Derick Varn: How would you like to introduce yourself and your relationship to Thelema and Gnosticism?
Fr. Sam Shult: I have been an initiate of OTO since 1992 and baptized, confirmed and admitted to the Diaconate in the OTO’s Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica for almost as long. I have been an ordained Priest in that tradition for a little over 2 years. I’ve been a self identified Thelemite since 1980.
The EGC derives it’s claim to the title ‘Gnostic’ through its descent from Jules Doinel’s Neo-Albigensian GnosticChurch in the last decade of the 19th century, the direct ancestor of every important Gnostic Church now in existence, including Stephen Hoeller’s Ecclesia Gnostica and the Johannite Gnostic Church. Out of Doinel’s original Church derived the l’Église Gnostique Universelle, whence came Reuss’ Die Gnostische Katholische Kirche, and thence the EGC, which by then as an integral part of the original OTO converted to Thelema as its guiding spiritual paradigm. Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’ was written as its central Rite, replacing its earlier liturgies.
Thelemites generally and the OTO specifically regard the early Gnostics of antiquity as important (though not exclusive) sources for some of the European esoteric currents of which they are heirs, though not without considerable modification by the new Dispensation represented by Thelema.
‘Gnosticism’ is a tricky word because it can be defined in different ways, sometimes more, sometimes less strictly. If we define it strictly as those attempts to recreate the original Christian esotericism of the first three centuries, Thelema is not Gnostic. If we broaden the definition to include all those esoteric streams (including those represented by Valentinus, Basilides and others) that inform the Western Tradition, it surely is.
Many traits traditionally ascribed to classical Gnosticism are incompatible with a Thelemic worldview, e. g. The dualism of Matter and Spirit, the negative assessment of this world, and so on. But as the pursuit of the initiated wisdom, Thelema is every bit a ‘Gnostic’ tradition. In some ways it seems to me Thelema shares a few of the critiques of the Orthodox toward the Gnostics’ Manichaean attitudes, but views Orthodoxy as no less Manichaean in many ways, especially in what is generally perceived as Christianity’s hostility toward sex and the body.
I suppose I am Gnostic insofar as I am part of an ecclesiastical tradition deriving from Doinel’s neo-Gnostic revival, and insofar as Gnosticism is a tributary source for the stream of the ‘Western Tradition’.
- V.: Father Sam, Why do you think there is some tension between OTO Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and say Hoeller’s Ecclesia Gnostica and Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica Hermetica? Including claims that the current EGC has little to no relationship to the pre-1980’s EGC?Now, I must say that my experience with beginning Thelemites leads me to the conclusion that many, in general, have a sort of orientalism and are more Vajrayana Tantric than say, Gnostic, even in the larger Western esoteric sense? Do you think this is just Thelema reflecting larger cultural obsessions? Or is there something do this observation?
S.S.: In part I believe that the tension between EG and EGC reflects the general discomfort many feel with anything having to do with Crowley specifically, and an antipathy to initiatory orders being intertwined with Gnostic churches generally, however strong the historical precedent from Doinel’s time to ours. That EGC is a ‘Gnostic Church’ is doubly troubling for them. Hoeller has circulated one or two ‘position papers’ relative to OTO taking great pains to distance EG from OTO/EGC, and has expressed his wish in them that OTO/EGC call itself something other than Gnostic—-such as Kabbalistic, Magical, or some such —as more descriptively accurate and to avoid confusion on the part of the public. This despite there in absolutely nothing in the EGC liturgy explicitly Kabbalistic or ‘magical’ in the sense he means. In fact the EGC liturgy makes full use of God-names with a specifically Gnostic origin, e.g. IAO, IAO SABAO, and ABRASAX. That they have different connotations for Thelemites is beside the point. Believe me, I of all people understand and sympathize with ‘purists’. But then the OTO/EGC version of ‘Gnosticism’ is sui generis. I think an EGC Patriarch put it best when he said “we are not Gnostics in the sense of the word used by the modern-day Gnostic revivalists, who are attempting to breathe life into the dry skeletons of Basilides, Valentinus and Mani. Our Gnosis has been tempered in the furnace of 18 centuries of trial, experiment and dialogue, and has been ultimately transmuted by the Gnosis of a New Word: THELEMA.”
Many in Hoeller’s own church would disagree with him on this point.
The EGCH is another story (I am also baptized in that church, by the way, though not particularly active in it for quite some time). Originally they were a local parish of the Gnostic Catholic Apostolic Church, but their Bishop found their modified liturgy incompatible with the existing liturgy of the Church, so they went their own way. Again, I suspect there was a general discomfort in the Church hierarchy with the incorporation of so many other heterogeneous elements
from the broader Western esoteric tradition, but perhaps the inclusion of Thelemic material was the last straw. If there is any current antipathy between EG and EGCH, I would be surprised if that played no part in it.
