Recently, in response to my article “Creating a Tribal Culture: Principles and Pitfalls,” I was asked whether Freemasonry was syncretic. It’s a good question, though the short answer is that I do not. However, prompted by the question, I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at syncretism, and what we might call sublimation, in regard to developing a culture, a group, organization, or movement, etc.
Sublimation has occurred throughout history. Shaolin martial arts absorbed elements of Buddhism (itself of Indian origin), Taoism, and various Chi exercises (that had already been absorbed into Taoism), etc. Islamic gnosticism absorbed the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. The Catholic Church absorbed the thought of Aristotle and was shaped by the religious imagery and festivals it encountered as it swept (not always peacefully) across Europe. Christian mysticism borrowed very significantly from Cabala and Hermeticism (the latter of which itself leaned heavily on ancient Greek imagery). Though no one would suggest that these are syncretic.
But, let’s take a brief look at Freemasonry. Since it has absorbed different aspects of various cultures, why don’t I consider this syncretism? To briefly outline the history of Freemasonry, the fraternity emerged from the stonemasons’ guild of Great Britain around 300 years ago, but we know that the guild already had its own mythology, the earliest evidence of which is usually dated to around 1400 A.D. During the 1600s, at least, the guild also had some of the symbolism that would later be taken up into the fraternity — as it separated from the stonemasons’ trade — as well as a basic Ritual, which would form the basis of the Masonic Ritual. Later, during the 18th century, as it spread across Europe, Freemasons created new rituals (which they believed represented the “real origin” of the fraternity) and joined these together in various Rites. Some of the rituals passed from one Rite to the next, changing, being edited and rewritten over a long period.
In other words, there was not only a period of several hundred years of Masonic/pre-Masonic history and development, but a century or more (the 18th and 19th century) in which various other rituals, or degrees, were worked out, refined, and either absorbed or rejected.
Such a process I would call sublimation. The Masonic example is a historically lengthy one, and a group, Order, or movement, etc., could draw in fluences and work through them over a shorter period. Syncretism, in my view, is the deliberate merging of different elements of different cultures with the aim of creating something novel or unusual, especially with the intention of attracting followers.
Let’s look at Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca. Gardner may have been initiated into the last survival of an ancient pagan cult; he may have inherited some initiatic knowledge of a pre-Christian gnosis; or he might have made it all up. Whatever the case, the Wiccan Ritual borrows from the language of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and Freemasonry. Does this mean that Wicca is syncretic? Possibly yes, and possibly no.
Gardner suggested he had absorbed contemporary material to give expression to ancient ideas because, he claimed, he had inherited a somewhat fragmentary ritual of initiation. This might, to some extent, be true. If it is not, then we might well call Gardner’s religion syncretic. But, if he had absorbed the ideas of Wicca over a long period, as well as, perhaps, the teachings of other traditions he had encountered — and had come to a profound and authentic understanding of the spiritual — then we might say Wicca was sublimated through Gardner.
Another example of a modern occult phenomenon is Chaos magic. Chaos magic consciously draws on (and, in some instances, mixes together) numerous traditions (from voodoo to Cabala, runes to Tarot, and from Babylonian mythology to shamanism). And Chaos magic also throws in some modern culture, especially computer technology, etc. And instead of gods or goddesses, Chaos magicians have also made something of a tradition of invoking cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny. Similarly, some people are now practicing Yoga while drinking beer, and others are doing the Downward Facing Dog to Metal (presumably that’s both Heavy Metal and Black Metal) music.
Chaos magicians and beer-swilling yogis aside, we all want to believe that we’re part of a pure, unadulterated tradition. But developing pure intention is what really matters. I don’t mean “pure” in a moral sense. I mean authentic: being honest with ourselves about who we are and what we aspire to be or learn or do.
We can mix all the cool looking stuff together from different traditions. But a longer-lasting, more authentic, and much deeper practice is to absorb aspects of what we encounter, and to think about them and meditate on them, over a long period. This means facing the difficult questions of the traditions, and not skipping from one religion, text, or tradition to the next in order to avoid them (which is pretty much the standard way of approaching religious and spiritual traditions in the West).
It might be shocking to us that, for example, Krishna commanded his disciple Arjuna to fight on the battlefield and to slay the enemy. But it’s the difficult, shocking questions we have to wrestle with if we want to go deeper. Anyone can appreciate the sweet and peaceful words of this religion or that religion, but each religion, tradition, and text of any value is more complex than that.
Syncretism can be good or bad. For most people, it will encourage them to stay where they are, demanding merely that they match this god to that one, this rune to this Tarot card, this passage of the Bible to this passage of the Qur’an, and so on, so that the individual can — without realising what he is doing — create a kind of mental collage of where he is stuck. On the other hand, truly creative individuals can take elements of different traditions in order to give voice to their own understanding, which is deeper (at least in regard to their field) than that of most others or that offers some unique insight.
This mostly applies to artists and musicians. Picasso may be accused of syncretism in regard to those paintings where he obviously copied African tribal styles. But his “Bull’s Head” sculpture — made of nothing more than a bicycle seat and handlebars, yet authentically tribal in appearance — suggests sublimation. Most people do not look at a bicycle and see a bull. I mentioned Gardner earlier on, and we can think of other modern day spiritual leaders, such as Noble Drew Ali, who may, to varying degrees, have adopted modern expressions to represent ancient ideas passed down through oral traditions.
The positive expression of syncretism depends, however, on the individual having sublimated a tradition — or various aspects of different traditions — over a longer period, including those aspects that are difficult, and that felt like a confrontation when he or she came into contact with them. In a sense, such individuals or “prophets” created an architecture of ideas within their minds or souls, and had awaited the imagery with which to express it. Indeed, we have probably all experienced moments where we found our hearts jumping and ourselves saying “yes!” on hearing someone of greater knowledge speaking. At such moments, it seems to us that we just heard expressed what we have always believed, but lacked the words to say. Here is the borderline of syncretism and sublimation.
Sublimation is essential to authentic expression of profound insights and practices. Instead of grabbing everything we can, we have to read deeply and widely, discuss ideas, meditate on the questions our studies and our lives have posed to us, and seek to express our answers through what we have absorbed and can express in our own way.
In my view, Christian mystics, Islamic gnostics, Freemasons, and Shaolin martial artists all did this. We can continue to develop our traditions by asking the profound questions they demand of us. Shaolin Kung fu developed to meet the times — from emphasizing staff fighting to hand-to-hand combat. The Shaolin monks developed their skills and enriched their tradition. Freemasonry did the same as it drew from Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, and other esoteric traditions (which, in turn, were very significantly shaped by Freemasonry).
What our tradition is will dictate what we can do in relation to it, whether that is writing rituals and creating initiatic groups, forming intellectual salons to contemplate the serious questions of the tradition, or developing the arts and literature — and culture more broadly — of a tradition that is otherwise fixed. But, no matter what, it is our ability to sublimate — to contemplate, to internalize, and to discover profound truths through it — that will dictate whether or not it will live on as something more than a museum piece.