One of my favorite questions to ask Christians when I was younger was, “Are people who have never had access to the Bible doomed to damnation?”
The pat answer is that Christ has made himself known to all peoples at least once, so if they don’t worship him, their damnation is their own fault. Of course, this isn’t written anywhere in the gospels, and you’d think that if a red-headed olive-skinned guy dropped by the !Kung tribe to explain that they need to have faith in him or suffer for all eternity, well, that someone would have made a note of it. But even if they didn’t, why should all the thousands of children afterwards be doomed to damnation just because their ancestors didn’t have the good sense to drop everything they believed and pick up a new faith? Naturally, the person’s head would explode by this point and I’d have a nice chuckle at their expense.
But now I ask a similar question. Many consider the basic requirement of being a Thelemite as “acceptance” of Liber Legis and Crowley’s interpretations thereon. (To me, “acceptance” is just one tick away from “faith”, but I won’t insist on it here). But what about that poor !Kung tribe? Are they doomed to live a True Will-less life? Deprived of the writings of Aleister Crowley, are people like them to be left out in the Old Aeonic cold? Or did the Beast somehow also make his Law known to all the peoples the world over?
Snark aside, there is a deeper question in both these cases...what is the relationship between a “spiritual formula” and a book that talks about that formula? It is an interesting question, because if a spiritual formula, or Universal Force if you will, truly is in play, how necessary is the book that describes it in order for that Force to be made manifest? In a sense, isn’t any given holy book essentially just a promotional tool for a belief system?
After all, English text can only go so far in explaining the nature of spiritual reality, and AL is about as non-literal a sacred text as you can get. And since AL is therefore intended to be interpreted differently by each individual, it seems fair to say that it isn’t meant to provide a set of concrete rules or descriptions of reality that can be objectively applied to all people in all cases.
That being said, is AL, as a text, relevant to anything outside of itself? See, if AL is intended to be interpreted by each individual alone, then isn’t it the individual interpretations themselves that are ultimately relevant? The magic is not in the words of AL, but in the alchemy of your interpretive mind that happens between those words and real life. Spirituality is rooted in this human ability, to form representations about the self and the world that are independent of immediate sensation.
Of course, AL also serves, as all sacred texts do, to define the clan (AL does this literally in I:40, II:18, and II:21 for example). True, it is possible to form a religion based on the interpretation of a 4th century shopping list if you want, but the texture of that religion would be substantially different from any other. When multiple people interpret the same text, there might be enough overlap to create some sense of unity—what are our values, how do we behave with each other, how do we see the world, what methods do we use to interpret phenomena, what are we trying to accomplish, what makes us different from others, et cetera. If there are enough people and enough overlap, a clan will form...it’s human nature to do so.
And so we are left with a difficult question. Is a Thelemite defined primarily as someone who does her Will or as someone who has interpretations of AL that are in close-enough alignment with others in Clan Thelema? The !Kung probably have not and never will read or accept Liber Legis. Moreover, they are not at all individualistic—they are highly communal, which has effectively served them for many hundreds of years. Can they nevertheless do their Will? I suspect they can and, to varying degrees, do so. It is the height of arrogance to believe that only strict adherents of Crowley can lead genuine lives in concert with their deepest selves and experience “the free function of [one’s] essential nature”. But it’s certainly true that their worldview probably lies far outside that of most so-called Thelemites. Which is the more important?
I have been accused many times of not being a Thelemite. Based on what? That I question the spiritual authority of Aleister Crowley? That I harbor interpretations of AL that are too far outside that of the clan? Well, I’ll tell you how I manage to sleep at night—because I do my Will. And in my book, that makes me a Thelemite.