Friday, December 14, 2007

The 2008 Gnostic Calendar is Available!

The 2008 Gnostic Calendar features a focus on the Hermetic tradition, all new quotes from almost all of the people listed, and more holidays and days of interest than previous years. The price hasn't increased from last year at $22.

Gnostic prints from this and previous years are also available as a fund raising effort.

Continuing illness has delayed the Gnostic Calendar this year. The illness is, unfortunately, serious and it is possible that this will be the last year the Gnostic Calendar will be produced. Your purchases will aid with medical expenses, and are greatly appreciated.

Order at

Also, please spread the word about the Gnostic Calendar on your website, blog, email list, etc.

Questions: Gnostic, Christian, and Difference

"When I first saw the term Gnostic I thought it was something similar to atheism or agnosticism."

In Greek agnostic is "gnostic" with the privative alpha, which just means that the beginning "a-" is the equivalent of the English "un-" So it means someone without gnosis, or in English without gnosis of God.

Despite their being opposite terms literally, they are similar in reality. One has to be an agnostic before they can become a Gnostic. And, in as much as one has limited gnosis, a Gnostic remains agnostic where they don't have gnosis.

"Are Gnotics Christians? That seems to be the case?"

There are both Christian and non-Christian Gnostic traditions. And remember, this was at the very beginnings of Christianity, so much of what one thinks of as "Christian" in a modern context doesn't apply.

Gnostic traditions follow a similar form whether or not the central teacher/initiator/mystagogue is Christ, or John the baptist, or Seth, or Hermes trismegistus. So, it is somewhat akin to "mysticism" in that the form of mysticism can be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, etc. Gershom Scholem pointed out that mystics have more in common with mystics of other traditions than they do with other followers of their own tradition. This is even more true of the various Gnostic groups/sects/traditions.

The majority of Coptic Gnostic texts that have been recovered are Christian. There was also a Jewish Gnostic sect called the Sethians, which appear to have accepted Christ as equivalent (or even identical) to Seth. In later Manichaean tradition, the prophet Mani became revered as a teacher/initiator in his role as apostle of Christ.

The majority of Gnostics today are Christian Gnostics, people who approach Gnosis primarily through the Christian mythos and forms of worship. (Or, they are Gnostic Christians, who take more of a Gnostic approach to Christianity.)

"What is the single greatest difference between it and Christianity, if so?"

The difference between ancient Gnostic and proto-orthodox movements wasn't doctrinal, it was on the most basic and fundamental level, a radical difference in the very understanding of the teachings of Christ, and the practice of Christianity. There are fundamental or paradigmatic differences. One is in the nature of certainty, and the other lies in the relation of the individual to the religion.

There is an orthodox paradigm (or strategy) for religion and also a gnostic paradigm (or strategy) for religion. Both terms refer to their general meanings in Greek and not to specific religious traditions.

In the orthodox strategy, truth is sought in authoritative statements which is literally "ortho-doxia" in Greek. In general, it establishes a collection of such statements from teachers or sources that are considered authoritative. An example being the collection we call the Bible. Over time when contradictory teachings arise or contact with distant groups occurs, these are refined and debated, and the trusted body of statements is expanded or contracted.

This is not to say that this is the whole of such religions or that it limits the religious and spiritual experiences or practices of its followers. It is the collective strategy for establishing truth. It is their quest for certainty.

The results of such a strategy are the necessity to determine what is and isn't orthodox. What isn't is heresy and is dangerous in this view because it has been shown to be wrong. When the stakes are made great with eternal salvation or damnation, not to mention the historically important socio-political aspects, then "protecting" people from heresy can get very ugly.

The alternative strategy seeks certainty not in authoritative statements, but within oneself. This is the strategy used by the Buddha, who instructed people not to take any statement on authority, but to test it to see if it was true. This is also the strategy used by the ancient Gnostics, since this type of knowledge, gnosis, is only found within oneself for oneself.

Having one's religious certainty founded upon inner realization has practical difficulties. One is that it isn't the default human way of going about things. So, these traditions have always had an outer preparatory aspect that functions more in terms of an orthodox approach in order to prepare people to undertake a gnostic approach. In early forms of Christian Gnosticism, this took place within the Christian church.

This can be a dangerous strategy in that the orthodox approach can overwhelm the gnostic one, and this is what seems to have happened in Christianity. After all, all it takes is people who gain positions of authority in this preparatory aspect who don't understand the further development within the tradition to derail the whole thing by saying that is all there is to it.

The other fundamental difference is in the relationship of the individual to the religious tradition. The Gnostic approach to religion is individually transformative rather than primarily collectively proscriptive and prescriptive.

In the orthodox paradigm the relationship of the individual to the religious tradition is complex, but is primarily through proscriptive statements, "don't ___", and through prescriptive statements, "do ___", that are authoritative in that they are commanded. These have external ramifications that are detrimental or beneficial, such as "sin" and "forgiveness of sin," for example. There is also an inner spiritual developmental and transformitive dimension, but this is not ones primary relationship to the religious tradition, unless you are a mystic.

In the gnostic paradigm the relationship of the individual to the religious tradition is more pragmatic: the tradition is an aid and guide to personal spiritual development and transformation. It is a path of gnosis, which is internal and is a knowledge that you are, that comes from spiritual development and transformation. Instead of reading a text that reports a spiritual experience as a source for authoritative information, a Gnostic reads such a text for personal transformation, to gain insight, or may explore it by creatively retelling it, or seek a similar spiritual experience.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Critical Approaches to Religion & Gnosticism

Use the skills and tools to multi-dimensionally examine, contextualize understandings, and articulate findings, in the study of religion in general and the Gnostic tradition in particular. This course is required for most Gnosis Institute programs and is suggested for everyone interested in exploring religious traditions and the Gnostic tradition.

Course begins April 24th at the Gnosis Institute.

Course Description

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gnosis, Episteme, and Doxia, Oh My!

One of the biggest misconceptions concerning Gnosticism is the oft repeated phrase: “Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge.” This is then frequently followed by the claim that “Gnostics thought they were saved by possessing secret knowledge,” or some variation thereof. It is also a common mistake to view Gnosis as if it either were information, or could be summarized as information.

The reason these are false is that Classical Greek had more than one word for knowledge: there are essentially four words for different types of knowledge, and there are additional words having to do with the source or origin of the knowledge. As the title suggests, we will be considering three of them.

Doxia: Opinion or Statement, with the connotation of mere opinion. It is part of the word “orthodox”, with “ortho” meaning: straight. correct, or right. As in orthopedic ('leg straightener'), or orthodontist ('teeth straightener'). A less frequently used sense of doxia as 'praise' is preserved the the “Great Doxology.”

In English: Doxia corresponds to statements of either fact or opinion. For example: “green is a color” or “green is the best color.” Doxia is a type of knowledge that may or may not be the real case, that is, it may not correspond to what we can test by reason or measurement, or may include what cannot be tested.

Cognitively: this type of knowledge can be thought of as one type of memory. If someone asks you a question and you remember the answer, then that one example of doxia as knowledge. A piece of doxastic knowledge can be isolated, or unrelated to other knowledge. It can also co-exist with a contradictory piece of knowledge.

In Learning: Learning doxia is often referred to derogatorily as “regurgitation” in the sense that one memorizes (ingests) then demonstrates memorization (regurgitates). However, essentially all education begins by learning doxia, as the other types of knowledge occur within the individual.

In Argumentation: Staying at level of opinion or statements of “truth.” Or, considering everything to be a matter of opinion. Such as, “My opinion is as good as anyone else's.”

Episteme: Systematic or interrelated knowledge, or Understanding. Also, professional or practical skill. Episteme is a compound word in Greek, literally meaning: “to stand or erect upon.” It is constructed upon previous knowledge and can in turn be constructed upon itself, hence the systematic or interrelated nature. Classical philosophers referred to the understanding they gained from reasoning about it as episteme. For example, the Socratic Method is one that examines doxia through reasoning in dialog. Part of the word “epistemology”, with “logos” meaning speech, account, or reason.

In English: episteme corresponds to most of what is meant by the word “knowledge”. It is also the term that described professional skill, such as the practice of: science, law, and philosophy. It is the type of knowledge or understanding that would qualify someone as an expert witness in a court of law, for example. This knowledge may not already exist within the knower as doxia, but can be derived from the system of existing knowledge. Someone who is knowledgeable in the sense of episteme, can not only present a conclusion (which would be doxia), but can derive or explain the conclusion as well, that is, take someone through a process to gain episteme of their own.

Cognitively: episteme is much more complex and uses more than one type of memory. It involves agentic cognition (from “agent”), that is, the active use of and direction of thought. This thought utilizes skills in reasoning, already established system of related knowledge, and a general understanding of the situation or framework for meaning (a paradigm).

In Learning: This is the level where a student not only remembers the facts, but has developed an understanding. The knowledge has been internalized and can be considered in part, as a whole, and in relationship. It remains theoretical or abstract knowledge in many ways. The limitations of episteme can be seen in such contrasts as “knowing versus know-how,” and in “education versus experience.”

In Argumentation: Justifying statements and deriving conclusions using valid reasoning demonstrates some level of episteme. However, there is a difference between systematic knowledge and simply related knowledge. Merely giving a reason for a statement that is only another statement, whereas episteme is demonstrated in a way that someone could follow in constructing their own episteme. Often following such demonstrations requires a great deal of prior knowledge, skill, or even experience.

In the Republic, Plato uses the distinction between a doxastic cognition and an epistemic cognition as the justification for the statement that “philosophers should be rulers, or rulers philosophers.” The philosopher is better suited to rule because he uses epistemic cognition as the basis for judgment.

