Saturday, June 27, 2009

Gnosis & Formation

[Response to an individual considering entering a distance formation program in another church.]

The best advice that I can give you is to at least travel to visit and participate for a few days in parish life (if any) and speak at length with different types of participants in any church you are seriously considering, before entering any formation program. This happens automatically in our tradition, because people either live there or are considering moving there. However, in many of these churches one generally only meets others in person for ordination, and these may be at extraordinary events (visits or conferences) disconnected from life at the parish level. Beyond being due diligence, it will also give a level of insight that will prove invaluable if you enter a distance formation program.

Geography is a serious limitation, however gnosis (first-hand knowledge and experience) is also a limitation in that a distance formation is one without the dimension of gnosis. Recently founded church bodies that have such programs don't see gnosis as part of the formation process, and in my experience that is correlated with demonstrations of an understanding of Gnosticism centered on doctrinal elements. There is a long development of an individual's understanding of gnosis, that is itself a part of the overall developmental process, and an institutional understanding narrowly focused on doctrinal elements is more likely to hinder than to aid in this.

For me, an established community of practice is a large part of what a spiritual institution has to offer. It isn't necessarily correlated to the age of a particular institutional form, but it is a matter of having significant experience and interaction in a community of practice. In all spiritual traditions an individual is first a student and is then graduated by being encouraged or approved to teach by a long established teacher. This basic system doesn't always work as intended, but its fundamental purpose is to both pass on a living tradition tied into a larger community of practice, and to ensure the development of the individual beyond a certain point before they become a teacher in that tradition. The “living” aspect and the “development” aspect are of the nature of gnosis. It is worth considering how far back a living tradition goes within an institution and its leading and teaching members.

It may also be useful to point out that at different points of development there are common “universal solutions” that one realizes are not actually solutions of any kind a bit further along. I am not just speaking of personal observations, but also of quantitative research in developmental psychology. While it is best to avoid any simple easy “universal solution” presented, the example of this that is seen far too frequently is the notion of otherwise empty empowerment. This may manifest as a desire of an individual to receive a title without formation, because the title is all that is perceived as needed. It may also manifest as someone essentially granting titles without a formation process, and thinking that doing so is the same as someone going through a formation process.

I think that to be a Gnostic is to consider gnosis to be of importance, even when it is not redemptive-gnosis (usually referred to as Gnosis). One can learn quite a bit at a distance. There is no limitation on information at a distance, but there are severe limitations on gnosis at a distance. I suggest being aware of the severity of the limitations and considering the implications before entering such a program.

For my part, although I am designing a largely distance learning program in Spiritual Ministry and have no reservations about the granting of academic degrees in such a program, I cannot imagine putting someone forward as a candidate for the priesthood who has not had significant experience of the priesthood liturgically and within the context of parish service. Which would result in becoming a Gnostic Priest without gnosis of what a Gnostic Priest does liturgically and informally. That just strikes me as something of an oxymoron.

I hope all goes well whatever path you take. Development does not end with formation, and in an open and supportive environment, where further development does not inevitably lead to conflict with the institution, much can be accomplished. All institutions have their limitations, their blind spots, their weaknesses along with their strengths. I would simply reiterate the suggestion to visit before entering any formation program—a bit of first-hand knowledge, gnosis, is worth more than thousands of words.

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