Pagan Theology

Pagan theology: You are it

Off and on over the last few columns I have been talking about various ways of explaining magic.  I divided the ways of talking about how magic “works” into three broad categories:  systematic, individual, and theistic.  In previous columns I covered a variety of systematic explanations, all of which essentially use a set of rules to explain magical effects through some sort of cause and effect relationship.  Systematic explanations say “you do this, the effect will occur.”  These systems can range from scientific to just plain made up.

Now I’d like to talk about individualistic explanations for magical effects.  Here, instead of a “system” or set of rules and laws that explain magic, it is the individual will that creates magic in the world.  Systems can be used to frame and shape that individual “power” but the power ultimately derives from the individual and not the system itself.  An analog to this dichotomy would be the difference between physics and the social sciences.  In physics there are a set of (Newtonian) laws that objects follow independent of who, or whether anyone, is around [1].  Sort of a Platonic ideal of how the universe might work.  These would be equivalent to the magical systems and Grimoires that instruct you on a set of procedures to follow in order to accomplish magic.  At the same time psychology and social sciences attempt to explain individual and collective behavior that involve (relatively) subjective and malleable observations.  Psychologists and behaviorists can talk about the probability that you will do something, but cannot in general guarantee it.  This would be the equivalent of an individual approach to magic:  the burden is on you to make it happen, or not.

Most “systems” tend to say something about individual focus and power, and in fact many systems are designed to help the individual enter a magical mind state so the magic can happen.  Even the purely scientific explanations, such as quantum effects or manipulating probabilities, link to the individual practitioner as something has to get busy affecting probable whosits and quantum whatnots in order to make the magic happen.  However in untangling all these interrelationships it is important to understand exactly what it is we’re after:  why magic works.   Thus we’re asking what comes first: the system, or the individual.    In the case of individualistic explanations, the individual practitioner comes first.

The purest form of individual magic involves psychic effects, such as precognition, psychokinesis, and telepathy [2].  Ignoring parapsychologist’s attempts to embed these effects into a scientific framework, which has not worked well so far, the fundamental idea of all the various psychic phenomena is that there is something within you that you control and manifest in order to have an effect in the world.  This is often characterized as “energy” or some sort of fooling around with quantum or unknown physical principles.  However this, again, puts you into a scientific framework as an attempt at explaining what is happening.

Crowley has a very thoughtful and interesting discussion about the relationship between the practitioner, their will, and the magical link between microcosim and macrocosim [3].  Crowley defines “Magical Operation” as “any event in Nature which is brought to pass by Will.”  Of course he himself admits this covers everything from “potato-growing to banking” in addition to its more magical sense.  Less famously, but more importantly, Crowley goes on to say much of the responsibility for magical operations lay on the individual, as opposed to relying on the “almighty power of God” or ritual practice alone:  “The universe is a projection of ourselves; an image as unreal as that of our faces in a mirror, yet, like that face, the necessary form of expression thereof, not to be altered save as we alter ourselves.”

So, for Crowley (and many others), there is an intertwining between the macrocosim/microcosim structure of magical effects and the individual.  By changing ourselves, we change the world.  At the same time the idea of an event “in Nature” being cause by will implies for Crowley that the event is really in nature and thus dependent to some extent on nature.  “The distance of one’s Magical target and the accuracy of one’s Magical rifle are factors in the success of one’s Magical shooting in just the same way as at Bisley.”  In other words, you cannot create something out of nothing, and what you are trying has to be in some ways possible.

This concept if often reflected in the less sophisticated characterization of magic (or prayer) as requiring active participation in order for it to succeed.  If, for example, you wish for a million dollars, it is very unlikely to happen to you if you sit on the couch for the rest of time watching Gossip Girls [4].  This “get out there and make it happen” is both logical: it probably won’t happen unless you do something; and subtly motivational: sort of a polite way for the HPS to tell the coven members that they actually would be better off if they did something useful and productive.

However there are a couple of more subtle interpretations of this concept that I believe begin to get at the central core of why magic is an important way of both being in and understanding the world. The first interpretation is that magic is a way of spiritual progress.  In other words you practice magic so as to progress spiritually to greater and greater accomplishments.  This you ultimately manifest in the world through changes in your understanding, behavior, and influence of those around you.  You become your own magic and in perfecting yourself change the world [5].

