Is Tarot a religion?

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Musings

One of the gifts of entering the world of Tarot is meeting with the conscious cultural creatives who enrich our lives with their ideas.

Dr Art Rosengarten is one of those teachers who has enriched my life. I have pleasure in offering his article:TAROT: NOT A RELIGION BUT A SACRED TOOL

“The intuitive and spiritual vision gained from Tarot divination, I Ching, and other such methods remains, even to this day, outright suspect to the spiritual establishment. Established religion asks: Why is there need for these methods when we have already spelled out everything so clearly? Who can be sure that people channeling their own spiritual insight won’t go their own way? As Brother David Steindl-Rast, author, Ph.D., and monk of the Mount Savior Monastery observes:

One way or the other, the same plot is acted out repeatedly on the stage of history: every religion seems to begin with mysticism and end up in politics… Fortunately, I have not yet come across a religion where the system didn’t work at all. Unfortunately, however, deterioration begins on the day the system is installed…. Our social structures have a tendency to perpetuate themselves. Religious institutions are less likely than seed pods to yield to the new life stirring within. And although life (over and over again) creates structures, structures do not create life. (The Mystical Core of Organized Religion, p. 2, 1989)

While the merits of extending good will and warm regard for individuals of differing faiths have grown to a hopeful point at this juncture of planetary change, such progress in the religious and spiritual sectors is usually constrained and offset by the perennially insular practical needs of a particular organization for its own survival. Spreading (or at least keeping) its own faith is a simple matter of endurance, though often, unfortunately, it bleeds away energies which might otherwise enliven the creative furthering of an organization’s own vision. Sure adherence to tradition has an important function, but a tradition needs to continually renew and develop. The same tendencies, it should be noted, apply to psychological movements and consciousness-raising programs as well. For all their intelligence and good works, they tend still to calcify within the business of their businesses and the doctrine of their doctrines.

Although most spiritual entities and wisdom enterprises may entertain certain unspoken desires for dominance (hush!) — for becoming that preferred “superbridge” to the world’s great spiritual superhighway — I’m afraid each group in practice would be at best hesitant, if not a tad snarly, in its support of the hypothetical “top honor” were it given to a rival group (“OK boys and girls, pack your things — Quakerism is now the universal world practice”), especially if in so doing it meant cementing the quick and painful surcease of their own orders and schools. Human nature being what it is, the politics of organized spirituality as seen on the “world stage” by the end of the 20th century is indeed a curious display.

As case in point, in late August of 1993 I had the good fortune to travel to Chicago to attend the five-day Parliament of World Religions. This by all measures was an extraordinary spiritual bonanza, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the great Indian saint, Swami Vivekananda, and his epic journey to America in August of 1893 for the express purpose of initiating the first major “interfaith conference” in recorded history. The centennial celebration was truly a marvelous event to behold, with every emanation of guru, spiritual ambassador, captain of consciousness, priest and priestess imaginable. The colorful opening ceremony was a procession of Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, Sikhs, Jains, Moslems, Rastafarians, B’hais, Yorubans, and Zoroastrians, with women participating on a par with men, and, in all, creating a truly overwhelming feeling of global spiritual diversity and community.

With more than five thousand attendees filling the luxurious ballrooms of the Palmer Hotel in downtown Chicago, we all were free to pick and choose various talks and instructions given by a virtual smorgasbord of “spiritual bridgemakers” at any given hour. Spiritual vision was offered up, from the renowned Korean Zen taskmaster Seung Sahn to the gentle Vietnamese Zen poet Thich Nat Hanh, from an elegant leader of European Jewry in Sir Sigmund Sternberg to a feisty and controversial leader of African-American Muslims in Louis Farrakhan (replete with his small army of bodyguards). There were outstanding Christian monks, mystics, and clergy, as well as delegations from three of the largest Pagan organizations in North America. The Joseph Campbell Society was represented, Dr. Jean Houston was there, Arlo Guthrie along with his Brooklyn-born guru was there, and the late Harvard professor John Mack, M.D. gave a chilling discussion of his UFO abduction research and theories regarding the interdependence of all beings, earthborn or otherwise.

