Monday, July 31, 2006

The Threefold Mission of the Gnosis Institute

This is a high-level view of the different missons, or "faces" of the Gnosis Institute. The first in an overview of the Institute.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Treasures in Heaven

I don't write or talk much about the service I do. I don't even think about it much. It is just something I do, like so many other people out there. But there is one thing that is fast becoming a pet peeve and that is being assured of “treasures in Heaven,” or some other kind of post-life reward for doing things here.

This is a common belief in Christianity, but I always saw it as either a persuasive rhetorical device, or in the worst case, selling someone less than a bill of goods. Pay now and find out what your going to get, and get it, so much later that you will be “the late” when it happens. In this case I don't object to buying on the disincarnation plan so much as the whole notion of buying anything. The idea of quid pro quo itself is deeply offensive.

This isn't the surface defensive ego offensiveness that we have come to almost exclusively associate with the term: what we might more clearly call being personally offended. No this is not just deeper but isn't personal, it isn't against the person but rather against the relationship.

Turning those wonderful opportunities to actually help someone into transactions of that far distant kind takes attention away from the value that lies in the relationship itself. Within the relationship is the transaction that matters, and it is a very human one. It isn't gratitude, it isn't recognition—it is what makes us truly human. It is an expression of love, but not personal love, not love of someone in particular. But rather the love that is the deep connection between all of us.

As human beings we are drawn out of the existential loneliness that is our condition, through this connection, to others. When we truly connect with one another, that bond is there. 'I' becomes 'we' for a time. A deep communion can happen.

The Epistle of John tells us that God is love, and that where love is, there is God. When we have the privilege to connect with those whose need makes them vulnerable, we can be vulnerable as well. And together, this temporary 'we' can accomplish a things for 'us.' In this, benefits for 'I' don't enter in.

This is why we serve. Not for an imaginary treasure in an imaginary heaven. But for the real treasure that lies in the heaven we touch together.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Illuminating the Da Vinci Code

September 12, 19, & 26 at 7 PM in the City Library in Salt Lake City

This will be a very different approach than everyone has used so far.
This seminar will look at the power and phenomena of the Da Vinci Code in our sub-cultures, in our culture, and in ourselves; to see where that leads us on many levels—including the deepest ones.

Please Help Publicize this Event!
Printable Flier

Interesting Call for a Neo-Pagan Seminary

There are interesting parallels in the considerations in this article calling for a Neo-Pagan Seminary to the one's that have been bouncing around the Gnostic community. Not surprising, since there is over-lap, and a large portion of those coming to Gnosticism have had previous associations with the Neo-Pagan community.

I offer this for consideration, I like to look at similarities whenever possible, and such do not remove the differences. In this case the differences are quite deep, and I would place the proposed Neo-Pagan Seminary much closer to the mainstream ones than to the Seminary in the works at the Gnosis Institute. (So please, at least wear a hard-hat when jumping to conclusions.)

Neo-Pagan Seminary Proposal

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Seminary Program Outline Version 0.2

Modules: (3/6 to Graduate)
  • Gnostic Studies – Understanding & Applying the Gnostic Tradition

    History of Gnosticism – From Antecedents until Today

    Engaged Gnosticism – Applying the Gnostic Approach

  • Liturgical Studies – Experience & Understanding of Sacraments

    History & Symbolism – Comparative & Descriptive

    Sacramental Theology – Historical & Creative

  • Pastoral Counseling – Spiritually Mindful, Psychologically Grounded Counseling

    Transitional Counseling – Counseling those in Transitions & Crises

    Psycho-Spiritual Development – Depth & Transpersonal Psychological Models

  • Pastoring & Leadership – Organizations & Relationships within Organizations

    Formation Direction - Individual & Group Formation

    Guidance, Leadership, & Administration

  • Spiritual Care – Understanding & Aiding Spiritual Development

    Spiritual Direction – aka,. Spiritual Listening, and Soul Friendship

    Spiritual Growth – Understanding & Respecting the Process

  • Stories & Symbolism – Understanding & Creatively Engaging in Mythology

    Encountering Archetypes – Understanding & Experiencing Living Symbols

    Transformation through Stories – Myths as Guides & Journeys

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Dimness of Crowds

Am I the only one who is hooked on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Podcasts? They have a regular radio show on philosophy, and the only more fun thing to listen to than a discussion of philosophy, is a discussion of philosophy in Australian accents. ;)

Of interest to many involved on-line, may be the latest episode of The Philosopher's Zone, as it examines, in particular, Wikipedia. It addresses the main issues, and in a fun way. Give it an ear, if you are so inclined.

On Being an Intellectual Heretic

I may never live down the fact that I don't equate traditional theology with either critical thought or Gnosticism, or the fact that I don't give undue respect to the powers and authorities. So, I guess I'll just have to be a Gnostic. ;)

I wrote the following in a comment, but thought folks might miss it.

“In a real marketplace of ideas, it is the the ideas, the intellectual work, that matters. Everything should be open to honest serious scrutiny. Even the notion that all we are doing sometimes is playing a formalized game of make believe. Which also, by the way, is not saying that playing make believe has no value either. We conduct thought-experiments all the time, they are very valuable. We just distinguish between them and descriptions of reality.”

You may claim that the objections to my objection to traditional theology is of this sort. However, I do not think that they were. To be able to even approach the subject of the assumptions involved in the theological method, I had to try (in vain I might add) to get past the assumption that the norm and status quo for the studying of religious ideas that developed from the tradition that rejected Gnosticism represents the one true way to approach things Gnostic. It was a dismissal based upon the status quo in people's minds. Which lead to more assumptions than I care to think about.

