Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Religion is a huge and diverse set of social phenomena. People participate in it with different motives, and they get different things out of it. It is unfair to suggest that it has a single purpose or a consistent effect.
For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the following broad definition of religion:
Because religion (as defined) must be shared, it is a social articulation of power. I distinguish it on this score from “faith,” which is the idiosyncratic paradigm or set of beliefs held by an individual regarding her own fulfillment. While religions typically encourage their adherents to adopt a faith that is congruent with the doctrines of the religion, and many people seem to respond to such encouragement, I believe that it is impossible for two people to have indentical faith, or for anyone to wholly and uncomprimisingly subscribe to the doctrines of any religion without personal editing or embroidery at the level of faith.
This impossibility highlights the importance of ritual. It is often naively supposed that ritual is primarily a medium of indoctrination through which adherents are subjected to the myths of a religion. I (along with some contemporary academic theorists of ritual) assert that ritual provides a commonality of experience which supplements the inevitably incomplete common ground of doctrinal belief. It is the numinously general, unfixed symbolic character of ritual that permits different participants to find personal meaning in the same shared event.
MY WORK IN THELEMA
I am an adherent of Thelema, a post-Christian religion that dates from the early years of this century. It was first established by the notorious Aleister Crowley, a brilliant English poet who was raised in the fundamentalist Christian sect of the Plymouth Brethren. I consciously adopted Thelema as my chief mode of religious expression, self-identification, and community, after a long survey of various religions.
My parents were and are members of a Lutheran church, and I was baptized and socialized accordingly as a child. While I found certain elements of the myths and rituals of their church engaging, it was clear to me quite early that such “mainstream Protestantism” could not provide me with either an intellectual model or a practical context for my spiritual fulfillment.
My reading and personal encounters brought me into contact with psychedelic culture, traditional occultism, and alternative sexualities, all of which had an intense influence on my personal faith.
Eventually, I found Thelema to be a religion with a doctrine that would both accomodate and constructively challenge my personal faith. I also found it to have beautiful rituals. The post-Christian character of Thelema means that many elements of Christian myth and ritual persist in the Thelemic context. Thus I retain an organic connection to the religious experiences of my childhood, while continuing to develop my spirituality in the context of a new religion.
I have been a confessed Thelemite for about eleven years, and for the last seven I have also been involved with the Thelemic Gnostic Catholic Church.
MY WORK IN ECCLESIA GNOSTICA CATHOLICA
I have been a priest of the Gnostic Catholic Church (a.k.a. Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, or EGC) for some years, following the completion of a four-year novitiate. EGC is an institution of Thelemic religion, which includes some of the scariest features of institutionalized religion: canonical texts, proprietary sacraments, and authorized clergy in a hierarchical organization.
The Book of the Law is the scriptural cornerstone of EGC and Thelema generally. As far as sacred writ goes, it has two unusual features: a) the persistence of the original holograph MS (and its ready availability in facsimile), and b) an injunction against group study or authoritative exegesis of the text.
The proprietary sacraments of EGC are held to be conducive to spiritual fulfillment, but not indispensible. The “unchurched” are not damned–in fact it is acknowledged that they may have found better means to pursue the Summum Bonum, the Great Work, their own True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness. EGC rituals are extremely light on preaching and sermonizing–most exclude such activity altogether.
The clerical hierarchy of EGC does not rest on a sacerdotalist doctrine. There is no mechanism by which any of the clergy occupy a position of mediation between the congregant and her god. Instead, authorized ritualists illustrate the spiritual process by which congregants may come to their own direct knowledge (gnosis) of the divine. In the course of enacting this drama, the ritual officers create a subtle environment in the temple which facilitates the congregants' apprehension of the absolute.
EGC provides no financial support for its clergy. Although I have been ordained in my vocation as a Priest, I am an amateur in the highest sense of that word, as are my brother priests and sister priestesses. We also possess no authority over the beliefs or daily behaviors of the laity, only over the administration of the sacraments of the church, which we do in service to our local congregations and the universal brotherhood of humanity, under the direction of our church's episcopate.
In one respect, EGC is a form of sacred theater, with an organization dedicated to maintaining and developing its presentation within a particular tradition of Thelemic religion. I find this activity to be of tremendous personal value, and judging by the membership of our sanctuaries and the attendance at our Masses, I am not alone. Too much of our social experience has become mediated, filtered, and virtualized, and the face-to-face community and sacramental actuality of my participation in the church serves as an important element of my work as a human.
Love is the law, love under will.
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