Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas with(out) Mystery and Magic

If, as Aleister Crowley states, a man sneezing is a magical act then this is the most magical time of the year, as they say.

What really makes the season magical in my experience is the celebration of the season grounded in ritual celebration. Sure, we have our secular traditions in which Christmas is a time of consumer sacrifice to the great god we call the economy. There are also a diversity of rich symbolic traditions, whose meanings we rarely consider, and which have primarily become a way of reaching back in time to connect in some way to Christmases past. They are a magical act in that they might conjure up memories and a feeling of breaking through the shackles of time towards an eternal longed-for moment.

I have no such traditions that work for me. No family or cultural traditions that work such magic. As a kid there were just too many expectations and obligations involved. Once I outgrew the Christmas morning toy seeking frenzy, there wasn't much that I liked about the holiday, at least as I knew it then.

For a number of years Christmas wasn't a religious holiday for me. It was a misplaced solstice celebration in worship of the consumer economy. Working in retail in a mall bookstore exposed me to the more gruesome aspects of the consumer act of sacrificial purchase. In ancient animal sacrifice the priest was essentially a sacred slaughterhouse worker: slit the throat, let it bleed out, slit the belly, toss the entrails on the fire. Working in a mall bookstore through the entire sacrificial season was somewhat similar in regards to the consumer version.

All of that was years ago (Deo Gratias), but for years after there just was no appeal for me, at least until I started attending Ecclesia Gnostica services. Even the first years of doing that, the EG didn't have its own space locally and so didn't offer a midnight mass on Christmas. So, I attended Roman Catholic services for a few years, then Eastern Orthodox. They were nice, and I appreciated them. The RC services at the Cathedral of the Magdalene were high production affairs with live music. The EO services I attended were intimate and meditative. Yet, for me they lacked, they weren't the celebration of the mystery that was closest to my soul, the form that was such an important part of my spiritual life.

After we started holding services in a century old deconsecrated RC chapel, we were able to hold midnight mass. By that time I was in advanced minor orders and had been serving for years. My dear friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Owens had a creche set up on the side altar and had us pause after the service and the homily to listen to Silent Night while contemplating the creche scene. After the deconstruction of the nativity stories, to have the myth brought to life like that was wonderful, full of wonder.

Midnight mass has since been the cornerstone of the season for me. The Sundays in Advent leading up to it, and the twelve days of Christmas ending with Epiphany are the foundations of the season. They are not merely rituals that take up a short time, they infuse the entire season with meaning, with spiritual aliveness. They add to everything. In them we encounter the timeless mystery of the Eucharist in the context of the mystery of the transcendent light, the mystery of each individual capacity to redemption, the divine spark of unimaginable potential that can be liberated within us. It is more than just having such ideas, it is seeing them come alive in symbolic form. And in this we can truly see how blessed we are to have had such a teacher and liberator as Christ among us, and to have even what little we do have of his teachings available to us.

In my conjuring up the memory of that mystery, the magic of the season returns to me. Illness may have robbed me of the ability to physically join in the timeless celebration, but the eternal is always now, always present. Even the echoes of memory can call us back to that transcendent joy and eternal gratitude, even when we cannot experience the mystery in its ritual form.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Dare We?

Ancient Gnostics clearly had ritual practices. We have some texts used in rituals, we have texts discussing rituals, and we have descriptions and references to ritual practices. Ancient Gnostics also had groups. We know of no Gnostic hermits, no solitary practitioners. These groups did distinguish between individuals, just not by outward incidentals like gender. Someone beginning the path wasn't considered as capable of helping others as someone who learned from a teacher who had spent many years in study and service and who has spent many years doing this themselves. (Obvious, yes, but somehow overlooked by some.) There were Gnostic groups who had members who were clergy in the Christian church, holding holy orders that included that of bishop. These clergy served in that capacity and celebrated the mysteries/sacraments of the Christian church. None of this is speculation or a minority opinion, it is well documented history.

Yet, with regularity, the EG becomes the target of attacks by individuals who consider themselves to be Gnostics. This is always someone who has never been to a service, and who never bothers to actually speak to someone involved before conjuring up in his imagination the unadulterated evil that just has to be any church be it Gnostic or not. That is because, in their view, obviously all organized religion is evil, and so any church must be evil. In general, such critics are very new to Gnosticism and yet know from their armchairs with a shocking level of certainty that those of us who have been involved in studying Gnosticism and engaged in spiritual ministry, actually serving others, within the Gnostic tradition for decades are evil mustache-twirling villains for having a church or for wearing the traditional vestments of Western Christianity, or pet peeve x or y. How dare we? We dare fine. How dare you?

As they seem to strain their imaginative capability in this situation in conjuring up their imaginary evil Gnostic church, I decided to help out with a little theme song ditty for them to use. To the tune of "Every Sperm is Sacred" from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life:

Every church is caustic,
Every church I hate.
If a church is Gnostic,
I get quite irate.

Every church is toxic,
Is evil unalloyed.
If a church is Gnostic,
It must be destroyed.

Such a view is plainly inconsistent with, if not contrary to, what we know from the history and texts of the Gnostic tradition. So, why are modern Gnostics who act like ancient Gnostics viewed as evil by neophytes who are self-identified as Gnostics? And, why are they so hell-bent to prosecute, and generally so arrogant, certain, and angered into near incoherence? We can understand it in different ways.

One way is to view it as a reaction, an hyper-vigilant self-defense. Few people get through early life without a negative encounter with a restrictive orthodox religion. In an over-generalized reaction, all of religion, or at least what reminds one of the negative encounter, becomes something to avoid and to warn others away from. Since this isn't a rational conscious process, it is an irrational unconscious one. Sure, the conclusions arrived at from this irrational unconscious process might be put forward with attempts at rationalization, but such are incomplete or incoherent—as they are added after the fact and only "convince" if one shares the prejudice.