At this point, I'm just going to join in and declare myself an intellectual heretic and get on with serious intellectual work that includes continuing to question assumptions, methods, and the status quo.

You're all welcome to become intellectual heretics as well. C'mon it's fun!

Seminary Program Outline Rough-Draft

Continuing on towards building a non/trans-denominational Gnostic Seminary program, I thought I'd share my current outline of a program rough-draft. (I'm going to assume that you know that a seminary doesn't ordain anyone, and that it isn't the whole of the process of formation as Gnostic Clergy. And if you didn't, I just told you.)

I don't want to construct a one-size-fits-all program. The idea of modules is appealing for that reason. One would graduate after completing a program of three out of the following modules in this rough-draft. I think that gives proper latitude for the different focuses both of individuals, and of the different Gnostic churches and organizations.

Modules: (3/5 to Graduate)
  • Counseling
    Pastoral Counseling
    Psycho-Spiritual Development

  • Gnostic Studies
    Historical Gnosticism
    Engaged Gnosticism

  • Liturgical Studies
    History & Symbolism

  • Pastoring
    Formation Direction
    Parish/Organization Administration

  • Spiritual Care
    Spiritual Direction
    Spiritual Growth

  • [Edit: Added Module]
  • Symbolism & Story
    Archetypal Aspects
    Transformational Aspects

Just don't ask me for definitions or specific descriptions yet. I'm also (almost) certain that the more clumsy terms will be replaced.

This is a very rough rough-draft. But, it does give us something to talk about. Help hammer this out.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Thinking Outside the Traditional Theology Box

One of the main reasons that I wrote the piece On the Limitations of Make Believe is to try to break open the traditional theological box. (Let's try “traditional theology” as the term for the discipline instead of simply thinking or reasoning about religious things, rather than my previous “non-trivial theology” and see if that helps with confusion.) Some may find this obstructionist. Yet, I've stated elsewhere that if someone wants to satisfy themselves that a traditional theological definition of Gnosticism is a logical impossibility, there is the wall and you know where your head is—start banging until you are satisfied.

There is an assumption that for someone to be able to use a definition in an academic setting, that it has to be a traditional theological definition. That is to say, a definition couched in the framework of the tradition of Christian theology. Yet, that would mean leaving Gnosis out of it, and frankly I've yet to see a theological term applied to Gnosticism that makes sense except as a poor analogy. Traditional theology did not grow out of a Gnostic milieu, to say the least. It's focus has always been upon doctrine, in a framework where the view is that doctrine determines beliefs.

One of the big fundamental issues is that almost (if not) all of traditional theology developed within a model of religion that grew out of the historical formation of Christian Orthodoxy. This focused on uniformity of doctrine, and beliefs. And really has a kind of “top-down” way of viewing things. You start with the assumption that the source of belief is doctrine, or with the assumption that these things you are considering exist and can be described in an authoritative way. This gives one the odd result of an “objective” religion, one without people.

Gnosticism by the very nature of Gnosis, has more of a “bottom-up” approach. Gnosis is individual, it cannot be removed from the subject having it. This leads to expressions of that Gnosis that include beliefs. It also leads to a very modified “top-down” model of someone learning about these beliefs and such, and then seeking Gnosis.

To seek a traditional theological definition, “Gnosticism,” one would need to enter into that framework, leaving the people (the subjective) behind, while forcing it into the mold of a doctrinal religion. Sure we can limit the doctrine to a small set, but that is what we will get—Gnosticism equals doctrine. Let's just say that a “Gnosticism” that doesn't involve Gnosis or Gnostics, is a bit of a problem.

Is this quest for a traditional theological definition the only approach? No. And I don't understand why this is assumed to be the case. It is far from the only form of human endeavor that can live up to “academic acceptability.” In fact, it doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation among the academic disciplines.

While an academically acceptable definition truly comes down to the academicians who accept it, we can look at it in broader terms. The goal of such a definition is to limit the scope of the study, and to give meaning to that scope.

The first comes down to scope: what is inside the scope and what is outside; what it is that is studied. This is always fuzzy on the level of details, but a general consensus is required. We must remember that the definition actually comes after the consensus. It is always an inadequate attempt to formalize what those involved recognize. We can, hopefully, recognize in this the issue of trying to put gnosis into the realm of episteme. The lack of awareness of this issue is a larger issue in academia, leading to lots of cracked skulls and dented walls. Apparently, the study of religion was struggling with a rather clumsy definition that involved “superhuman beings,” for example. This lead to some mental acrobatics to get Buddhism to fit the mold (or gnosis to fit episteme.) (Buddhism and the definition of religion.)

The second issue is one of the scope being meaningful to study. By which I mean, that the conclusions about the scope or concerning relationships within the scope are academically interesting and approachable. This would mean that even the study of a clearly defined thing, may be either of no interesting, or unapproachable by the methods of academia. The latter is an area of agnosia for most of academia, it doesn't recognize it exists. So, I think we can safely ignore it in our current considerations. This leaves us with the issue of being of academic interest.

One can clearly define any number of things that do not meet this criteria, they may serve as data point in some other interesting enterprise, but are not themselves interesting. The collection of lint in my dryer, for example, just isn't academically interesting, unless it is part of a larger study of dryers or textiles.

Applied to Gnosticism, we can see the first issue as: is this or that a part of Gnosticism? And, the second issue as: is “Gnosticism” a meaningful category? These are not unrelated, yet they are distinct approaches to the question: what is “Gnosticism”? What is its scope? And, what does it mean?

When approaching the formulation of a definition for academic use, we need to bear in mind that we can come up with a definition that isn't meaningful. I would argue that the traditional theological approach can only lead to that end.

