Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why I'm Not A Gnostic

As always with these theology posts, this is my opinion. Opinion is essentially the same idea as doctrine, so it's fair to say that this is my doctrine, concerning gnostic ideas. YDMV

I don’t believe in God. Not that unusual a statement, these days, but I suppose I mean it differently from many people who say it.

I *do* believe that there is a continuum of existence that is subtly interconnected with material existence, yet is usually imperceptible by material sensation or instruments. I’m willing to condense that to terms like Otherworld, or Spirit World(s), for both brevity and to make better sense of traditional mythic models. Within that continuum a variety of beings exist.

I also commonly refer to this entire continuum as ‘the divine’. I use ‘divine’ and ‘of the spirit world’ pretty much interchangeably. I’ll probably talk more about the rejection of dualism but, as a start, I reject good and evil as spiritual principles and consider ‘the divine’ to be as morally neutral as ‘nature’. In the mythic model I use, the divine is not in conflict with itself (or with anything else) and there are not two opposing sides.

As a modern Pagan, I take nature as my primary revelation from the divine, and assume that the divine resembles nature, and nature resembles the divine. By observing nature, I find that the divine must consist of a multitude of individual entities, all existing in a variety of relationships and ecologies. That variety may end up as One Great Process, though science has yet to really decide on that. I remain agnostic on a mythic level about it as well.

In the great system of the divine there are an uncountable number of beings. Many of those beings seem to dwell with or near the dwellings of mortal humans. Many of those beings have become the regular allies of human tribes and clans. The greatest (i.e. most effective) of these we have come to call ‘gods’ (from a german root meaning “that to which we sacrifice”). Over the ages humans have worked out various methods by which to communicate with the gods and other spirits, and using them we have established pacts and mutual obligations, making some of these spirits functionally members of our societies. These are the ‘patrons’ of our various human endeavors, and out methods of relationship are what is called ‘religion’. We offer to them, and they bless us in turn.

The thing is, I see no model in nature for an omnipotent managing intelligence. I see no sign of it in nature’s processes. Those each proceed by their own strength, come what may. A sea-shore does not need a King Gull to keep the tides turning and the crabs breeding.

Thus, I find myself rejecting several core Gnostic ideas. First I reject the notion that material life is some sort of error. Since Pagan lore doesn’t contain the notion of ‘fallen’ nature, I take nature to be whole and holy exactly as we find it. Even the cosmic model of Neoplatonism seems far too pessimistic to me. In the archaic Indo-European cosmos the material world is not at the bottom of a ladder, rather it is in the center of a wheel. Here in the great world of story and beauty even the Great Gods come to the Fire, and make their will done. There are many Otherworld places to explore, but there is nothing to escape from here, and nowhere else that is our true home.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the psychologizing and politicizing influence that makes the Gnostic myth of evil matter into a socio-political allegory. There are certainly strains of mysticism that effectively use rejection of human social programming to enhance wisdom. The lesson that childhood messages of ‘right and wrong’, and adult programs imposed by commercial greed, are not so much ‘true’ as they are products of cultural hypnosis can be a powerful agent for personal growth.

However, I observe the Gnostic impulse (or what seems like it to me) producing a kind of paranoia. When one’s mythic landscape includes ol’ Yaldabaoth and his evil Archons, one naturally looks for their equivalent in the political sphere of the material world. After years as a left-wing observer of world politics, my own conclusion is that there is no cabal of rulers who determine the world’s course (at least not successfully… there are probably some who have tried). Just like on the veldt, there are lionesses and lions and jackals and elephants and every sort of beast, but nobody is in charge, and the system isn’t screwed up (and nobody's to blame) when some lovely antelope becomes dinner.

So I take the same attitude to society as I do to nature. There it is – and we have to deal with it. I have an optimistic view of human nature and the societies we make. My opinion is that the trend toward more money, freedom, education and health for all is proceeding nicely. Certainly there are plenty of rough spots, but how else could it be?

