Since the 20th century we have seen the rise of fundamentalism in the religious world – the idea that you can only understand God through a literal interpretation of what has been written down in religious texts.
Fundamentalism offers a form of stability. The follower does not have to think, they just do what they are told and read the text. Often, they don’t even have to study, just rely on someone else’s interpretation of the sacred text.
Since the 1990s a similar trend has arisen in occultism. It is not as overtly religious but it is based on a similar principle. Namely that there is an occult text, teaching, or statement which must be taken literally and followed to the letter.
This means that there is a “RIGHT WAY” based on a document and a “WRONG WAY” which is based on whatever those who do not follow the document use. If you follow the RIGHT WAY then your brand of Golden Dawn, Solomonic system, OTO, Thelma is more pure than the others.
This is not the same thing as using the documents to correct a technique or a flaw in knowledge, particularly when a document is universal within a particular flavour of occultism (such as the Ritual of the Pentagram in the Golden Dawn).
Like the religious fundamentalism, Occult fundamentalism is favoured by those who are not the brightest. It is easy to read a text and quote from it knowledgably, it is a lot harder to understand why the text says that and what it is banging on about.
It also assumes that the person who wrote the text intended for it to become a bible and frozen for all time. Magicians are notorious for changing their minds as they start to understand something better, or focus on different things. I have written lots of material which I have had to upgrade over time. Sometimes it has been to correct mistakes such as typos, other times I have had a realisation and stopped believing in something completely. Until 10 years ago I thought the Kybalion was useful for example.
This leads to another issue, and it is particularly important within the Golden Dawn. Often a group has a set of core documents, but over the years were changed and adapted. Sometimes the changes were minor, other times they were radically altered. These changes were for the better in a lot of cases an example within the Golden Dawn was the portal ritual which, as first penned by Mathers was a disappointment, but must have been redone around the time of the split. Mathers never used it, presumably because he would not use something that had been drafted by the rebels, and religiously kept his old rite.
This means that if you look at the Golden Dawn corpus you have a mixture of expanded, contracted, expanded again, reformatted papers. There is nothing you can be fundamentalist about. You might quote a paper in the Yeats collection but find that it is contradicted by another paper in the Westcott collection.
Then there is another factor which is ignored within many groups – how much emphasis was put on written material anyway? A huge chunk of Golden Dawn material was never committed to paper and this should be obvious to anyone who has actually read all the material. While Golden Dawn books look quite big, the actual information within them is not that much. There is very little “how to” material contained in it either.
The reason for this is that additional information was provided by senior GD people who took promising students under their wing. Some of them would have taught some very unusual side-lines to the material, but that was how people trained. Other leaders used to specialise in particular subjects and if you wanted to know something about that subject you would ask them. Ewan Campbell was the master of Enochian within Whare Ra. He taught all sorts of things that you will not find written down in any papers, and these were detailed and well thought out. A fundamentalist would have to ignore Campbell’s contribution as being not canon and refuse to use the Angels of the Benorum (for example).
Finally, and most importantly, fundamentalism within the occult fails because teaching has to develop. Freezing it in a particular time, perhaps by declaring this as the “golden age,” fails to take into account the development of knowledge. There are things that we know much better now than the 19th Century. Occultism is supposed to be a science, where you can test things and get results. If you are fundamentally freezing ideas around a particular set of papers you cannot test ideas outside those papers. What appears to be a boost to older magicians becomes a ball and chain to modern thinkers. There were a huge number of occultists who bought into the racist eugenics of Madam Blavastski including later teachers like Dion Fortune. Even into the 1980s I heard one teacher spit that Maori spiritual systems were backward and Lumerian!
These things are meant to change with time. This does not mean that we can’t learn from studying the papers in our tradition, but there is nothing to be gained by making them holy texts. The next stage from that is to make the founders of the tradition into Gods and there are few that are worthy of that crown.