The world feels increasingly apocalyptic. In these times of confusion, the line between truth and deception is maddeningly blurred. Traditional refuges such as community, religion and even family no longer provide the security blanket generations before us could rely on. Nevertheless, the impetus towards spiritual matters resists, only growing desperately. Unsurprisingly, the most recent ‘answers’ of New Age philosophy find themselves co-opted as further tools for the severing of our spiritual power from their material responsibilities.
Charles Upton, a Sufi poet, author, metaphysicist and veteran of the counter-culture, developed an interest in metaphysics via ‘mythopoeia’, and having survived the social upheavals of the Sixties, and the psychic allures of New Age occultism, awakened at the end of the Eighties to the esoteric teachings of the traditionalists, eventually becoming initiated into Sufism. His critique of New Age occultism and modernism is his best-known work and is published under the title, ‘The System of the Antichrist: Truth and Faleshood in Postmodernism and the New Age’ (Sophia Perennis, 2001). Sophia Perennis has published many other books by Charles Upton. His most recent book ‘Day & Night on the Sufi Path’ (Sophia Perennis, 2015) was published last year. He is also the founder of an international movement of Muslims to combat terrorism and defend persecuted Christians called ‘The Covenants Initiative’. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Lexington, Kentucky.
I first came across his work after taking a book out from the local library entitled ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path and Lore’ (Sophia Perennis, 2009). It shed light on the many diversions I had taken since my disillusionment with institutionalized religion. I felt a need to find out more and contacted him with a set of questions, which he so graciously responded to in great depth, patience and detail.
The answers will be presented in interview format in a series of 4 blog posts entitled ‘Times of Illusion’. They will be presented as follows:
God in the New Age
Thoughts Become Things
The Power of Myth
Asalaamualaikum Charles, I wanted to say thank you for writing ‘Findings in Metaphysic, Path & Lore’. I have struggled with faith as a result of depression and vice versa and ended up stopping prayer for a number of years. Since reading your book, I feel as if my heart has softened, and my awareness of God has been unlocked again a little, so that I felt duty bound and in awe of my responsibility as a human being to surrender to Him; and I began to pray again. For this I thank God, and I thank you for your eloquence, honesty and commitment to thoroughness. I believe many of us are looking for the information, but most importantly, the explanations which you offer in your work.
Walaikumasalaam Maira. The whole reason for religion is to help us sense the Presence of God more constantly and in a genuine way, a way that touches the knowing heart. Without that it becomes either a meaningless burden that we will eventually throw off, or an ideological imperative that drives us to every extreme I’m very glad if something I wrote reminded you of that Presence.
There are many other reminders; ultimately every person, every object, every moment is one of the ayat, the Signs of Allah. And every sign is not just something we attend to; it is also an eye through which Allah tends to us, through which He sees us in our particular way of relating to that particular sign of His Presence. And to know that we are known is to know the Knower.
People seem to need more explanations now than they once did. Various kinds of spiritual sophistication are getting more and more common; at the same time, faith is getting weaker. Sophistication can never entirely replace faith, yet it needs to be taken into account.
New Age philosophies seem to imply that God is a mere layer on our own stand-alone ‘Godhood’ [that we are able to use our connection with Him to serve us as opposed to the other way around]. But you say that ‘Allah doesn’t ride us-he carries us.’ A subtle but colossal distinction.
To put it simply, there is no god but God, and we are not God. God is Absolute, Infinite and Perfect. We are totally dependent upon Him; He is not to the slightest degree dependent upon us. We are limited in knowledge, in compassion, in power; He is not. Our image of God, on the other hand, partakes of our own limitations, and so could be considered as a layer superimposed on God’s stand-alone Godhood. The God we perceive based on our own limitations is indeed limited, since He is (in one sense) the shadow of our limited ego cast upon the Absolute Essence. This is what Ibn al-‘Arabi called “the God created in belief”. This God-image, however, is not only a veil; it is also, by God’s mercy, an avenue of access to the real God behind it, Who is inconceivable to human consciousness, even though every single thing we see or experience—in ourselves, in the world or in the higher worlds—is just one more attempt to conceive of Him, based on one of His infinite Names, His merciful Self-revelations to us.
And we ourselves are His most complete Self-revelation, the synthesis of all His Names. We are His manifestation, He is our Essence; it is by this that we carry the ammanah, the Trust. Now obviously this begins to sound like the New Age notion that “we are all God.” The difference is that the New Age tends to negate servanthood. The New Age believer wants to claim God as his or her Essence before accepting Him as his or her Lord. We must begin by understanding that God is absolutely other than everything we think we are. We are limited by form while He is infinitely beyond form—and limited form can never become one with the Infinite Formless. We must serve God because form must serve the Formless, seeing that the Formless is the origin of form. Perfect servanthood is not union of our form with God, however, but the annihilation of our limited form in the face of God. God is our Essence not because we limited and form-bound beings are all really God inside; He is our Essence because only He has the right to claim Being for Himself. His Being is intrinsic; our being is on loan from Him and is nothing without Him. When this is realized, our claim to possess being, our self-ownership, our belief that we have a right to define ourselves and determine ourselves, is annihilated in Reality itself, in the Real Being of God. And if we still exist after that, it is only because He wills it—because He wishes to manifest the totality of His Names in the mirror of our nothingness.
