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Defense of syncretism

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: Re: Defense of syncretism
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2000 01:35:01 GMT wrote:

> writes:

> > syncretism on so vast a scale as attempted
> > by Crowley (remember, he also tried to map the Chinese I Ching 
> > against the same Lurianic Tree of Life model!!!) is a spiritual 
> > analogue to the British colonialism of his time.

> I have a bit of a problem with this characterization, although I am
> sympathetic to some of the points you raise. The politics of 
> "appropriation" are extremely complex and subtle, so I don't think one 
> can really condemn syncretism in and of itself because there are 
> ethically indefensible instances of it. In fact, I think one could 
> make a case for Hinduism and Judaism (especially Hinduism) being 
> themselves syncretic religions, as few belief systems fail to evolve 
> over the centuries by incorporating fragments and structures from 
> other belief systems.

[several good examples snipped0

I was not trying to identify all instances of mystical or religious
syncretism with cultral appropriation. The examples you gave, which can
be seen to have arisen as the result of cultural boorowing and sharing,
are certainly not whatr i had in mind when i spoke of "appropriation."
In private email; pursuant to my original post, a correspondent
succintly defined the essential difference between natural syncretism
and cultural appropriation, when he said: "Real cultural fusion, like
the atomic kind, takes heat and pressure and time." 

In other words -- and i wish i had been as clear about this as he was --
true cultural syncretism generally arises within and at the periphery of
the affected populaces themselves; it cannot be given out from on high
at the command of an authority figure belonging to neither (or none) of
the affected cultural traditions. 

> >  When continued by his disciples, who,
> >  while not as blatantly racist as Crowley, are still notably
> >  disrespectful of Jewish, Indian, and Chinese cosmologies, these
> >  exercises in faux-universalism devolve into a kind of religious 
> >  fascism, attempting to bind all the diverse twigs of human mystical 
> >  thought to the one axe-handle of Mr. Crowley, "Our Fearless 
> >  Leader," "Il Duce," "The Master To Mega Therion."

>  Do you feel that syncretism is inherently "disrespectful" of the
> traditions from which it borrows? In what sense? 

Well, no, i do not. What seems disrespectful to me is a one-way flow in
which the cream of various cultural traditions is skimmed off and
presented by a spiritual leader as a "universal" truth while the members
of those cultures who do not accede to this theorized "universality" or
who have no interest in what some outsider thinks of their traditions,
are viewed by the leader as primitives, mental defectives, or
"cavemen"(troglodytes, in Crowley's terms). 

When true cultural fusion occurs, there is not only a flow of ideas --
much as you described in the case of Greek spirriutal-numerical theory
and Jewish mysticism and in the case of Vedic, Hindu, Buddhist, Tibetan
animist syntheses -- but also a mingling of PEOPLE in TIME and SPACE.
Cultural fusion does not happen in the pages of a book. It may come
about in response to legal, military, judicial, or clerical decree --
but it happens to human populations. 

> It's rather amusing, I think (some might say
> "sickening") to see Crowley simultaneously borrow from and insult the
> traditions he uses. 

If i had to chose, i'd call it more "sickening" than "amusing."

> I've always seen it as one of his more obvious 
> character flaws and intellectual blind spots. It may be the case that 
> some who have followed Crowley continue this attitude of disdain for 
> traditions other than their own (Bersson, for example -- did anyone 
> else read that piece of racist trash "Liber 99?"), 

I am unfamiliar with Bersson -- care to expound further? 

> but others continue 
> the syncretic process with more respectful, nuanced, and informed 
> borrowing from other, more ancient sources.

Granted -- but, in my opinion, these things take time and the input of
entire populations, not simply the dictum of one respectfully nuanced
scholar. True syncretism is neiother cultural strip-mining, nor is it an
idealized politically correct way to extract and refine cultural
traditions -- it's a matter of real give-and-take in which ideas and
images are discussed and debated from WITHIN, not from without. It
requires listening to what the people of these traidtions themselves are
doing, thinking, and saying -- and refraining from defining their
development of centuries of philosophy or cosmology in a few
easy-to-memorize code-words. 

> I think the ultimate value of syncretism depends on its utility 
> to the people who use the composite systems. In the case of Tibetan 
> Buddhism, it is obvious to scholars today that several of the central 
> myths of that religion served the purpose of emphasizing the cultural 
> superiority of Buddhism over the native shamanistic Bon religion that 
> it replaced and incorporated into itself. Thus, syncretism was put to 
> the service of "religious fascism." Yet it could hardly be denied that 
> many thousands of people find great benefit in practicing Tibetan 
> Buddhism.

Tibetan Bon-Buddhism, like the Hindu-Buddhist synthesis in Thailand and
the Catholic-Ifa synthesis of Cuban Santeria,is the result of exactly
the kind of prolonged heat, pressure, and time to which my correspondent

> The syncretism of the Golden Dawn and Crowley may have been done
> somewhat ignorantly, ham-handedly even, but I am curious as to why you 
> feel it was a form of fascism? 

It meets the classic criterion of leader-driven fascism to my mind. It
was imposed from the top down, not from the bottom up, by a leader for
the benefit of his followers, not for the benefit of the masses. 

For example, Crowley engaged in no dialohgue with spiritual theorists
WITHIN the cultures whence his ideas were drawn (Jews, Chinese, Hindus).
He simply lifted a few lines of type from one cultural outsider's book
(e.g. Legge's inaccurate English I Ching translation) and he mapped them
against a few lines of type in another outsider's book (Mathers' English
trnaslation of Von Rosenroth's (sp?) German translation of a few
kabbalistic texts from the Hebrew), and generated thereby a few lines of
type in a third book (Liber 777), which his followers were to believe
represented a great "universal truth." 

Such faux-universalism differs from true cultural fusion in these
significant ways: 
     1) it has not led to or resulted from the actual genetic mingling
of human populations (in fact, Crowley rabidly opposed inter-racial
     2) it has not led to or resulted from the cross-identification of
religious festival days, and 
     3) it has not led to or resulted from the compiling of regional
deity-attributes into composite national deities

Those three characteristics of true cultural sysnthesis will serve to
distinguish any potentially emerging "world culture" from the
megalomaniac rantings of a would-be Fearless Leader who proclaims the
coming of his very own New Aeon. 

> Do you deny that many have found spritual benefit
> from the system they advocated? 


> What damage, exactly, has been done to 
> the traditions from which they borrowed, as a result of their 
> borrowing?

I don't think that i averred that ANY "damage" had been done to any
traditions as a result of such borrowings. 

Perhaps the interminable clogging of metaphysical bookstores with
spurious, fluffy "universal synthesis" takes on the kaballa written by
Theosophists, Crowleyites, and New Light Crystal People *might* keep a
few buyers from locating books on the kabbala written by Jews -- but one
could hardly consider that to be a "damage" wreaked upon any but the
handful of undiscerning Crowleyites, Theosophists, and New Light Crystal
People who buy those books -- and whose critical faculties are already
in need of a lube job. 

cat yronwode 

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