Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Approaches to Gnosticism - 2: The Search for Authenticity in Gnostic Practice

The online abstract debates about sacramental forms, and the arguments that are best described as “the Reformation on replay” that get aimed at long established forms, are really about the basic underlying question of authenticity. In looking at this, I'll try a more narrative approach.

Authenticity in Gnosticism is something that interests all who identify as Gnostics. “What is Gnosticism?” And, “what is Gnostic?” Are questions that, frankly, we as Gnostics haven't explored adequately. And, as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reminds us in a humorous way—the questions are much more important than the answers.

Well over a decade ago, after studying Gnosticism voraciously for years, I received a very sure calling to “Gnostic ministry.” What popped into my mind after that had sunk in for a moment was the very important question—“how?” How does one go about ministering in a way that is Gnostic?

I share this because I have gone through the same process that many have. You recognize that you are a Gnostic, and then... now what? This is a bigger issue if you feel a vocation to ministry. At the time, I had no idea that there were any practicing Gnostics. And much later, when I read an odd account of the Ecclesia Gnostica I assumed as many do today, that something that looked Catholic “couldn't be Gnostic.” Where does this attitude come from? The formation of the shadow projection on Christianity through a dualistic story of Orthodox vs. Gnostic.

“Christianity” in the modern mind is usually a gravely polarized thing. This points to a psychological state more than an actual one, in that “Christianity” in actuality is a hopelessly diverse category, while “Christianity” in most considerations is a thoroughly 'known' and describable thing. It comes down to unconsciously identifying with, or unconsciously rejecting identification with. To use Jung's description, it either becomes a part of one's ego complex or one's shadow complex. The stereotype (if not more of an archetype) of Christianity in the West is Roman Catholicism.

This gets further complicated with issues of “Authority.” We are accustomed to think of authority in only a negative sense, that is, of having it imposed by force. We have also become accustomed to assuming that “Hierarchy” is synonymous with this improper use of power. This is why the lottery-style service described by Ireneus is such a compelling story, it seems to remove all hierarchy leading to a radical equality. (This misconstrues the real radical equality that Gnostics prize that is a deeper equality of potentiality regardless of form, that fits within the framework of a hierarchy of achievement.)

This leaves us with a common pattern of where to look to for authenticity in Gnostic practice, one that will not consider what is not rejected out of hand for unconscious identity-reasons, or what is in the personal or collective shadow complex. The last place many look for authentic Gnostic practice is to historical hierarchical Christianity. I and others have been attacked for daring to do so, as if this contemporary mind-set is the only possible and “one true” one.

When I attended my first Ecclesia Gnostica service, it was two or three years after I received my vocation, and it never entered my mind that this might be an authentic Gnostic practice. I actually went for the talk on the Templars, and brought a few friends along to hear as well. I was initially disappointed that it was going to be a full religious service, embarrassed in front of my friends to some extent. Yet, in spite of all of my preconceptions, ideas, and expectations, the Eucharist service effected me deeply.

I didn't learn the history of the Ecclesia Gnostica, with its ties back to the Gnostic Restoration of the nineteenth century, for years to come. But, I came to understand that we as modern Gnostics are heirs not just of a few fragmentary texts, but also of a highly developed, and richly symbolic, living religious tradition—historical Christianity. Taken out of the context of dogma and literalism, these practices had been developed over centuries as a way of preserving the Canon of the Mass as an experience. With the layers of symbolism being added and refined over a millennia as a means of reaching that psycho-spiritual experience.
In seeing this I was aided with a strong background in Depth Psychology. And the experience of having sought effective symbolic ritual practice for years previously in different settings, including creative eclectic neo-Paganism. In this highly developed symbolic form I found a depth that had been missing before.

In many ways I won a lottery in having an opportunity to experience and then participate in the oldest living Gnostic church on the continent. Being able to learn from and go through formation in a tradition that in specific ways went back decades, in particular ways, into the Nineteenth Century, in ritual form, for almost a millennium; and, in essence, back to the Classical Gnostics and to the ministry of Christ.

Most are not so lucky. They have go through many attempts, and find their way through many ideas, to find something that will “work” on any level. There is no completely original “Gnostic only” form of practice today. What we have that works, works because it is based upon something that worked before. But this is the way it has always been. The ancient Gnostics practiced sacramental mysteries, and in the texts we have no distinction is made between “Gnostic” forms and any other form of these practices. Some waste time looking for an authentic specifically “Gnostic” hammer, others pick of any hammer and build a chapel for services devoted to Gnosis.

Perhaps it is all but impossible for modern minds to tease out the differences between ancient individual striving and modern individualism. But it is our individual striving and succeeding that matter, and what helps with that is what is of most value to us.

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