Aidan Kelly at Patheos posted a challenging essay titled “The Craft Is Actually Hard Work, If You’re Serious.” I say “challenging” because it’s challenging some of my approaches to religion and spiritual practice. And if Aidan Kelly is challenging me, then I need to take a closer look.
If you don’t know who Aidan Kelly is, you should. He was a co-founder of the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn in the 1960s, earned a Ph.D in Theology, and has done historical research into the origins of Wicca. Regular readers of this blog know I’m not big on appeals to authority, but if Aidan Kelly says something I’m not going to dismiss it without some careful review and consideration.
Kelly says three things I think need a deeper look.
The first is the title of his post, with which I am in strong agreement. Any religion done right is hard work. It takes work to examine your actions and make sure they’re in alignment with your values. It takes work to examine your values and make sure they’re your values and not the values of your parents or teachers or the mainstream society. It takes work to build and maintain good relations with your gods and goddesses, your ancestors, your community and the world at large. Daily spiritual practice, study, meditation, prayer, and worship takes time and effort.
The idea that religion doesn’t involve work comes from the conservative Protestant doctrine that religion is all about what you believe. For tribal and liberal religions – including Paganism – what’s really important is what you do. Doing it right takes work.
The second is his assertion that “Yes, there are Third Degree secrets.” Here I had a strong negative reaction. On numerous occasions I’ve said “there are no occult secrets.” I’ve said that partly to warn people away from charlatans trying to scam seekers out of money or sex or both. But beyond that, I’ve seen too many people spend all kinds of time and effort looking for secrets that don’t – and can’t – exist.
On further reflections, though, I don’t think Kelly and I that are apart. While I like to say “there are no occult secrets” the second half of that is “there are only ineffable mysteries.” These are secrets no one can tell you because you have to experience them for yourself. You can’t learn them by hearing or by reading but only by doing and experiencing. They aren’t unspeakable because they are too sacred to utter, they are unspeakable because they transcend language and the intellect. Kelly says “without that deeper level, the Craft is as silly and inadequate as the Sunday School version of Christianity: pablum for infants.”
He goes on to say “the secrets need not be learned only from people who already know them, although that’s an efficient way. In the NROOGD we were able to reinvent them for ourselves, because we had an amazing pool of multitalented people.”
That leads me to the third thing I think is critically important, Kelly’s assertion that “one must have an absolute dedication to search for objective truth.”
I have a problem with objective truth. Not because I think it doesn’t exist, but because I don’t know how we can recognize it with the certainty required to call it “objective.”
I’m not a relativist. Just because it’s to your advantage or preference that something be good and right and true doesn’t make it so. We may not be able to say conclusively and objectively what is best, but we can say – based on real results – that some things are better than others (this may end up being a post of its own in the near future).
I’m an engineer – I want repeatable experiments and verifiable data. You can get that in physics and chemistry and even biology, but religion and philosophy is a very different arena. Plus too many people preach too many versions of “objective truth” and many of them are at odds with basic morality, much less common sense.
But again, after further reflection I don’t think Kelly and I are that far apart. As I said in my recent post on fat and health, I have a have a strong opinion that those who point out problems have an obligation to offer solutions. And by “problems” I don’t just mean things that are wrong. I also mean “problems” in the academic sense. It’s not enough to say “it’s a mystery – we don’t know.” One of the main purposes of religion is to deal with the Big Questions of Life. If you aren’t coming up with provisional answers then you aren’t fully engaging the questions.
In speaking of the search for objective truth, Kelly says we must “research every important question for oneself, to never settle for anyone’s opinion, no matter how well-informed it seems, to always resist the pressure that everyone around you will exert to persuade you to buy into their beliefs.”
Externally, I try to have some humility about my experiences and beliefs. I know I may be wrong about many things and I’m bound to be wrong about some things. If your experience and beliefs are different, I’ll gladly discuss them and if your way seems to make more sense than mine, I’ll consider it.
But internally I treat my beliefs and experiences as though they absolutely True. In my daily life I have one foot in the world of science and the other foot in the world of magic. When it comes time for practice, I do my best to set my doubts aside, to have both feet in the same world and to have the confidence that everything I see and hear and do and say is absolutely real.
For me, this isn’t just an academic question – it has great bearing on my spiritual future. I’ve been studying and practicing Paganism for 19 years, the last 11 of them seriously. I’m a full member of the Druid grade in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m the Coordinating Officer of Denton CUUPS and a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS Continental. I’ve composed and led dozens of rituals. I’ve had ecstatic and transcendent religious experiences. I’ve taught classes and led workshops.
I am not an adept. I am not a master, or anything of the sort.
I don’t say that out of disappointment. I don’t say that out of false humility or secretive misdirection. But I learned a long time ago I do myself no favors when I overestimate my skills and abilities.
I’m not a Wiccan or a Thelemite or a ceremonial magician. I’m a Druid. I’m not sure what a Druid adept looks like, but I know I’m not it.
But something deep inside is whispering that I need to become one.
And that, as Aidan Kelly says, is actually hard work.