Another way to view it is by looking at the issue of identity. When looking at identity the main psychological locus is the ego. There is an ego investment in whatever the ego identifies with. What is identified with is defended as if it were oneself. There is also a process more like ego divestment, anything seen as unacceptable to oneself is split off and projected onto something else. In depth psychology, this split off unacceptable part is called the shadow. Since the shadow cannot be accepted as a part of oneself, it is projected, like on a movie screen, and so seen as the evil or terrible other one cannot get away from because it is not an other but oneself.

This explains the choice of attacking the EG rather than any of the many denominations that might actually fit the bill as exclusive, authoritarian, and orthodox in structure. In regards to those, there is no element of identity, so the shadow is projected upon them, but there is no sense of urgency, no personal component. However, a Gnostic church has that personal component for someone identified with Gnosticism, and so it is personal for them, calling for urgent condemnation without need for any facts to support the condemnation. Seeing one's own shadow projected upon the other is enough.

Confronted with these modern heresiologists with some regularity, it is an interesting question of how to respond. Not responding is an option, of course. Since these individuals are fighting with themselves, literally shadow boxing, there is no pressing reason to become involved. Yet, having gone through this type of process myself, and having some wonderful examples that helped me free myself from vestiges of my own projections: I feel that if there is hope of aiding such individuals in a similar way, then there is an obligation to try.

Such aid should only be attempted if you are not yourself personally the recipient of the shadow projection. In that situation any direct action you can take will only make matters worse--if they can get worse. This is probably also the case when you are a member of a group that is the recipient of the shadow projection. So, I acknowledge that I have probably made a mistake recently in this regard. The only saving factor is that, as they were, matters really couldn't get any worse in that particular situation.

Radio Interview Tonight

Tonight I will be interviewed on Salt Lake City's KRCL RadioActive program from 6-7 PM. The theme will be introducing Gnosticism. If you are local, you can hear it on 90.9 FM. If not local you can hear it on They also make a podcast version available on that site for about a week afterward.

Update: I enjoyed the interview and the feedback has been positive. I'll include a link to the podcast when it becomes available.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gnostcism and the gods

"I know this idea isn't central to Gnosticism and historically the gods of various pantheons (Zeus, Odin, Thor, etc.) don't play a part in Gnostic lore. But how would a Gnostic explain or interpret the gods according to their own mythology? I've been reading about aeons and archons, and it seems to me that most of them would fit in with the latter.

"From the various books and websites I've looked over, it sounds like opinions differ on whether the demiurge and archons are evil or just ignorant of what exists above them. If so, perhaps the more enlightened among the gods would be reaching for Gnosis as well?"
Aeons are emanations of the highest divinity, and so are aspects of that transcendent divinity, akin to Kabbalistic sefiroth. They often have allegorical names.

Archons are powers in the cosmos, and so are more like the classical understanding of gods and daemons. It is a distinction of genus, the nature and origin. In the generic plural form, Gnostic texts tend to view Archons as detrimental to liberation due to their ignorant exercise of power. However, in the texts that give accounts of the creation of the cosmos, there are individual archons who immediately recognize the truth when it is told to them by Sophia and leave the service of the demiurge. Even the demiurge may eventually give up his willful ignorance.

Abraxas is an interesting figure. He is described as an archon in the secondary literature, yet is a figure who unites the opposites of the cosmos and aids one in transcending the cosmos. So, there are powers in the world that not only recognize the need for Gnosis, but also aid humans in attaining it.

From a Gnostic perspective the figures of ancient pantheons are not theologically defined entities, but something that we experience as beings. They are not a matter of belief, but of encounter. We may encounter and experience what the ancient peoples who described these pantheons and deities encountered and experienced. All are not necessarily detrimental to us, and so may be beneficial to us in a limited way. The key factor is that they are limited. But this is the ancient view of such beings as well.

What are gods from a polytheist perspective may be archons from a Gnostic perspective--but they are the same beings, largely understood in the same way. The way of understanding this is similar to that in Tibetan Buddhism, in that the mission of conversion to Buddhism in Tibet is described as including the teaching and conversion of the individual deities there. And that these deities are still honored, they may even aid one in seeking enlightenment, but, they are understood within the larger framework.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2009 Gnostic Calendar

Now in its fourth year, the first Calendar for Gnostics! Yet, it also appeals to others seeking spiritual liberation.

The calendar features the Liturgical Calendar of the Ecclesia Gnostica. Facing pages feature original art and commentary on Gnostic themes by a Gnostic Priest. This year's themes include a series on the Mystery traditions, Simon Magus & Helen, Lazarus, Psyche, Gnosis, and more. It also includes quotes from Gnostic texts and almost all the authors noted. It is truly a unique calendar with a great deal of more content than any other calendar.

Order your 2009 Gnostic Calendar here

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2009 Gnostic Calendar

The 2009 Gnostic Calendar is in the works. It will be delayed (again) due to illness (again) -- the same illness, unfortunately. This month marks one year of it.

So, hang on to your calendar money for 4-6 weeks. I'll make an announcement when it is time to order.

Phillip Pullman Quote

Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. The rank stench of oppression wafts from every authoritarian church, chapel, temple, mosque, or synagogue – from every place of worship where the priests have the power to meddle in the social and intellectual lives of their flocks, from every presidential palace or prime ministerial office where civil leaders have to pander to religious ones.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Philosophical view of Gnosis

“I can find nothing on which to hang a world view. The best certainties are either too flimsy or too hard to pin down. The best reasoning is often simply wrong. All the knowledge I have is on its very best days merely provisional.”

Looking for certainty in philosophical propositions in the postmodern era isn't likely to succeed. All formulations of knowledge are provisional, but that is the nature of knowledge since it involves ourselves.