Gnosis: what enables recognition, an ingrained familiarity, experientially derived (as opposed to sensed), structural or irreducible “being” knowledge. The word gnosis is used to describe knowing someone, or knowing a landscape. It is a part of “diagnosis,” the process of recognizing an illness.

In English: there is no corresponding term. We can see echoes of it in notions like “hands-on experience,” but they fall short. Usually we are reduced to analogies, like the “difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” Or, “the map is not the territory.” Some aspects of an eye-witness refer to gnosis, such as recognizing a perpetrator. Yet, the circumstances may limit the process of gnosis, and this has been demonstrated to be susceptible to recognition of the suspect rather than the perpetrator. A better example in the use of gnosis is the practice of having a body identified by the next of kin.

Cognitively: Gnosis is outside of the range of agentic cognition. It is developed through an experiential process in the individual, but not directly through consciously directed thought. While derived from and related to experience, it is not simply sensory in nature. It isn't a memory of the senses, for example. This can be seen in the process of recognition. We are able to recognize people after dramatic changes, or written text that is fuzzy, scrambled, or misspelled.

In the general sense particular types of gnosis are related to particular regions of the brain. This can be seen in cases such as facial agnosia, where a brain lesion leaves someone unable to recognize faces. They still have the sensory data from looking at someone's face, but there is no recognition. It takes an epistemic process of deduction to determine who someone is. In general, gnosis is a type of meta-knowledge that is fundamental to who we are in the world.

In Argumentation: Difficulties in using gnosis in argumentation go back at least as far as Plato. Early dialogs that use dialectical reasoning to examine a matter of opinion or statements of definition (doxia), end without a firm resolution of whether what was examined was mere opinion or merely inadequately expressed. In later works Plato introduced the notion of Forms as a way to include aspects of gnosis.

When it appears in English, particularly when it is capitalized, Gnosis refers to a particular type of gnosis: the redemptive or liberating gnosis that was sought by the ancient Gnostics, and mentioned frequently in their scriptures. In these scriptures Gnosis is related to a particular mythological/symbolic framework. This reflects some kind of participatory view, an understanding that this framework was a vital (if not necessary) tool for attaining liberating gnosis. However, this framework does not exhibit the hallmarks of episteme, it isn't consistent, and has many variations—it just isn't systematic. What these stories reflect is efforts to express Gnosis in a way that might lead someone to their own gnosis to some limited extent.

We've all read gripping stories that made us feel like we were “there.” The Gnostic scriptures, as we have them, don't have the narrative qualities that might engage us as a modern reader. The New Testament, for example, is very terse. There are no rich descriptions of events, for example, just the bare bones. They are more in the line of “seeds” of a full narrative that a contemporary storyteller might give. We see this particularly in the Gospel of Thomas, where the longest story is only a few sentences. Yet, they are still stories, and the type of gnosis that they were seeking to lead one towards isn't gnosis of the scenes or of how the characters looked.

Gnosis is also developmental. One seeks it. One attains it. Yet, one already has it in some way, but it isn't manifest. In the Hymn of the Pearl there is the recognition of the truth of the letter (or call to awaken), because the letter was written in his heart.

Gnosis is also transformational. Descriptions of the transformation of the individual through attaining Gnosis in ancient texts include: rebirth, resurrection, redemption, liberation, and awakening.

Gnosis was not the goal of Gnostics, but rather the means. Gnosis was the path. As GRS Meade wrote:

They are now generally referred to in Church history as the Gnostics, those whose goal was the Gnosis,—if indeed that be the right meaning; for one of their earliest existing documents expressly declares that Gnosis is not the end—it is the beginning of the path, the end is God--and hence the Gnostics would be those who used the Gnosis as the means to set their feet upon the Way to God.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Mandeans and their Current Struggle

A nice short film clip on YouTube that gives an introduction both to the Mandeans, and to their current situation.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The 2008 Gnostic Calendar

There will be a 2008 Gnostic Calendar, it is just running behind schedule. They will be available for order early in November.

Fortunately, costs have not increased significantly, so they will be available for the same price as last year. Postage costs have increased so there will be some increase in shipping costs.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

GnosCast: The Gnostic Podcast - Episode 6

Episode 6: Illuminating the Da Vinci Code Seminar 3

Pulling Back the Veil: The Spiral Sacred Quest

Our Sacred Stories as Experiences, Guides, and Quests

This seminar explored what directions these particular stories lead us, and what lies beneath and beyond them.

Recorded: Sept. 26, 2006

Diagrams displayed on overhead projector during seminars

I've been catching up on recorded audio lately. This last of the Illuminating the Da Vinci Code Seminars has been waiting quite some time, but not quite a year. After a continuous reduction in computer time and time online, I've been able to get a laptop and wireless connection. Editing audio always takes longer than I think it will, and I've been recording and editing for over two years now.
I've been wanting to produce more of the main GnosCast podcasts, so look for more in the not to distant future.

I've also gotten a number of homilies finished for the GnosCast-Reflections podcasts. If you are looking for Gnostic content, they are a great resource. Averaging around 20 minutes, they are reflections on holidays, scriptures, and themes important for spiritual life. They are not planned out before hand, and I don't know what all I'm going to say. Delivered in the altered state of consciousness after participating in the Eucharist, I find it useful to listen to them myself.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


After returning from the Shakespearean festival, I ended up being adopted by a cat. He and I were somewhat acquainted when he lived with a young couple next door. He used to prefer our back yard, and make his way to and fro through a gap in the front yard.

Some weeks back I noticed him hanging around some of the time, long after the couple had moved. When I let him inside, he was quite skinny, showing his ribs through his coat. For some reason this reminded me of the poster-child for why you don't want to be a saint, saint Sebastian, who is always portrayed as a skinny archery target. Thinking of the cat-goddess Bast, cinched the deal.

Sebastian is not afraid to say whatever is on his mind, and is a friendly cat, wanting to meet everyone who visits.

Questions: becoming a Gnostic & Baptism

Sometimes questions come in around the same time whose answers are interrelated.
I want to become a Gnostic officially in the Gnostic Church. How do I do this?

I have been thinking about baptism for the last three weeks. ... In thinking through this I had to ask myself what happened. The answer is that I am aware that my ego has to die in order to be reborn. ... I would like to be baptized.
A Gnostic is someone who is following the path of Gnosis: someone with Gnosis and who is seeking Gnosis. There isn't really an official membership status in the Ecclesia Gnostica, no membership lists, it is more a matter of participation.

While we do not become a Gnostic through any external means, the ancient mystery of baptism can initiate and solemnize a personal commitment to attaining Gnosis. As such, it is a rebirth and an initiation (a beginning). The conscious choosing of a baptismal name (whether new or reaffirming one's current name), and the conscious choosing to solemnly begin (again) a process of transformation and liberation can have a profound effect. Being willing to begin yet again, is a willingness to be transformed. We are always beginning. Yet, many people refuse to begin, which is in a way a refusal to really live.

Approaching transformation often looks like death. The caterpillar is broken down into goo before it becomes a butterfly. It seems like death, it may even feel like death, but it is a re-constellation a restructuring of a living being. In the spiritual path the ego does not really die while the body lives. What happens is a process of decentering and disidentification. The ego continues to perform its function, but it moves from the center of our inner experience and we identify with it less and less. The first movement from the center is a big work, and the next movements are almost as big. It is not a process of ego death, per se, but a process of the ego taking up its rightful place as a faithful servant to that which is worthy of devotion and service.

In this there is a sense of compassion and respect for the ego. For if it has done its job well, then it is firmly rooted in the center of our inner experience when we begin the path. It will resist each act of shifting it, and the closer it is to the center, the stronger it is at resisting. It is a servant who thinks itself sovereign. Yet beneath this false order is a true and transcendent one. There is a true sovereign that the ego will serve. It needs to recognize, to have Gnosis of, our true center that is connected with the transcendent; and the ego needs to recognize that it is separate from that center.

If the ego can be thought of as a tree, the true center might be thought of as a bubbling spring whose depths are deeper than the world. The tree grows over and protects the spring, but also believes that it is the spring as well, the source of the water. Moving it meets with resistance. But once moved, gradually more of us is nourished by this transcendent center and the whole inner garden is transformed.

We hold open services and offer open communion. There are no requirements for attending or participating, services are offered as a service to those who wish to participate, to the extent that they wish to participate. There is no pressure to participate, and there is no mechanism of membership. So, those considering baptism will need to make inquiries of their own initiative, and eventually ask to be baptized. As you will not be asked under most circumstances, though you may be presented with the possibility.

In the Ecclesia Gnostica, baptism is offered as an initiatory mystery and isn't thought of as replacing or rectifying a previous baptism. It is an opportunity to consciously chose and consciously undergo this ancient mystery/sacrament. There are no requirements as such, just a deep affinity for the Gnostic tradition, and a sense that it is the "right time" to undergo the mystery. Familiarizing yourself with the Gnostic Catechism, to see if you are in general agreement or have a general affinity, is highly recommended and a good indicator to your officiating priest that you know what you are doing. An interview with the officiating priest is required, but this doesn't have to be in person. It is not uncommon for people to contact a parish, then travel there to be baptized.

Traditionally, baptisms take place on Holy Saturday, or alternatively on the Epiphany. There are also times when baptisms are not traditionally performed. We tend to view these as secondary to kairos which is Greek for "the right time." It is the candidate's sense that it is the "right time" for baptism that is most important.

As for scheduling, take a look at the liturgical calendar and see if any particular holiday makes particular sense as the right time. Usually it is best to have a few weeks before the decision and the event. Another consideration is a baptismal name. It is optional, but can be symbolic of one's intention of transformation, and also of devotion or affinity either to a figure such as a saint, or even something more general or abstract, as seen in such ancient names of Epiphaneus and Theophilus. This is usually stated as a middle name by the priest in the baptismal ceremony, but it can be "said" silently and kept as a private intention.