Buddhist studies makes for the closest analogy, although still very different in history, the amount of material, and the number of continuous traditions. I found this review of the book Buddhist Theology interesting. It advocates a new and specifically Buddhist theological approach. Another approach is Engaged Buddhist Studies, however that seems to be a splitting off of practical from abstract issues.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Gimme That Old Time Dualism

[Edit: Due to some confusion, I'll state explicitly that the "dualism" here is a tongue-in-cheek way of describing a real issue.]

It's one of those charges made against Gnostics that gets some folks riled up, Dualism. Is Dualism a bad thing? The people run in horror from the idea are largely heresiologists, but lest we dismiss it, there are some modern Gnostics among them. Personally, if all someone means by a “dualist” is someone who can't see a way to reconcile or erase the distinction between spirit and matter, that is as good a description of the way I understand things as any other.

However, there is a distinction between simply being a dualist in that sense and being a “Radical Dualist.” Radical Dualism includes assumptions about the ultimate nature of the two things, that they are two different metaphysical “substances” or have two distinct origins in some ultimate abstract philosophical sense. As someone much more in line with the Pragmatic school of Philosophy than the Scholastic one, I have a hard time even caring what this entails as an assumption in an abstract game. People at least assume that Radical Dualism implies an exclusive-or for all relevant choices between the two things. An exclusive-or is just short hand for “either this or that, but not both this and that.” In this rather narrow understanding, one could not value spirit, and also value matter, for example. If that isn't scary in and of itself, think of how embarrassing it would be to have radical dualistic ontological assumptions kicked in your face by a Thomist on the beach.

Any limited form of dualism is incomparably better than the Radical Universal Dualism most people practice. That kind is horrifying, if you you are someone who likes to think, read, write, and discuss. And it should be embarrassing, yet there doesn't seem to be any even when people are caught doing it time and time again.

What is Radical Universal Dualism? It is being a Radical Dualist about well, everything. The turning into a universal law the fallacy “you're either for it or against it.” This is black-and-white thinking, wherein the exclusive-or is the only relationship. Any criticism is taken as an outright rejection, taken to mean that you are against the larger whatever in it's entirety. This is the Modern Dualism that has me longing of the old fashioned kind. (Gimme that old time dualism. Gimme that old time dualism. Gimme that old time dualism ...that made hereseologists wee.)

Is it possible to be critical with these Modern Dualists about? This is a good question. Let's look at the nature of this for a moment. If someone makes a specific criticism, how far can someone else legitimately take it?

If someone is critical of a particular brick, can they be taken as being critical of the wall, bricks in general, or of masonry, or of building, or of civilization? I would say that it is unclear whether they are being critical of the wall but you couldn't assume that is the case, the rest is ludicrous. Yet if we look at modern discourse, the rest is the norm. If someone merely stops at the assumption that they want to tear down that one wall, they are being unusually generous.

To take a recent example: how far can one take a criticism of assumptions made by Theology? Can it legitimately be taken as being critical of critical thinking, the analytical method, or of religion? No, it cannot. Can a statement about the impossibility of a theological definition of Gnosticism be taken as a statement against any definition of Gnosticism? No. This part of Modern Dualism is “expanding the scope.” The statement or criticism is widened in scope by others.

When scope-expansion is combined with the exclusive-or we get what seems to be the model for all of this, modern political speech. Perfect for sound bites, and for convincing the already convinced. However, it does not exist to constructively engage in anything. It turns discourse into a rhetorical game. Conversation into a series of misunderstandings. It is a way to get ratings and win elections, nothing more.

How can we avoid this? Try to not expand the scope on someone else's behalf. You can say that a statement implies a larger scope, or take a look at the argument from a larger scope for some reason, that is being aware of, and being clear about, what you are doing. And, don't think every relationship between two things is an exclusive-or, very few truly are, although it is a favorite rhetorical device to pretend otherwise.

Gnostics can be Clergy and "Independents"

I strongly object to the simplistic anti-ecclesiasticism that has been on the rise, because it is based on false assumptions. One false dichotomy that has arisen is between being an "Independent" or participating in an ecclesiastical form. Assumptions and prejudices arising from one's interactions with religion in other venues brought to bear in a new arena, are simply an indication of assumptions, not reality. This comes from ignoring or dismissing the “Gnostic” part of “Gnostic Church.”

The other danger in considering “churches” is that a “church” in this sense is generally not understood to be a grouping of individuals. Yet aside from the abstract realm, there are only individuals. Where we like to see abstract groups and not individuals is when we are attacking them. That is the way shadow projections work, they can't lay still on a complex reality, so it is the abstract that is covered with the perceiver's darkness, and both layers then block their view.

There is also the inductive fallacy that comes into play. The "one X did this, all Xs do that" assumption that is simply a way of finding one or more data points to back up an assumption or prejudice. If this isn't obvious I can point you to some hate sites that use this as a justification. It simply isn't an argument, it is simply specific cases of a prejudice finding data that may support it. It is not the only explanation for the data, nor even the one that makes the most sense. That is simply how prejudices work, they are gross generalizations whose explanatory power has been disproved countless times.

Now, is someone who is a prisoner to their own prejudices, and can't see what is in front of their face because of shadow projections, truly independent? I would argue that they are certainly not thinking or seeing for themselves, these things limit both. I would further argue that these things have a collective nature, they have mass appeal, which would indicate that.

This lets us see the nature of the Shadow that is being projected. One's own desire to loose oneself in a collective, to simply surrender to a mass movement, becomes succumbed to in this Shadow way. One joins in the collective group-psychology of rejecting something as the totem of collective group-psychology. This then becomes a very powerful trap, because we would then need to recognize this aspect of ourselves, own it as being ourselves and not a “them,” to escape from the collective—to stop doing what we hate, to quote Thomas.