Yet, there is deeper knowledge than the formulations we can make. And while formulations and conclusions are provisional, this deeper knowledge is not. It is simply what cannot be any other way given the shape of our existence. What is certainly true is isomorphic, it cannot be any other way. It is a part of who we are, not something we can directly articulate or determine.

We come to understand more of it by living deeply, by exploring who we are. Knowing oneself in this deep way isn't a pass-time, it is a necessary pursuit -- an investigation into the nature of being. At the same time it is liberating for it frees us of false notions, non-provisional formulations of knowledge, and overreaching conclusions. It is a process of becoming who we truly are and achieving excellence. This is what I call the path of Gnosis, following an ancient understanding.

“You and I might agree, but I'd shy away from the word gnosis. I do like living deeply.”

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent word in English. It is the Greek word originating from the Proto-Indo-European root of gnō. We could use the Sanskrit jnãna, but Indian philosophy developed its terminology somewhat differently from Western philosophy. Of the four words in Greek covering the meanings of "knowledge" in English, gnosis is the most primary and direct: meaning both recognition and investigation.

In the fifth chapter of the Republic, Plato developed his epistemology of types of knowledge. It is generally impossible to make out in English translations, but he is determining what forms of systematic knowledge (epistēmē) and perceptual judgment (doxa, used as a technical term) are based on gnosis.

Whatever terminology we may use to point to this deeper form of knowingness, it is the primary form. Basing certainty at the level of a secondary type of knowing seems inherently flawed, it certainly has failed so far. One can do as Plato did, and try to move from the primary form to a secondary type, but there are severe limitations. In Plato's view one can have systematic knowledge based on gnosis only of noetic content, for example.

In general, this deeper approach takes one beyond the level of cognitive logic and mental "work space" to that which generates/encapsulates them. So, instead of considering contents, one considers the structure of the container. I would also argue that this is a way of understanding notions of no-self. There is no "self" as a being in the way in which we ordinarily understand "self". Yet there is an emulation of a "self" that is a process within a deeper structure.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Spirituality in Developmental Perspective

[I thought I'd share part of a paper I wrote last term that may be of interest.]

In recent decades a developmental approach to spirituality has emerged from work in different research areas of adult development. “When investigators of human development have written about 'higher' or more adult stages of development they often indicate that such development is spiritual” (Irwin, 2002, p. 3). Due to these being emergent findings from research that was not aimed at measuring spiritual development, the developmental theories involved do not include recognizably spiritual aspects until the higher stages of development. The theories have yet to adapt their understandings of earlier stages to include this aspect of development that emerges strongly at later stages (Irwin, 2002).

These stage-based developmental theories are sometimes termed “neo-piagetian” because they are extensions of the work done by Piaget on cognitive development in children. Piaget (1950) found that children move through specific stages in how they understand the world around them in the course of their development. The general process of development he described as a process of “decentralization,” a shifting from an egocentric perspective, in which the approach to reality is inseparable from the perspective of the individual, to a more objective perspective.
While Piaget's work ended with the transition into a recognizably adult level of cognition, others have continued to research development into adulthood. Looking at a spectrum of this work, Irwin (2000) summarizes:

Whether we examine moral development or psychosocial development or midlife individuation, the descriptions of higher stages involve characteristics that we can agree are spiritual. It is as if development 'naturally' tends toward spiritual development. That is, spirituality is part of normal or optimal development, and not something unusual or even pathological. In fact, because these stages typically occur in the latter years of life, coming after the earlier stages, spirituality may be considered a higher or more evolved aspect of normal development. We may regard developmental psychology as an emerging psychology, revealing something about spirituality from a new perspective (p. 290)

Even though the higher stages of developmental theories are recognizably spiritual, there is no need to follow Wilber (2000) in treating spirituality according to various definitions as either consisting of these levels or as separate from them. Just as we do not think of cognition as consisting of various stages, nor of developing irrespective of stages, but rather as being expressed within or through the framework of a given stage. At this point in developmental theory, we may not have a term that applies to the same element across all of the stages. For example, Irwin (2002) uses the term “awareness” in the earliest stages, and in later stages the term “consciousness.” For the definition of “consciousness” does not apply in the earliest stages of development (p. 6). We must also bear in mind that developmental stages represent not so much growth, as transformation. This is in fact the distinction between development within a stage, and development to a further stage. The passive state of awareness may grow indefinitely and never attain the active properties of consciousness. If consciousness develops from awareness, then that development is a transformation from one type into another.

This transformational aspect may apply to spirituality. It may be that what is readily recognizable as spirituality in later stages, is not recognizable or definable as spirituality in earlier stages. However, in the range of stages we will be considering, we will be treating spirituality in much the same way as cognition, as something that is expressed within or through a stage, not dependent on it.

Spiritual and Ego Development

Stages can are generally considered in three major categories: preconventional, the stages identified in child development by Piaget; conventional, stages that represent psychosocial development within the range of normal adult function; and postconventional, that describe further development in awareness of the systems involved in the construction of meaning and their innate limitations. Hewlett (2002) includes a further category of transcendent stages. “In this final tier, the separate ego is simply the vehicle through which this deeper reality flows” (p. 34-35).

While there are some differences in the theories of ego development, these can largely be accounted for by differences in the focuses of the theories. For example: Loevinger (1976) and Cook-Greutner (1994, 1999, 2004) worked from measures of meaning-making such as self-understanding; Kegan (1994) focused more on unconscious epistemologies; and Washburn (2003) considered intrapsychic relations and structure as well as relations to body and world. These developmental theories, and the less-encompassing theories of reflective judgment development (King & Kitchner, 1994), moral development (Kohlberg, in King & Kitchner, 1994; & in Irwin, 2002), and faith development (Fowler, 1981), all follow the same structure of “an invariant, hierarchical sequence of distinct views of reality and subject-object integrations which comprise operative, cognitive, and emotional aspects of living” (Cook-Greuter, 1994, p. 121). These stages are not merely progressive, subsequent stages include and increase the perspectives of prior stages.