I should note that I have used the term "priest" as the officiant of the baptismal ceremony as this is the usual case. However, by tradition, baptism does not require a priest, although a priest is preferred. In cases of emergency or extreme need, any baptized person may perform a baptism. A case of offering an initiatory mystery they themselves have already received. There is a beautiful account of a simple yet moving baptism performed by Philip K. Dick for his son in the novel VALIS. Yet, for the full experience of the mystery of baptism in all it's symbolic beauty and transformational symbolism, seek out a parish and make arrangements.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Living in Gnosis from the Gospel of Truth

Understand the inner meaning, for you are the children of inner meaning. ... Speak from the heart, for you are the perfect day and within you dwells the light that does not fail. Speak of truth for those who seek it and of gnosis to those who have sinned in their error.

Steady the feet of those who stumble and extend your hands to the sick. Feed the hungry and give rest to the weary. Awaken those who wish to arise and rouse those who sleep, for you embody vigorous understanding. If what is strong acts like this, it becomes stronger.

Focus your attention upon yourselves. Do not focus your attention upon other things—that is, what you have cast away from yourselves. Do not return to eat what you have vomited. Do not be moth-eaten, do not be worm-eaten, for you have already gotten rid of that. Do not be a place for the devil, for you have already destroyed him. Do not strengthen what stands in your way, what is collapsing, support it. One who is lawless is nothing. Treat the lawless one more harshly than the just one, for the lawless does what he does because he is lawless, but the just does what he does because he is righteous. Do the Father's will, then, for you are from him.

The Gospel of Truth in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (p. 43 [32-33])

Friday, August 10, 2007

Iraqi religious minorities continue to suffer

The persecution also affects such communities as the Sabean Mandaeans, who follow the teachings of John the Baptist; Yazidis, whose rituals include worship of a fallen angel who repented; and Jews. More than 80 percent of Mandaeans have left Iraq since 2003.
Read More

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Inner Experience by Thomas Merton

The first thing that you have to do, before you even start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say “I,” there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered.

Reflect, sometimes, on the disquieting fact that most of your statements of opinions, tastes, deeds, desires, hopes, and fears are statements about someone who is not really present. When you say “I think,” it is often not you who think, but “they”—it is the anonymous authority of the collectivity speaking through your mask. When you say “I want,” you are sometimes simply making an automatic gesture of accepting, paying for, what has been forced upon you. That is to say, you reach out for what you have been made to want.

Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be? An easy and pragmatic branch of psychological thought will tell you that if you can hook up your pronoun with your proper name and declare that you are the bearer of that name, you know who you are. You are “aware of yourself as a person.” Perhaps there is a beginning of truth in this: it is better to describe yourself with a name that is yours alone than with a noun that applies to a whole species. For then you are evidently aware of yourself as an individual subject, and not just as an object, or as a nameless unit in a multitude. It is true that for modern man even to be able to call himself by his own proper name is an achievement that evokes wonder both in himself and in others. But this is only a beginning, and a beginning that primitive man would perhaps have been able to laugh at. For when a person appears to know his own name, it is still no guarantee that he is aware of the name as representing a real person. On the contrary, it may be the name of a fictitious character occupied in very active self-impersonation in the world of business, of politics, of scholarship, or of religion.

This, however, is not the “I” who can stand in the presence of God and be aware of Him as a “Thou.” For this “I” there is perhaps no clear “Thou” at all. Perhaps even other people are merely extensions of the “I,” reflections of it, modifications of it, aspects of it. Perhaps for this “I” there is no clear distinction between itself and other objects: it may find itself immersed in the world of objects and to have lost its own subjectivity, even though it may be very conscious and even aggressively definite in saying “I.”

If such an “I” one day hears about “contemplation,” he will perhaps set himself to “become contemplative.” That is, he will wish to admire, in himself, something called contemplation. And in order to see it, he will reflect on his alienated self. He will make contemplative faces at himself like a child in front of a mirror. He will cultivate the contemplative look that seems appropriate to him and that he likes to see in himself. And the fact that his busy narcissism is turned within and feeds upon itself in stillness and secret love will make him believe that his experience of himself is an experience of God.

But the exterior “I,” the “I” of projects, of temporal finalities, the “I” that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior “I” who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.

It will be ironical, indeed, if the exterior self seizes upon something within himself and slyly manipulates it as if to take possession of some inner contemplative secret, imagining that this manipulation can somehow lead to the emergence of an inner self. The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom.

Sad is the case of that exterior self that imagines himself contemplative, and seeks to achieve contemplation as the fruit of planned effort and of spiritual ambition. He will assume varied attitudes, meditate on the inner significance of his own postures, and try to fabricate for himself a contemplative identity: and all the while there is nobody there. There is only an illusory, fictional “I” which seeks itself, struggles to create itself out of nothing, maintained in being by its own compulsion and the prisoner of his private illusion.

The call to contemplation is not, and cannot, be addressed to such an “I.”

From The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation by Thomas Merton (pp. 3-5)

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Questions: Approaching Gnosticism

I prefer an inquirer who is interested and a bit cautious as opposed to (overly) enthusiastic ones. As there is a process of discernment and orientation that really needs to take place and needs to be grounded in the real situation both within and without.

The basic concerns expressed, understandings of, and assumptions about religion in the world today have little to do with individual spiritual life—individuals following their own spiritual path, and taking it seriously by taking responsibility for it.

The path of Gnosis is an individual path, your path. Making use of the Gnostic tradition in following your path doesn't change the nature of this: that it is your path, your responsibility, your life in the deepest sense. This can be very difficult for people to even understand in this culture of collective religious identity. There is also a tendency to imagine that having a connection with others who are on a similar path, making use of the same tradition, will mean some fundamental change in the nature of our own spiritual path with the result that the path itself will be easier. Yet, what is really possible from such interactions is aid, sometimes profound aid, in walking your own path.

From the perspective of the Gnostic tradition, personal growth and transformation is what it is all about, expressed as Gnosis—knowing through growing, growing through knowing. But a very deep and sure knowing, a knowing that you are, rather than a knowing that you posses. It is a true knowing that is liberating. Gnosis is this way of knowing, and with it comes a deep understanding of who we are, and where we are, and what sets us free.

Just as their is no collective substitute for the individual spiritual path, there is no collective substitute for Gnosis. No amount or type of information will satisfy. And, the Gnostic tradition itself can only be a guide and aid. One can take ancient Gnostic texts and create systems of thought interwoven with beliefs, this has happened in the past and takes place more frequently now that we have such a rich treasure of ancient texts, but that will not substitute for Gnosis—and Gnosis is your individual responsibility and path.

I hope this has provided a basic orientation or confirmation of our general approach.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Questions: Liturgical Participation & Spiritual Practice

In your opinion, would you think it would be counterproductive to be active in the Roman Catholic Church while retaining a Gnostic point of view in my worship? Is there some other more optimal way to explore the path of Gnostic Christianity?
There are a number of people I know who participate in Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and other forms of worship, and are Gnostic at heart. This is something that goes back to the dawn of the tradition. Gnosticism didn't start out as a denomination with distinct liturgical practices, and an identification as “Gnostic” has never been the point. Of course, in their earlier forms the mysteries were more direct and experiential everywhere they were celebrated. And, they didn't include elements designed to be barriers to Gnostics either. Yet, the barriers depend on us to make them work, so they have never really worked.

In many churches, the Roman Catholic most recently, the Eucharist has gone through a process of rationalization. Every element has had to be defended only on grounds such as biblical mention and theological argument. This has left most with outer forms that are stripped down at best, and with inner forms that make them harder to use as spiritual practice. Yet, even a difficult spiritual practice is better than no practice. There is no substitute for experiencing the rich symbolism and participating inwardly in the mystery of transformation. Yet, even going to a service where you are given space to consider and are directed towards spiritual participation regularly, is helpful. It serves as an anchor point for other aspects of spiritual practice.

Just know why you are there. Participate as deeply as you can, participate inwardly. Don't get caught up in participating outwardly in the political nature of a church. I've seen people get lost in the process of seeking to recreate an orthodoxy to be more in line with their views. Yet, the best one could hope from that would be the same system with a slightly different policy. Be a passerby, be a guest, a thoughtful and polite guest. People are people, they come to church for different reasons, and some will be similar to yours. There are others with some Gnosis that you may connect with, though they may shrink from being considered “gnostic” or stop short of making Gnosis their path.

Liturgy, public worship, is central but not the only aspect of spiritual practice. Finding other practices that work for you, that aid and perhaps add balance or fill in gaps in liturgical practice, is key. It doesn't have to be of a particular form, or even something that you think of as spiritual practice. What turns us towards the life of the spirit, towards God, will serve—if it has purpose and intention, and is done with regularity. Traditional forms of spiritual practice have proven valuable to many people over the centuries, and having community aspects of practice is valuable. As is having a guide with some experience when starting out. This is generally more readily available through Buddhist practice groups and many have benefited from such training and practice. Contemplative practice is more in line with the Gnostic approach, but is usually hard to come by.

Questions: Children and Liberation

If Gnosticism sees the world as a kind of prison from which one seeks liberation then how should a person view his children? It seems on one level a rejection of the world should involve a rejection of those things which bind oneself to the world. Is it consistent with Gnosticism to love one's children and still be on the path to Gnosis and ultimate liberation?
There is a current that goes against having children in the history of Gnosticism. However, there isn't any such current opposed to loving and caring for the children that you have. And, neither of these short statements is all that meaningful without more context—for Gnostics, the answer doesn't lie at the level of the physical.