Regarding the Thelemic ‘orientalism’ you have observed, yes I think it largely reflects larger cultural obsessions, but also demonstrates recognition of certain sympathetic resonances between Thelema and other traditions such as Vajrayana and tantrum. But that’s a very different thing from saying that those traditions are ‘Thelemic’ in any meaningful sense.
D.V..: Have there been reasonable “ecumenical” movements between Thelemites and Reconstruction/Restoration Gnostics that you have encountered? Is there a lot of dialogue (other than say, between, someone like me and someone like you)?
Unrelated question, do you think that there is confusion within occult and pagan circles as to what exactly a Thelemite is? Particularly if they are outside of the EGC and/or the OTO? Does this sort of have the same problems that one has when dealing with unspecified Gnostics?
S.S.: The North American College of Gnostic Bishops has been open to working with Thelemically oriented Gnostic churches like EGCH and the Alexandrian Church affiliated with the Thelemic Knights. (Both Churches are represented in the College). I was a little disappointed there was no EGC involvement, but I strongly suspect that was because of a lackluster interest on the part of the OTO/EGC rather than any antipathy from the College, all of whom seem to me very reasonable people. By and large though Thelemites have been more open to Gnosticism than Gnostics to Thelema, which is why Gnostics are consistently scandalized by their surprisingly large (to them) showing on various online Gnostic fora. Some dialogues occur there, but only when all parties are genuinely open to dialogue rather than committed to a pissing contest.
To answer your unrelated question, I think there is some confusion about what a Thelemite is in an extra-OTO/EGC context especially in Gnostic circles, because for obvious reasons Gnostics will have a disproportionately greater experience of Thelemites who are involved with EGC and OTO (whose central Rite is the Gnostic Mass), than those who don’t. Thus, the ‘Gnostic church’ stuff may seem more fundamental to Thelema than it really is, when in fact it is really only fundamental to the OTO. All that’s required of a Thelemite qua Thelemite is to accept the Book of The Law and its message as spiritually authoritative. For the initiate, more specific and particular forms of this spiritual expression are entailed. Other Thelemic Orders might have different ones.
So yes, the same sorts of problems obtain, making for mutual misunderstanding.
D.V.: One of the issues with Thelema in the broad sense and Gnostic in broad sense is that outside of the OTO/EGC the “archetypal” language is different. For example, the Book of Law makes references to things that are both Kemetic and Hermetic as opposed to the more explicitly Gnostic “Christian.” Does the pagan/Christian split have any play here (although I should be clear that all Gnostics, even of the restoration/reconstruction variety, are not explicitly or only Christian)?
And how do relationships with “pagan” religions that have roots in (misunderstanding or appropriating) Thelema (Gardnerian Wicca, Scientology) have any play in that confusion?
S.S.: Well there is a slightly more specifically Gnostic slant to those in an EGC. But some other of the ‘archetypes’ are shared with no other Gnostic group, (BABALON being the most obvious example), and are common to Thelema at large. The Thelemic Trinity Nuit/Hadit/Ra-Hoor-Khuit appears in other rituals of EGC outside the Mass, such as Baptism and Confirmation. While true the Book of The Law takes the form of an Egyptian Theogony, it is a theogony utterly unknown to the Egyptians themselves. The pairing of Nuit with Hadit as a divine couple with Ra-Hrumachis as their child was born in 1904 with the reception of the Book. However, there are certainly Christian motifs that appear in the Book. Christ is mention twice, once as Isa, once as Jesus; Mary is mentioned; and of course the Beast and Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse are mentioned, albeit with a meaning that completely inverts traditional interpretations of those archetypes.
In my opinion it is less the pagan/Christian divide that alienates Gnostics, than it is the more or less explicit anti-Christian polemical stance implied by turning the meaning of the apocalypse on its head. This despite the fact that turning traditional interpretations on their heads was a Gnostic specialty. The Ophrics who revered the Serpent of Eden, the Cainites who revered slayer of Abel, and the authors of the Gospel of Judas come to mind.
D.V.: Why do you think there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about Thelema, even in Occult circles?
S.S.: The short answer is that Crowley represents a challenge that most in the occult community aren’t up to—and that includes a few Thelemites as well. Crowley had the unfortunate habit of saying exactly what he thought on any given subject, and his spiritual perspectives (along with their material implications) don’t sit very well with those who have been poisoned with the virus of Political Correctness. It’s much easier to dismiss him as a proto-fascist, sexist and racist than it is to actually engage with his points intellectually. Curiously, my experience from the radical pagan right regarding Crowley is no less underwhelming. I’ve heard him denounced as the incarnation of that is wrong with liberal permissive modernity. Go figure.
D.V.: Well, is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.S.: Thank you for the opportunity to speak. It has been a genuine pleasure!