Thelemic Perspective on Tillich's “Faith”

As a Thelemite, when approaching theological texts I tend to use concepts from my own tradition as touchstones for comparison and contrast. Since Tillich is writing from within the Christian tradition and on a taboo subject like “faith,” I assumed the Thelemic lens would serve more for contrast than direct comparison. I can’t say this turned out to be the case. Though the correlations are imprecise, Tillich’s “ultimate concern” and “faith” map at least suggestively onto Thelemic notions of “True Will” and the “magical oath” respectively.

The specifics of True Will are unique to the individual, as are the contents of ultimate concern. Yet the fact of there being an ultimate concern to attain to and a True Will to accomplish are universal. The “concern” of ultimate concern here means a consideration, a matter of import, worthy of discernment. “Ultimate” means final, surpassing in scope and value all thing similar. Simply, “ultimate concern” is the matter of greatest consideration. Is there any higher consideration for the Thelemite than the “accomplishment of your true Wills, the Great Work, the Summum Bonum, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness”?

Ultimate concern and True Will are both singular in their focus. There is one concern that is ultimate. There are many concerns a person has, but only one of those concerns is not somehow subsidiary to any other. It transcends finite concerns and is infinite. Similarly, True Will is one, not two or many. It is “single-pointed” and infinite. There are finite or “bud” wills with which the adept paves the path to the holy land, but they are again all partial, intermediate steps toward the infinite. If it is finite and tractable, it is not True Will: “Only those are happy who have desired the unattainable.”

If True Will is the Thelemic corollary to ultimate concern, what is the Thelemic analog for faith? The correlation is less direct in this case, but the magical oath is a useful one that meets at several points. Crowley has lots of things to say about faith, most of them fairly nasty. In most of these disparagements, Crowley is talking about a “faith” that is very much what Tillich terms “belief.” In his efforts to rehabilitate “faith,” Tillich handily casts off virtually all of the historical uses of the term as actually being forms of belief and based on evidentiary processes or authoritarian sources. Tillich recasts faith as an orientation toward the ultimate, not an orientation toward evidence or authority.

The go-to tool Crowley cites for securing one’s orientation toward the ultimate concern is the magical oath. The oath binds the oathtaker to a particular circumstance or end. For Tillich, faith is that which orients the faithful toward a concern. Just as faith may be idolatrous by orienting one toward a transient, idolatrous concern, the oath may be taken toward a false end. The doubt that arises as a necessary, structural component of real faith correlates to the—not mere possibility, but—likelihood that the aspirant will make vows toward ends that eventually reveal themselves incomplete, “because with increase of understanding may come a perception of the incompatibility of the lesser oath with the greater.”

This points to one of the distinctions between Tillich’s faith and Crowley’s oath. For Tillich, the existential nature of faith implies that misplaced, idolatrous faith once discovered to be is likely to destroy the person. And yet, no matter how uninitiated the individual, they should only shoot for the stars. Idolatrous faith is never an acceptable aim on the way to ultimacy.

For Crowley, the irrevocable reality of the oath means it is loaded with danger. Danger demands courage, but it also calls for caution. The path of initiation is a ladder which guards the initiate’s existential sanctity by initially embracing a temporary nihilism. This nihilism demands little in terms of permanent vows while the aspirant remains largely ignorant of their personal “colossal end.” The initial vows are very broad and when possible time delimited. As initiated understanding flowers, the vows become greater and permanent. They are more dangerous if misplaced, but the initiate has girded himself for the risk through incremental steps, each one testing and teaching for the next.

“In mystical literature the ‘vision of God’ is described as the stage which transcends the state of faith either after the earthly life or in rare moments within it. In the complete reunion with the divine ground of being, the element of distance is overcome and with it uncertainty.” Dynamics of Faith p119-120

Here after many pages of description about the uncertainty of faith, the structural necessity of doubt as part of faith, the risk of participating in idolatry by adhering to a preliminary concern rather than an ultimate one, and the heroism of the courage required to overcome that risk, we now see that faith is not itself the end. Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned, but it is not the ultimate state of being concerned. There is a step beyond that, and that step is certainty.

In the A∴A∴ system of initiation this certainty is commensurate with the state of attaining the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel. The aspirant in this system has faith. The adept has certainty. The aspirant has yet to master the four powers of the sphinx, all of which are attributes of Tillich’s faith. The adept by contrast has demonstrated use and balance of these powers in order to make sure contact with the Angel.

Crowley and other sources who purport to speak from first hand experience report the nature of this form of knowledge is unmistakable and irrevocable. We find related characterizations of the bond in Liber LXV. An example from the first chapter, 25-27: “Thou wast long seeking Me; thou didst run forward so fast that I was unable to come up with thee. O thou darling fool! what bitterness thou didst crown thy days withal. Now I am with thee; I will never leave thy being. For I am the soft sinuous one entwined about thee, heart of gold!” Then in chapter IV, 29: “The body is weary and the soul is sore weary and sleep weighs down their eyelids; yet ever abides the sure consciousness of ecstacy, unknown, yet known in that its being is certain. O Lord, be my helper, and bring me to the bliss of the Beloved!” This is a reference to the knowledge of Life, that eternal, incorruptible self that is each individual.

This leads us to the most notable mention of faith and certainty in the Thelemic corpus comes from Liber AL I:58, “I give unimaginable joys on earth: certainty, not faith, while in life, upon death; peace unutterable, rest, ecstasy; nor do I demand aught in sacrifice.” Of this certainty Crowley refers us to the Magical Memory wherein the previous incarnations of oneself are made known, and the uncertainty of bodily life and death transforms into the certainty of Life. The psychic girding this insight provides forms the basis of certainty and “without which Life is unintelligible.”