In one view, if humans are imprisoned here then we shouldn't take part in that imprisonment. "I have sown no children to the rulers of the world," is in keeping with this view. The world is an often harsh place, and at times and places is much more so. If bringing about more people will perpetuate misery and slavery, it is certainly something to consider. In general, acting consciously and with consideration is a good thing all around. I think the main issues Gnostics have taken with bearing children, is that we often do so unconsciously, perpetuating unconsciousness, and we focus on physical reproduction that is often seen in an egoistic way. Either in seeing the child as the parent's property, as the parent's immortality or legacy, or fulfillment of the parent's hopes and dreams.

However, it is not human bodies or human forms that are imprisoned, but rather human spirits--sparks of the divine. And, depending on how the story is told, we could take another view in which being incarnated, even in a prison, can be an opportunity for a spark of the divine to seek liberation. Yet, there is a greater responsibility, a responsibility towards the divine within the child. It is a responsibility to nurture not only a child, but if at all possible, a conscious human being capable of self-determination.

Love, duty, and affection can be manipulated into chains that bind. Parents also have their responsibility to follow the path to their own liberation, in addition to responsibilities towards children. And, the same is true for children, they must seek their own path even if it is quite different from what their parents wish. In a larger deeper sense, as scriptures continually tell us, ultimately we are not parents and children of each other, but are all children of God. This is a model for nurturing each other in loving-kindness, and treating one another as self-determining individuals with a deep kinship.

The tension between ties as binding us together or of being bound up in them, is one that runs through all human relationships. Yet it is not a quality of our relationship with God. In developing that relationship, we gain gnosis that helps us with our other relationships.

People often fear that if those they love were to be free in their love, then they wouldn't choose to love them back. Yet love without freedom isn't really love. In Gnostic tales it is the Demiurge who commands love and obedience. While the highest unknowable God does not force our love, but loves us freely and completely.

Just as we shouldn't serve the Archons (Powers) blindly in any other circumstance, we shouldn't serve someone else's inner-archons blindly, even out of love for that person. For in doing so, we bind not only ourselves, but them as well. Indeed, serving the divine within someone else may require uncompromising determination against being manipulated by the other forces within them. We can see this clearly in addictions and self-destructive behaviors, but it runs deeper than that. To not be a slave nor enslave on a psychological level can be a difficult attitude to maintain.

So, I would say the Gnostic attitude towards conception is less clear, and would certainly involve consciously considering the deeper responsibilities. While the attitude toward children is to value them. Love them deeply, care for them as children of God, and aid them towards growing into people capable of being free to seek their own liberation. To not fall into the trap of feeling that we own them, or that we are owned by them.

We must always seek to follow our own path, it is a vital part of who we are, we cannot put it off. If we are on a path of growth and transformation it has effects on those around us. Change may be perceived as dangerous and sometimes freedom is scary for others. We must be mindful of this, but not try to stop our growth for anyone else. We must also be mindful that it can take time for us to integrate the changes we go through, and so not make decisions that effect those around us before we can grow into a change—before we attain gnosis from it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


I am back home again. I actually arrived back over a week ago. Yet, traveling back to Utah from California requires a longer mental decompression or social quarantine than the eleven hours it generally takes to drive back.

It really is like one of those novels where someone is split between two worlds, when you are in one world the other fades and doesn't make sense. Combine that with the usual surreal atmosphere I most often feel here, and it makes for some difficult transitions.

Yes, I was born here and have spent most of my life here, but that doesn't cancel out the oddness. Mostly what experience does is help you cope by muting your expectations. You learn to not expect things to make sense in any direct correlative way. You get used to “the look.” So, you are only disoriented for a moment by a family on television looking so recognizably Mormon that they couldn't look more so by singing LDS kids songs in front of an LDS temple with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir accompanying.

I'm not saying that conformity is a common occurrence here, I'm saying it's ubiquitous. Even non-conformists tend to conform to a narrow range of non-conformist conformity. That's why some people joke that to set your clock to local time, you need to set it back fifty years.

Let's call it chronic culture shock. Sure, I can help minimize it by not watching local news, or leaving the house. And, yes, if I look out my window a sad number of my actual neighbors could serve as extras in a low budget film set in the deep south, but that effect is ruined when they talk and sound like the kids I grew up with.

I understand that I'm especially sensitive to the peculiarities of the locals right now, that I'm giving in to stereotyping, and that there are other people here with lifelines that stretch out across the vast deserts and mountain ranges of the continental divide that separate us from the rest of the world. There are others that aren't too deeply entrenched in the psychological cultural social religious divide that morphs just about everything here. Yes, there are such people. Mostly, they hide it well.

So, although I arrived back at my place of residence four days before Sunday, I didn't arrive back to anything approximating home. I arrived back to dead and dying plants, the proliferation of weeds, an ambitious gopher, a small insect invasion in the chapel, aches and stiffness from so much time spent on the road, and many more tasks and chores I could bore you with. There was so much to do that I hardly slept Saturday night, only catching a couple of hours between tasks to get the chapel ready. I thought about canceling the service, I had little chance of getting things done, along with the little sleep.

But, the Eucharist is very important to me. It is my central spiritual practice. And offering it to people here is the most important thing I can do for them, although they most often don't see it that way. So, I managed to make it, barely—hopping out of the shower as the first person arrived.

I was celebrating the Eucharist not in the lovely chapel in LA with assistants and a full house of people deeply participating, but in my poor thinly attended chapel here in this odd region. And then it happened. As the service moved towards the consecration, I was finally home. Offering myself, my life here and now, to be a conveyance of transformation just as the bread and wine are offered.

There is nothing particularly special about the bread and wine. Non-fermented wheat flour and fermented grape juice. Yet in the offering they are given up to be transformed. In the consecration they embody that transformation. And, in the communion we incorporate that transformation.

Where the Eucharist is celebrated, there is home. That is the reality that bridges and transcends both irreconcilable worlds.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Chat Website that Saved the World

It really is amazing how easy it seems to be to think what you have set out to do is actually being accomplished, if only someone else agrees. If a dozen people agree, then you have ultimate confirmation—you are saving the world by chatting on the Internet. Who you are chatting with is those dozen other people who agree with you. And how you are saving the world is by chatting with the same dozen people and the occasional interloper, who generally either needs to be asked to leave, or leaves of their own accord shortly thereafter.

The stuff of fantasy? Of course. But I would hate to try to guess how many places on this world wide web are following this pattern today.

It is easy to fool yourself, and some situations make it easier than others. We often ask our friends about what we are doing. Some people actually use the phrase that they are making “a reality check” in doing so. By this we hope to get another perspective, one more objective about ourselves than we can be by ourself. Real friends help each other, caution against destructive unconscious behaviors, deflate egos, put things in perspective, and so on. They often risk the friendship by doing so with things we are not willing to see. Their ability to do so comes from their knowing us—this is the type of knowing that in Greek is gnosis.

What happens when you only know someone through their self-representations? For one thing, you probably won't be able to help them see what they are unable to see for themselves. You probably will not see it, because you only have a self-representation to go on. Or, if you do see it, there is no other knowledge about them that you might use to help them come to the realization for themselves. Simply telling someone that they seem to have a major problem with an inferiority complex, is generally not beneficial. If you know more about them (gnosis again) you might be able to help them to see a pattern in behavior that may lead them to learn about themselves (gain self-gnosis).

What is generally missing in the vast array of connections on the Internet is gnosis. And in the absence of gnosis we don't generally assume that we don't know, we generally construct a fantasy in which we do know. This can be seen in the image we construct of others that is never even close to the real person. We automatically construct an image, for example, with people whose work we read, or whose voice we hear. It requires conscious effort to try not to mistake this imagination for knowledge.

Therefore, you have the situation first described above. Interaction with a few others who agree that what we are doing is not only terribly important, but is changing the world. When you check your circle of friends about what you are doing, those are the circle of friends and they are people you “know” and who “know” you without much if any gnosis, and who already agree with you. You can then construct your own social (un)reality and support each other in your mutual importance, regardless of the lack of facts or facts to the contrary. You will, of course, check with each other over such things as facts or results and reinforce your current situation. It is an almost perfect closed system.

The reason for the “almost” is gnosis. Gnosis provides the means to escape from any false cosmos. That is what our ancient ancestors in Gnosis knew and practiced. They stress the urgency to seek self-gnosis, to wake up from both dreams and nightmares. If we seek real liberation, then it isn't to be found in creating a false cosmos within the larger cosmos and fooling ourselves that we are accomplishing something there. Such a path leads to ego inflation, or respite from feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, but it isn't a path to liberation.

We must seek not to fool ourselves either individually or in groups, but seek the Gnosis that liberates us, that frees us to truly act, that enables us to really change the world to some extent through being free and awake in it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Fine Edition that makes a Fine Addition

If you already own the previous edition of the Nag Hammadi Library in translation, and are wondering if it is worth it to buy the new edition—it is.

The Nag Hammadi Scriptures is more than simply a new edition of the old work, it is in many ways a different book altogether. The contents will be familiar from previous translations, though more readable and less technical in many word choices. Many of the names familiar from the previous edition where involved with this edition.

The formatting in the new edition is a vast improvement. It makes the text more readable, and it is easier to find the passage you are looking for. It includes actual footnotes, a very useful formatting feature too often replaced by pernicious endnotes. The end commentary material now consists of short overview essays on the various traditions within the larger Gnostic tradition.

The new edition also includes Coptic texts found after Nag Hammadi, such as the Gospels of Judas and Mary Magdalene. Although for texts found before Nag Hammadi you will need to refer to the older editions by G. R. S. Mead. (Perhaps I should say “the venerable Mead.”)

Unlike some other collections of scriptures that you may read through and then shelve, this edition is the one you will keep close at hand. My copy has already become a frequent companion.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Questions: Matter and the Cosmos

Does gnosticism hold that matter is evil? This seems to be the view of one particular writer... that even the beauty in the world, such as a sunrise or a rose, is a deceptive, thin patina that the demiurge uses to cover over the ugly reality of this world.