Growth is not only associated with transitioning to a higher stage. As Cook-Greuter has pointed out, most growth seems to occur within a given stage, “The current ways of viewing reality is refined, enriched, and modified” (p. 120). We can distinguish between growth as change within the framework of a stage, and as transformation in a transition from the current framework to a higher-stage framework.

Cook-Greuter, S. (1994). Rare forms of self-understanding in mature adults. In M. Miller & S. Cook-Greuter (Eds.), Transcendence and mature thought in adulthood: Further reaches of adult development. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Cook-Greuter, S. R. (1999) Postautonomous ego development: A study of its nature and measurement. Ed.D. dissertation, Harvard University, United States -- Massachusetts.
Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). Making the case for a developmental perspective. Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(6/7), 275-281.
Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. New York: Harper Collins.
Hewlett, D. C. (2004). A qualitative study of postautonomous ego development: The bridge between postconventional and transcendent ways of being. Ph.D. dissertation, Fielding Graduate Institute, United States -- California.
Irwin, R. (2000). Meditation and the evolution of consciousness in M. Miller & A. West (Eds.), Spirituality, ethics, and relationships in adulthood: Clinical and theoretical explorations. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press.
Irwin, R. (2002). Human development and the spiritual life: How consciousness grows toward transformation. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
King, P. & Kitchner, K. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development: Conceptions and theories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of intelligence. New York: Routledge.
Washburn, M. (2003). Embodied spirituality in a sacred world. Albany: SUNY Press.
Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pilgrimage to Heresy: A Novel of Gnostic Discovery

Priscillian of Avila was the first Gnostic martyr, he was executed for heresy by the church. Ironically, he may also be at the end of one of the most famous pilgrimages in Europe since the middle ages.

A number of years ago, Lance Owens, medical doctor, historical scholar, and Gnostic priest, went on a pilgrimage in Spain--walking the Caminio de Santiago, the way of St. James. It was a journey filled with wonder and wonderful companions, from which he brought back enthralling stories. During the journey he spoke with a fellow pilgrim about Priscillian, planting the seed of an idea that has now grown into the novel Pilgrimage to Heresy.

More information is at

Also see the new article on Amapedia

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cycles of Illness

I had intended on getting more work done, both physically and also academically, but illness has returned in cycles. Some weeks I sleep a majority of the day and have almost no energy. Other weeks I feel better than that, but still like I have a constant cold. On rare occasions I feel almost well, and realize just how ill I have been.

It makes work quite difficult. Physical work is out of the question most of the time. Thinking can feel like pushing thoughts through a matrix of jello. What I have been researching and learning are some very interesting things that I would like to write about more, but it will continue to be slow going.

The Gospel According to Jesus: Part 1

ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν μετανοεῖτε ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν

From that time began Jesus to proclaim and say, “transform your mind, for near is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 4:17)

The good news of the present (or near) kingdom (or reign) of heaven (or God) as the reason to transform (or convert/reform) one's mind, was the primary message of Christ as reported in the NT. This is the gospel according to Jesus, the central message of his ministry, as opposed to the gospel subsequently proclaimed about Jesus.

Almost all scholars equate the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven.” Usage varies by evangelist not by context. Matthew uses "heaven," for example.

This “kingdom” is proclaimed in contrast to the Roman Imperium and its client rulers, and by extension can be seen in contrast to human rule in general. People usually orient themselves to the current human worldly system, the way things are done, how to "get ahead" or at least to "get on" in the world. It's "the way things are," "how things are done," or even the system one might work to change from within.

The use of "heaven" in this context is in contrast to the system of Roman Imperium an ordering or system beyond the world rather than one of the world. Ouranos, "heaven" primarily means, "the heavens," as in the dome or vault of the sky. Though it can also mean the sky-abode of the gods/God. This points to the transcendent nature of this alternative kingdom, its un- or other-wordliness.

Proclaiming the current kingdom of God is a call to change not only pragmatic allegiance, but as the call to transform one's mind (metanoia) points to, a fundamental change in orientation. It is a call to comport oneself to the presence of a relationship to God and what that means in regards to one another, to live as one who is truly and wholly a citizen of that kingdom, rather than to live in a kingdom of human rulers. Such a change is a transformation, and can be considered to be a state of being, or a result of inner psycho-spiritual development.

Beyond the proclamation of this "good news," Jesus' teachings about the kingdom have the quality of the unexpected, the unworldly (non-pragmatic), and the seemingly contradictory (like a Zen koan). In this “kingdom” the seemingly fundamental acts of asserting one's rights, maintaining one's place in society, and stratagems to remain safe from misfortune are alien—the kingdom of heaven does not work that way.

The kingdom of heaven runs counter to much of accepted human psychology. There have been many variations on experiments of our concept of fairness. In one variation of these experiments, two strangers are offered one opportunity to split a sum of money. One proposes the ratio of the split, and the other only has the choice to accept what is proposed or reject it, in which case neither gets any of the money. In a strictly rational approach to this situation, the second participant should accept any split as it represents gaining money. However, if the split is significantly unfavorable to the second participant, it is rejected as unfair, resulting in loss to both. What this shows is the assumed right to half of the money (though slightly less will be accepted), leading to a feeling of loss or being cheated even when it is a net gain.

This response may seem natural in the kingdom of man, but it keeps one from entering the kingdom of heaven. Part of the metanoia is seeing through these illusionary losses to the real gain, and not just the gain for ourself, but for the other as well.

Questions: Finding a Path

"How do you find a religion that's right for you? One you're happy in? Every path I've gone to, I've come away from because it hasn't fulfilled me spiritually in the end. I've been on this spiritual search of mine for ages now, and it's just not going anywhere. I can't find one I 'agree' with about 75%, much less one I totally agree with."