This concept can be interpreted either as self-referential, or world-referential.  In the self-referential interpretation you are practicing magic in order to change yourself and gain spiritual insight.  Any changes in the world are secondary and only a by-product of your ever-closer approach to the Gods and Goddesses.  This is both a theistic interpretation of magic, in the sense that magic brings you closer to the divine, but it also retains an emphasis on the individual, as you are the one approaching the divine.  The world-referential interpretation is a bit trickier, here your inner change manifests in changes in your behavior and that in turn results in changes in the world.  This is more or less “self improvement by magic.”  By performing ritual, ritual that leads to being touched by both magic and the deity, you become more mature, capable, and self-aware in the world.  How you behave in the world begets results in the world.  Obviously this works better if you’re doing magic to seek a love interest rather than a rainstorm, and is more or less an extension of the “get out there and make it happen” school of thought.

The second way to interpret the idea of individual will as the precursor or foundation for magical action is essentially Jungian.  For Jung  the idea of “synchronicity” opened up a different way of interpreting reality [6].  Typically we interpret the world through a causal model.  If I do this, then this will happen.  Chance, among other things, is created from the idea that even rare events actually do occur in the universe, and even a very improbable sequence of events will likely occur if the underlying set of possible events is large enough.  To borrow an example from Jung, seeing pictures fish, hearing the word “fish”, and seeing a fish on a seawall all within the space of a day are a remarkable coincidence [7].

Assuming nothing fishy (!) was going on there was not link between the different, seemingly happenstance, sightings.  So the “links” between the events are not causal in the normal sense of causation.  Instead the link between all the various fish symbols occurs inside you.  You and your interpretation, or the meaning you give them, are what link the non-causal events.  This linkage through meaning is effectively what Jung was talking about when he described synchronicity [8]:

“Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events, Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychophysical events, which so far science has been unable to reduce to a common principle.  The term explains nothing, it simply formulates the occurrence of meaningful coincidences which, in themselves, are chance happenings but are so improbably that we must assume them to be based on some kind of principle or some property of the empirical world.  No reciprocal causal connection can be shown to obtain between parallel events, which is just what gives them their chance character.  The only recognizable and demonstrable link between them is a common meaning, or equivalence.”

So in magical practice something else is happening that is not related to the typical “I do this, that happens” framework that we are all used to.  The magician, and those affected by his magic, are using an alternative framework that replaces causation with meaning as the “glue” that holds the world together.  Magic forms a separate network of meanings that is woven across events and objects in the world but is separate from our physical, scientific, understanding of the universe.  Without us to give the web of magic meaning there would be no magic.  Creating magic in the world is a uniquely human activity, one that arises out of our ability to give meaning to the universe.

This introduces the interesting concept that magic happens neither exclusively inside us, nor exclusively in the world.  It happens between the magician and the world, in a place that literary critics call L’Entre-deux [9].   This presents us with some real advantages as we work to understand what magic is based on.  First synchronicity, and L’Entre-deux, are not predicated on a scientific worldview, so we don’t draw in skeptics or get into arguments with (stage) magicians and scientists, And it also allows us to separate the religious aspect of magic and its practical aspect.  In other words we don’t have to rely on deistic intervention to justify magical workings.  Finally it creates a magical space, a place that is here, but not here.  A meaningful place in the world.  Say, like a sacred space, or a natural wonder, or an experience of deity.  A meaningful place that is not predicated on divinity or divine intervention for its creation. Which goes well with our placing the Gods and Goddess in this world instead of a different one.

It now becomes important to note what I am not talking about here. I am not talking about some exclusively narcissistic view of magical working where the goal is entirely focused on the self and does not have any influence or interaction in the world.  This is not a necessary requirement for us to still be separated from the howling critics of science and debunkers.  We can still be connected and interrelated with the world, but we must borrow Jung’s concept of a non-causal relationship between magical actions and results.

