Friday, July 07, 2006

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.


Padre G said...


Well said, and thank you.

My comment was too long, so I posted it on my blog

Jordan Stratford+ said...

As ever, a well considered and valuable post.

Personally, I think that with ecclesiology comes theology - after all, it is really simply a matter of deciding what we're talking about and setting our words in order. Gnosticism, as an ecclesiastical movement and school(s) of thought, lends itself quite easily to theology. Gnosis, of course, does not. ;-)

I have two distinct but overlapping roles: my pastoral/sacramental role really could care less about pneumatology or Thomist definitions of personhood. But in my role as a writer, explaining Gnosticism to a mostly-Christian audience whose issues with Christianity are largely regarding specifics of theology (salvation, sin, etc) I have to swim in those waters.

Now while some even argue for an universal definition of gnosis, I have argued against this. We really, really all do know what gnosis is and isn't, and those who jump up and down on this subject are for the most part just being obtuse.

GnosticISM, on the other hand, can be expressed as a sociological and historical phenomenon, and should not be afraid to present itself in that language when called upon to do so. That's ALL the litmus test is for, that specific purpose.

Anyway, I'm rambling again. But I think you've made a point that we're all responding not to the theological details, but to the abiding truth of what brings us together. And we ARE together; the seekers and pontificators, the damaged and the impassioned, clergy and laity.

Thank you, Troy.