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It’s interesting to watch a phrase transform over time. Usage often indicates the function of the phrase in the context of a community’s current relationship with the rest of the culture. A meme, such as “The Burning Times” can serve, among other functions, to increase or decrease the distance the individual employing it intends to create between a subculture and its parent.

The idea of the “Burning Times” seems to excite less solidarity these days as it does animosity toward the people who reference it. It has become one of the several tropes that will have the “anti-fluffy” crowd (who spend an inordinate amount of time evaluating others’ practice, to the extent that I often wonder if they’re doing much of anything else) target one for the sort of viciousness once reserved for heretics. The stated reason for this is that historical inaccuracy causes the mainstream to look down on Pagans.

There are a number of reasons why I find this debatable. What I really think is going on is a generational shift from the counterculture pose of the mid-seventies through the early nineties to the more (for lack of a better term) integrationist bent of the current decades. Very early uses of the phrase (in the works of Gardner) seem to be mainly aimed at giving a pedigree and also of justifying the secrecy and obscurity of the teaching. The Wiccans of that period were arguably bohemian, at least some of them, but not counterculture. Gardner was, after, a postal worker. In the seventies, we see the Craft develop into a spiritual path for radicals, and as an adjunct to the women’s movement. The usage of “The Burning Times” changed accordingly: into a narrative of past persecution that formed the template for all future persecutions of women and indigenous peoples.

The years through which we currently pass are of a different character entirely. Whether we like to admit it or not, the conservative backlash against the counterculture has marked our thinking. In some ways, this was a good thing, in others bad. One of the more detrimental outgrowths was the Neoconservative movement, which began as an internal reaction to some of the New Left’s more “radical” aspects and drifted steadily rightward. The early core of the Neoconservative movement was heavily academic, and brought with it both a sense of being part of an empowered elite (mostly through the influence of Leo Strauss, who is far less egregious than the movement created by his “followers”) and the new disciplines of postmodernism such as Deconstruction.

It was this latter that allowed them to “reframe” many policies, such as international interventionism, that were extremely unpopular at the time. They also became masters of co-opting the language of the oppressed, much in the same way that Ayn Rand attempted to with her insistence that the wealthy were the most oppressed group in the world. One would hear a Neocon referring to “prejudice” against the wealthy or “bigotry” against those who stood for “traditional values.”

The Neocons understood the media better than the Left, because they either owned them or were part of “think tanks” who conducted studies on how to use media and language to maximum effect. The furor over “political correctness” was almost entirely orchestrated by media moguls connected to the Neoconservative movement. In many cases they outright lied, insisting that people were being fired for not employing the most ridiculous linguistic spaghetti to describe simple differences between people. There is absolutely no proof that the term “political correctness” was used in the specific sense that it is used to day before the Neocons used it that way in the 1990s. Before that, it was an ironic term used by some sectors of the New Left. Regardless, the stigma of being thought “PC” can be quite difficult to remove.

This is just many of the ways in which our current culture has been marked by the Neoconservative movement. Long after the actual political clout of the New Right fades, we will still be hearing the phrase “PC” as a snarl word, with all the unexamined assumptions that it brings to the table.

Bringing it back down to the micro level of the relationship of Modern Paganism to the broader culture, I think the current reaction to the “Burning Times” meme is a manifestation of the overall tendency to deradicalize and identify with the mainstream. We saw early, but still quasi-radical in praxis, movement in this direction with the attempt to disidentify with Satanism. This was, it must be noted, almost never attempted simply by pointing out that Pagans don’t (generally) believe in Satan. The point was not distinction but self defense. Thus the image of Satanism promoted in the mainstream was tacitly accepted and made the target of sometimes open hostility. That this was also helping to criminalize a religion, something should never occur in a country with a separation of church and state, didn’t seem that important at the time. Twenty years on, the damage is clear.

Personally, I think courting or even expecting the respect of the average secular/agnostic zombie is a waste of time at best. I think we will primarily receive a kind smile and a damnation by faint praise. But, given that Modern Pagans emerge from the same cultural stew as others in our society, the shift seems inevitable. Our use of language and our attitude toward memes such as “The Burning Times” will adjust accordingly. I can only hope that sacrificing our distance will not prove to be a mistake. We can only know what the change will look like after its done happening.