It isn't an issue with people doing what they want to do, it is an issue in them being trapped by themselves in such a way that they feel they need to reject or tear-down something very removed, to free themselves of their internal issues. Sadly, this is the norm. And it is also the norm to call this “freedom” or “independence.”

When someone says that I, personally, can't work or think outside of a church structure--it is an insult, pure and simple. The on-line community has been heading that way for a few months now. Some of it comes from the neophytes making general claims about "Gnostic Churches" or "Gnostic Clergy" based solely upon their assumptions. Yet they only seem to be the leaders of the charge. These claims almost always include ones that directly contradict the facts of my life and all I have worked to do. Claims of exclusivity, which can be traced to the rejection (exclusiveness) of the person making such claims, flies in the face of all that we do. Claims of collectivity, which can be traced to the collectivity (group-psychology) of the person making such claims, flies in the face of all that we seek.

I don't see an issue in referring people to other organizations or churches, Gnostic or otherwise. There also isn't an issue with working with individuals, who are individuals, in fact the reverse is the case. I also try not to give undue credit, or make assumptions than seem inappropriate, in regards to others, because I serve in an ecclesiastical form.

Some object to having their work on the Internet dismissed or categorized. Imagine what it is like to have your decade-long ministry, with all the work and sacrifice that entails, dismissed and categorized, because part of it has an outward form some associate with bad things in unrelated contexts. Just think about it.

Is being "Independent" about avoiding organizations, starting one's own organization, or is it about working toward independence? There are real issues with organizations, but that is because there are real issues with individuals. Ultimately, our organizations fall into the category of Make Believe, they exist because we act as though they do. These assumptions aren't about organizations, organizations are individuals working with a form in a structure. And when the scope of the structure is as limited as it is in the Gnostic Ecclesia, it largely comes down to form.

Being one thing means that you are not everything, obviously. Having a form means that you don't have every form. Some find this to be a difficulty because they want the “form” to be themselves. They either think desires or dislikes guiding form is more useful than being guided by form, or, more commonly, they don't understand form. This leads to not simply a rejection of form, but a militant radical rejection of form. Rather than “that form isn't for me,” or even, “form isn't for me,” to “that form isn't for anyone,” or even, “form isn't for anyone.”

We can think of ourselves as being in a labyrinthine prison that we must each find our own way out of. A form isn't a map showing your particular way out. No such map is possible. The best we can hope for are useful practices and tools, as well as, information about the dangers. A form might be something akin to a standard set of practices employed to help overcome the maze. You can just wander. You can wander and mark some intersections and not others, or change your system of marking every now and then. Or you can heed some advice left by those who have gone through this before, and adopt a standard set of practices that makes sense and works for you. Simply accepting someone else's standard set of practices may only get you lost further still, they may not work for you, you may not be doing what is required to make them work, or you may not understand them well enough to really try. There is also the possibility that they weren't intended to help someone out of the maze. For all of these reasons, discernment is a personal responsibility no one can avoid.

The reality is simply this: we all have a form, and we are all independents. The form may be silly putty or stone, it may be large or small, but it is there—whether you want to see it as such or not. We also are all on our own paths, responsibility lies upon each of us to find our liberation. This is not something to take lightly, nor something one can give to someone else. We can help each other, we cannot be each other.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Last Week: A Good Addition to Holy Week

  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have jointly authored a book going through the account of the last week of Jesus in Mark. The idea was to go through the story and see what the story tells us. This framework, following the Gospel of Mark's timeline, is very useful. Even information that I have encountered in other contexts yielded more insight in this framework. They purposefully cut through centuries of looking at these events through a later Christian framework, and in doing so present a more vibrant story.

I didn't get it in time for this past Holy Week. In fact I didn't even hear about it until a couple of weeks ago. Yet even afterwards it is deepening my appreciation by deepening my understanding. I'd suggest getting a copy.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Limitations of Playing Make Believe

Theology: Playing Make Believe with Religious Things

I guess it's time to throw down the gauntlet on the whole Theology issue. After biting the tongue for some time to listen to folks who seem to value such things, and after having what seems fairly common sense questioned about the potential utility of theology, I've been asked to demonstrate why theology isn't a good tool for Gnostics to engage in (except perhaps in private between consenting adults). Although the following was very rushed, I think it covers the basics.

The reverse of this question has a lot more merit: why should Gnostics even try to use theology? Is there any actual reason? We can assume that it is the thing to do because this is religion, and theology and religion are found together. (I'm hoping that fallacy is obvious.) We can assert that we need to talk the language of people who use theology. Yet this comes up against the issue of talking about computers in Nahuatl—why do it when you can't say what is important to the conversation in that language? When is just perpetuates their misunderstanding and creates more of your own?

Let's cover old territory for a moment. Theology (from theos 'god' + logos 'word, speech, reason') once upon a time simply meant reasoning or discoursing about the gods or religious matters. It is still sometimes used in that sense, and that is what I have previously called the trivial definition and said that it should be a non-issue because reasoning about religious matters should be ubiquitous. In the intervening centuries, however, Theology has come to mean something in particular. Let's just call it: playing make believe with religious things.

Playing make believe? Yes, that's what I said. Theology (which I will use in the non-trivial sense) starts out with many assumptions and is essentially literalism-lite.

Literalism takes what the sacred stories describe as being actual literal documentary film-like history of events. To take one example: Noah physically built a big boat. The world was actually under water. There really were 2 of every kind of animal on that boat for forty days, since the evolution of new species couldn't have happened. All of these things are taken as established historical fact that a film crew could have documented if they had cameras, and weren't under water. Why? Because it is in the story. Given these basic assumptions one can reason about these things without any serious difficulties.