Do you think that the aim is to realize gnosis and then leave this cosmos entirely (when we die), or do you think that the purpose is to realize gnosis and thus bring the light and love of the pleroma into this cosmos to transform it? In other words can this reality be redeemed or is it so inherently flawed that this is not possible and that the only way is out (so to speak).
The flat statement "matter is evil" comes from the heresiologists not the Gnostics and is intended to be a polemical statement. There are differences in the way that various Gnostics viewed matter from the writings that we have. In some they do seem to view it as a very bad if not terrible condition to be in or a part of. This is different than viewing it in the polemical dualism of matter equals evil, the immaterial (spirit) equals good.

The majority view from Gnostic texts seems to be more of equating matter and material things with ignorance, or lack of consciousness, or distance from the divine. It is not a black or white or binary understanding, but rather a continuum—a more spiritually-oriented condition being far better than a more materially-oriented one. I really have a hard time with the notion that ancient Gnostics were all that concerned about matter itself, or of the physical world playing such an important role for them in and of itself. In scriptures it is more one's attitudes, goals, consciousness, participation, and most importantly Gnosis that are the concern. Liberation does not requires the end of material existence, but rather individual transformation through Gnosis.

To only judge the ugly as real and so judge the beautiful to be an illusion seems as big of a mistake as doing the opposite. Beauty occurs. It can be found even in the midst of the darkest tragedy, and also just where you expect it to be. It is better to simply see what is in front of our faces, as Jesus says in Thomas, than try to make it into evidence of some kind. An aesthetic experience is simply an aesthetic experience. We are always a part of such experiences whether they take place as a result of human action or as a result of natural action. Is there a need for a creative artist of nature? The photographer creates art by seeing it and capturing what is seen. We as conscious beings are able to see and experience deeply. In Jung's view, consciousness is the means by which all that is comes at last to know itself. When we experience beauty we are not mere observers, we are participants.

The way that seems to sum up the Gnostic attitude is viewing the cosmos as a mixture or mixing of spirit and matter or of light and darkness. In this realm the sparks of the divine are within the limitations of matter and the danger is that they remain in ignorance of that divine reality and their connection to it. The precosmic creation stories tell how this situation came to be, and the salvation stories tell of how this ignorance can be remedied.

Your articulation of bringing light into the cosmos is correct, and we are to do this in our lives here and now. There is no indication in any of the texts, and nothing from modern experience to suggest that a spirit attaining liberation upon death would return to the Fullness and then come back into the cosmos. My thought about it is that any return would not be possible, being something like trying to fit your grown self into the same crib you slept in when first born. Part of the specialness of Christ is his being able to make the sacrifice to come into the limitations of matter for our sakes.

However, there is good evidence from scripture and modern experience that we as Gnostics are to bring light into the cosmos through our own growth in Gnosis. The resurrection is an inner spiritual event that occurs in this life, and all of the mysteries including the redemption/liberation and the bridal chamber are intended to be accomplished here. This is our highest task as Gnostics. The awakening of an individual is a cosmic event. Within the person of light there is a light that illumines the cosmos, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas.

However, there is no indication that I am aware of where this leads to some complete transformation of the cosmos. Ultimately, the cosmos is a system with the limitations of a system. Some of those limitations are the nature of time itself, and the constant increase of entropy. To have the cosmos be otherwise would mean it isn't the cosmos or wouldn't be the same place we live now. It is something like wishing someone you love had no flaws and no limitations and so on, so that they would not be the same person that you love anymore. The cosmos is in so many ways simply different than the Fullness. But I think that it too will continue in some way having had its interaction with the spirit here and now, that coming to a fuller consciousness here means that we will return something of it as a part of ourselves when we return. It is like the Hymn of the Pearl, there is something that has been transformed here that will be returned with us. The transformation itself may be thought of as the treasure sought after here and returned with us to our true home.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

On the Road

I'll be on the road tracing a vaguely triangular path through the South Western United States. First, a little over a week in San Francisco for a conference, then about a week in Los Angeles. All together adding about 2000 miles to the odometer.

See some of you along the way, and some of you later.

PS: I will have a few prints of Gnostic "iconic" art from the 2007 Gnostic Calendar for sale.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Questions: Seeking Certainty, Finding Gnosis

What does it mean to "achieve Gnosis"? I gave up all things on the basis of a series of very powerful spiritual conversion experiences. Are you suggesting that Gnosis is a permanent state of this spiritual state? I don't know If I could survive such a level for a long period. ... There is a God, or there is not. There is a hierarchy of Gods or there is One. If all beliefs are in some way "true", even when contradictory, ideas must in some way be reconciled.

If you are seeking certainty, you will not find it at the level of doxa, of opinions, beliefs, or assertions. Although there is a long tradition of clinging to such things and acting as if they were certain as means to convince ourselves that they are. This is the strategy of "faith" as it is generally understood. Even while it seems to close the question and give that desired certainty, it never really does. It requires the construction of a system of constantly reinforcing beliefs, or an unconsciousness of the process. Once we are aware of, conscious of, the process involved, it usually cannot satisfy. The exception seems to be the construction of the elaborate and rigid systems of modern fundamentalist movements. We all seek certainty, and this is not to denigrate those who try this strategy, who are many, just to point out its fundamental limitations. It has its price and its remaining elements of uncertainty. But that is a struggle and path that most have been on to some degree and so know. It is like the line from the Matrix, you've been down that road, you know exactly where it goes.

Rather than tying to find certainty, it seems more possible to find trustworthiness. And that requires a different type of approach. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "do not cease seeking until you find. When you find you will be troubled. When you are troubled you will marvel and will reign over all."

Gnosis is not a mental state, or any set of mental states. Such things change. If we feel happy today, we may feel sad tomorrow. If we feel an epiphany today, we may feel half-asleep tomorrow. That is the medieval wheel of fortune. It goes round and round. There is a tendency to use the term "Gnosis" as an "acceptable alternative" for terms like mystic or spiritual, for example; but, that isn't the proper use of the term.

At a recent conference I was at dinner with a group of people who where mainly of an Eastern spiritual orientation. One of the individuals was Buddhist clergy as well as a psychologist. He was trying to describe the process of enlightenment, saying that the focus wasn't on the enlightenment experiences, the higher states of consciousness that are experienced, but was rather on the time in-between of day-to-day life. I told them that this was the difference of emphasis in the Gnostic tradition, that Gnosis is the knowledge that is psycho-spiritual development in that day-to-day life. When people compare the two traditions, they want to equate Gnosis with these higher states, when it is focused upon the overall growth that is seen in-between these spiritual experiences. These states and transformative experiences are a part of the journey, but Gnosis is knowledge that is knowledge that we are, that we have gained by being on the journey. Often when we go on journeys in the world, what we bring back is a greater knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world. That is the type of knowledge that is gnosis.

When you find, you will be troubled. It is a part of the process. When we truly seek, we find the limitations and failings of the answers we have been given, the strategies we have tried. External authority claims to offer certainty, but it is a certainty that requires belief, that is, it requires certainty. It is supposed to work, yet it doesn't. And this same strategy is to be found in many places once one recognizes the pattern, has gnosis of it. It feels like the foundations have been pulled out from under you. It is disturbing and troubling. There is a hope that, maybe, if there were a different source of authority, the same strategy could be tried again. A hope that, maybe, it would work this time. Probably (almost certainly) not.

Yet we do not stay in such a state. All states are transitory. There is another strategy, and this one is very different. It involves a big shift in perspective. We can find trustworthiness in something other than doxa with the backing of authority. Rather than base the trustworthiness on something external, or upon something internal but changeable, we can base it upon our Gnosis. In that way we might say that we know God because we have experienced God, our spiritual growth is towards God, and we have been transformed by God. But this "God" is not an idea, not an abstract entity that we can logically construct, but rather is what we know from our own limited Gnosis.

While one can create a long list of positive attributes for the God of theology, the God of Gnosis is generally a negative list, a list of things you can't say about God. Yet there is no doubt of existence, anymore than you doubt the existence of anyone else you know in the world. The interpretation, the understanding is provisional and incomplete. It is not an idea we can hold in our minds, but a reality we know from our deepest experience of being.

While this may not be intellectually satisfying, it is not subject to doubt. We can doubt the expressions of Gnosis, and recognize that all expressions are preliminary rather than final. But Gnosis is a part of who we are, not something we need to be convinced about. And in that way we reign over all, our Gnosis is the ordering principle of our approach to everything.

By its nature, Gnosis is difficult to communicate. We can only tell stories and use symbols even about Gnosis itself. Yet we all have Gnosis to some degree, and we may recognize it in these stories. I would suggest that you are passing through a state of being troubled, as in the passage from Thomas. If you refrain from seeking certainty among the opposites, you will find the trustworthy and the truth that frees—because they are within you. It requires a metanoia, a turning about of the mind. Be patient with yourself, and trust in your own process when things seem unclear. No state is permanent, yet one can cycle through states without apparent end. Seek the center.

Questions: Myth, Meaning, & Gnosis

I have been reading "Gnosticism" and it seemed to be completely weird since my paradigm was that of doxa. I was scoffing: "I am expected to believe in a lion-headed god who has sufficient understanding to organize worlds and yet does not ask where he/it comes from?" Even humans ask that question. Now understanding that the myth is illustrative, not realistic, accurate, but not precise, has put a whole new face on it.

Seeing myths as literal is how the heresiologists completely misunderstood the Gnostic approach. Ireneaus has endless scorn for myths that he viewed with a physical literalism. And, such an approach would make for a very weird if not downright kooky religion. (Of which there are a few contemporary examples, unfortunately.)

