Thursday, May 28, 2009

Questions: Gnostic Theodicy

I have a question about the Gnostic explanation for the evil in the world. If the Demiurge is responsible for this flawed creation, why would the true God create the Demiurge? If this true God is perfect, why would it allow lesser deities to emanate from it? Why does it emanate in the first place? It seems to me that the Gnostic explanation for the problem of evil comes back to the same dilemma as the other explanations.
That your formulation of it comes down to the same problem is to be expected. The 'problem of evil' (aka, theodicy, justness of God) is a result of a particular theological definition of God as: all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing. Since it is a definitional problem and not a situational one, any situation in which you place that definition will result in that same problem. The reverse is also true, if you do not have that definition then you do not have that problem. Gnosticism doesn't have that theology and so doesn't have that problem.

Mythology is not theology, and the Gnostic approach is mythological rather than theological. Also, using the term "evil" invokes a larger dualistic frame that isn't necessarily any relation to the ancient thought on the subject. The Greek word is kakos, which means: bad, ugly, ill-born, unskilled, unlucky, foul, pernicious, wretched, etc. We get 'cacophony' from kako-phonos meaning "bad/ugly sound."

The explanation for endemic kakos in Valentinian Gnostic mythology is that the half-maker (demiurge) was created apart from the emanation of the ultimate divine source, and was then hidden in a fog and so was ignorant of the divine. The half-maker as a kakon (unskilled) creator then begins to create the powers (archons) and the cosmos. This story gives an explanation for the kakos (badness, ugliness, wretchedness) that is an endemic aspect of the cosmos and also the ignorance of the powers that are a part of it--it is separated from the divine and ignorant of it. This also shows the remedy, which is the reason for, point of, the myth.

The word "perfect" is another translation that invokes an anachronistic meaning frame. The two applications of telos are "without blemish," and "end, completed." In contrast, we combine and amplify the two in our use of "perfect." However, the ultimate divinity can be without blemish and still undergo a process such as emanation.

As far as the 'why' of emanations in the myth, it is also probably best understood as descriptive of the many ways in which we experience the divine (with ourselves being an aspect of such experience), and so as showing the way back to the divine. It can also be viewed as the original divine unity going through a process of realizing its different aspects through emanating (hypostasizing) those aspects.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Linens from Catholic Linens

You can tell that it is getting close to my seventh sacerdotal ordination anniversary if you look at my old altar linens. The set I had been using was an ordination gift from Fr. Michael Laferty, being both aesthetically pleasing and also of sentimental value. So, it was even more unfortunate when I wore holes along a crease of the purificator. The amice that I had been using was already well into the process of coming apart months before. It was time, that is, I was forced to get a new set of linens.

I shopped online, looking for something inexpensive that might work. Donations don't cover regular expenses and holy week was coming up. I was torn between cheap and something that would hold up to use and so last much longer. I came across that was offering 100% linen linens for about the price of 51% linen linens. The proprietor offers quality and durability rather than lace and embroidery. She also offers larger sized amices.

My order arrived much faster than I was expecting, even though I ordered a larger size amice. I have been quite pleased with them. Pure linen is much more absorbent and more durable. You really notice the absorbency when you use the lavabo towel. As someone who sweats under all the layers of vestments, the large amice is very nice. The linen absorbs more, and with the larger size there is more of it. It really helps protect stoles and chasubles.

The red crosses are very basic, five cross-stich "x"s. The linens come pressed and creased correctly, with the exception of the purificators (they are folded in half rather than a trifold).

Friday, May 08, 2009

Icy Cold Blast from the Past

I would like to say, “well, now I have seen it all,” but that is a statement easily falsified by further events.

Some time ago I spent time on a forum, I said I was a Gnostic, they said they were Gnostics. There were occasional useful/non-polemical discussions at the very beginning. It seemed nice to find other Gnostics, and be Gnostics together. By now you should have guessed what the issue would become—that name-space “Gnostic.”

The problem seriously emerged when an attempt was made to define that name-space. When urged to caution, the charge was made “we have to do it to exclude the sex magic and new age groups!” Despite the many problems with that 'reason,' the push went aggressively on. Dissent is rarely popular by definition, and for such a grand scheme there was no opt out option, it was the entire name-space remember. A vocal dissenter is a persona non grata. The definition was presented as a fiat accompli, one of many such 'conclusions.' It was presented without an argument in its favor, the burden being on others to successfully convince those responsible for it that they were in error. Yes, it was that scholarly of a debate. “Here's my conclusion, convince me I'm wrong,” is not a caricature since identification with the conclusion stated was the norm, with arguments against being taken personally. Did I mention that these were the moderators of the forum?

