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Magical Univocity and Misogyny: Crowley’s Sex Magick vs. Sacramental Sex

In a previous essay, I described how Aleister Crowley’s (and, by extension, many modern magicians’) views on sexuality are theologically deficient. Crowley follows the course of modern Protestant thinkers like Ludwig Feuerbach in employing a univocal view of reality, in which words describing the properties of God mean the same thing when applied to created objects such as people or things, even if the degree meant is vastly different. This is opposed to an analogical view of reality (which is the normative position of Catholic Christianity), in which, since God is transcendent, human concepts like goodness or beauty can only ever analogously apply to God, and negative statements — God is not good, God is not beautiful — must be equally true.

Now, under the univocal approach to sexuality, the generative powers of the macrocosm (the interplay of Nuit and Hadit in Crowley’s terms) are exactly represented by the generative powers of the microcosm (sexual intercourse between two human beings, usually a man and a woman in the traditional schema). The difference is only a matter of degree, not quality.

Under the analogical approach, meanwhile, sacred sexuality can still play a major role, because the ecstasy of the mystic experiencing union with God finds a valuable analogy — the symbol par excellence, really — in the example of human sexual union. But it is not the same thing. This is not a matter of degree, but a matter of kind — the ecstasy of a mystic is a different kind of ecstasy altogether from human sexuality, which serves as an analogy that must eventually be transcended.

Both the univocal and analogical views of reality could be used to interpret the classic Hermetic maxim, “As above, so below,” depending on what “so” means in this formulation — is the above identical with what is below, just higher; or is the above like what is below, in the form of an analogy or a mystical correspondence? The Late Antique cross-fertilization of ideas between Neoplatonism – which strongly supports the analogy of being – and Hermeticism, leads me to believe that the latter is the correct answer.

More importantly, however, many esoteric, monistic interpretations of sexuality collapse divinity into the finite without remainder — indeed, this is the only way in which Crowley’s sex magic (traditionally taught in the higher degrees of O.T.O.) can actually lead to spiritual illumination. Human sexuality has to actually enact divine cosmogony, or else, for example, Crowley’s physicalist obsession with sexual fluids would make no spiritual sense. Through Crowleyan sex magic, Thelemic magicians literally become one with the cosmic process; microcosm is united with macrocosm by directly participating in the sexual interplay of Nuit and Hadit.

Yet this formulation confuses the macrocosm with divinity, a classic univocal error. In traditional theologies, especially those that support the analogy of being, macrocosmos is not the same as God — instead, God created the microcosm and the macrocosm. Through the identification of the human being — the microcosm — with the universe — the macrocosm — the human being can mediate the reintegration of the cosmos into a unified whole, or an integral macrocosm. This One Thing of the integral macrocosm is also the One Idea of creation held in the mind of God, the Logos, and through this process — frequently associated with the emergence of the Cosmic Christ through the intervention of the created Sophia in various esoteric and mystical theologies — the creation is able to behold its Creator, to find union with the divinity. This goes far beyond sexuality, even though sexuality provides one incredible metaphor for the mystical quest.

Univocity and Misogyny

Now, without exactly quoting documents from the higher degrees of the Thelemic O.T.O. that would bring their lawyers down on my head, it suffices to say that Crowley’s view of sex magick suggests that it is the woman’s role to be a mere vessel, a shrine for the God transmitted by the man’s seed — not a holy being transmitting divinity herself.

This matches up perfectly with O.T.O. founder Theodor Reuss’ views on the subject. In Reuss’ manuscript of the IX° O.T.O. (pre-Thelema), “Parsifal and the Secret of the Graal Unveiled,” he writes: “The woman is resolutely to serve the virile world-goal (preservation of the world), in which she receives the seed from the primal lance and thus preserves the fabric of the world. That is the primal-goal and eternal purpose of woman.” There are, of course, cultural reasons for this esoteric misogyny, but this mistaken notion also follows directly from the univocal visions of reality of Jennings, Reuss, and Crowley.

The O.T.O. lamen, symbolically illustrating the descent of the Dove into the Holy Graal.