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We are aware of something called a “past.” In the realm of common human experience, at least, we find ourselves remembering something which happened “before” the current moment. Leaving aside the metaphysical questions around this, our human brains require that some kind of pattern or story be imposed on this collection of memories. On the personal scale, we are all familiar with how we create a personal narrative around the events of our lives. Likewise, on the larger scale of human societies, we craft what are known as “histories.”

Part of Industrial Civilization’s story concerns the notion that there can be some “objective” account of the world, and this includes the idea of “history” as a scientific pursuit rather than an art form. Despite the long erosion of the modern progressivist notions concerning objectivity, most of us tend to approach the study of history as though it were the impartial uncovering of fact. I think that when we reflect on how difficult it can be to get two married people to come to agreement on something that happened to both of them years before, we can understand how this notion of an “objective” history is little more than a conceit. The events of the past, like those of today, did not occur at all in the neatly packaged, definite way that we are accustomed to thinking. True, one can find undisputed commonalities. Wars, for instance, would be tough to mistake for something else. (Unless they’re call “police actions…”) We are sometimes fortunate enough to have the diary of someone in power, or other writings. And large scale undertakings leave a definite paper trail. But the assemblage of these items into a coherent story is the job of historians.

Which is where what I call the psychic balkanization of our society comes in. While many are aware that the evaluation of facts is largely guided by social programming, there is still pressure to find a “true” story. This is largely the province of amateur historians who are intent on proving some pet theory, or worse “debunking” someone else’s. These individuals will largely rely on secondary sources, and these sources will be of a particular “school” within various history departments. Thus, you have numerous groups of individuals all reading from their pet clique’s historical material, and creating what amounts to propaganda for the viewpoint that attracted them to that school in the first place. The result of this is the nauseating circle jerk mentality found in internet forums, where those not initiated will be mocked, abused, or condescended to depending on how polite the person they encounter happens to be.

This is important for Pagans, since we are often embroiled in historical controversy, generally centered around the assertions of non-professionals. So we hear that so and so has “debunked” the Burning Times “myth,” for instance. To begin with, the word “debunk” is almost exclusively used by that odious group of reductionist materialists who have the audacity to call themselves “skeptics.” It means nothing more than arranging facts in a way that suits certain a priory assumptions and then be unusually snarky about it. Second, the use of the word “myth” in this way is denigrating to Paganism. It simply means “fiction” or a “lie.” The allied assumption then, is that there is some generally agreed upon, uncontroversial “true story” when such a story will never be found. Because history isn’t an account of facts but an interpretation of them.

I could belabor the particular example, but I won’t. The specifics are far less important than the general tendency. Quite often, when we approach history, we don’t realize that there is a kind ideology behind the way the facts are being presented. It’s premature to jump on a particular book or article and say that this has, once and for all, proven or disproven this or that idea. No discipline actually works this way, and I think it’s important to remember that. It might, at the very least, increase the general level of comity in our community, which I feel is something we need.

I came across this recent article on Witchvox. The author, one Juniper, gives her rather caustic opinion of why we don’t see “greats” like Crowley or Dion Fortune these days. A sample:

There are no more Gardners and Crowleys because we are afraid. Afraid of controversy, afraid of not being politically correct, afraid of being judged, afraid of ourselves, afraid of what the neighbors might think. Afraid of what the rest of the pagan community might think or do.

Hmm…

There are a number of things that are simply wrongheaded here. The usage of “politically correct” as a slur or snarl phrase, for instance. But the main interesting question is: why do we consider Crowley, Fortune, Gardner, or anyone “great” in the first place? I know, I know “trailblazers” and so forth. But a pioneer is just that. The first or one of the first to do something in a particular field. This is important in the sense that everything afterward will have to refer back to the pioneer to some extent. Beyond that, all this talk of past greatness compared to today’s mediocrity sounds downright reactionary.

