Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gnosticism: Ancient & Modern?

An Academic asked me what connection our church has to ancient Gnosticism. The following is the response that I never sent.

I am a Gnostic. I live as Gnostics always have and always will, in the world I find myself in, making use of the resources that I find here to attain Gnosis, and ultimately, (I hope) Liberation. I am not a re-creator or re-enactor of an ancient Gnosticism, nor am I trying in any way to live out an historical Gnosticism—because Gnosis is not found in any other time or any other place, it is here, it is now, it is within you or it isn't going to aid you in liberation. There is ultimately no distinction, to the Gnostic, between ancient and modern Gnosticism.

Philip K. Dick had an experience which elucidates this, he saw himself as existing in two time periods at once. One was modern day California, the other was ancient Rome. The phrase that he associated with this experience was, “The Empire never ended.” This points to the truth that time and history are a part of the kosmos--while Gnosis points to the ultimate truth of, and beyond, the kosmos. To place the path of Gnosis in history, is a trick to make it inaccessible. We have the same inner experiences, we have the same Gnosis.

If Valentinus were reincarnated in contemporary North America, he wouldn't insist on speaking only Latin, or on wearing roman garb to the supermarket. The point is the “incarnation” part. We are different people, in different times and places, speaking different languages, be they literal or symbolic, yet we are all on the path of Gnosis.

A useful exercise is to replace “Gnosticism” with “Mathematics.” What relation does modern Mathematics have to ancient Mathematics? In a way the modern is a continuation of the ancient in that it has access to some of the work of the prior, though each individual must learn it all for themselves. In another, they are the very same thing in that they are doing the same type of work in different contexts. The same is true of Gnosticism.

What does my celebrating the Eucharist in vestments from the first half of the last century, in a chapel of even older origin, have to do with the practices of Gnostics centuries past and oceans distant? The answer is Gnosis.

We are heirs to a rich tradition of ancient Gnostic texts that can aid us in attaining Gnosis, yet we are also handed the idea of “Gnosticism” which can become a barrier to attaining Gnosis. We are heirs to a rich Ecclesiastical tradition that can aid us in attaining Gnosis, or can become an end in itself and act as a barrier to attaining Gnosis. The answers to questions of “how” and “why” must lead ultimately to Gnosis, if they are to lead to liberation and not into a new (though, perhaps, improved) form of imprisonment.

Gnosticism is a radical, yet subtle, departure from what we have come to consider as religion in our culture. Our choices are to either make a stripped-down “pretend” Gnosticism, one without living Gnosis, that will fit the questions we are asked—or take on the questions themselves. The academic study of Gnosticism as a distant historical object of study, is analogous to performing an autopsy. It has its uses, but they are limited to the examination of a corpus (literally, 'corpse'), not the living truth of Gnosis: like analyzing the body without knowing how it could ever have been alive. Or to pick another analogy, it's like studying Buddhism without seeing that liberation through enlightenment is the point of it all.

I invite academics to continue to ask questions, but be warned: either ask bigger questions, questions that don't prevent the real answers; or, be prepared to have them dismissed through humor, or by turning them back in on themselves. After all, Zen Buddhists don't pretend they fit into the standard academic ordering of the world, why should we?

1 comment:

jp said...

Thank you for this post, Rev. It comes at a much-needed moment.