Recently a discussion came up at the Kairos Center about the way theologians, writers, and public intellectuals brand movements or schools of thought. I raised the example of conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option — the idea that, as conservative Christians have essentially lost the culture war in American life, they should follow the example of St. Benedict of Nursia and withdraw into small, countercultural communities of work, prayer, and contemplation. There, as in the monasteries of the early medieval period, they can weather the storm of the “barbarian takeover” of what remains of Western Christendom, and preserve what is valuable for future (and perhaps more amenable) generations.
We live in an era of great plenty, in the midst of an abundance unprecedented in human history. Yet we also live in a time of artificial scarcity — calls for austerity, rationalistic excuses for massive economic inequality, and attacks on the poor in the name of a death-dealing morality masquerading as level-headed budgetary concern. While the poor are told that they need to choose between healthcare and iPhones, the rich find it acceptable to spend thousands of dollars on exclusive music festivals held on private islands. On left and right, a fatalistic obsession with the temporary autonomous zone — brief moments supposedly free from the control of restrictive and rapacious neoliberal capitalism — replace speculative visions of a better future that once drove both the political imaginaries of social movements, and the utopian dreams of the occultists, esotericists, and fringe religious communities. In the memorable phrase of Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, and Armen Avanessian, “the future has been cancelled.”
Stephen K. Bannon — political strategist, filmmaker, financier, and … occultist? Really: multiple sources have reported that Donald Trump’s advisor, right-wing populist, and former Breitbart News editor Steve Bannon has a penchant for the occult and the esoteric. Bannon had notably cited the early twentieth century Italian esotericist, traditionalist, and Nazi affiliate Julius Evola during a 2014 conference with traditionalists at the Vatican. More recently, Mitch Horowitz — author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation — wrote in Salon that, after the 2009 publication of his book, Bannon had called the author to express his “deep interest in the book’s themes,” encouraging Horowitz in his work on his next volume, an exploration of the positive thinking movement in American life. Horowitz goes on in his article to give a history of American conservatism’s interest in occultism and New Age mysticism, including Ronald Reagan’s use of Manly P. Hall’s esoteric ideas about America’s “secret destiny,” Donald Trump’s belief in the power of positive thinking, and the Freemasonic symbols in the Great Seal of the United States.
Another set of notes I wrote a few years ago, this time on the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s statements on divination, astrology, and magic. I remembered these notes and decided to publish them here after spending the last couple of weeks thinking about the Christian doctrine of theosis and how it relates to the Western esoteric tradition (specifically the Golden Dawn tradition) — namely, as the West’s equivalent to the Eastern tradition of hesychasm.
In 1893, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was convened at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This historic event brought together representatives from a number of world religions, including one of the first introductions for Americans and Western Europeans to the religions of Asia on Asian terms. Swami Vivekananda gave a famous speech at the Parliament and received a standing ovation from over 7,000 listeners. Soyen Shaku, the first Zen Buddhist master to teach in the United States, made his American debut at the Parliament, and his speech was translated into English by his young student, D.T. Suzuki. The Parliament is considered to be the birth of the modern interfaith movement, and the first formal interfaith gathering to be held in world history. Since the first Parliament, the event has coalesced into an organized movement with regular occurrences, with other historic Parliaments held throughout the world over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The underground status of many esoteric orders, and the religious perspectives of many occultists today, are such that the notion of establishing relationships between the world of esoterica and the mainstream religious world is nonsensical at best, offensive at worst. Yes, many orders do have a religious arm or related esoteric faith that they themselves founded or absorbed — the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica of O.T.O., the Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis of the Monastery of the Seven Rays/La Couleuvre Noire, the Liberal Catholic Church and the Theosophical Society, to give but a few examples. As detailed in a previous post, Dion Fortune’s Threefold Way of Western Esotericism especially recognizes the importance of a relationship between the Orange Ray of the Hermetic path and the Purple Ray of mystical devotion, and her own Guild of the Master Jesus’ place in the Society of the Inner Light modeled this understanding for the esoteric community.
The movement of witches and magic-users to “bind Donald Trump” took on viral momentum recently, with in-person performances of the spell at local magic shops (Catland in Brooklyn, in my case), mainstream media reports, evangelical Christian pushback, and the opposition of a pro-Trump cult of Pepe the Frog “worshippers” centered around 4Chan, who believe that the Pepe meme is now a hypersigil related to the ancient Egyptian chaos god, Kek. Even one of my favorite musicians and queen of Coney Island, Lana del Rey, got involved (on the side of the angels, of course). In other words, the situation is both getting very weird, and very alarming.
In the work of Dion Fortune (and her excellent commentator and fellow Christian esotericist, Gareth Knight), one encounters a meta-structure for the Western Mystery Tradition, which classifies the three major strands of the tradition according to the three paths of the Tree of Life that depart from Malkuth, using the color symbolism of the Sephiroth in the Queen Scale of colors: “the Green of Netzach at the base of the Pillar of Energy, the Orange of Hod at the base of the Pillar of Form, and the Purple of Yesod on the Middle Pillar of Aspiration.”
The first time I left my Golden Dawn temple to take the train back to New York City, I had just been initiated into the Neophyte Grade of the Order. It was a powerful spiritual experience. Though the details of the ceremony are easily available in this day and age, only a few Google searches away, the thought of writing openly about what happened still fills me with trepidation. I think this speaks highly of the physical effect of the ceremony – not to mention what occurred on planes much more subtle than the physical.
For many orthodox Christians, the Bible is, of course, the largest hurdle to the idea of accepting occult practices and esoteric theories. I spent a long time reconciling my interest in the occult with my understanding of the Bible, only coming to a holistic view of Scripture and occultism in recent years. In this short post, I want to share a reflection I wrote a few years ago on a passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which is often cited by traditional Christians to outlaw the notion of working with elemental spirits or powers. A closer reading of the passage, however, complicates such a simple interpretation.