One big reason that we don’t find breathless, cult-like followings around legitimate magickal groups and individuals is, I think, because such hero worship is inappropriate in the context of postmodern society in general and Occulture in particular. An individual such as Gardner or Crowley or Mather could pull off something like a claim that they were in touch with an unbroken tradition or the “Secret Chiefs.” That sort of assertion was quite popular back then, and widely believed in. Today, people who make such claims are much more likely to be greeted with well deserved sarcasm.

With the possible exception of Dion Fortune, the “greatness” of most historical occult figures was the result of sheer self-promotion. If Crowley were alive today, he’d be publishing with LuLu and running a daily blog in which he ranted about gun control. Mathers was almost all bluff. And Gardner… we won’t talk about his quirks.

The implicit assumption of Juniper’s article, that notoriety equals greatness, misses the point of engaging in a spiritual discipline in the first place. Being “great,” if it happens at all, should be an accident. The first job of any magick worker is to wake up. Then, later, if others listen and are aided on their journey, that is good, and shows a certain degree of attainment on the individual’s part. Starting on the journey with the idea of being some great Uber-Magus is a good way to ensure ego inflation and becoming the master of your mother’s basement.

The reason we don’t have people like Crowley anymore is that we’ve grown out of needing them. There are too many valid voices and perspectives, too many avenues to explore for us to get caught up in the game of treating an individual as if they had the Keys to the Mysteries of the Universe. The very notion that such a single Key exists is both naive and dangerous.

I’ll grant, we may have lost some “edge” as Neopaganism and magick become more visible in the “mainstream.” Then again, would the “edge” we had even mean anything today?

I would say, if what you end up doing disturbs people, that is good. If it does not, that is good too. So long as it is what you are truly lead to do. For my part, I would rather be a person than a personality. Should anyone ever claim me as a “great” anything (blessedly unlikely) I hope I am many years dead so that I don’t have to hear it.

I have just done an initial read through of “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue” by Gus DiZerega and Philip Johnson. My reactions to the book are quite layered, and I thus feel it most appropriate to write more than one review of it, focusing on a different train of thought triggered by reading it.

When reading both the introduction and the section on the Culture Wars, I was reminded of a talk I saw by Slovak theorist Slovoj Zizek entitled “Maybe We Just Need Another Chicken.” The title refers to a tale Zizek often tells about a man who visits a mental hospital with the complaint that he sometimes thinks he is a chicken. This is not the first time he has been through treatment, and the staff remind him that he knows damn well he’s a man. “Yes, I know,” the man replies. “But I don’t think the chicken knows it yet.”

The point of the story is actually to highlight the elements of our feelings that must remain buried in order to maintain civility. Zizek goes on, in his usual ponderous way, to make the case that this tacit ignorance of certain factors is not really a bad thing, so long as it is acknowledged and recognized as an act, that the conversation isn’t fully authentic. On the other hand, there is much concerning the notion that we live in a “post-ideological” era, a point of view which both Zizek and I agree devalues the political nature of controversies such as those involved in the Culture War.

This “post-political” perspective was one of the first things which jumped out at me when reading the introduction. Oddly, the first place I noticed it was not in Philip Johnson, but in the introductory note by Don Frew:

Unlike relations between other faiths, the relationship between Paganism and Christianity has been mythologized into an epic struggle between good and evil, leading on both sides to a continuing demonization of the “other.”

What the statement that “both sides” of the Pagan/Christian divide have “demonized” each other does is ignore the power dynamic in mainstream society that favors Christian over Pagan. Frew’s constant use of the word “faith” highlights this subconscious dominance. “Faith” is appropriate to Christianity. It is simply a null category in a belief system favoring experience to intellectual comprehension.

To “demonize” someone, it seems to me, you have to have a lack of experience with that group. Unless an individual had been raised in total isolation from any of the influences of Western Culture, they’ve encountered Christians of many varieties. If they’ve ever “come out” in a predominantly Christian environment, their beliefs were probably met with derision or outright hostility. Young people who decide to study Paganism or other, more occult paths may have even had to deal with the “Deliverance Ministry” or heard of others who did. People lose their children, their homes, their jobs, even their lives because Christians have not only failed to accept them, but don’t even want to try.