I would say that part of the problem is your theory/understanding of religion. This is by no means a personal criticism, as how you phrase the question shows the standard theory of religion in the modern West. And, it is the theory presented in Religious studies courses. Yet, this very model sets one up for the lack of spiritual fulfillment you have found.

I've actually put together an entire course to help people consciously approach religion, due to the length I can only share some key points.

You can "hear" religious teachings as different voices: instructions to do certain things, instructions to don't do certain things, or instructions to transform, a fundamental act of becoming. The latter is what is often hardest to see. Sometimes is is easier to see it in a distant religious tradition. For example, many in the West can see this only when they look to the East, or modern peoples when they look at premodern or indigenous traditions. Yet it is a part of all major traditions. And it is the way in which there is a spiritual path within religious traditions.

The main thing to find in a spiritual path is a means of spiritual growth and personal transformation. It needs to include spiritual exercises, things that engage oneself in something other than default habitual existence. It needs to challenge you and engage you in an expansive way, not just take up your spare time with studying what other people have said about this or that. If the mythos, scriptures, stories, or symbols don't meet with some inner resonance or "make sense" in a deep way, it is probably not the right path for the long run. (It would require a great deal of preparation, and may end up being understood in terms of one's own cultural religion anyway. This is why the Dalai Lama says to follow your culture's religion).

If you find a path that has a practice, that engages you internally/spiritually, and challenges you to grow, then you need to spend time and work discerning if indeed this path and this particular instance of this path are for you. Most often people will misapply criticisms from their cradle creed, and this occurs long after any other aspect of that religious tradition has been left behind or rejected. So, try to be aware of such issues. If your earliest religion rejected this or that, you will probably reject any path you come across for the same reasons. It doesn't matter what they are: high church, low church, bible version, starting a circle in the West, crosses, crucifixes, Statues, pews, cushions, indoor, outdoors, paid clergy, any clergy, kneeling, silence, preaching, prayer books--you name it. I have seen people try to remake an entire religious tradition to avoid internalized cradle creed criticisms. So, this is a serious issue. If it something that you don't want to take on, then include them in your conscious criteria as comfort issues.

A genuine spiritual path will offer support, comfort, and some guidance, but won't pretend they can do it for you. The metaphor that I find fits the situation best is climbing a mountain. You have to do the climb, but you don't have to do it alone without training, equipment, or guides. Ultimately, you must rely on yourself in that way, but you don't have to go it alone.

Progress on a spiritual path requires commitment and hard work. Often people will feel a certain expansiveness or have a period of spiritual experiences when starting a path, then may leave when they hit the first dry spell. Such cycles are normal, and if you have made progress on a path, continuing makes sense.

The journey is the point, if you feel comfortable, complacent, safe, then it is time to change something in your practice or approach, which doesn't necessarily mean changing paths, but it may. Some religious organizations take people through a particular transformation experience into a state of complacency, which ultimately is not useful.

"It's not about how I view religion; I just don't want to go to a religion which I don't agree with the majority of, or one where I disagree with some parts, which in turn are extremely important. An example of this is not believing in . . . .

"If I can't agree with the main points, how can I feel spiritually fulfilled? I am fulfilled when there is harmony, and the paths I have taken in my time I have not agreed with certain key areas, so I've gone away from that path."

I will still suggest that what you mean by "religion" is a very limited modern Western view of religion. You stress certain beliefs for example. In my tradition, and some others, rigidly held beliefs are a hindrance. You can then say that these aren't "religion" because they don't fit the standard modern Western model, or you can begin to expand your understanding of religion to include them. (This is an example of accommodation, making the model fit the data, as opposed to assimilation, making the data fit the model.)

Other than what William James once called the "healthy minded" personality, I honestly can't think of any serious suggestion that having particular beliefs will lead to spiritual fulfillment, and I have read widely in the subject. Or, framed another way, if it were merely a matter of comfortable or compatible beliefs, then your own beliefs right now should serve as well as any other set. I'm not trying to be glib, just trying to help you see beyond the model of religion that has been given to you, which is a very difficult thing. Many people are much more willing to literally destroy the world than attempt such a task themselves.

You have stated certain criteria of things you want to avoid, yet rejection is really a shaky way to build a religious identity, let alone engage in a spiritual path. Forget the theology, the beliefs and practices, and other aspect of the model of religion, at least for a time. What myths or symbols have resonance for you? What spiritual practice do you find rewarding? If you don't know then explore some. Attend a few services, particularly if they are group spiritual practices rather than lectures, and see what happens inside of you. Try not to think about it all so much at first.

The spiritual life is first of all a life, an experienced livingness. The abstract takes us away from the experience. Once you find one point of connection of that inner life with an outer form, once you have found others like yourself, the rest will take care of itself. For a spiritual path is first and foremost a path of lived spirit, the path you feel more spiritually alive in following. The rest is there to be of service, or to weigh you down or hinder you. Set you feet on the path of life and the rest will follow.

Blessings on your journey.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Harvesting instances of Gnosis

I have been collecting instances of Gnosis, the word itself rather than what it refers to. Have you ever wondered how many times the Greek word "Gnosis" appears (with some context, and not in duplicate texts) in the Coptic Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi? 134 times. And that is with clear evidence showing that it was a word that was translated into Coptic. In duplicate texts it is found translated in one version and not in another.

What is much more interesting than a mere quantity is examining the usage in the surviving contexts. To which has been added instances in other texts such as the Pistis Sophia, the Bruce Codex, and so on. With the Greek Hermetica thrown in. Well over two hundred instances all together. Yes, it is a task only a scholar would do, and probably only a Graduate Student. Yet it should make for an interesting part of my monograph on Gnosis. And I can't be accused of not being exhaustive, or exhausted.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Slacker Priest

I feel like a slacker. This past Sunday I was not out-of-town, not contagious, well enough to stand up through the service, and didn't hold a public Eucharist service. Not only that, I won't be holding one for a couple of months.

