Occasionally I see discussions as to what extent Thelema is Christian or anti-Christian. It’s a reasonable question to ask.
Aleister Crowley was a member of the Golden Dawn, which incorporates esoteric Christianity into its degrees. Some of this Rosicrucian symbolism is retained in Crowley’s own magical orders. He referred to himself as The Beast 666 of Apocalypse of St. John fame. The central rite of Ordo Templi Orientis, the Gnostic Mass, is styled on the Roman Rite and includes favorable mention of Christian figures such as Hippolytus and Valentinus.
Yet despite these affinities, Thelema is not in its essence Christian or anti-Christian but rather an expression of a sacred tradition older than Christianity and more essential to the destiny of the world we live in.
The Interior Order and the Tradition of Mystery
Crowley referred to the sacred tradition of which Thelema was a part as the Interior Order or the Communion of Saints. This tradition stretches far back in time and encompasses many cultures, both eastern and western. (I would add what is commonly called Native American or African spiritualities, as well as shamanism which is exceedingly more ancient still.)
This Interior Order takes the form of a mystery tradition, from the Greek word μύω (múō), “I shut”. Knowledge of the mysteries is sealed or shut up within the μύστης (mústēs) or “initiated one”.
It is often assumed the mústēs chooses to keep this knowledge secret and only chooses to reveal it to the worthy. For example OTO describes itself as being in possession of the secret knowledge of the Medicine of Metals. On an individual level, there are people who claim to have experienced Knowledge and Conversation, but the experience is too personal or sacred to share. Likewise it is taboo in Theravada Buddhism to speak of enlightenment past a certain point.
But none of these personal choices to remain silent represent the real mystery behind this tradition.
When initiates of this tradition talk about mystery at all, they speak of it as being in plain sight for all to see. They say that if people don’t see it, it’s because they don’t know how to look—or haven’t bothered to look.
But the uninitiated assume the opposite. When we in North America or Europe go in search of spirituality or wisdom, we look to India, China, or Japan. Sometimes we look to Native Americans. We look anywhere but right in front of us.
Or we learn means of radically altering our perception. We learn complicated spiritual techniques such as meditation or astral travel. We take drugs. We intellectualize. In short, we retreat from the ordinary senses and escape to other realms. The result is that we forget the original purpose of these techniques. We never bother to look at what is staring us right in our faces.
Because the mystery is inseparable from what is, there is nothing to be said clearly about it apart from saying what is already the case. The truth is therefore incommunicable, and it is for this reason alone that it is μυστικός (mustikós) or “secret.”
All of this means that this Interior Order has no teachings or doctrines of its own. It has no truth it can express separately from what is already the case. Rather than transmitting a particular doctrine it gives off signs which, properly understood, point the way toward realization. These truths show up as paradoxical symbols within concrete historical traditions, and between and across traditions they contradict one another.
This Interior Order functions like a tradition behind other traditions. It weaves in and out of them, moving silently across the face of the Earth. The truth will be expressed in one tradition for a time, and then the spirit will seem to leave that tradition and show up in another. It takes the form of each tradition it inhabits as air takes the shape of its container. All of this makes it similar to the magical element air, symbolized by א (Aleph) or A∴
The Magical Traditions
All that being said, Thelema itself is not timeless. It is a concrete historical tradition, and as such, it has been influenced by other historical traditions.
Arguably the most important are Kabbalah and Renaissance alchemy and magic. But the figures responsible for the development of these traditions in Europe—Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus and others—were self-consciously drawing upon more ancient traditions, particularly Hermetism, Neoplatonism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism.
These are all magical and mystical traditions. They trace their roots back to prophets such as Moses and the other Old Testament prophets, Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, and Pythagoras.
These are all figures—real or mythological—who lived over 2,500 years ago. They were all magicians or prophets of one type or another. They traveled to another world and planted the truth they found there in this world, thereby giving it form. And unlike a lot of the other figures who Crowley also counts as Saints, these magician-prophets in particular play an essential role in our own history.
They created the world we inhabit.
Around 2,000 years ago, the man called Jesus of Nazareth was born into that world.
Christ himself was also a prophet and a magician. Christianity can be understood as another, relatively late expression of this very same western shamanic tradition. When Jesus said the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth and people don’t see it, he was expressing himself in a way typical of this tradition beyond the traditions called the Interior Order.
But the relationship that developed between Christianity and this tradition is complex.
Christianity started as an apocalyptic movement within Judaism. If it had remained such, it would be as renowned today as the Bar Kokhba revolt is. It survived its original context by adopting the spiritual agendas it found around the Mediterreanean. These spiritualities predated it by close to a thousand years and were founded for different purposes.
Already in the 1st century CE, we see attempts to establish ever deeper antiquity for Christianity. This is reflected in the developing christologies of the Gospels. In Mark Jesus is adopted as the Son of God at his baptism. In Matthew he is the Son at birth. Finally in John he’s the Son at the beginning of time.
This brings the Christology close to the Hermetic idea that the physical universe itself is the Son of God—an idea that would become fecund for alchemy and magic—but it stops short.
This trend was self-consciously continued by the Church Fathers. Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, and Eusebius of Caesaria said that Christianity had its roots with Moses but argued that Moses in turn influenced Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, and Pythagoras, and through them Plato and other non-Christian wisdom traditions.
These early Church Fathers deliberately represented Christianity as the flowering of an ancient tradition which actually did form the spiritual foundation of the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity.
The propaganda continues down to the present day. People fill stadiums to hear Jordan Peterson tell them the west is a Christian civilization, that our theories about the individual, ethics, and the state have their origins in Christianity.