Let me put it another way. Say there were a group of kids in a particular school that belonged to a certain club. Part of this club’s ethos was that they were better than everyone else, simply because they had joined up. Some members of the club took this to the extreme, and started using their putative superiority to actually beat up and harass anyone who hadn’t joined yet. The other members of the club said little, either because they were philosophically in sympathy, or they feared losing the privileges accorded to group members, or simply wanted to “keep the peace” within the club. Then, one day, the milder members decided to start reaching out to those out to those who wouldn’t join, not in any attempt to coerce them into joining, but because they saw that the animosity between “ins” and “outs” was having a negative effect on the school.

What would the “outs” think, what would they be forced to think in the interests of self preservation, when they saw the “good ins” coming? Anyone whose ever been robbed on the street can tell you this: you assume that anyone approaching you late at night wants to mug you. To do otherwise is to invite bodily injury, or an unpleasant and lonely death.

Have the “outs” in this story “demonized” the “ins” as a whole? No. They have a rational aversion to dealing with a member of a group which has persistently beaten them up. If the “good ins” turn around and claim that they are the victims of prejudice, the response would be something like “where were you when I was getting beaten?”

Pagans have not “demonized” Christians. We are the “other” in a predominantly Christian culture. (Even atheism is really an argument with Christian theism, not any other religion.) Christians have, however, as a general rule, demonized us. This is not some dim memory shaded with myth, like the Catacombs. This is a daily occurrence, where children are taken away and jobs lost right in front of us.

The tacit agreement to not talk about the power dynamic also shows itself in Lanie Peterson’s response a the end of the book. She asks why Gus DiZerega “raised the specter of Falwell and Robertson” at all in discussing the Culture Wars. The answer is simple: these are the representatives of Christianity that most non-Christians see. It is assumed, since atrocities such as Proposition 8 in California pass, that their perspective finds at least partial sympathy within the greater Christian community that votes. (If anyone tells you they voted for Prop 8 for non-religious reasons, they are kidding themselves. The question is so purely metaphysical that the only secular response would be to vote “no” simply because the issue is meaningless to anyone but a Christian.) If more moderate Christians don’t want people like Robertson speaking for them, then it is their responsibility to speak up, loudly and in force, against their ideas.

This is not to say that, on this one issue, I think the project of the book fails. Indeed, it’s a very informative read. But the omission of an acknowledgment of the political context does make it less satisfying than it could be. Now that I’ve gotten the “chicken” out of its coop, subsequent reviews will be less abrasive.

What does it mean to be “more than human?” This is one of the major themes of attainment in the Western Mystery Tradition. It is specifically mentioned in the 5=6 Oath of the Golden Dawn. A laudable goal, suggesting transcendence, the overcoming of the conditions of one’s birth to become something better.

All too often, however, it is read as “other than human.” Outside the spectrum of humanity in an abusive, dominating way that looks a lot like social pathology to the “uninitiated.” The metaphors of this kind of ego inflation will focus on images of the “lone wolf” preying on “the herd.” Pure, second circuit aggression and little else mark this distorted pattern of pseudo-attainment. What is not realized is that in order to be “more than human” you must first be simply human, or you will become dramatically less. Little more than a rabid animal with an elaborate semantic map.

To understand why, we need to first look at where the Tradition puts humankind. For all intents an purposes, we stand exactly in the center, between the less evolved creatures and the more rarified dimensions of the spiritual hierarchy. Further, we alone possess the ability to mirror the entire cosmos in our own being, by virtue of our rational capacity. We can conceive of the noetic dimension just beyond form, where the patterns that reality is woven upon have their real existence.

Over billions of years, the patterns and forms of the Cosmos shifted and built, not by intent but simply because they were interacting, moving toward the manifestation of a creature that could embrace both the heights and the depths of being. Finally, the brains of certain primates evolved in such a way that they could think abstractly, could think and plan and imagine. And humanity emerged.

