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.


Echo said...

This is a timely topic for me. It is very challenging to deal with uncertainty. Gnosticism can potentially be that eternal wrench in the works (thank goodness!). Christian Kabbalah has been a major constellation in my universe for over 20 years now. My more serious involvement with Gnosticism has been more recent. The more I study or experience Gnosticism or "Gnostic moments", the less inclined I am to talk about them. These moments are not well-served by words.

But, I have experienced some type of anxiety or concern about how these two systems reconcile. I have had to remind myself that my loyalty is not to a system of thought but to Christ as I understand and experience Christ.

If Kabbalah is wave, then Gnosticism is particle. One a musical note, the other the silence between the notes. Merkabah mystical thinking mentions the importance of recognizing interplay of opposite forces.

Making a statement that some Gnostic threads are both too speculative and too regimented when (by inference) compared to a philsophy based on Merkabah mysticism is funny or slightly mind-bending. What type of intentionality is that type of statement based? Merkabah riders were originally an ecstatic movement to have direct experience of God that evolved into a highly regimented framework or iterative
descriptions of Godhood. What to expect and what to look for and how to transmit knowledge of this path became formalized and discussed, aka, orthodox. Why decrease any divine potentiality by stating or implying where that Potential is not? I doubt that is the intent behind such an awesome system.

Compare that to the Gnostic Masses I have attended. People show up at the same place at the same time and share in a moment less complex than American traffic laws. One has to observe more rituals to get
to Church than to be at Church. And yet, mass, for me, has truly been a mystical experience. A blackbox event where I understand the inputs and the outputs but cannot really detail the process in meaningful terms even though one can readily read all about it. One can even get good advice sans dogma if you recognize that for every two Gnostics, there are at least three opinions. My point is it is dangerous to suggest where spirit-filled moments are NOT found. However, it is hard to be an apologist for Gnostic experience. Describing a "Gnostic moment" is a bit like holding an egg, you cannot hold it too tightly or too loosely. The symbolic intellectual signposts used in Mass are less dogmatic and more accessible than complex frameworks like the Tree of Life. However, they can potentially be more challenging. Matthew 7:12 is both simple and a challenge where the 10 commandments are neither. But humanity started with the latter and evolved into the former. If you've put off attending a Gnostic Mass, try it, listen with your inner ear. It may deepen or compliment your other practices in unforeseen ways.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be too hard on "TM" personally; all you've got to do is read any of the biographies posted on the Net about and by him, and you realize that he was emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically strip-mined as a helpless child.

At eight years of age (far too young to be contemplating anything outside of the physical IMO) he was robbed of his childhood, stripped of his very personhood, that Self which is supposed to develop gnosis as we age, in order that we may reign over all, and forced into a mold that best served the purposes of the adults around him.

I read the history of what was done to that defenseless, unwitting eight-year-old, and I am horrified, nauseated, and truly repelled, by the archonic forces that would so systematically destroy an innocent child.

Consider the source.