Even though we have only a smattering of ancient Gnostic materials, we have examples of exegesis (commentary) on the Gospel of John by Heracleon. From quotes preserved by a later commenter, we can see that for Heracleon there were three ways to consider scripture: physical, psychological, and spiritual. The physical, or historical, approach was considered the least useful if not actually misleading, and this was the relatively straight-forward story of the Gospel of John taken by many people today to be the literal historical truth. He saw the spiritual meaning of the Gospel as being a means to liberation. As essentially being realized within the spiritual development of the seeking reader. So, there is a strong tradition of viewing myths/stories as tools for gaining insight or moving towards Gnosis, rather than statements of fact or literal/physical histories.

Not only can we consider myths on multiple levels, we are not stuck with a single interpretation or understanding. So, the demiurge can be seen in the contradictions of the cosmos, in the limitations and grandiosity of the human ego, as the way of understanding the limitations placed on a "God" by most believers, as a way to separate the notion of a God-image from the experience of the divine, as a pattern of human development, and so on. The element of divided or compartmentalized consciousness you've described is a part of that. It is a pattern that aids in recognition or diagnosis, a tool for developing Gnosis. With that Gnosis, we can then recognize it in different contexts, leading to a growth of insight into the original descriptions as well as into the contexts. 'Recognition' being a common translation of gnosis.

Can myths mean anything at all? There must, in the end, taken to a logical (or even illogical) conclusion, by analysis, by synthesis, by any systematic way, be a real truth.

Heraclitus wrote of the tendency to "run to the opposite,” enantiodromia in Greek. (I don't think it was the opposite he frowned upon so much as the haste.) It isn't the case that myth has to either mean one thing or mean anything and nothing. Looking at it that way evades the meaning of myth itself. Rather than seeking one meaning, or any meaning, it is more useful to consider it as a pattern with many applications.

A deep understanding can be expressed as a myth, as a story, and we can learn from the deeper lessons than merely learning the story itself. This is the value of literature, for example. We experience King Lear not so we can take a quiz on its contents, but so we can understand something about ourselves, and also our world.

To say that something has many applications, or even innumerable/infinite ones, is not to say that it can have any meaning. An example of this is number. We can apply number to any type of thing by counting whatever it is. Yet, regardless of what it is we are counting, from the concrete to the abstract, the application of numbers and of arithmetic will apply in an entirely non-arbitrary way. Because we can count literally anything doesn't mean that the numbers mean anything or nothing. They remain the same regardless.

It is this type of insight into numbers and their relationships that was at the core of the Pythagorean tradition. Numbers were the archetypes, or "primal shapes/patterns" of the system of the world. It is a bit hard to get to the profundity of that with our modern minds. We think of numbers as the most rational of our tools, and they often are. We are also usually presented them in an abstract way, as a system of rules. But looking at the world itself and seeing the universal application and validity of these patterns of numbers and their relationships is amazing. It is a leap from the particular to the universal. Newton could have accounted for the level of mechanics he was working on with a limited theory of gravitation, but he saw it not as a way to account for forces, but as a part of the order of the cosmos, and his theory of gravitation was a universal one.

One shouldn't "run to the opposite" here either. (A gentle stroll gives a better view.) Jumping from a particular to a universal is a really big jump and in general is just not recommended. Describing mythic patterns in this deeper sense is a part of what the ancient Gnostics were doing with their myth-making. Gnosis is that type of knowledge, we can translate it as recognition or acquaintanceship. A knowledge of such things as these patterns. Though not limited to them. That type of knowledge can only be transmitted indirectly through story and symbol. So that, becoming familiar with the story or symbol might help to recognize that pattern in our own experience.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Questions: Personal Gnosis & Religion

If all that we need is personal gnosis, and that is signified by a "life changing" experience, then why do we need to move to a gnostic tradition, except for sociality? ... The reason we have left our previous traditions were doctrines that supported a religious dictatorship, and problems with overbearing leadership.

The "life changing experience" or conversion experience is how religion is approached as a system of beliefs or opinion. That is, a little experience or gnosis, to accept a lot of doxa (opinion, belief). This is one of many differences between approaching religion with a paradigm of gnosis and the standard paradigm of doxa. You can find religious groups using the terms “Gnosis” and “Gnostic” that operate in the usual doxastic paradigm, or approach and framework, of religion. However, in doing so they divorce themselves from the foundation of gnosis. We are not one of them. If someone is seeking a pre-made system to adopt, it isn't Gnosticism they are seeking.

Gnosis isn't a "one time event" and it isn't such experiences as epiphanies or apocalypses. Those are spiritual experiences and may lead to Gnosis, however Gnosis is a transformative or spiritually developmental knowledge. It is knowledge that you are, rather than knowledge that you have. It is also a spiritual knowing through spiritual growing. Remembering an epiphany or a conversion experience is not Gnosis. Asserting a memory or a remembered lesson from an experience is actually doxa.

Doxa (belief, opinion) is what most of what we call religion is made up of, either held individually or collectively as a group or society. However, as a method of spiritual inquiry and growth, doxa is very limited. It is one way a tradition is passed on, (other ways are myth/story and symbolism), it can provide a starting point, it can aid with gnosis indirectly, by learning categories of recognition or diagnosis. But it will always remain doxa: opinion, belief, assertion.

The difference in paradigm is the main difference of Gnosticism. In essence, it is this difference that is Gnosticism, a radical change in the foundation of spiritual knowledge. It may be that I am misreading your questions, but you seem to want an orthodoxy, a correct opinion or belief that is simply different from those held by other religious groups. If that is the case, we won't be of much help. We do not follow the paradigm or structure of orthodoxy because we are concerned with gnosis not doxa.

Completely shifting perspectives (paradigms) in such a radical fashion can take some time. That is to say it can take quite a while before the new perspective becomes the natural or default one in new situations.

The hierarchical portion of the EG is liturgical, that is, the church services themselves. This is on the order of what is an official EG service, going through proper training and formation to celebrate liturgical services, and serving in a mindful and ethical manner. In contrast to other religious groups, there is as little control and collective determination of the individual as possible. The all-encompassing framework of most churches is completely alien to us. Liturgical services are provided as a service, there are no requirements to participate. For example: you do not need to profess any belief, complete some form of membership, or renounce any prior or continued membership or participation in any ethical spiritual path. Formation is available for those called to serve as clergy. It requires a higher level of involvement, and eventually, of commitment to this spiritual path and tradition. Obviously, to expect otherwise would be to disrespect this path and tradition, to treat is as an esoteric merit badge rather than a process of personal transformation that leads to being able to serve others in their personal transformation. The spiritual path is walked alone, and in the Gnostic paradigm, religion exists to serve and support that process.

If you are looking for support, insight, and some companionship in your journey, then we may be of service. However, if you are looking for a group with a correct opinion or belief on some issues, we are probably not what you are looking for. What we do is not based on correctness of belief, but on what pragmatically aids in spiritual growth rooted in the ancient tradition of Gnosis.

None of this is intended as a criticism, and I may be wrong in how I am understanding your questions. My intention is merely to aid you in discernment in regards to Gnostic tradition and practices. It is a tradition that rests upon continual inner growth and development that is manifest as Gnosis. And so is founded and centered on that individual Gnosis, rather than on any correct beliefs or ortho-doxia.

Questions: The Catholic/Anglican Uniform

Your uniform looks quite Catholic/Anglican. What is the basis of this? The Cathars (at least) seemed to be very simple in their approach, as did Christ. I thought this type of ecclesiastical clothing only began after Nicea.

Bear in mind that everything we do has a form. The Gospel of Philip says that "Truth did not come into the world naked, but came in types and images."

The style of clericals and liturgical vestments we use is that of the Western Christian tradition. The Gnostic Eucharist follows the structure of the Eucharist in the West, as well. All of which had a long development until it reached its zenith in the eleventh century. The other main style or form of high Christian liturgy is Eastern Orthodox. While we do incorporate some elements of that style on occasion, we primarily follow the Western forms.

Gnostics of all times are primarily pragmatic in that they work with what they have and use what works. The Eucharist form has developed over centuries as a richly symbolic experience—a mystery of transformation. Since the Gnostic approach is to learn from spiritual experience, it makes sense to use a highly developed and symbolic form to evoke inner experience. We are not re-enactors of ancient history, but contemporary seekers of Gnosis. Our general view is that all of this isn't strictly necessary, but it really does help. The first time I attended a service I wasn't expecting much and had largely dismissed it intellectually, yet the experience was such that here I am over a decade later providing opportunities for others to regularly experience it also.

"Gnostic" wasn't an ancient denomination, but rather a very different approach to religion and living spiritually. An approach founded upon inner spiritual knowing and growing (gnosis) rather than upon conforming to correct belief or opinion (ortho-doxia). A separate ecclesiastical structure wasn't necessary for the Valentinians to follow the Gnostic approach. Yet, it was for the Cathars.

The focus on Gnosis, the radical difference of basing religious and spiritual knowing upon Gnosis, is what makes an approach gnostic. Focusing upon correct belief and opinion, and basing religious knowing upon that body of correct belief and opinion, is what makes an approach orthodox. To be grounded in the Christian expression of the Gnostic tradition you really only have the two choices, Eastern or Western Christianity. For historical and practical reasons our tradition follows the Western form.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Questions: Gnostic Hell

I've been reading about Gnosticism and I'm confused. Do Gnostics believe in Hell or do they believe that Hell is on this earth? Do they believe that it's temporary or permanent?

This is one of the areas where there is a unity of thought in the Gnostic tradition. There is no literal hell in the Gnostic tradition. It is a state that exists for people here. No state of being is permanent here. Hell is a state of ignorance and suffering from being subject to the forces and powers of the world. Ancient texts use metaphors of being a slave, being asleep in a nightmare, of being drunk, and even of being dead. They saw that one could be redeemed from that state to some extent while in the world. That is why it isn't accurate to say that being in the world is being in hell. One of the sacraments/mysteries listed in the Gospel of Philip is the Apolytrosis, a word meaning to be redeemed, to be bought out of slavery. There are also texts that speak of the resurrection as something we experience here and now.