Anyway, this is how the Sufis talk.
How does one distinguish between the Ayats of Allah, and the Signs that New Age thinkers like Paulo Coelho, Carlos Castaneda and Deepak Chopra talk about? There seems to be a confusing level of overlap.
The question here is, what kinds of signs are you looking for? If your quest is for personal power, then signs may appear that will direct you deeper into that entanglement. If your quest is for knowledge of God, and of His command for you, then you will increasingly discern signs that will bring you this kind of knowledge and insight. Ultimately everything in both your inner consciousness and in the outer world is a sign of Allah; the universe is composed of nothing but such signs. I will show them My signs on the horizons and in their own souls until they are satisfied that this is the Truth. Is it not enough for you, that I am Witness over all things? [Q. 41:53]. Maybe some New Age teachers are seeking signs like this, at least some of the time, but if they have not recognized that submission to God, love of God and knowledge of God—of the One Absolute Reality (not just “the universe” or “life-energy” or “the quantum field” or whatever)—are the essence of the spiritual life, then they are not reliable guides.
What is the difference between prayers (such as du’a, canonical prayer and the prayer of the heart) and the things which seem prayer-like in their nature and even feeling, such as positive visualisations and the law of attraction?
The difference lies in who is considered to be the performer of action, God or the human individual. Petitionary prayer, canonical prayer and prayer of the heart, though they must pass through an individual phase where we seem to be performing them, are based on the recognition that ultimately only God is the Doer. To petition God posits Him as the One able to answer prayer.
Canonical prayer posits Him as the One with the right and the power to issue commands, in this case the command to pray five times a day. And the essence of prayer of the heart is to concentrate on His Presence through His Name. The law of attraction is simply the fact that what we can receive from God, whether it arrives from the outer world or from the inner consciousness, is based on our state. This law is universal and everything that happens is an instance of it; consequently we can’t stand apart from it and use it as a technique to get what we want. As the Peter O’Toole character of Lawrence of Arabia said in the movie of the same name, “You can do whatever you want, but you can’t want whatever you want.” We may practice creative visualization and watch as the image in our mind seems to attract something corresponding to it from the outer world; this makes us feel powerful and liberated for a moment. But did we have any control over the desire itself, over what thing we wanted from the world, the thing that determined what specific visualization we chose to practice? And if you can’t control your desires, is developing the power to fulfill them necessarily a good thing? Every true du’a, on the other hand, is not only directed to God, but came from God in the first place. When you are moved to ask God for something, it is because He has told you, “ask Me for something.” If you want something so badly that there is no way you can renounce your desire, your only recourse is to travel into that desire and get to the root of it. Idolatry is the belief that this or that limited thing, person or situation can give you what only God can give. You may think you want a house, a car, a good job, a generous lover; God, however, wants to give you Himself. But if you can’t really see that yet, then all you can do is release your desire to God. That’s what du’a really is: not trying to get God to fulfill your desire, but releasing your desire to God. If you can give up your desire to Him, asking only for His will, not yours, to be fulfilled, then you have begun to recognize God as the ultimate Source of all your deepest desires, and to learn how to receive His Will for you as what is best for you, as the only thing that can really fulfill you. That Will may carry with it a house, a car, a good job, a generous lover, but these things will no longer be idols; your attention will be fixed on the Giver, not the gift. And He may give you something even greater than what you imagined you wanted. Sometimes His gifts will have a shocking quality, a flavor of jalal or rigor, because if He wants to give you something really large and powerful He must first destroy your little contracted ideas of yourself and the world so you will have room for it—and the death of our idols always entails suffering. Nonetheless His Mercy has precedence over His Wrath, which means that His Wrath, if we accept it in true submission, is the very thing that will clear the way for His Mercy.
The simplest way of telling the difference between true prayer and various psychic “technologies” is to ask whether, in terms of a particular practice, God is considered to be active or passive. Is He defined as a supernatural resource of Truth and Power who does not act on His own initiative, as something we can tap for the energy and insight to fuel our own agendas but who requires nothing from us and is not intentional with regard to us, a reality to whom we owe nothing,? Or does He take the initiative in His dealings with us, in His roles as Creator, Guide and Judge? If the human practitioner is defined as active and God as passive, then we are dealing with magic. On the other hand, if God is defined as active and the human practitioner as one who must choose either to be receptive to this activity out of obedience, or to reject it out of self-will, then we are in the presence of prayer. I don’t mean to imply that we should simply be passive in relation to God, like a puppet to the puppetmaster; true receptivity is not dull and passive but actively responsive and obedient. God requires us to act in response to His commands, and to widen and deepen our insight in response to His Self-revelations. But if we define God, or whatever is put in the place of God, as something simply to be “accessed” or “tapped” or “manipulated” or “commanded to appear”, then we are magicians not mu’minin, sorcerers who foolishly believe that it is possible to control a power more powerful than we are in order to increase our own power. (See the contradiction?)
The next instalment of this series ‘Thoughts Become Things’ will focus on the way that the New Age ‘Law of Attraction’ has arguably infiltrated many spiritual and religious schools, opening individuals up to spiritual attack and defencelessness on the one hand while serving as an initiation into the realm of the Spirit on the other.
[Courtesy of Beyonce, Lemonade – The Visual Album]