To put this into context, I've served the SLC parish in increasing capacities since 1995. Serving at most services before moving to California in 1998. Even while living in California, I flew back to serve at high holy days, such as Epiphany and Holy Week. Upon returning to the area in 2001, I celebrated vespers and Sophia services, occasionally filling in for the parish priest by holding other services on Sundays. After ordination to the priesthood in 2002, I frequently served as celebrant. Since being designated as pastor in early 2006, I've offered services every Sunday that I've been physically able, with additional services offered throughout the year. I even held Sunday services while I was remodeling another part of the house to provide dedicated space for a chapel.

None of this is easy. It is work, but it is good and often fulfilling work. In spite of what some assume, I don't any make money doing this, despite help from donations it still costs money. Such costs do not include time and effort, nor the health consequences of living in poverty. Additionally, spiritual service requires a great deal of time and effort to be spent on inner work and development, with an unwavering commitment to continual self-transformation. If one wants to take a selfish point of view, I do this because the services, particularly the mystery of the Eucharist, are the core of my own spiritual practice and are of invaluable benefit to me personally, it is also my vocation, a realization of my own authenticity. It is certainly not without its benefits, they just aren't monetary or material.

There are different reasons for taking a break. One of the reasons is the difficulty in trying to get work done on the chapel, the stairs, and a separate chapel entrance, while having them ready each Sunday for services. For example, oil based paint takes days to dry and needs to be allowed to air out. Also, my recent illness has caused me to fall behind on other work, most notably school-related work. Not spending a good deal of Saturdays and most of Sundays involved with preparations and services will actually help.

However, aside from practical concerns I need some time to re-evaluate and regroup. Things looked very grim last December as far as mortality is concerned. Not only have I largely recovered, but what little that was determined by tests is that an unrelated condition isn't life-threatening either. So, not only have my horizons broadened beyond the next few months, but also beyond the next few years. When you do not seem likely to die in short order, sustainability becomes much more important.

In regards to ministry, after thirteen years it is safe to say that there is little interest locally in participation in the group spiritual practice of the Mysteries. While I certainly won't be giving such a valuable practice up due to external factors, it does mean re-considering how much effort to put into publicly providing these locally. Having a separate entrance and a remodeled stairway for the current basement chapel space is the most effort it makes sense to put into this aspect. Unless things change radically, building a chapel on the land that is available will not happen.

In academics, my own graduate studies have turned out to be much more rewarding and in tune with the Gnostic tradition than I ever imagined. There is so much to be excited about as a scholar, practitioner, and educator. The excitement of research runs the spectrum of my many interests of which I'll list what comes to mind: consciousness, spirituality, knowing, Gnosis, Gnostic practice and origins, Gnostic studies, psycho-spiritual development, mysticism, wisdom, transformational practices, spiritual exercises/practices, interrelations between philosophy and Gnosticism, philosophical origins and practices, Christian origins, ego development and transcendence, education and theories of knowledge, meta-cognitive systems and knowledge, nature of the ego and its transformations, comparative participatory studies of advanced spiritual practice, and on and on. For example, my research so far in psycho-spiritual development has already been invaluable for my own development, and I have a passion for sharing this insight, and many related research questions. Currently, I'm tackling a monograph on Gnosis in ancient and modern contexts, and developing a new theory of ego transformation, with a wide range of somewhat less intense research involved in developing programs and course curricula. Again, hard work, yet both good and fulfilling work.

The research relates back to providing liturgical services since such practices are integral to personal growth and transformation. Yet, even as I have accumulated research on the many benefits of spiritual practice, most of the seats in the chapel have remained empty. It may be possible to more effectively communicate the many benefits, and there is some hope of overcoming the prejudice against the Western forms of spiritual practice. Yet, the fundamental issue remains, spiritual practice is work: it takes time, patience, growth, commitment, engagement, etc. If people really were flocking to Eastern forms of practice locally, in a serious and committed way, then education on Western forms might work. But the problem seems more fundamental than that of form.

Another area of consideration that has grown more pressing with the lengthening of potential life-span, is the issue of making a living. Sure, I'd love to be able to not charge for my work: to offer courses, writing, counseling, and religious services without ever needing to even re-coup my own costs—but there is no trust fund nor expense account with my name on them. People are somehow able to assume that because you are dedicated to spiritual service that you don't need food and shelter, let alone access to scholarly books and articles, or the means of service such as indoor space, communications technology, and organizational structures. Yet it is very simple, in order to serve, you need the resources with which to serve—this includes your own life and health. As recent illness has demonstrated yet again, without one's own well-being, the rest isn't possible.

In this world we must work within limitations: limited time, effort, and lifespan in the best of circumstances, the factors that limit those better circumstances, and also limited resources in the sense of resources not existing (unless brought into being), or of limited access and ability. If it is a matter of access, the limitation can generally be summed up as money. In the case of ability, there are individual limitations such as skill, education, cognitive ability, integrated experience, and level of development; as well as, social limitations such as what can be shared with others, what can be collaborated on in a community co-practitioners, and issues of simply being allowed to work without outside hindrance.

So, a brief hiatus with few if any answers and many many questions to ponder. I don't know how much time I'll have to share the process here. The more long-term and serious work I engage in, the less time I have for things that may be useful for me to share and useful to the few who are interested, yet don't aid in sustainability. I'll keep working but more of it will be longer-term and not freely available. Yet, I'll keep posting when I can.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Questions Make Heretics ...Yet Again

It was true when (pseudo)Tertulian wrote it, and is still true today, questions make heretics. If you want to look at the real differences beyond issues of identity and doctrine between those considered "heretics" and those considered "orthodox" in any social grouping, not just religion, see who is asking the pertinent fundamental questions and who is trying to shut them up. And, yes, there are both stupid questions and pointless questions, in addition to many varieties of verbalizations in question form that are not really questions.