At the same time I am not talking about abandoning the ability of magic to work in the world.  A very plausible argument would be that magic happens within the magician by affecting the magician’s perception of cause and effect creating a synchronous state between their actions and effects.  This makes it very tidy since nothing magical slops out into the world, and into the viewfinders of the scientists and stage magicians.  But that is not what I am arguing here.  I believe it is possible for the actions of the individual magician to expand beyond his immediate mental state, in the same way that telling a story expands the author’s world beyond their own inner mental state.

I believe we are now getting somewhere in our discussion of magic.  The individual is an inherent part of magic.  Magic is a human endeavor prosecuted by people.  Without the magician, magic will not happen.  Thus magic is tied to the will and desires of the worker.  But magic also opens up the space between the individual and the world, the same space opened up by story, art, and, dare I say, imagination.  These exist both in the world, and within us [10].  The magical art exists in this same space between us and the world.  We call this space by a lot of names:  “between the worlds,” “the astral plane,” or “fifth dimension.”  It is the very human process of giving the world meaning, of finding relationships in the world that really matter to us.  That makes magic a very fundamental and powerful tool for how we as Pagans work with the world.

[1] Sure, you’re going to jump on me about quantum effects and observational collapse of probabilities.  The only major problem you have is in fact observational:  for the most part these effects don’t matter in explaining day to day phenomena like birds, kites, and pirates.  Unless you’re doing quantum cryptography or light scattering.  In which case I give it to you.

[2] I really don’t have much of an opinion on the subject of psychic effects.  I’m sure they exist for those involved, however there is a mighty crew of scientists and stage magicians who would strongly differ.  Since I believe that applying scientific criteria, either as an explanation or as a justification, for magic is fatally flawed, I’d have to say that parapsychology is also flawed.  Its flawed because it seeks to understand the “magical” effects using a scientific approach.  I claim you cannot understand “magic” with science.  And, if they actually are doing science then they have failed (for now) because science depends on peer review and consensus.  For me this whole discussion is about religion, not science.

[3] Alister Crowley.  Magic in Theory and Practice, Castle Books, New York, undated, chapter XIV.  Crowley says a lot in this chapter, I’m choosing just a couple of quotes to integrate it with what I’m talking about.  One fundamental idea is that the microcosim, or what happens under control of the magician, is in turn reflected in the macrocosim or real world.  Another way of saying this is the Hermetic expression “as above, so below.”

[4] I believe this can be demonstrated by examining the number of teenage girl millionaires compared to the popularity of Gossip Girls, but I digress.

[5]  This is also known as theurgy.

[6] While it’s no surprise to bring in Jung, I’m not bringing in his whole worldview, rather the specific idea of synchronicity and its’ placing the individual’s interpretation of events at the center.

[7] Except for the fact they are drawn from a space where you could have seen a bear, frog, apple, or any number of other objects in sequence, but you simply either were presented with the image of the fish, or chose to notice the sequence this time you saw it. I am not entirely convinced of Jung’s characterization of “probable” and “improbable” as these are subjective measures.  Every random or pseudo-random event will have a likelihood of occurring, so nothing, in theory is “improbable.”  Some things have a low probability but then you have to consider your sample space which for Jung’s examples is large.  But I digress.

[8] Carl Jung, “On Synchronicity” in the Portable Jung, Viking, 1971.  In his essay Jung brings in all kinds of stuff about PSI, precognition, and whatnot.  I do not believe these are necessary or interesting.  In fact I think they weaken his argument which has an essential simplicity and, dare I say, postmodern subjectivism about it in the sense that assigning meaning to events places our understanding in a very subjective and personal place.  This is quite different than the objectivist, consensus based, approach inherent in modernism and science.

[9] Readers, viewers, or others enter L’Entre-deux when they find themselves lost in the story, even temporarily.  While they fully realize that they are sitting in a chair or theater, they are suddenly so overcome with the reality of what they are experiencing that everything else is momentarily lost.  This is related to Coleridge’s concept of “suspension of disbelief,” but that is another story (so to speak).  See, for example, Noelle Batt,  “’L’Entre-deux,’ A Bridging Concept for Literature, Philosophy, and Science,” SubStance, 23:2:74, (1994), pp. 38-48

[10] Note we can do a bit of causal reasoning here:  we are in the world, the world is, obviously, in the world, and so the space that we open is also in the world, even though it does not manifest in the same way that the natural world does.