Literalism has all kinds of problems which I'm not going to go into for a Gnostic audience. Let's just say accepting these assumptions for someone who doesn't accept the assumption that everything in some stories is historically factual, isn't going to happen. While the defense of that kind of silliness may not fit one's notion of Theology, they can be quite well reasoned. We would just look at them as being well reasoned make believe. Given this make believe situation from a story and so on, and so forth as characteristics of this make believe game, one can arrive at a reasonable means of explanation.

While more mainstream theology isn't involved in such things, agreeing with the assessment of Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: let's not go there it's too silly; the game is played in the same way with different assumptions. Instead of the literal assumptions, there are others, yet it is still playing make believe.

Another characteristic of playing make believe is that although it is primarily a reflection of the person doing it, to them it can seem objective. It has been projected into an abstract idea realm. Like Plato's only yours, and not so idealized. Like the example above, someone can spend a great deal of time rationally examining and overcoming objections to the Noah story being literal, and think that they are describing something objective because they are talking about things.

The issue with any sort of make believe is that whether there are rules of reason involved or not, it is still make believe. Someone can think that they are talking about something real when they speak of Incarnational Trinitarianism, or an Emanational Cosmogeny—and that is precisely the problem. These things are abstract constellations of the glass beads on the game board of make believe. Things so far removed from anything any of us actually have experienced as to make the idea of experiencing them absurd.

When we play make believe in a rational way using the elements and characters from Gnostic stories. We are being literalists, just at a slightly less embarrassing level. There are many ways to look at these things, and putting on a literalist-lite cap to look at them is certainly a standard one. If you don't take what you do too seriously, mistake your ideas for what is really “out there somewhere,” then it is another useful tool. We can speak of Sophia as a character in Gnostic mythology, as an abstract notion of “Wisdom,” or as a part of our experience. If any but the last gets stuck in our understanding as being “it” we have missed the path to Gnosis, and followed the path to cloud coo-coo land. It is so easy to fool ourselves, to not notice the “hairs breadth of difference” that splits considerations involving the real from simply playing make believe.

People have been playing the Theology game for centuries, there has never been the level of understanding involved that it isn't about real things. The distinction is simply whether you believe or not. And so it may be described as playing make believe with the objects of belief. If you don't see a problem here for Gnostics, I'll spell it out. Gnosticism isn't about beliefs. Even if we all believe something, why assume that it is the case at all, let alone the case in the way in which we believe it? That assumption jump is just too much—if you take it for yourself and are aware of the assumptions you may gain some understanding, if you try to take it in some objective way, say as a group, you say bye bye to Gnosis.

Playing the same old religion games with different pieces isn't Gnosticism. Substituting belief in the salvific power of Gnosis for belief in the salvific power of belief in Christ, isn't liberation, it's redecorating. Throwing Sophia into the mix as a character to go with the Logos character, makes nothing Gnostic. And no matter how refined we are about it, playing theological make believe with things associated with Gnosticism isn't Gnosticism, it is still make believe.

If you say, “but there really is this or that, it's not make believe,” you are not seeing what is in front of your face, but rather are seeing from the perspective of the land of make believe. Experiences are not abstract, they cannot be removed from the subject experiencing them. Sophia is a character, an idea, and an experience. Guess which two of the three you cannot play abstract games with the experience, and so you must be playing make believe.

If you say, “but the ancient Gnostics saw it in a literal fashion,” you are again making enormous assumptions, placing limitations on the perspectives of others for our own convenience. Buying into the literalism of heresiologists isn't exactly a large stride forward for our understanding of Gnosticism.

If theology is playing make believe is it worthless? Of course not. In a tradition where creativity and looking at things from multiple perspectives are the order of the day, it can be very useful—for an individual to use to look at things from different perspectives. Where we go into literalism and make assumptions that take us into cloud coo-coo land is when we mistake any of this for anything but playing make believe.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Premature Enlightenment

Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment

by Mariana Caplan

This is not a hard science or scholarly book. But it is the only one that covers some main and important areas. It is also a fast enjoyable read with lots of quotes and white-space. Food for thought.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Plant Metaphors for Gnosis & Episteme

Plant Metaphors for Gnosis & Episteme

Here is a graphic to go along with the third GnosCast podcast. It shows some of the different combinations possible of Gnosis and Episteme, using plant metaphors.
  • The one on the left shows what we aim for, rooted in Gnosis, growing into Episteme and flowering into our lives.
  • The next is where we so often are, having episteme and seeking Gnosis.
  • The third is the situation where you have Gnosis, but it hasn't developed into an understanding and expression yet.
  • The last is rigid belief planted where Gnosis should grow.

Changes in the Community & Head Holy-Hoo-Ha for Life!

Tim at Pop Occulture has written about some changes in the on-line Gnostic community over the past year and a half that he has been involved with it. As I was going to run on too long for a comment, I decided to take a look at his points here.

The first observation is a move towards a Gnostic theology. I don't keep my dislike of theology a secret, and up until a few months ago, I wouldn't have thought anyone would mention it in a serious context—let alone talk about it regularly. For me the whole Litmus test thing, trying to define Gnosticism theologically, is like watching a train wreck. And a good example of why this isn't a very useful direction to go in, even to communicate with people who use that framework.

Some time ago I called for a Gnostic approach to Gnosticism, and since have been working on the Gnosis Institute to serve as a nexus for such an approach. Moving towards a Gnostic theology seems to be moving ever further from such an approach. And by theology I do not mean the trivial definition of reasoning about religious matters, but the whole abstract glass bead game that plays “what-if” with the objects of belief. Occasionally, I find a theological perspective useful or interesting, but is generally a dull and limited form of “enormous fictions.” Learning to play the game is the only value I can see, and only if you don't take it as an end, but as a way to shift perspectives. Which is why I joke that I don't have anything against theology--as long as it's done in private among consenting adults.