It is a good question as to whether any of the early Christians believed in hell. Certainly, they did not believe in anything similar to the concept as it exists today. It had a long development in Christian culture both in art and literature, and in preaching and theology.

Back to San Francisco, then hopefully Los Angeles

Next week I'll be driving back to San Francisco for a conference. From now on it will be at least a twice a year trip. I am more ambivalent this time. For one, it seems like I was just there. It had been the better part of a decade before my last trip, it will be only be a couple of months this trip. For another, money has actually been tighter since starting school again, despite the vast sums I am borrowing to finance it. Having to pay for two conferences in one term just makes it all the tighter.

I also plan on making this trip into a triangular one by heading to Los Angeles after the conference. Yes, it is still tentative, which, is another source of ambivalence. I really want to go to LA. And if I could only chose one, that's the one I'd choose right now. Hopefully, I'll still make it. That's the good part about driving — plans remain flexible.

So, for local folks, after this Sunday I'll see you when I get back in a few weeks. I plan on being back in time for the celebration of a Mandean Vespers service in honor of John the baptizer on the 28th. For folks in SF, I'll have a few days before and after the conference (11-17th) if there is interest in getting together for a chat. I may make it to the EGM service on the 10th. For the LA crowd, I plan on being there for the service on the 24th, and a few days before and after. Also, if you are interested in purchasing Gnostic silverwork, prints of Gnostic icons, or Gnovena candles, let me know.

GnosCast-Homilies: Gnostic Audio Homilies

I've put in a lot of hours to get almost caught up on podcasting the homilies I've delivered in the past few months. There are currently 62 homilies of good quality in the archive (with seven recorded earlier on a somewhat broken mp3 player), totaling over 19 hours of actual content. So, yes, you could spend almost an entire revolution of the earth just listening to homilies I've delivered, recorded, edited and made available for free. But, I don't think the homilies podcast gets as much traffic as the two other podcasts, and I'm not sure why this is so.

What is a homily? You may ask. Why isn't it a sermon? You may also ask. The practical difference between a homily and a sermon is generally one of focus and one of brevity, the larger difference comes from a difference in liturgical practice and focus.

The Eucharist consists of two larger parts, like acts in a play. The first is the liturgy of the word, or the mass of the catechumins. Anciently, it was the portion that could be attended by those who weren't initiated. Eastern Orthodox liturgy still includes the command to the catechumins to depart. The second part of the Eucharist consists of the mystery of communion, and this was only attended by those who had been baptized, had been initiated into the mystery.

What happened at the extreme ends of the Protestant Reformation, was a complete break with the ancient mystery elements of Christianity. The Eucharist was striped down to the first portion only, and the mystery was replaced by biblical commentary.

People are more familiar with sermons, and many equate religious services with sermons, maybe with some music thrown in. Sermons are given as the central focus of religious services in many traditions. They are, reportedly, why people go to these services. A sermon is a prepared speech that follows a theme. As such it may include many passages of scripture as focal points.

This form of religious service grew out of the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent exclusive focus on the texts of the Bible. Since the only thing important in their view was learning the text and interpretation of the Bible, religious services essentially changed to become bible classes with prayers and maybe some singing.

A homily is different in that it isn't the central focus of the religious service, it focuses upon the scriptural readings for that particular service, and is generally much briefer. It is also not essential to the service, you can have the service without a homily being given at all.

The place of the homily within the larger service varies with tradition. Many place it at the end of the liturgy of the word portion of the Eucharist, perhaps for that reason, though I suspect it is more so that you can't sneak out after communion and skip the homily.

In our own tradition, we deliver homilies at the end of the service. As such, it doesn't break up the flow of the service. Yes, there is a flow, a deep transformative aspect of liturgy that works on a psychological level and on deeper levels than that. As people of Gnosis, we don't see the point of liturgy as being a repetition or a ceremonial observation, it is an opportunity for personal transformation through deep participation. As such, the setting, the structure, the aesthetic, and the flow of liturgy are very important. We also emphasize inner experience, and switching to a discursive mode in the midst of a service, really at the point where you are prepared to go deeper, isn't conducive to that.

The other main reason is so that the homily comes from the service itself. Sure, you need to prepare before the service. You need to read and reflect on the passages of scripture that are the readings for that service, and consider the intent of the service. Relate them to your own considerations, to your own history. Perhaps, remember how you thought about them in previous years when you came across them in reading or in a service. You also need to prepare what you plan on saying. Work out a narrative structure or two, remember or look up a rusty reference or two. Yes, you need to do all of that. But, it is only an aid to delivering a homily. The homily you give is not the homily you planned: often they share some elements, sometimes they are completely different.

Giving a homily at the end of the service means that you are in an altered state of consciousness from the transformative effects of the service. It also means that your most immediate experience is the service you just participated in. In my experience, you actually prepare a homily not so you can deliver what you've prepared, but so you can take that with you through the process of transformation. You can gain different insight from the liturgy and its symbolism by approaching it with something in mind. New insights come, and previous insights are momentarily forgotten in the process.

The homily is then delivered in relation to the participants. This is a post-communion atmosphere, and there is a felt sense of communion. This can allow for a deeper wisdom to emerge, though in my experience it doesn't always happen. However, often in the act of speaking, of not really knowing what I'm going to say next or where all of this is going, things come together with a focus I never expected. And, since I have been recording and listening again in the editing process, I have found the homilies I've delivered to be valuable for myself, they contain insight that, if it is mine, I don't connect to directly.

If you haven't listened to the homilies because you didn't know what they were, or the first ones had poor quality, or because you didn't know they existed, I invite you to listen to a few and see if they are of use to you. I would like to be able to continue to make them available regularly at no direct cost, I just don't see that as a possibility. The sad facts of life are, I either need to spend a lot less time on them, or get some money for them to support the parish. So, at the time I'm writing this, there are 62 or so homilies, with 19 or so hours of content freely available. The future will probably change that.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Some Fallacies, Biases, & Tendencies towards Error in Argumentation


Argumentation is integral to communication. Without argumentation, we are left with mere assertions and opinions. It isn't just that there is a lack of valid argumentation in online discussions, but a general lack of any argumentation, good or bad, valid or invalid.

When most people think of arguments, they think of the emotionally charged shouting matches that are not only not arguments in the formal sense, but are antithetical to them. Rather, those types of exchanges lack the qualities that make something an argument: clear thinking, valid reasoning, and a valid conclusion reached through the application of these. Argumentation makes the reasoning involved explicit. Communication is dependent on argumentation in that it is the only way to communicate with someone who does not share our assumptions, schema, and methodology.

In his book A Rulebook for Arguments, Anthony Westin describes argumentation as a form of inquiry. This is central to the philosophical tradition, and can be viewed as an initial inquiry, that is determining if a conclusion can be supported. It can also be an inquiry into an accepted conclusion or belief, to see if or how it may be a valid belief, and what such a conclusion rests upon.

Argumentation is much more a form of inquiry than it is a form of persuasion. It is as a form of persuasion that it most often looses its way, because a well-constructed argument is by no means the most effective means of persuasion. Fallacies continually crop up because they are often more effective ways to persuade, even while they fail as arguments. However, a valid argument does more than persuade, it adds to knowledge and understanding. An argument is a careful construction that explicitly shows relationships between thought and data otherwise obscured. Thus argumentation is the way much of scholarship is done.

This brief consideration is not meant to cover argumentation or all of the fallacies and tendencies to error in argumentation. We will consider only some that seem particularly relevant to our context. Readers are directed to the works cited and other works on argumentation and critical thinking for more information.

Summaries & “Antidotes”

The following quotes are from Tools for critical thinking: Metathoughts for psychology by David Levy which, features not only logical fallacies, but also tendencies to bias and error known from psychological research. It also offers “antidotes” or active ways to resist these tendencies in our own thinking and arguments.

Differentiating Dichotomous and Continuous Variables: Dichotomous phenomena can be classified into either of two, mutually exclusive categories. Continuous phenomena, in contrast, can be placed somewhere along a particular dimension, depending on their frequency and magnitude.

Antidotes: Remember that most person-related phenomena (especially psychological constructs) lie along a continuum; thus, it is both artificial and inaccurate to group them into categories. (Levy, 1997, p. 212)

This helps us to avoid the all-too-common mistake of false dichotomies. A false dichotomy imposes a logical “exclusive or” on phenomena—only one or the other is the case, with no nuances or overlap. This is sometimes characterized as “black and white thinking.” An example is “you are either for us, or against us.” Such a position excludes a nuanced view in which someone might be in favor of some parts of an agenda, not in favor of others, and indifferent about the rest.

This view is often imposed by means of assuming the argument, where the proponent of a false dichotomy assumes that anything they associate with one side of the dichotomy indicates an argument for that side and against the other. For example, someone who believes in a false dichotomy between institutions of religion and individually pursued spirituality may encounter someone who makes a statement in support of an institution of religion and then assumes that the statement or individual is opposing individually pursued spirituality. This is a position conjured out of the expectations of the reader without any basis in the original statement itself.
The Consequence-Intentionality Fallacy: We have a propensity to assume that the effect of people's behavior reflects the intent of their behavior. However, consequences alone are not sufficient proof of intentionality. That is, we cannot determine others' intentions solely by the effects of their actions.

Antidotes: Make an active effort to consider other plausible causes or pathways of behavior in addition to the ones implied directly by its consequences; in short, consider alternative intents. (Levy, 1997, p. 217)

This fallacy shows a very common tendency to try to demonstrate intention from effect. This ignores not only our own experience, but also the lyrics of the Rolling Stones “you can't always get what you want.” In day-to-day life actually having only the consequences we intend is a seemingly rare thing, and when writ large it is rare indeed.