They absolutely do not. Christianity may have popularized some of these ideas, but it did not originate them.
As for the strands of the Interior Order that actually did form our western world, in some respects Christianity drove them underground through persecution. In other cases they popularized the easier to understand aspects of them, thereby simply making them obsolete. These traditions continued to be enthusiastically explored in Muslim lands before coming back to Europe in the 15th century. In the hands of Ficino et al, they were reconstituted into the mystical and magical tradition that eventually formed the inspiration for Thelema.
But there are implications to all of this that are far more profound than a mere history lesson might suggest. Those implications have to do with the destiny of the world we see around us and whether Thelema has any role to play in it.
We’re told repeatedly that this is a Christian civilization, but almost nothing you see around you today is the fault of Christianity. Our modern civilization is not the heir of Christianity but rather is the heir of those mystical and magical traditions whose prophets seeded our world with truths from another world almost 3,000 years ago. This is the hidden tradition behind our own tradition.
As hidden as these prophet-magicians are, so is their magic.
When we look around us, we see a technologically advanced, materialistic, rationalized, bureaucratic, disenchanted world. We don’t see anything spiritual or magical when we board a bus, pass a drug addict on the street, go to work in an office building, or take the trash out to the curb for pickup. This is why whenever we want to experience something spiritual, we close our eyes or turn to India.
But the entire thing is magical. It’s all the result of spells that were cast long ago by magicians who knew exactly what they were doing.
Which means that this—all of this—is a cleverly disguised illusion.
Christianity had nothing to do with this. Jesus is just a particularly compelling character who happened to show up during the 8th season of a long-running television series. He has a part to play, but he’s not the producer of the show.
This is because, contrary to the propaganda of the first three centuries of the common era, Christianity is not the flowering of that ancient mystical and magical tradition which gave rise to all of this. There are elements of that tradition to be found here and there throughout the teachings of Christ, but Christianity self-consciously broke from the prophetic tradition that formed it.
Thelema: The Continuation of the Prophetic Tradition
On the other hand, Thelema is self-consciously part of that tradition, which means that it is in a unique position to take responsibility for this world—and in fact is obligated to.
There are many indications of this across Crowley’s writings, but I’ll point to just one example. It’s a ridiculous idea—an idea which was obnoxious even by Crowley’s standards—but if it is properly grasped and held on to, it will take you all the way to the destruction of everything.
He said everything is magick. Every change you see or don’t see happening around you—every second that ticks by in your life—is a magical act.
People seize on a particular version of this, according to which every act I intend to carry out is an act of magick. And in one small stroke, the doctrine loses all its radical potential and is accommodated to the liberal individualistic self-care paradigm. Suddenly it’s all about me and my particular lifestyle choices, and the world silently falls back into disenchantment.
But read closely what he says, and read beyond that one quote. He says every single change is magick. If even one of these changes was properly understood, it would lead you all the way out of this illusion, back to the spell setting all of it in motion. You would step behind the curtain and see the place where the illusion is constantly created and constantly destroyed.
You’d also step behind the illusion of the human being and its alleged soul. You would find out what you really are.
You would see that you are immortal—a god.
None of this contradicts being mortal. None of this contradicts being part of a changing world. In fact you will turn around and realize that the world you just crossed over into is nothing other than the very world of illusion you just stepped out of. You will know reality but find yourself able to speak about nothing but the illusion. The truth will be “shut up” inside of you.
You will be mústēs, an initiate.
But all of this requires that you know how to stop and look.
And that’s merely one problem with Consensus Thelema. It’s lost track of this radical aspect of Thelema, the part that goes to the radix or the root.
I have to wonder sometimes how much of this is the humor of Crowley the magician. This is also another perennial aspect of this invisible tradition. If you can’t show someone what is really behind the human being, then just do your best to make them a good human being. Teach them to mind their own business. Teach them to live with a modicum of autonomy and purpose. Make them think their lifestyle choices are so much more important than mold growing on a rotten piece of fruit. Maybe if we make them think their choices in career or sex partners are worthy of so much attention, they’ll stay out of the hair of magicians doing actual magick.
In truth I think he was completely serious about it. He thought he was offering people the gift of liberation from arbitrary social restrictions. But like all divine gifts, it was offered with a warning.
You could put as much energy as you wanted into exercising your true will, only on the condition that you showed total indifference toward the outcome. But like most gifts of the gods, it has been misused. It has been divorced from its original purpose and has instead become something typical and tawdry. It has been transformed into what Crowley called “black magick.” This doesn’t mean these actions are necessarily evil, only that they represent a wasted opportunity to return this world to the soil from whence it came.
Unlike other individuals who were inspired by the esoteric traditions of the west, I think Crowley actually did understand the enormous potential and responsibility followers of this tradition have to civilization, to the Earth, even to the cosmos. I very much regard him as a prophet in a long line of prophet-magicians.
But insofar as Thelema is divorced from the Interior Order and its truth, and instead is reduced to platitudes about being your own person or drawing a pentagram in the air once in awhile, then it’s in the service of perpetuating the illusion rather than getting to the bottom of it.
And to that extent it is following the same trajectory that Christianity followed.
Other articles by Entelecheia:
- Prophetic Speech And Silence: My Journey With The Comment
- Large, Strong & Diverse: Why Culture Is Key
- Individual Why Discovery: A Method For Discovering Finite True Will
- Why Beauty Is Essential To Magick And Life
- Occultism And Mental Illness: Returning Magic To Its Healing Roots
- Strength, Virtue, And The Man Of Earth
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