Monday, May 08, 2006

Aren't You Just (wannabe) R. Catholics?

I've been getting slight variations on this theme for a long time. The reason seems to be that much of the interest in Gnosticism comes from a need to reject the very messed up models of religion that have grown in the West: the Archetype of which is Roman Catholicism. I think of RC as the Microsoft of Western Christendom, it isn't all that there is or was, but you might never know any different. “Looking Catholic” no more makes you catholic, than “looking Gnostic” (if there were such a thing) would grant you Gnosis.

The religious models of the West are, in general, fairly messed up if not outright harmful. But, Gnosticism was not a part of these models—they originated with the rejection of Gnosticism. I'd repeat that several more times, but you'd just skim past them anyway.

Gnosticism is not about rejecting or hating all things orthodox. The notion of orthodoxy arose from a rejection of, and attacks on, Gnostics. Gnosticism is not Protestantism, it does not have the rejection of particular religious forms as a part of its identity. It leads one deeper, beyond the field of the battle of memes—to the real.

If we were wanting to be a good consumer-oriented religion, we'd buy into the usual modern backwardness of thinking that Gnosticism is a form of Protestantism. It would cost us far less in liturgical items, people might be impressed with how “Gnostic it looked,” and who knows, maybe some of us might break-even from “love offerings.”

Instead what happens is what happened to me: after studying Gnosticism for years, I felt a direct call to Gnostic ministry. My immediate question after I received the call was, “how?” What would a Gnostic ministry look like? What would I do? Coming up with something new was something I was capable of doing, I had a background in religious studies and traditions, that itself was an outgrowth of years of study in Depth Psychology. But it just didn't seem right. It was too important. So, after running through the possibilities from my studies, I had to let the vocation abide without a form for some time.

A couple of years later, I attended my first EG service not expecting anything out of the service itself. Mainly I was interested in the Templars and it was Templar Sunday and the priest was going to speak about them. Having freshly read an account that was unfavorable to the EG as an expression of Gnosticism, I was not expecting the service to be "really Gnostic."

If Gnosticism were about Memes, about ideas and beliefs, then all of that might have made a difference—it didn't. Gnosticism isn't about fake-knowing, it is about experience, and my experience of the Gnostic Eucharist was something I wasn't expecting, and didn't know how to integrate. I can still say the same thing over a decade later. It is still a source of new and unexpected experiences, of profound insights, of Gnosis. I miss it when I can't celebrate or attend on a Sunday, and I missed it more when I lived away from a parish for a couple of years. So, it passes the Bertram Russell test. (Russell suggested that if Christianity was so beneficial, then if you give it up for a significant period you would miss it and want to return.)

Now my ideas that this seemingly Roman Catholic form couldn't be Gnostic didn't suddenly vanish. It took me a long time to grapple with my prejudice. But, I finally realized that this was not only a source of Gnosis, and therefore Gnostic, but also the solution to moving forward in the vocation I had received. There was a form for Gnostic ministry. We are not only heirs to a perennial and suppressed Gnostic Tradition, but also to the Sacramental Tradition of Christianity—but you could see that only if you took a truly Gnostic attitude towards it.

The Eucharist as we have it is not a one-time one-place creation. It developed as a living symbolic system over centuries. The Canon of the Mass is the oldest part, and the rest can be seen as surrounding or encapsulating that mystery as the original context of it receded into distant history. A way of preserving a means of getting to the experience of the mystery. Of course, the important thing is that it works. What we think about how it works matters far less.

Now this means that we don't get to be those cool wacky Gnostics that are unlike anything you've seen before—but then there never have been and never will be such, except in people's expectations. It means that we get endless crap about being catholics, as if Gnosticism were about looking different instead of being different. And we also get those who show up and are disappointed when the point of our existence isn't to be against the religious forms they are against, and don't in general revel in the prejudices they posses.

This extends, of course, beyond simply having services that “look catholic,” but to being a part of historical Apostolic Christianity, with the forms of Bishop, Priest, Deacon, etc. Is this hierarchical? Yes. But to bandy that about like the word “heretic” or “Gnostic” in some circles is silly. The extent of the power of the hierarchy, and the purpose and function of the hierarchy determine whether it is oppressive or not—not whether you are a part of it. In historical Apostolic Christianity proper conveyance of the sacraments has a number of requirements that have met the test of experience, and our Gnostic orientation requires more.

In the EG the hierarchy are servants to others and stewards of the sacramental tradition. Being a servant and a steward is quite a heavy burden, worth it, but heavy. While human failings will always occur, and there is a tendency to inflate differences in both ways, we must remember that no matter how we name it, hierarchy will also always occur. If we are conscious of its purpose and limits, then it can have its proper place as a means not an end. The differences between a shelter and a prison are not in the walls and roof, but in how much of your life they encompass. A hierarchy that is liturgical, provides the shelter of beneficial but not necessary services, not the all-encompassing hierarchy of the orthodox model.

(I have written previously about the experience of ordination, as opposed to ideas about it.)

Experienced reality is the “reason” for these things. That is the Gnostic attitude—to seek what is real, not through ideas but through experience. While that is not a cop out with which to dismiss all ideas about things Gnostic, it is the only guide in evaluating what is and is not Gnostic. In the Hymn of the Pearl the seeker knows that the contents of the letter are true because they are echoed within. With my prejudices I was primed to, and expected to, find nothing useful about the EG's Gnostic Eucharist. But I found, much to my surprise, that the service evoked a deep inner experience.