Of course, it only got worse. In effect, if you disagreed with the definition of the name-space you were telling others that they were not Gnostics. Be part of the collective, or you are attacking the 'aggrieved' other parties. It was all about identity. It was the worst instance of identity politics. Simply not affirming the proclamations of some became “saying they weren't as good as you,” or, “saying that they were bad Gnostics.” It certainly wasn't the case that the 'aggrieved' weren't sincere, just that it was not a rational reaction by any means.

And, it got worse. The right to be a distinct individual with a different view on anything Gnostic was completely abrogated in practice. Any post making a distinction in regards to my own understanding and actual practice of Gnosticism was attacked by many respondents in ways that violated the forum rules. The only response of the moderators was to promptly close the entire discussion.

So, I was effectively silenced. Oh, the moderators did discuss me in their private forum, which they either forgot I had access to or just didn't care. Other moderators were asked to close discussions so it wouldn't seem biased on the surface that one of those involved actually closed them. Juvenile nicknames were used for me. A significant personal bias against my church and bishop was evidenced on a number of occasions. After seeing all that they were about, I left.

Yes, even after I left it got worse. I was pursued and hounded at another forum for the same sin of disagreeing. It may have done the trick of putting me off forums all together and effectively silencing me yet again. Fortunately, the moderators of that forum actually intervened to remove the personal attack made by a moderator of the first forum. There is much to be said for standards.

That was years ago, but the same people are doing the same things and whining and insinuating the same things. While about the most seriously creepy thing that I have experienced in my online dealings with those who call themselves Gnostics, I like to think that I have learned from the ordeal.

What comes most to mind is that community actually means being able to be distinct and to make distinctions. If you cannot be distinct it is not really a community, it is an identity. Dialoging is easiest with those who won't have identity-crossover with you, that is, for whom you do not play a role in their identity. When there is a similarity, caution is needed, as are perhaps new qualifiers for distinctions within your shared idea or name-space. To actually share things in common, we need to be able to share our distinctions and differences; after all, they are what we have to give each other.

One of the big lessons I learned is to actively remain agnostic about people and groups encountered online. When all you can know about them is what they say and what others say, it goes without saying that there is no gnosis involved. One can easily make a false-recognition out of a desire to either uncritically include or reject. Staying agnostic is what the ancients would have called a spiritual exercise, a practice of remaining aware of the difference between gnosis, doxa, and episteme.

I studied the scholarship on Gnosticism for years and had my own developing understanding from experience before encountering any practicing Gnostics, and I was quite skeptical about them, with many tests they had to pass both formulated and vague. Yet, somehow when this started, my policy was to accept anyone as they said they were, until proven otherwise. I had become ego-identified with being Gnostic in the usual way of such things so that I unconsciously identified with others who identified the same way. While a common and well-studied psychological effect, it is no less a failure on my part.

I also think that I have acquired more skillful means of communicating by that long exercise in not communicating. If someone misunderstands your argument, you can try to learn to argue more clearly. However, if someone twists your plain text in order to 'misunderstand' you, they are attacking you and not your argument, and that fact is all that there really is to learn.

The other lesson that gets driven home all too often is that if someone is attacking you in this medium, you probably cannot help them in any way. The reason for this is that anything you say will be twisted, and there is no “reality factor” that has to come into play. The interpretation by the individual does not have to be subjected to reason, facts, or simple reality tests—in this medium the interpretation by each isolated individual can be unassailable. However, I don't know if it will keep me from trying. After all, in the worse case, it only brings in a more personal animosity against me in particular.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

TM Polemicizes (Poorly)