The second observation Tim makes, concerns the rhetorical cycles that occur about such things as “x is Gnostic, y can't be” “y is Gnosis and you can't say otherwise” and the (ad) nausea inducing rest. This was old before it was young. Part of it is every new person coming into the on-line Gnostic community covering the same territory over again, following the same patterns, with the same issues, and the same profound original insights. The other part of the problem is what causes people to do any of this in the first place, let alone enough that it is like clock-work, and that is their individual psychological complexes. It comes down to thinking Gnosticism, Religion, Spirituality, or any other capitalized thing, is about what you think, or what you want, or what you react to in what way. This is egotism, a focusing on a very small part of ourselves that calls itself “I.” Sure, everyone goes through this, they also (hopefully) go through potty training as well. The Gnosis Institute may be able to help with this, we can but try and hope.

The third observation (which I'll take some license and disentangle from the second) is about attempting to tear down others to make yourself look good. There is one major offender in this area, and probably none who aren't minor offenders to some degree. But the latter does not excuse the former, nor the former the latter.

The larger issue may be seeming to be a part of a community you are working against. We shouldn't jump to conclusions, but when larger patterns emerge, there are times when we simply have to draw lines. Playing fair, yet again, with a blatant cheat, or playing nice, yet again, with a sadistic bully, aren't indications of character—but of an inability to learn. Nor is repeatedly pointing out to them the error of their actions with no results a very good way forward. Once, almost definitely. Twice, only a slight possibility. There shouldn't be a thrice. And, while I'm against giving notorious Internet Trolls and Narcissists the time of day, I don't put those that respond to them in the same category. The equal distribution of blame simply doesn't work, even when yelling at the kids in the back seat. (Neither does “But, they started it.”)

Tim goes on to talk about how he never wanted to be a part of a Gnostic church or to start putting crosses by his name. This I can understand. “Church” like “Religion” are not things many people want to associate with. Often they are a refuge for fuzzy thinking, unfounded assertions, and hierarchies that exist to exist. They can also be psychologically and socially dangerous places that mask such dangers under a thin veneer of religion. One should always approach churches with caution, not just seeking to understand them on their own terms, but also pragmatically, how they operate and what that shows about their values. Being familiar with, and cautious of, recruiting tactics. And always doing a “gut check,” to see what the rest of you is trying to tell you.

I went to my first service to hear the homily, and got more out of the service. It took me quite some time to determine that the Ecclesia Gnostica was at least sincerely trying to be a Gnostic church. It then took a number of tests of the insight of Stephan Hoeller before I determined that there are depths of Gnosis in him. And then years of dealing with the ecclesiastical structure to finally be able to say that it is as much of a Gnostic church as there probably can be in this time and place. For me it is pragmatic, I have found the form so valuable that I offer it to others, some of whom also find it valuable. And it wasn't valuable for any reason I thought, and much of what I thought unimportant turned out to be important, and some of what I thought to be mere belief turned out to be real.

The crosses and titles thing is, admittedly, a bit weird. Personally, I only started regularly using the generic clergy title “Rev.” a little over six months ago. Making it three and a half years after my ordination to the priesthood, and after more than a decade of serving as clergy. I don't use it informally, everyone just calls me by my first name. My beginning to use it was the result of being persuaded by an article arguing for clergy to wear the clerical collars that identify them. If you are in ministry, using a title isn't for your benefit. It identifies you as someone who folks can turn to for ministry, and so that you can be held to a higher standard, as well as, continue in your formation. (There is also the fact that a new deacon, priest, or bishop, just like a new PhD., has to pass through a period of adjustment to the new identity and identification. We must remember this and be patient if necessary.)

One point I'd like to bring up in relation to all of this is what seems to be a growing hostility towards ecclesiastical Gnosticism, or an attempt to make a dualistic distinction between participating in a Gnostic Church and being on your own path. This is pure BS that comes from a shadow complex, or a misunderstanding, or an ego inflation, or (too often) all of the above. Offering liturgical services and educational services doesn't infringe on anyone's freedom but the one's offering them, and they do so willingly and have to work hard for a long time to be able to do so willingly.

Someone outside might make big mistakes about thinking we have stupid notions of being privileged to “special” Gnosis or something equally unfathomable—we don't. The same goes for some truly messed up notion that you have to be either “in” or “out,” and so if you don't join we won't help you or something. You can't officially join the EG if you wanted to. You participate to what extent you want to involve yourself. And we work with individuals, trying to serve as we can, not with “members.” There are no creedal requirements, no requirements of belief or identity to participate fully. There are no second class Gnostics. If you seek to become clergy, it is understood that it is to carry on this particular form, and obviously more is required. I can't speak for other churches but they seem to generally be in accord with the EG in this attitude towards ministry.

The last thing Tim brings up are the issues surrounding the founding of a new Gnostic religious organization, and Gnostic organizations in general:
“But I think buried within here are some good gems which we can abstract into a larger sense of personal spiritual exploration. When are you allowed to set up a tent in the wilderness and start “teaching” other people what you’ve learned? How can a bunch of people who are pursuing an intensely personal path get together in a meaningful group setting? How do you do that without detracting from what any of those individuals are doing and without forcing anyone down a path they’re not interested in taking themselves? “

I think there are some basic questions to ask oneself when considering starting something in that arena. The first question when considering proposing a new form should be: is it needed? These are basic ministry questions? What need is addressed in what population? How will this form serve that need, and why is this the particular way to do it? A related and very important question is: if I can't be the one to do this, would I still work this hard to see it done? This helps to distinguish between serving others needs and our own. We must be mindful of our own needs, and never fool ourselves into thinking our needs are really those of others.