Your choice is simple: are you a “Gnostic” as an idea, or a Gnostic oriented towards experienced reality? If you are a “Gnostic” then your future of calling us (wannabe) Roman Catholics is clear—enjoy! If you are a Gnostic, then, if you don't have experience, you have to admit you don't know. And, even if you do have experience and find no Gnosis, you have to admit that your experience is just that—not the basis for a universal unverifiable assertion about the experiences of everyone.

So, no, we are not Roman Catholics of any kind, we are Gnostics grounded in two ancient traditions: the Gnostic Tradition, and the Sacramental Tradition. And they are both means, not ends.

Attendance at our services is neither required nor expected to be our friends or associates. If the Gnostic Society interests you but the idea of "church" doesn't, you will always be welcome without distinction. Our way doesn't make someone else less Gnostic, it is simply our way. But let's recognize these modern cultural prejudices for what they are—obstacles on the path of Gnosis.


Anonymous said...

Peace to you

Nicely said!
Modern Gnosticism seems to often have too much emphasis on intellectual ideas *about* it, rather than *in support* of the actual experience; your post addresses this nicely!


sparkwidget said...

As far as the family tree goes, Gnosticism is far closer to Roman Catholicism than most Protestant denominations, save maybe Anglicans and Greeks.

"a source of Gnosis, and therefore Gnostic"

Many Catholics wholeheartedly assert parallels to ideas we understand as Gnostic. Catholics like St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, St Francis, and Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, all espouse Gnosis in a genuinely Catholic context. Gnosis has always been an underground stream in Catholicism. This isn't a huge surprise, since some of my fave Gnostics (using the term as meaning "those who espouse Gnosis" and not a general term for heretics) like Valentinus were CHURCH Christians! I go to a Catholic University, and something that has struck me as encouraging is that the Demiurge is dying in the Catholic Church. Nobody seems to believe in the magical sky wizard. Our library has a Virgin and Child statue in the style of a Chinese Buddha. I've met several priests who are ALSO practicing Buddhists. Mysticism is seeing a comeback, and in the words of Father Jordan, "Buddhism and Catholicism? Only Gnosticism can arise from such a union."

In the Liberal Catholic Church, I hear many folks consider themselves Gnostic, but are culturally Catholic and the LCC allows them to explore Gnosis without uprooting their cultural heritage. This is something I can identify with - there aren't any Gnostic churches around here (Maryland), so I attend a Church with a liberal priest (who homilizes on textual criticism - yes!!!).

My fave part of your article, Father, is that "Gnosticism is not Protestantism, it does not have the rejection of particular religious forms as a part of its identity." So true! Gnosticism transcends these silly psychic boundaries such as this-or-that religious institution.

Ok, I'm obviously a little biased. I have one foot in the Roman Church, and one foot in Gnosis (like Abraxas' shield and whip, perhaps). But I can see how absolutely obnoxious it is to face the allegation that "if you look like Catholics, you might as well be Catholics." Its like telling the LCC to just suck it up and be conservatives. Or telling SSPX to suck it up and be moderates. Identity is in nuance, and to assert that a body of believers mindlessly adhere to a monolithic structure, just because to the uneducated eye they "look like" a part of that structure, is offensive. Nuance is everything. Nuance is where our identity lies. Instead of trying to show that Gnostics are distinct from the RCC, I'd be more willing to try to show how the RCC and the EG have some things in common. Maybe both can benefit. But to focus on just the differences (IE use rejection as a part of our identity) or to simply dissolve into a monolithic structure because of aesthetic similarities, would neuter the Gnostic Gnuance that makes us special.

Rev. Troy said...

That is what bothers me the most about all the shadow-play, of which the Da Vinci Code is just one example.

The orthodox model is the problem, not the forms or practitioners. And one of the biggest problems with the orthodox model is that it doesn't reflect the real situation, even within an orthodox-style organization.

I am truly sick of the shadow-play tendency to attack those who are most like you, but are going about it in a different way. All-or-nothing only exists within your own shadow-complex, not in the real situation in the world.

'Catholic' is a word whose translation is "universal." The EG does consider itself part of the One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church in that sense. I look forward to the day when the 'Roman' of Roman Catholic is viewed by more as modifying the expression of catholic rather than its extent. Something like a style, more akin to say blue, than a domain, more like the Roman Empire of antiquity.

We in the EG do focus on our similarities, and we do take heat for it from the shadow-playing crowd--to the extent that it has become ridiculous and I felt the need to respond.

Rev. Troy said...

Yes, the picture is from the LA Times. You may have read the article. If you haven't, click on the picture, it will take you there.

The content is familiar because the human ego always says "there is no other before me." So many many human egos love this theme. The world is full of tiggers who are the only ones.

I'll say what I say to everyone who thinks it's "all about them" it isn't. You can hope so, but that is called Ego Inflation. That is the quacking and duck-walking that may lead to a real duck, and not say Daffy or Donald. The cover of a book on the other hand, is a cover.

Contents of teaching is a place to look. The radical notion of opening the book. (I did that somewhere recently and found it was mostly written by a somewhat poor science-fiction author.) I highly recommend the practice to all!