I came across a bit of polemic while trying to find information on Ecclesia Pistis Sophia, a recent church of "Sophian Gnosticism." ("Gnostic” and “Gnosticism" are used in a vague general way by the EPS, not in reference to ancient Gnosticism.) I have no desire to speak ill of the individual I'll refer to semi-anonymously as TM or his approach. Filtering the Gnostic myths and symbols through Kabbalistic myths and symbols isn't my cup of tea, but it seems to work for some on their spiritual journeys, and I wish every sojourner the best. However, I would like to reply specifically to some mistaken views expressed by him in one of his postings, since they seem to be views of my own tradition, and because they are just bad arguments.
Of course, rather than the cosmology of the Valentinian Gnostic tradition we draw upon the Jewish Kabbalah, generating a Christian Kabbalah; but many of the basic principles remain much the same. The difficulty is that, in truth, no one really knows the Valentinian Gnostic cosmology in its original intention and context – there must be much guess work and speculation filling in the gaps. This is not the case, however, with the Kabbalah, but there are plenty of source works and it remains a living tradition, so that when we draw from its teachings we may know the original intention and context, and when we shift the teachings to form our Christian Kabbalah we can do so with this knowledge and understanding.
This statement says that the ancient Gnostic traditions are at a remove from us. While it exaggerates the difficulty in understanding the original intention and context of Valentinian cosmology, the fact that it wasn't handed down to us as a living tradition is quite obviously true. This is given as the reason for choosing to use the Kabbalah as a core tradition, it is a living tradition as opposed to the Valentinian one. This statement makes sense. I could hope for the presentation of the results of this to be called "Sophian Kabbalah" rather than "Sophian Gnosticism," but it is a valid argument for the pragmatic choice that was made to teach a Kabbalistic core rather than a Gnostic one. One can also quote such scholars as Gershom Scholem about the Kabbalah being "Jewish Gnosticism," and the resonance between the two traditions, though they remain quite distinct.

Many in my tradition study the Kabbalah quite extensively, including the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, but it is not our core tradition—for that we use the ancient Gnostic tradition. It is a situation that can result in a somewhat steep learning curve in order to understanding the ancient context and intent of ancient scriptures (there is also a steep curve in beginning to study Kabbalah), but it does not require guesswork or speculation as a basis for practicing as modern Gnostics. The reason for this is gnosis, which most often can be translated as recognition or acquaintance. We come to know our selves, our cosmos, and the teachings, myths and symbols of our scriptures, through recognition and acquaintance—through gnosis. Gnosis is not the end of the path it is the method, that is, the path itself. Following the path of Gnosis we use study and experience of the myths, symbols, and teachings of scripture, individual spiritual inquiry, and developmental spiritual practices, in particular the mysteries/sacraments. These reflect and illuminate each other through gnosis.

However, somewhat opposite reasoning from the quote above is used against us modern practitioners of plain old (as in ancient) Gnosticism.
In this regard, I’m quite amazed that often times modern schools of Gnosticism become so bound up in orthodox patterns of priesthood, the formula of the Mass and so forth, and I’m astounded that this, very often, is how “Gnosticism” is interpreted and presented...
We actually view this in similar terms outlined in the first quote. We are choosing to practice a living tradition of ancient mystery ritual practices, a majority of which were practiced by ancient Gnostics, at a time when any specifically Gnostic tradition of practice has been long lost. However, according to TM, such a choice is not possible in this context, instead we must be "bound up in orthodox patterns." Apparently, we cannot look at the ancient Gnostic sources and see that they had mystery ritual practices, that they shared some of these with the universal church, and also that Gnostic schools functioned within the universal church, then make a choice to base our practice on a living tradition, rather than make one up largely out of guesswork and speculation. We would much rather have a living tradition of practice than one of cosmology.

Of course, when speaking of others it is easy to only consider the rules applied one way. In psychology we call this an instance of the fundamental attribution error.
If this is the case, then naturally our ancient Gnostic brothers and sisters would assume that their modern counterparts would generate their schools upon actual gnosis of Christ; specifically, actual gnosis of the Risen Christ.
If that were the case, then naturally we would expect you to generate your school upon actual gnosis of Christ, rather than on the tradition of Kabbalah. (Don't you hate it when someone turns your own argument against you by replacing terms?) You see, it doesn't matter who makes them, polemical arguments are generally bad arguments.

TM does talk quite a bit of sense about gnosis, and expresses valid though misplaced concerns. For the most part he's preaching to the choir. But from my point of view, such concerns point more towards his own group. He would seem to agree that Gnosis is not some esoteric knowledge that you have but knowledge that you are. Yet, couching everything in such a complex esoteric system as Kabbalah strikes me as somewhat counter-productive. Especially if someone can come and potentially experience gnosis of the living Christ through participation in a Eucharist service, with no need to learn a system. He merely assumes that the ancient mysteries practiced by Christians were not born out of Gnosis. Yet, there are scholars who think that the sacramental aspects of Christianity are Gnostic in origin. Surely, seeking to experience the presence of Christ rather than merely be told about him is quite Gnostic, and it is also the purpose of the Eucharist as a spiritual practice, a group spiritual exercise.

In the end it is best to remain agnostic concerning that which is in the domain of gnosis and of which we have no gnosis, no direct knowledge. The questions that I have for TM that would make his position and understanding clear to me are not ones that can be answered with words. So, I remain agnostic though not antagonistic.