But for all this impressive mandala of spiritual diversity, I don’t believe any speaker once mentioned throughout the entire affair (with the possible exception of the Joseph Campbell group) the incomparable deck of human spiritual possibility, that is, the Tarot. There is an important reason for this: the Tarot is not a religion, but a sacred tool. Nor is the Tarot a spiritual movement or a school of consciousness, but a catalyst of imagination and a creator (some may prefer inventor) of consciousness.

A Transpersonal Thermometer

With its insertion into one of several small physical openings, the thermometer is a diagnostic instrument designed to measure body temperature. Its feedback alerts one to a preliminary and non-specific assessment of multiple, simultaneous, and interrelated systems operating within the physical organism. Its predecessors, its mechanics, its internal structure are secondary if not irrelevant to its function. The thermometer’s utility nonetheless remains unrivalled in common medical practice. It is a measuring stick of somatic ailment and wellness. Proper placement and correct interpretation are its sole challenges in application and these too for most users are easily achieved. Historically, change and controversy have come mainly in the technology of its construction—though its purpose and validity have remained largely unquestioned, at least within the parameters of modern Western medicine.

So too, we might say, is the Tarot. Its insertion likewise is placed into one of several small metaphysical openings—a context of exhausted rationality, the invocation of a higher power, or perhaps, a moment of compelling uncertainty that calls out for guidance. Its feedback alerts one to a non-specific, generalized assessment of structures operating within the whole personality, but unlike the thermometer, the Tarot can also be directed to specific systems and subsystems throughout multiple psychological levels. A user my seek to determine, for instance, “ Why am I not making spiritual progress after so many years of meditation?” Or, “Is it time to rethink who I really am and where I’m really going?” Invariably, the cards will point to a unique, multi-layered, simultaneous set of inter-relationships supplying a complex web of psychospiritual feedback for introspection.

As a scion of symbolism, Tarot operates multidimensionally from a purely non-affiliated platform in the truest sense. As such it is ‘foundationless’ with respect to strict adherence and fealty to the embedded biases of any particular tradition. In the political arena, for instance, liberals and conservatives alike may claim its arcane workings put to the service of their own partisan agendas. Its own “vote” however always remains within the structure of its apolitical governance. If it has a bias, it is always to think more deeply and universally, and to return to the underlying spiritual implications of the matter consdidered. As simply an instrument, or as I prefer, a sacred tool, the Tarot functions we might say as transpersonal thermometer—a measuring stick of psychospiritual health.

Yet, I daresay, once past the psychotheocratic resistance (if such a thing exists and were possible) known to tatter the woven seams of many (all) religious and psychological mantles, Tarot’s tremendous versatility and universality would serve nonetheless as a natural and creative aid to each and every embodied school of spirituality.

Are tools of imagination no longer needed by such groups? I certainly hope not. Unless any philosophic, religious, or psychological school grows irreparably stale or stultified within its own dogma and tradition, it, they like all organisms must continue to adapt and evolve to the changing demands of each age. As a simple matter of common sense, the closer an organization is to the lived heartbeat of its constituents, the more likely its survival. And neither should this fact be lost on Tarot itself; to the contrary, Tarot must continue to creatively use its own wisdom and method upon itself in order to accommodate to the changing demands of this age and the next.

Unlike the movements represented at the Parliament of World Religions back in the late 20th century, Tarot’s potential utility is equally relevant to the corporate manager, the research scientist, the professional athlete, the abstract artist, the elementary school teacher, the single mother, the politician, and the mental health worker, to name a few. This is because Tarot is verily an ingenious instrument, like the tried and true thermometer: its markings, however, point us to a direction of inner vision, a hidden side of events, the perennial wisdom, or to an interdependency of relationship. Extremely handy things, I should think, for all and any who wish to expand and deepen perspective and awareness.

Specific applications are secondary in Tarot, though, personally, I would find no difficulty envisioning at the Parliament’s next 100 year anniversary, come 2093, a religious and spiritual assemblage where the praises of Tarot, and other sacred tools like it, are commonly acknowledged for their creative catalyzing effects, which have served immeasurably their own organization’s philosophical and practical expansion and development.

Arthur Rosengarten, Ph.D.
Adapted from Tarot And Psychology: Spectrums of Possibility