In more traditional esoteric theology, the “created Sophia” — the feminine face of the divinity present in the heart of the world — is represented (in Catholic terms) by the Virgin Mary overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, thus conceiving the God-Man within her womb. This divinization of the earthly creation, represented by Mary, takes the eschatological form of the New Jerusalem, when God will be all in all in the cosmos. The most common image for this doctrine is the wedding feast of the Lamb — the marriage of Christ and the Virgin, or of heaven and earth, or of Christ and the Church, through Mary’s conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit. Read analogically into the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, this is a sexual metaphor of the divine’s eschatological union with the cosmos.

But if you read this metaphor through a combination of a univocal theology with the cultural misogyny upheld by late Victorians like Crowley, you get a damaging portrayal of the role of the feminine. Much like the mistaken notion that only men can be priests because Jesus “was a man,” Crowley (and Reuss) suggest that, just as the Virgin was not divine herself, but only divinized though her role as the shrine of the Logos, a human woman is only valuable insofar as she serves as a vessel for the male magician’s seed — the sex magickal creation of Crowley’s “elixir of life,” his New Jerusalem.

Rather than understand human sexual encounters and relationships as analogical icons of the cosmic union of heaven and earth, Crowley understands them bluntly as literal reiterations of that union. Even conservative Catholic doctrine on marriage and sexuality sees a role for married sex as a “sacrament of creation,” but this is an analogical reality, not a literal one (sacraments themselves being signs rather than vulgar repetitions). This analogical approach is what has allowed modern feminist and queer theologians to validly and successfully reinterpret the traditional, misogynist theology of sex, gender, and marriage within the Church.

It’s also probably what modern feminist members of O.T.O. would do in order to comfortably utilize Crowley’s original teachings — but it must be said that this discards Crowley’s univocal understanding of reality. I believe this is a valid modernization (I am a liberal Catholic, after all), but it is a major break with Crowley’s theology.

A final point. Both Crowley and Reuss saw the “elixir of life” created by the literal sexual act as the Eucharist — the substance that joins heaven and earth. Crowley’s Gnostic Mass points to this secret of the higher degrees of O.T.O., but does not literally recreate it — obviously not, as inserting a mere prop lance into a cup of wine isn’t the actual mingling of semen and ovum.

But this actually reverses the sacramental theology of the Church. Traditionally, marriage — and sex within marriage — in the Christian tradition is seen as an image of the marriage between Christ and the Church, between the Lamb and the Virgin. This reality, the prefiguration of the New Jerusalem, is sacramentally made present in the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist. So in traditional Catholic terms, human marriage points to the Mass, not the other way around. On the theological level, the essentially Protestant univocal theology of Crowley and Reuss explains this shift — a Eucharistic ceremony that is an outer sign of an inner magickal secret, rather than, as in the Catholic tradition, the source and summit of the entire Christian quest for reintegration and regeneration.

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2 Comments

  1. You seem to be arguing for the superiority of the RC analogical approach over the OTO univocal approach, but you fail to make your case. In fact, your essay does more to highlight the similarities than it does to contrast the differences between the two outlooks. How, in any practical sense, does the RC view show a greater respect for women? Seriously!

    • Hi Cadno. The major difference between the two outlooks is that, with the analogical approach, there can be many correspondences between human sexual and gender relationships and the divine — for example, many feminist and queer theologians have successfully reinterpreted the analogy between a human relationship or marriage and the divine-human union. There is no need to literally mirror divine “gender” relationships in the earthly sphere, because earthly qualities only apply to divinity as analogies. But Crowley’s position is literally that the mingling between male semen and female ovum is the elixir of life. This isn’t a metaphor or an analogy. Due to his univocal understanding, it’s literally an identification of heternormative sexual relations with the cosmic order.

      Like I said in the piece, I know many feminist and queer O.T.O. folks who successfully reinterpret these ideas. But to do so, one must abandon Crowley and Reuss’ univocal theology. Ultimately, I am more concerned with the dangers of univocity rather than any specific criticism of Crowley or O.T.O. It is univocity that I think is an immature theological perspective.

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