Now, a human brain goes through specific, well established stages of development. A child goes from being almost totally indistinct as a personality, dependent on another for its survival, to an individual unit in a culture in eighteen years. Sometimes, a rare individual will look beyond the trees that mark their tribe’s territory and gain a broader perspective, becoming post-cultural.

Within that spectrum of development, there are early stages which, if you’re not paying attention, look a lot like later transcendent ones. For instance, the new born infant is undifferentiated in terms of its environment. It really doesn’t know about the boundaries of the self. Those come later. Often, less aware New Age folks will romanticize this infant stage, confusing it with later samadhi experiences in which one “becomes one with” the environment. There’s a huge difference between these two states. The infant stage is simply the result of an indistinct blob of organic drives, while the latter samadhi can only occur after a directed period of internal separation of ones already united psyche. To state that they are “the same” is like saying that unmixed cookie dough is the same as a cookie.

In Thelemic circles, the confusion more often occurs between the post-cultural stages that Crowley was actually hinting at and the pre-cultural, narcissistic stage of a territorially directed two year old. The two have in common a focus on the individual, but latter has gone through both intellectual and cultural developments. A post-cultural individual recognizes both the arbitrariness of cultural mores, and the need for harmonious relations with others. There is no need to dominate others, as their is in the narcissistic stage.

Domination cannot be considered liberation. The two are simply qualitatively different. A tyrant depends on hundreds of people obeying him and buying into his mystique. A predator requires a steady population of prey, which must be at the very least maintained at a level which ensures his own health when consuming. The kind of aggressive “individualism” promoted by the more literal minded Thelemites is little more than an esotericized ethic of unsustainable predation. A sanctification of the same impulses that drive upper middle class white males to engage in duplicitous business practices. It is the ethical framework of Enron.

My point is that you can not become “more than human” by behaving like less. Both the Hermetic tradition which places us in a unique position between the highest and the lowest, and evolutionary psychology which firmly establishes us as social animals, tell us that we are creatures essentially different from the beasts that we emerged from.

We need to remember that when we transcend, we also include what we were before. This is as true in physical, psychological, and spiritual development. Further, higher levels depend on lower ones in a way that lower ones do not depend on higher. If humans disappeared, the insects would still thrive. If insects disappear, humans follow quickly.

The other side of this is that we can’t totally abandon the dominator in us, either. What we do is add another level of awareness to the drive to overcome. We turn our drive to be in control inward, where it belongs. Instead of projecting outward into the world, we learn to discipline our own natures in order to make them fitting vehicles for the Light.

So when we transcend culture, we need to remember not to totally trash it. It is part of our makeup, of what makes us human. And what makes us human eventually causes us to seek the glittering palace of our exalted being beyond.

As the connections between Sarah Palin and the extreme fringe of the Religious Right make it into even the mainstream press, it might be a good idea to pull back a bit and look at the possible roots of this movement. Not the history of the movement, or the complex relationship between Post-Millenial and Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism that created today’s push to theocracy, but the deep impulses, urges, and deficiencies of modern society that allowed these perspectives to flourish.

In all quarters of Conservative Evangelicalism, not just the Religious Right and Far Right, it is often claimed that “America is Spiritually Dead.” This is a very difficult claim to refute, mainly because it is true. Not for the reasons the Conservative Evangelicals assert, not because we have lost the Word of God beneath the nihilistic veils of Secular Humanism, or have failed to adopt the proper theological perspective, but because at some point we flattened the Cosmos and made the human ego the sole arbiter of value, the satisfaction and reification of that ego the only worthwhile goal.

During the Enlightenment, three value spheres that were once undifferentiated got split. Morality, truth, and esthetic value were, in the past, the same thing. When we discovered that a moral system could be based on lies, and that the truth was sometimes ugly, this became untenable. The basic problem with modern and post modern society is that this “solve” or separation never got integrated, the “coagula” part of the alchemical formula. Differentiation became dissociation, and the result is seen in endless “debates” about “science and religion,” among other places.