It is not formulating statements with question marks, but a fundamental and general attitude of inquiry unsatisfied with dismissive answers that is always the real heresy. Answers are much more comfortable, even "wrong" answers, there are no surprises, no open possibilities. To say that people in general, and the powers-that-be in particular, don't like questions is a truly subterranean understatement.

Even most people who identify with ancient movements declared heretical, such as Gnosticism, don't care for questions beyond the "how can I join your group?" or, "where can I buy your book?" variety. Sadly, common questions in academia such as, "how did you come to that conclusion?" and, "why don't you consider this alternative conclusion?" are somehow greeted as personal attacks by many people, and result in long-held animosities.

With this fear of questions, is it any wonder that those trying to dismiss the questioners do so by creating answers for them? What better way to avoid the questions, than by disputing a straw-man created from made up answers? This is species of the fallacy I've called assuming the argument (see this article), which is attributing an entire argument to someone without basis for doing so. For example, someone asks a question such as, “how did you come to that conclusion?” Rather than taking it at face value and answering the question, the respondent assumes that an argument is being made against the conclusion and attacks the imaginary argument. This type of interaction has become so common that answering questions directly or asking clarifying questions to see if an argument is intended, are now the exception.

What brought on this meditation is the forced resignation of Bible teacher Kent Dobson. Dobson was fired for hosting a documentary where his role was to literally pose questions in interviews with experts. He didn't state any conclusions himself. This doesn't seem to be because he was restraining himself, keeping his mouth shut to protect his job, but that the questions interested him because he didn't have answers and wasn't satisfied with dismissive ones either. There don't seem to be any “heretical” beliefs lurking beneath the surface, nor any reason to assume that there are. Yet, questions make heretics in the eyes of the school board, and Dobson is out of a job. I wish him well as a fellow questioner.

Teacher Ousted for Hosting Documentary

Monday, March 31, 2008

Socially Engaged Spirituality

I've been intending on writing about this for months now. When I returned to graduate school it was primarily to pursue my research interests in psycho-spiritual development. However, I found myself quite drawn to the certificate program in Socially Engaged Spirituality despite reservations about relevancy, time, and additional cost. Long story short, I followed my intuition and applied for the program. Since starting, I've gained a great deal of insight into spirituality and spiritual practice by approaching from this outer form of mysticism, directly connecting inner and outer transformation.

The program director is Donald Rothberg, who has recently written The Engaged Spiritual Life exploring engaged spirituality from a Buddhist perspective. You can also listen to a radio interview with Donald Rothberg on KPFA's Living Room. Interview begins about twenty minutes into the program.

In my coursework so far, I have not only made connections and gained insight into Gnostic practice, but in the process have developed a theory on psycho-spiritual transformation. So, the program has directly benefited what I had thought was an unrelated research interest. Score another one for intuition. And, yes, Engaged Gnosticism will have its place in the Gnostic Studies program at the Gnosis Institute.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Following the Path of Gnosis: The Spiritual Exercise of Attention

Gnosticism can be seen as flowing from the joining of three major streams of Western practice and thought: the philosophical traditions, particularly the practices of Platonism; the mystery traditions (aka “schools” or “cults”) of mythic and symbolic experiential religious transformative practices; and, the “apocalyptic” (in the sense of visionary) traditions, principally those within Judaism. Because of our modern understanding and modern practice of philosophy, we often view ancient philosophy through a modern lens, seeing it as an abstract, theoretical, or system-bound way of thinking. However, in the ancient world philosophy was primarily a way of life, a practice of self-transformation.
The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, and exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom. (Hadot, 1995, p. 83)
The means of achieving these goals of living out a philosophy were spiritual exercises. When there is mention of “spiritual exercises,” there is a strong association with the work by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (aka Jesuits). However, Ignatius is not the originator of the concept, but a later exemplar of a long tradition that predates Christianity.

Spiritual exercises are essentially intentional techniques for growth and transformation that include: modifying consciousness, training the mind, preparing/preempting reactions to experiences, developing mental and emotional capabilities, focusing attention, etc. Pierre Hadot (1995) has traced the use of spiritual exercises in the philosophical practices of antiquity at least as far back as Plato. And, similar types of practices are a hallmark of religious and spiritual practice.

Attention (prosoche) is named in both of Philo of Alexandria's lists of spiritual exercises. This is the focus on the present moment, a vigilance and readiness to act and react to what is present. This is a practical emancipation of ourselves from being caught up in past or future, or any other dissociated state, through applied attention. The present is the only situation in which we have the freedom to act, in considerations of the past and future we can only be reactive. We are more familiar with this exercise from the Buddhist tradition where it is called “mindfulness.”

As a meditation teacher instructed a group I was in, “We often say that it is very easy to be mindful. The difficulty is remembering to be mindful.” This points us to the core of the exercise: it is not simply having the capacity for attention or mindfulness, but applying attention that is the spiritual exercise and that application is were the difficulty lay and where some discipline is required. The description of this as an “exercise” is apt, for just like a physical exercise, one has to actually perform it to gain any benefit. Knowing how to exercise, being capable of exercise, and knowing that exercise is beneficial, isn't enough—it must be performed regularly. This failure to exercise is a particular danger in the case of spiritual exercises, as we may have a tendency to dismiss them as merely “mental” exercises. And in a sense think that thinking about them is somehow equivalent to doing them.

Attention is also like a physical exercise in that it is more difficult when beginning, and that one encounters resistance and may discontinue after trying it a few times when immediate dramatic results do not manifest. A number of strategies will help with this. One is making a commitment to a mindfulness meditation class or group. These can be found almost everywhere. An experienced and knowledgeable instructor can greatly aid in getting started and save you time in developing skill as you progress. However, the benefits of committing to a class or group can almost be replicated on your own by having a specific place, a specific time, and a conducive environment to work through the issues in beginning the practice of attention. The “technique” is simple yet there are a lot of skills that can help. The usual method of beginning is to focus your attention on your breathing for a set amount of time. There are many variations possible, such as different targets of the focus of your attention, the main thing is to find a focus that works for you. When you catch yourself having drifted in your focus, re-focus and continue. Over time you become capable of maintaining focus for longer, and catching your mind wandering more quickly. When you have performed this basic focusing exercise for long enough, you can begin the actual exercise of maintaining attention in more circumstances and for longer in your life.