The next question is: does an existing form already exist that can fill this need? If so, unless that has been tried there is little reason to cover the same ground. Some may rankle at this one, but if you can't try to work with an existing organization, how do you expect to start or run one? A corollary to that is: why would something you make up be better than what currently exists? So often people are lead by their ego needs to create a new and poor copy of what already exists, yet this serves no purpose other than temporarily making them feel better about themselves, usually in the form of ego inflation. And then if the current organization has been tried: is it the organization or someone in it that is the issue? These two things get mixed up all of the time, and those who aren't up to truly serving in organizations often try to blur the lines and make an organization their own.

Perhaps the last truly important question to ask when considering doing something like this is: how will I be able to learn, be guided, and even corrected if needed? It is easy to get lost. Easy to get caught up in the many dangers of the path. Easy to mistake a little insight for full understanding. Easy to fall into the usual patterns. Assurances and best intentions are never enough. As Thomas Merton wrote, “The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative who is guided by nobody.” And, let's be clear, elections don't serve this purpose, they are a structural aspect and at best, if functioning properly, they may work as a safety valve to save the structure from an individual but only after it is probably too late to help that individual. However, it is just as likely that they will result in the following of the unconscious pattern of the group, perhaps imposing that upon an individual in a leadership role. The only way that seems to work is to have people that one will listen to and take their feedback very seriously no matter what they say. The more common response is to dismiss feedback that points to our unconscious patterns, but that way lies only more of the same patterns.

One of the constant issues that occur as part of a well-established Gnostic Ecclesia is that there are those who simply want to use us as a spring-board for starting their own church—claiming “legitimacy” from it, rejecting and working against it, while not in a position to minister to anyone themselves. This is not someone seeking real formation or preparation, but rather validation and some unrealistic level of attention. I've got nothing against people starting their own churches: as long as they are honest about the fact that they started them and don't claim otherwise, and follow basic ethical guidelines. The problem isn't that, it is living out this unconscious pattern, and what results from this unconscious pattern. It is merely projected onto the external and onto groups. It is something that has no bearing on Gnosticism, it happens everywhere. Anything that hints of this pattern should raise red-flags, if not wave them around vigorously.

The spring-boarders actively intentionally go in the opposite directions of the questions above. They act out of their own needs, seek to be in direct competition, and to be “free” of any guidance. Of course, if one is following a pattern one is fooling oneself and can fool oneself about these questions as well. But, I think they provide a basic self-assessment.

Given this history and background, I think the reactions to the announcement of a new organization were generally supportive while being necessarily cautious. Feedback was given as to how the formation and organization were perceived, which lead to changes in presentation, if not deeper changes. Personal assessment and founding something no matter how loosely defined, are not intrinsically related, though I can see how one might be a tool for the other: confusion and caution are bound to be the result.

The larger issue of pursuing something intensely personal in a group setting is a matter of scopes (and not the “Monkey Trial” guy either). What is the scope of the group? We are used to the scope of religions and churches being the entirety of someones life. Who wants that? As outlined above, the Gnostic Ecclesia in general seems to be very limited in scope in regards to the individual, offering services and providing form, rather than imposing (or even offering) an entire way of life. This is how you can have a church of heretics. The church is what it is, and you are who you are. This is the only way in which religion makes sense to me. It isn't some collective spiritual path, just a meeting point and way-station on our own spiritual paths. We don't have to be the same (even if we could), and we certainly don't have to profess to believe the same things to come together and support one another.

There is the opposite issue of pursuing a path strictly on one's own. Without anyone to reflect back to you where you are at, and without anyone to help guide you (not necessarily from “above” in some structure), you run many risks. This is very practical. Just look at the refuges of Buddhism: right there with the Buddha and the Dharma, is the Sangha: the community of fellow seekers/practitioners.

My Internet connection seems to be back up and functioning, and in the interim this entry has gotten rather long. So I will end here, but no doubt will address more of these in greater detail in future.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Education, Formation, Preparation, & Ordination

I tried to talk about a seminary directly, but we need to step back and look at the entire issue before we can approach that subject with any hope of communication. So, lets begin with the process of analysis, reducing the large issue into its elements.

First, let's look at what is beyond our scope: being clergy. One's legal Status as a member of the clergy, is determined by the relevant laws. One's Ecclesiastical Status as member of the clergy, is determined by the Ecclesiastical body. So, to recap, things to do with whether one is or is not clergy, in any sense, are matters of Church and Law. In the US the Universal Life Church combines these into a one stop ordination shop, so it isn't exactly a difficult status to obtain if that is all one wants.

Seminaries exist to train and prepare people to practice ministry, and provide related education. They do not grant the status of being clergy. Law Schools exist to train and prepare people to practice Law, and provide related education. They do not grant the status of being a member of the bar. Sure, most of those attending Law School intend to become practicing lawyers, but only a percentage of them will. Most of those entering seminaries intend to become clergy, but only a percentage of them will. And there are those who don't want any change of status, they just want to learn and grow.

Not all denominations that use seminaries, require them. If there are cases where graduating ensures ordination and the status of clergy, I am unaware of them. So, we really need to disentangle these two concepts: preparation and ecclesiastical/legal status.

As far as preparation for ministry is concerned, it is not a simple one-dimensional thing. We can discern different elements, broadly speaking: education, formation, and personal development/preparation.

In terms of education, does it matter greatly who is involved in the education and how? If a bishop does not grade all of the papers involved in a candidates education, has she lost the ability to discern whether the candidate is properly prepared? Does a member of one's particular denomination have to give out reading assignments for the reading to be valuable? I get the impression that this isn't much further down the path of some notions, and we should acknowledge them as being ridiculous.