To go back to the previous example: the existence of instances of religious or spiritual oppression resulting from institutions of religion does not indicate an intent to do so.

There is an opposite application of this fallacy is the claim that since a result was not intended as a consequence of an action, the action cannot have that result. Although obviously flawed,such a defense is by no means rare in online discourse.
The “If I feel it, it must be true” Fallacy: One's experience of emotional comfort or discomfort is not necessarily a valid gage for differentiating what is true from what is false.

Antidotes: Do not rely on your emotions as the sole barometer for distinguishing truths from falsehoods. There may be certainty in what you are feeling, just not in what it “proves.” (Levy, 1997, p. 217)

There are many variations of this fallacy. A common one is the identification fallacy that goes “I identify with x, I do not identify with y therefore y cannot be x.” We see this as a common method of argument in the online “Gnostic scene.” In that context the argument has the explicit or underlying form of: “I am a Gnostic” that is to say, the individual identifies with Gnosticism. “I do not like/agree with/embrace _____” that is, the person does not identify with what is being considered. “Therefore, ______ is not Gnostic” or, if the person identifies with one thing and not the other they have been “proven” to be essentially different in nature.

This fallacy also reminds us not to think of Gnosis in terms of personal preferences, ego-identity, or emotional comfort. While Gnosis may effect all of these things, they are not in and of themselves indicators of validity and should never be equated with Gnosis. Gnostic scripture bid us to attain self-gnosis. The path of Gnosis is a process of transforming oneself not a process of trying to make the world conform to oneself. It is not a path of identification nor of psychological comfort or reassurance.
The Spectacular Explanation Fallacy: the tendency to seek extraordinary explanations for extraordinary events.

Antidotes: Keep in mind that very ordinary causes are capable of producing very extraordinary effects. Whenever you are confronted with instances of human behavior that are particularly unusual, rare, spectacular, or odd make a deliberate effort to consider ordinary, commonplace, or mundane causes or explanations. (Levy, 1997, p. 218)

This is a tendency that often shows up around spiritual experiences. For example, instead of considering a spiritual experience to be a part of human experience, an explanation is invoked with the physical presence of a supernatural being, or perhaps an extraterrestrial one. Alternatively, an extraordinary explanation involving psychopathology might be invoked to account for spiritual experience, that the person experiencing it is mentally ill. Another variation on this theme is looking for extraordinary explanations like extraterrestrials for extraordinary things like Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids.
The Assimilation Bias: A schema is a mental structure that organizes our preconceptions, thereby providing a framework for understanding new events and future experiences. Accommodation means to modify our schema to fit incoming data; assimilation, in contrast, means to fit incoming data into our schema. In general, we are more prone to assimilate than to accommodate, even if this entails altering or distorting the data. Thus, assimilation can profoundly bias our perceptions of reality.

Antidotes: Don't underestimate the extent to which your prior beliefs, knowledge, and expectations (schemata) can affect your current experience, impressions, and perceptions. Try to become as aware as possible of schemata that are important to you; awareness of schemata increases your ability to modify them. Experiment with temporarily lowering or altering your “perceptual filters” or “schema-colored glasses” by attempting to understand someone else's subjective (phenomenological) experience. Learn to differentiate your use of assimilation versus accommodation, particularly when you are faced with a discrepancy between your beliefs (schemas) and the information (data). Beware of the general tendency to assimilate, rather than to accommodate. Prod yourself to accommodate when, out of habit, reflex, or just sheer laziness, you would typically be inclined to automatically assimilate. Strive toward flexibility; guard against “hardening of the categories.” (Levy, 1997, p.220)

This is a very big issue because it involves the nature of how we go about making sense of the world. Assumptions about this are rarely explicit, rarely even conscious, and there is a natural resistance to making them conscious so that they can be examined or stated explicitly. This is the psychological mechanism that lies behind the often overused phrase of “paradigm shift.” However, we often focus on the accepted paradigm or schemata to the extent of ignoring data. If we really seek to understand we must be willing to change our schema when holding on to it means choosing an idea over the reality.
The Confirmation Bias: We more actively seek out information that will confirm our prior beliefs and expectations than information that might refute them.

Antidotes: Be aware of the ways in which you search for evidence, such as the questions that you ask, may lead you to arrive selectively only at those conclusions that corroborate your initial beliefs. Make it a point to seek out evidence that could, in principal, disconfirm your prior expectations. (Levy, 1997, pp. 220-221)

This is a ubiquitous tendency that not only serves as a filter for the evidence that we seek out, but it also shapes the sources of evidence, and more, the sources of data we use for understanding the world as a whole. So that we can see this both as a bias in actively seeking and also in the types of information we may be exposed to through various channels of information. One of the reasons for the extreme political polarization in the US are the many sources of information that are "pre-biased" in that they only present information that confirms their intended audience's beliefs and expectations. The recent influence of the neo-conservative movement grew out of plans that take advantage of this bias. Think-tanks were funded to provide content, various channels of information were turned into soapboxes for this viewpoint and for information and opinion that confirmed it. This ended up doing the disservice of effectively undermining serious considerations of disconfirming and critical information.

This bias takes us back to the consideration of Gnosis as transformative, as it is another tendency to try to avoid data and information that may lead to or require a transformation if only of our beliefs.
The Belief Perseverance Effect: We have a tendency to stubbornly cling to our beliefs, sometimes even in the face of disconfirming evidence. This is especially likely to occur when we feel personally invested in our beliefs. Thus, when these beliefs are challenged, we feel impelled to protect them, almost as if we were protecting ourselves. One consequence of this phenomenon is that it generally requires much more compelling evidence to change our beliefs than it did to create them in the first place.

Antidotes: Keep an open mind to different, and especially challenging, points of view. Remind yourself (and others as well) to think carefully about how you evaluate evidence and to monitor your biases closely as you formulate your conclusions. Make it a point to actively counterargue your preexisting beliefs. That is, ask yourself directly in what ways your beliefs might be wrong. When faced with a discrepancy between your beliefs and the facts, resist the natural tendency to assume that your beliefs are right and the facts must somehow be wrong. (Levy, 1997, p. 221)

A vast preponderance of evidence against a belief or position is rarely enough to provoke serious reconsideration by those who hold it. The reason is often that of identity, we identify with a belief or position and thereafter defend it as if it were ourselves. This can be used strategically as a type of fallacy by a pretense of acknowledging a belief or position as established as a part of a communal identity. This can be seen in accepting the statements of authority as if we were convinced by them as arguments. So we need to be careful not only in the beliefs or positions we may hold individually, but also those we may hold by virtue of our identification with, or participation in, a communal identity.

A further technique for resisting this bias is not to base our identity upon belonging to a group and participating in that communal identity. Even basing one's identity of being an independent or non-conformist evokes this bias.

Also bear in mind that this effect involves more than consciously adopted or considered beliefs. We can see it in the strong influences of cradle creeds on subsequent religious considerations. This is the effect of one's original religious upbringing or culture on both of the contents of religious beliefs, and beliefs about religion. These survive in many respects regardless of whether or not the original religion was rejected—shaping the way any religion is approached.

The most compelling and frequent evidence one is likely to encounter is the holding of positions critical of religious groups that where rivals of the cradle creed, or of religious aspects rejected by it. One example is that of someone opposed to official clergy in a neo-pagan setting, not realizing that this is due to the rejection of official clergy in their Quaker upbringing. Another is that of someone rejecting the use of statues and incense in a Buddhist temple, not realizing that this is due to a protestant rejection of such things as they were associated with Roman Catholic practice in another culture and religion altogether, but remaining as a personal belief from childhood. A way to recognize when this is happening is when the reasons given for the beliefs are the same as those of the cradle creed. For if it were the result of an independent consideration, why would it have such ties to the reasoning of another religious tradition?

Remember that the “truth” of a belief is only one reason for holding a belief, and is often less compelling than other reasons for maintaining it. Be careful about what you choose to believe and how you choose to believe it. Having a provisional or pragmatic attitude towards knowledge can aid in the “costs” of maintaining a belief. Rather than being “true” in some absolute sense, a belief may be “the best account” of the situation and therefore subject to improvement.

Also remember the limitations of context on constructing knowledge. A “truth” in one area does not make a universal “Truth,” for example.


Hopefully, these brief considerations show not only the importance of critical thinking and sound argumentation, but also its real power of emancipation. For its real purpose isn't to “win” arguments or to not appear to be intellectually lazy, but its real purpose is as a tool for liberation. To avoid fallacies and counteract biases isn't just to have good form, it is to be free from their traps. Gnostic texts speak of the Archons, Greek for “the powers,” that keep us ignorant and serving them. What they meant by this was much broader, but we can also see it in this context. If we do not set ourselves free from outworn beliefs, from schemata that blind us, from what defends us from change and transformation, and from other errors of thought and judgment—we are under their power, and are more easily kept ignorant.

We may attempt to not be persuaded by the beliefs and arguments of others, but even then, we are still under the influence of our own. The freeing of our thinking minds is aided in arming ourselves with tools such as those outlined above, and consciously considering our schemata (paradigms or frameworks for understanding) and our beliefs. It is only a part of who we are, and for some of us it is more central to the living of our lives than for others. Thinking is one of four functions identified by Jung. It is one way to assess and to judge. So, if we are one of those who are more guided by it, we must be all the more diligent in obtaining what freedom we can for it.

Levy, D. A. (1997). Tools for critical thinking: Metathoughts for psychology. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Weston, A. (2000). A Rulebook for Arguments. (Third edition). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Highly recommended. An affordable, well-written, and concise book that covers the construction and forms of arguments, as well as, logical fallacies.