With most people generally siding with “materialism” (meaning the view that only the material world is real) either deliberately or simply by social contagion, “morality” became difficult to defend. Morality came to be seen as having at best a tertiary relationship to “real life,” and “ideal” that everyday existence made difficult if not impossible. Staunch advocates of traditional morality, primates as they were, fell into territorial grunting about “higher things” rather than looking to science to bolster their claims.

(If they had done this, they would have noticed what evolutionary psychologists have: human beings are social animals. Morality is one way in which humans fulfill the genetic mandate to survive. If a moral system does not serve this function, it is not valid. The argument from there up to Spirit is not challenging.)

Thus, we were left with nothing to guide us but a logic that can only be rooted in current empirical consensus. This is fine for a good part of human activity, and actually does delegitimize several hundred atrocities that people once took for granted. But it also leaves the human ego, the fragile, frightened persona that can only look through one tiny window at a Universe full of galaxies it cannot see, in an uncomfortable position. It must manage all perception, decide on all truths, rather than the limited bandwidth it is expert at dealing with.

It is as if we have been asked to paint with a scalpel. All we can do in this situation is start carving into our own flesh and smear blood on the canvass. The product is sophisticated, daring, and designed to please. But we are still bleeding and screaming beneath the world’s thundering applause.

If this is an accurate picture, a competent autopsy for our Inner Murder, then Dominionism is not a resurrection, but more off gas.

The impulse to seek Spirit occurs, if it is genuine, when one realizes that the ego is not enough. It needs support from a higher source (or deeper if you prefer). This means that it must give up some control, release some of the functions it has been trying to fill. Not that there aren’t possible problems here, or that this is easy, but this is the basic idea. The ego must ask for help, and be ready to change.

Dominionism is one of those tricky approaches that appears to do this, but covertly aids in reification of the persona the person enters with. The typical conversion narrative is a surrender after a long tragedy. The “I give in” is superficially present, but at a deeper level one has simply taken the previous life and amplified its events into a Passion of the Christ. Read any “born again” story, and you will find a Gesthemane, a Golgotha, and the stone rolled away. Every failure becomes sanctified, every impulse control issue becomes a fiery encounter with the money changers in the temple. The “born again” Christian has become, in their minds, Jesus Christ.

What Dominionism does is create a space in which one is part of a very special spiritual elite. They are in danger, because the world hates them for being so close to God. And, what’s more, it is their job to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

In other words, they haven’t truly reached out. It would be more surprising if they had. Modern society does not support the basic act of giving up the old self for a new one. It presents superficial transformations, the “ugly fat girl” loses weight and gets a makeover and so forth, but not actual personality shifts that include insight into the individual. That is either silly, archaic, or self abnegation. Because modern perception sees “self” and “ego” as synonyms.

Thus, Dominionism is nothing more or less than another way of reifying the ego and engaging in orgone parties. It presents to a Spiritually Dead world more ways of making Frankenstein’s monster dance.

Until we find a way to bring our egos back into a healthy relationship with the rest of our psyche, movements such as Dominionism will tend to have an appeal. They offer sexy ways to appear to go somewhere when you are in fact going nowhere. And in a flattened Cosmos, nowhere is all there really is.

Holy. Shit. I’m fairly certain that, if the huge sections of the government weren’t already in the pockets of these lunatics, the kinds of statements the article below links to would win you a visit from the Secret Service.

The more theocratic elements of the Religious Right have a disturbing habit, (more like a practice) of invoking “imprecatory prayer” — a call for God to literally pour his wrath down on those they consider to be his enemies. Last year, for example, Rev. Wiley Drake, then a Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention made news when he called on his followers to pray for God to smite members of the staff of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (Drake was angry that the organization had reported Drake to the IRS for endorsing Mike Huckabee on church stationary, among other apparent abuses of his church’s 501(c))(3) tax-exemption.) The most recent target of theoractic imprecations is none other than Republican presidential candidate John McCain. They hope that an act of God will make Sarah Palin president.

Truly, after certain other events do we really think it will be long before some disturbed individual takes the step beyond praying?