"Nuance. It's what I don't do".
- one of our local Pagan organizers
(Sorry, no, I won't say which one).
At a number of points where I know people enter this site, especially from the Witches' Voice, I post notices reminding the visitor that this is not a Wiccan group. Usually, this is done to save myself and whoever else decides to handle correspondence, a perennial nuisance: those who can't seem to understand that "Wiccan" and "polytheistic" aren't synonymous. We probably aren't adding to their level of understanding, but at least they might become convinced that we are too clueless to understand their deep insights, and go elsewhere. Either way, mission accomplished.
In the case of this article, the issue that arises is a far different one. A refusal to accept the reality that fundamental differences exist between Wicca (and other Occult paths) and what we do here not only is an annoyance for us, but poses a hazard to the one who refuses to do so. To understand why, it is instructive, first, to understand what we are doing. Once you do, the dangers of philosophical sloppiness on this point will become painfully clear.
You will also understand why Metaphysical Empiricist groups have to be careful about accepting Wiccans or other Occultists as members.
Our intellectual roots here lie, not in the "Golden Dawn", but in the Western Rationalist tradition. (Yes, it gets far more complicated from here. This site, "The Almond Jar", is merely intended as a primer for those wondering why we do what we do, hence the simplistic nature of much of what you see here. Greater depth comes offline, where eyestrain is less of an issue).
In particular, we work using one of a number of philosophies that call themselves "Metaphysical Empiricism" (or as we prefer, but rarely hear, "Metaphysical Quasi-Empiricism", in an acknowledgment of the limitations of our own methodology). In our version, one seeks the faith that one is to embrace, in the following manner. One takes a particular description of the nature of the divine (or other aspect of reality that we can't directly perceive) and ask ourselves "if this is true, then what would the world that we can directly experience, look like". Then, through one's own individual perspective, one decides whether or not the world that one is encountering, looks like the one that would be expected.
One does not leap at embracing the first view that seems to fit, but ponders it on and off for a few years, at the very least, and sees if it still seems consistent with how one experiences life. When the mind finally becomes convinced, the way is paved for the heart to connect in an unconfused manner. Out of the emotional connection that results, faith is born, faith that will stand the tests of life.
The introduction ahead of you, as I have said, is written on a very simple level, really, for those who've never encountered Rationalist, as opposed to Occult, Metaphysics. It is far from being the last word on the subject. Nevertheless, it points to some of the substance of the philosophy : the recognition that the world, on careful examination, either does not deceive. Or at least, it does not deceive in a manner that runs contrary to that which we should seek to achieve - the path that the subtle divine guidance (available to all who seek it) would take each of us down, individually. When the Hindus speak of "Maya", the world illusion that we are to escape, we are to smile and go our separate way, in confidence.
"Confidence?", some will ask. "How can one have confidence, when by your own acknowledgement, the gods might lead us to an untruth, because it is an untruth that we need to believe for the sake of our own growth at the moment?" The answer : because it would be a struggle for you to believe anything else. It is human nature to believe the evidence of one's own eyes, as interpreted by one's own mind, and it takes a mighty struggle to believe anything else, especially when one realizes that the only alternative is to take a belief at random, to a large extent.
Think of your situation in this way. Imagine that you are in a dark tunnel, so black that you can't see the hand in front of your face, or anything else, but a faint light. Logically, you know that faint light could be a reflection off of a wall, a lamp on the verge of burning out, or any of a number of other things. It doesn't matter. In your desire to emerge from the tunnel, you will find a level of conviction in your heart, that your mind could not fully rationalize, but can easily justify : there is nothing else for you to follow, so to embrace your conviction is the only working choice left to you.
In the absence of workable alternatives, one doesn't doubt the one source of information one has, because it becomes the standard by which confidence is measured. Imagine, then, that the tunnel is the uncertainty of this life, and the light is your own life experience, evaluated in the light of reason. While the true path won't lead you into the sunlight until after you emerge, it will lead you to warmer, brighter, and more pleasant places along the way. Full gratification may be long deferred, but partial gratification is at hand far sooner.
We spoke of another issue arising, in the confusion between general polytheism, and Wicca. Here it is.
