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.


Echo said...

It seems as if an individual's Freewill behaves more like gasoline than water if applied, even lovingly, to this type of smoke and flame.

While watching television recently, I heard an interesting, unintended remark made by an addiction specialist treating a patient (which I will now mangle).

While reviewing how the patient had been verbally attacking him, the doctor commented on how the addiction was winning and seemed to have no awareness of or engagement with the patient's attempt to direct his anger towards the Dr.

It was apparent that the Dr. was aware that he was solely fighting a disease and not a person. This was a profound "AHA" moment for me. I fancied that the Dr. was in pursuit of some universal thing he recognized in many sick people time and time again across many different people

And, I thought that this nerdy, abstract engagement with something archetypal was a masterful way to reject a blatant invitation to wear a poorly-fitted villian's black coat, top hat and handle-bar moustache.

One of my meditations lately has been to see this unversal, "other" nature to this type of shadow violence. Of course, personal safety is my initial primary concern, but looking beyond the specifics of the stated reason has helped me to at least not make the situation worse in some cases.

I wish I could knock this one out of the park more often.

Troy W. Pierce said...

Apparently, no statement of facts can go without objection by someone.

“We know of no Gnostic hermits, no solitary practitioners.” Apparently, there is one report of one hermit. The simple statement clearly says we know of none. This could be amended to read that we know of one with no change in the argument. One report in a tradition that spans continents and centuries does not a trend make, in fact it highlights the lack of other reports.

“These groups did distinguish between individuals, just not by outward incidentals like gender.” Here the statement about gender is unnecessary for the argument. The criticism leveled is that not all Gnostics at all times considered male and female in complete equality. Yes, that is true and has nothing to do with what is being addressed by this passage. While, it is hard to keep the topic in mind when parsing and sifting for hints of academic heresy, the topic is distinctions between individuals in Gnostic groups. The failure of Gnostics to consider individuals primarily in terms of socio-biological groups, i.e., gender, is a frequent source of complaint.

“There were Gnostic groups who had members who were clergy in the Christian church, holding holy orders that included that of bishop.” This is objected to because of the inclusion of the episcopate, overlooking Priscillian of Avilla, a documented bishop in the later fully developed office of the episcopate. In any case, the claim of Gnostics acting as clergy in the Christian church is not disputed and is the actual point.

Thomas said...

I don't consider churches to be "evil" at all, necessarily - especially Gnostic ones.

Just far less "essential" than they consider themselves.