The most frequent excuse or complaint concerning any exercise is that you don't have enough time. However, as you practice mindfulness you will realize that it is the only time when you are really living. So, it isn't that you don't have time in your life, but this is when you actually get to live your life. The indirect benefits also vastly outweigh the cost in time spent, as research shows that even a little mindfulness exercise improves focus and performance (University of Pennsylvania, 2007). Furthermore, as you progress you can exercise in more situations. Being mindful while washing dishes, for example, makes washing dishes a spiritual exercise. It is something of great value that can be added to many situations. Such as, enjoying the time spent waiting, instead of feeling frustration. Or, being able to give our full attention to someone as the precious gift that it is.

This exercise of attention is exercising and developing consciousness of awareness itself. And, every situation we can exercise attention in, it another situation where we are now free not only to act, but to be. This is not only a basic skill and a place to start on the path of Gnosis, it is a very powerful tool in its own right, for it is the ability to focus, to shine, the light within. As the Gospel of Thomas says, "within the person of light there is light. If it shines, the world is illumined. If it does not shine, there is darkness."

Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Cambridge: Blackwell.

University of Pennsylvania (2007, June 26). Meditate to concentrate. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Spirituality: Flat or Multi-level?

Two basic views of spirituality are developed as the fundamental framework for understanding individual spiritual experience in William James' classic the Varieties of Religious Experience. “The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience.” (James, 1902/1982, p. 166) James terms this difference as the difference between the “once-born” individual and the “twice-born” individual.
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account. (p. 166)
The “once-born” understanding is a horizontal or “flat” understanding of spirituality. “Flat” meaning that in this view, spirituality is something understood within a single framework of meaning. For example, if one text or teacher says the opposite of another text or teacher, then by necessity there is a contradiction. As a single framework for meaning, literalism is an example of a flat understanding of spirituality, however, a flat understanding need not be literal. A flat understanding can be nuanced or complex, but that nuance or complexity is external and general. The framework doesn't change, from person to person, or as one learns or increases in understanding—everything makes sense within it, or makes no sense at all.

In contrast, in the “twice-born” understanding there is more than one framework. This does not mean that all the frameworks are understood, for that would be a flat understanding, though perhaps categorized or compartmentalized. Rather there is an awareness of at least one more framework, even if it is largely unknown.
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. ... There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other. (p. 166)
From the “flat” understanding of the “once-born” that James uses to describe this to his audience, the multi-level view of the “twice-born” is the illness of a “sick soul” that requires an individual process of growth or transformation. Yet even after this process these individuals have “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep.” (p. 187) This is an example of the incommensurability of these two frameworks for understanding spirituality.

James, W. (1902/1982). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. New York: Penguin.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Questions: Practices for Gnosis

...since (some forms) Buddhism uses vipassana and shamatha to attain enlightenment and liberation (also Nirvana) Gnosticism uses (insert method here) to attain enlightenment and liberation (also called Gnosis). ...does the EG teach a specific method to allow the user to obtain enlightenment, or in this case, Gnosis?
It is a mistake to simply equate Gnosis with enlightenment. Gnosis is the method/means of liberation, not the liberated state. The state of redemption or liberation would be more equivalent to the enlightened state. The one who is liberated has Gnosis, it being the means of liberation, and the texts use it in that way as well, but it is not the only way that the term is used.

In short, Gnosis is not in itself a state of being (though you can use it to indirectly refer to that), it is a way to refer to a fundamental spiritual growth/transformation/liberation process.

The methods for progressing in Gnosis that are referred to in ancient scriptures, and that we use today in the EG, are richly poetic and symbolic forms of personal transformational experiences that are either focused upon an individual or are generally participated in by a group. They produce changes in consciousness, and have both initiatory (pivotal) transformative effects, and also gradual transformative effects from regular participation (such as meditation has).

They involve participating in the sacred stories (myths) of the tradition and applying them directly to yourself through having a form to experience them in, so one can gain gnosis of them. In our practice, many aspects of these are revisited every year. There are also times in one's life when there is a more direct need/use of a deeper application/experience of some of them. And there are traditional methods for this as well.

One can also go through a long process of learning how to offer these methods in service to others, which involves participation at gradually higher levels of responsibility, while undergoing a further transformative process. They are not something you can try on your own without training and experience.

These methods are what we do as a church. They are richly symbolic liturgical services, that primarily consist of the mysteries/sacraments that are listed in the Gospel of Philip. The regular transformational method we use is the Holy Gnostic Eucharist. The methods we employ as a church are the mysteries/sacraments and other liturgical rituals.

I know Christian churches generally use striped-down versions of the sacraments and largely understand them in a theological manner that is quite different from their origin as mystery practices in the ancient world. But that is not our approach. We take care to follow the traditional forms and traditional requirements for conveying the mysteries. And, in my own experience and experiences of others reported to me—these forms serve that purpose. And that is the purpose and function of the EG as a church. It isn't that we hold services and then do the real transformational work later on, the services are real transformational methods—our services are public group spiritual practice.

Individual spiritual practice is also encouraged. Contemplation, prayer, meditation, active imagination, and dream work, are among practices commonly used by individuals in our tradition. Education in the tradition and related topics is also a part of our ministry through the Gnostic Society. All of these activities fit under the ancient understanding of spiritual exercises and aid our personal development, as well as preparation and integration of the mysteries. Yet, the spiritual practices that are more oriented towards attaining Gnosis are the mysteries instituted by Christ.