After explaining Metaphysical Empiricism, we encounter people on "Shamanic paths", who will say "yeah, yeah, we do that too". To do so, almost seems a reflex in the New Age community, where the suggestion that all paths are not one, seems to be greeted as a sort of blasphemy. "I have a vision, and it shows me things about the world, and I learn from them". They barely seem able to hear at all, when we explain to them that what they describe, is not the same thing, at all. The New Age community is not noted for drawing fine philosophical distinctions.
It is more than a nuisance, that some people will do this. It is gravely dangerous. When people start equating their dreams with reality, the unavoidable question arises, "how exactly does one tell a shamanic vision from a schizophrenic hallucination?".
That, by itself, becomes cause for concern. But suppose that this practice of jumping to conclusions (as one takes all visions at face value) is coupled with the misguided conviction that some sort of empirical process has backed up one's conclusions. Let us say, one treats those "visions" as if they were the same as normal sensory experiences, and begins to examine the dream life as if it were no different from the waking life. Then, one may begin to lose touch with reality with disturbing speed.
The problem here, is that one's perceptions affect one's frame of mind, which will affect one's dreams, in turn. A careful inspection of external reality will tend to force one back into good sense, because external reality will stubbornly remain what it is (regardless of what one chooses to believe) and will force one to deal with it on its own terms. Delusions, however, may take on a life of their own, especially when one takes one's own frame of mind to be the reality by which that frame of mind is to be judged. That is to say, if one begins to take internal, subjective criteria as being the only standards, by which one's own reasonability is to be measured. It is not without reason, that we urge the embrace of a world affirming path, for only by immersing oneself in that world, can one find such external criteria as are needed for sound judgment to be possible.
In a healthy community, this is the role of the local skeptic 1. He helps keep the local consensus grounded in reality, by testing that consensus against inescapable, unbendable realities. That is the Shrine's role in any future Western Traditionalist community to which it may belong. If that is a role that you seek for yourself, then by all means, read on, but never let yourself mistake credulity for skepticism, for in that direction lies madness 2.
Click here to enter. (Note : this article is copyrighted 2002, by Sunrise Press of Chicago. This page is a member of The Philosophy Webring).
(1) Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that this is a role the local Neopagan community will welcome. Doubt and uncertainty don't sell books, or tarot readings. It is not without reason, that we forbid our members to accept financial profit, from anything related to Shrine business.
(2) A message to take away from this, is that the roles of shaman, witch or mystic, are difficult ones to combine with that of philosopher. The combination would seem to be perilous to one's mental health. This isn't just a matter of (very simple) theory, but one of observation as well. Finding people who have suffered psychological breaks, in the Occult community, is all too easy.
One problem is that the building of an elaborate theoretical edifice, true to its foundational assumptions, is an accomplishment that brings a great feeling of confidence, as any Mathematician will tell you. In a way, it's almost soothing. In the Sciences, this confidence poses no risk to the victor of this struggle against his own limitations, because the foundational assumptions are rooted in objective reality, subject to peer review. Bestowing such confidence upon one who roots his assumptions in his own dreams, however, gives confidence where it is not appropriate. The seer or shaman walks precariously on the edge of insanity, with only his common sense holding him back from a fall. That common sense works, because that little element of self-doubt forces one in such a subjective area, to engage in periodic self-examination. Confidence, when it drives away a needed bit of self-doubt, is no blessing.
This thought, for what it's worth, supports our modern Hellenistic practice of seperating the ecstatic from the rational aspects of our faith. As explained in the Lupercalia discussion, Hellenism is not a "one stop shopping religion". Nor was it in antiquity, during which the Cthonic and older Olympian cults, and the mystery religions, while having overlapping memberships in all likelihood, approached the faith in radically different ways.
We do not reject the ecstatic aspect of our faith, or the calling of the seer, if and when the gods should honor us with them, again. However, we would humbly suggest that, in a very Mediterranean way, instead of seeking confirmation of their continued rationality purely within themselves, they should seek it in the setting of the community of which they are a part. They should seek it in their dealings with their very different, Rationalist friends, who provide an external frame of reference, just by being there.