In fact, the opposite is more likely, one is more likely to get an adequate preparation in terms of education from an institution set up for that purpose. And unless one is afraid of being “contaminated” by ideas from beyond one's denomination, the only issue becomes the quality and adequacy of such an educational program. The Gnostic bottom line: does it work?

Education is a part of formation as clergy, and an educational program involves aspects of formation. However, formation as clergy is of a much larger scope, as it involves the granting of that status as we have seen.

Not all aspects of preparation for ministry can be addressed through education. In fact, only education can. However, since educational programs do not confer any status upon anyone in regards to being clergy, why be afraid of education?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

What is a Seminary? The Basics

Sorry, forgot to start with enough of the basics to stop the conclusion jumpers from getting the tops of their heads bruised. ;)

A seminary is a specialized and usually live-in university-like institution for the purpose of instructing students (seminarians) in philosophy, theology, spirituality and the religious life, usually in order to prepare them to become members of the clergy.

From the Seminary entry on Wikipedia.

The word "holy" simply means "set apart for some purpose." The word ordo (order, in Latin) designated an established civil body or corporation with a hierarchy, and ordinatio meant legal incorporation into an ordo. In context, therefore, a Holy Order is simply a group with a hierarchy that is set apart for ministry in the Church.

From the Holy Orders entry on Wikipedia.

So, does a seminary ordain (set apart for ministry in the Church) anyone? If you answered yes, you are assigned remedial reading on the nature of seminaries and clergy formation before continuing. If you answered no, you can continue to the next part.

Priesthood is a Holy Order. A Seminary provides an education. An education is a part of formation as clergy. Like the bowl of cereal in the ads surounded by food is a "part of a complete breakfast." What does grant or convey Holy Orders is an Ecclesia (aka. Church).

Ecumenical does literally mean “world-wide” (at least in the sense of the world-wide Roman Empire). Pan and universal can also mean “world-wide,” however its use in English is generally restricted to the religious meaning. It has come to mean movements toward unity, or to indicate that which has such a spirit. It does not imply governance.

Christian ecumenism is the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of the Christian religion.

From the EcumenicalWikipedia article.
Therefore, Gnostic ecumenism would be the promotion of unity or cooperation between distinct religious groups or denominations of the Gnostic religion. (To keep it simple.)

Those interested in something other than jumping can also avail themselves of the Gnosis Institue Higher Education FAQ.

You are then cleared to read or re-read the article Towards a Gnostic Seminary.

GnosCast The Gnostic Podcast #3

GnosCast: The Gnostic Podcast

Episode 3 - Dancin' the Gnostic Two-Step:


  • (On a) High Horse:
    The Gnostic Two-Step.

  • Everybody Knows:
    Discerning Combinations of Knowing.

  • Building a(n Understanding of) Religion:
    How the Needs of Orthodoxy Shaped our Religious Views.

  • Real Spirituality:
    That 'I' can blind you.

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Towards a Gnostic Seminary

One of the large orders of business is to construct a (largely on-line) Ecumenical Gnostic Seminary. While churches may seek to flesh out their own formation programs, these programs will always fall short of what a truly ecumenical program can offer. It is not so much a matter of legitimacy, though there will be that perception, but a matter of combining various perspectives and forming a true nexus for the Gnostic renaissance. The way to create an ecumenical atmosphere in the Gnostic community is to come together in a seminary. The ecumenical movement that has arisen in recent years across many protestant denominations stems from the use of joint programs. Years ago, as the denominations began to loose membership, protestant seminaries realized that they were essentially offering the same preparation, and so should pool their programs. We as Gnostics, do not have enough members to begin with, and so the current situation, wherein each organization must create its own formation program from beginning to end, is a true waste of resources. Do we each need to do all of the work, just because we are different organizations? That would truly be absurd.

The large issues will of course stem from what such a program would consist of in terms of content. There are, oddly enough, advocates for programs that consist largely of studying mainstream theology, as if modeling our content on protestant seminaries were the way to go when such programs do not prepare their own ministers for ministry. If one does a bit of research, one will find that that is precisely what many mainstream protestant ministers complain of as a shortcoming of such programs. If it is a failure for the largely intellectually oriented protestant churches, why would Gnostics seriously consider it? It would seem that is because that is all that we know of publicly to model programs on.

We must always keep in mind that such programs are formative: they are a part of a formation program, and as such help shape the form of the student's ministry. If we re-create protestant programs we will be adding a formative element that will lead those ministries towards protestant forms. After all, if I study theology for years to become ordained, isn't it extremely important if not what it is all about? This does not need to be conscious, it is merely the pragmatic valuing of one thing by making it central or very important.

For my part, I think some courses in theology would be useful. Not many, just enough to be able to understand what people using that language are talking about. Now some may disagree, but I would guess that such people equate theology with critical or philosophical thinking about issues related to religion, rather than the unique endeavor with a long history and particular perspective. However, I see critical and philosophical thinking as being a part of every aspect of such a program. And, I also see theology, like the philosophy of religion, as being concerned with truly anachronistic issues. Issues which have no bearing on the life of the soul, or on the ministries of individuals who are actually working with others directly. I may be wrong, it may be a matter of semantics, or it may simply be the glass-bead game I have always found it to be.

It comes down to what seems to be an issue of whether we really want to grow up as a Gnostic community, or merely dress-up like the “grown ups” around us. Building an ecumenical Gnostic Seminary is a large undertaking. But there are many who have had years and decades of experience both in Gnostic ministry and in running Gnostic formation programs. If we want to tap into a reserve of knowledge and wisdom, it is there. The big question is: is anyone seriously interested? This is a call for participants: those interested in building, and those interested in availing themselves of, such a program.