From a historical position, I view Neoplatonism and Gnosticism as very late products of Hellenism, with strong influence not only from the growing Christian movement, but from the huge number of Jewish philosophers throughout the Roman Empire. (One source asserts that before Christ as much as 10% of Romans were Jewish or were synagogue-attending sympathizers.) However I don’t mean to propose that the sort of One Final God at the Top that we find in Neoplatonism was totally a foreign import. Indo-European myth had been trending toward a pantheistic or monistic theology for a while, often with the archaic ‘law king’ type (Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Vishnu) as the ‘supreme personality of godhead’ (as the ISKON folks say).

Since my interest is in archaic Paganism, I tend to ignore those trends of the late classical era. I prefer a world-view in which the world is just as it is meant to be, and we are properly at home within it. As individuals we have a variety of paths open to us – there is no One Great Mission that is the Only Thing That Matters in the End. We can choose to be householders, living by code and custom, getting all the good of land and family, receiving the blessings of the gods through temple rites and hearth religion. We can choose to be various kinds of spiritual specialist or professional (in some cultures) whether as a musician, a diviner, an oral performer (i.e. a ritualist). In some cultures we have the option to discard social code almost entirely, to live as a hermit, wandering holy-person or madman. The warriors, the farmer, the merchant, the priest, the sorcerer, all are true and good parts of the Holy Cosmos.

In my opinion there is no Secret God who can take us out of the cosmos, and nowhere to go if there were. In terms of the afterlife, it may be that certain mystery initiations can allow a god to grant us a pleasant sort of specific afterlife. It may be that without proper preparation we only live as twittering ghosts or shambling sluagh, hungry for sacrifices. That notion is archaic enough. I don’t think there is a Tyrant God who keeps us in thrall, and I don’t think there is a mystery, or gnosis, that can free us.


Dhr. Balthazar said...

Big can of worms! :-)

I do resonate with much of what you say, I must admit. Though it has to be said that it seems there was little consensus within the various gnostic streams about the exact extent of this kind of dualism. Some streams of gnosticism were apparently non-dualist, in terms of their path's mystical outcome. I am reminded of similarly dualist religions like buddhism, which then have inner non-dual teachings (Dzogchen, Mahamudra, certain forms of early Zen), as their spiritual pinnacle. Same could be said for Sufism - although Islam, I suppose, isn't strictly dualist... there is a certain hatred for the body and its desires, however.

I wholeheartedly agree that the world itself should be embraced as a sacred centre. I think this schism is wounding in our psyche, and to the planet itself. I tend to relate the fallen 'world' of gnostic mythic thinking (Ialdaboath,archons etc) to be the neurotic consumerist expression of our society. Or any kind social or internal pattern that entraps us in an illusory, circular, cycle that results in suffering and stress.

It should be mentioned that very many ancient african religions (and contemporary ones) were monotheistic - placing a creative source at the top with hierarchies of spiritual beings below Him. This is one of the reasons that Vodou and Santeria 'syncretised' workably with Catholicism. Though in the african model how that plays out is vastly different to Judeo-Christian system of course!

Interesting topic. I am sure you will get a thousand different opinions!

tlryder said...

This is a terrific essay, especially coming on the heels of that discussion on the ADF-Druidry list about the 3 Circles of existence and the One Consciousness theory. I've often struggled to explain how I can believe in my concept of "the Universe" as a continuum of life and spirit all interconnected without assigning "the Universe" personality or agency.

Even though I occasionally say things like "I"ll ask the Universe to bring you. . ." I don't have any concept of the Universe as an actor. I think of it as a system that I might be able to influence in a variety of ways. But that's not "God" any more than McDonald is some beneficent overlord who somehow causes sandwiches to come into being on the tray before me.

Another factor that you touched on that I find really interesting is that you say "as a modern pagan" and yet people will still come with the notion that you have to honor this or that or another historical group's philosophy simply because your practice is informed by some ancient practices. However much we study and however we ground our traditions, ultimately we're modern people doing modern things, and parallel traditions from a couple thousand years ago aren't the final arbiters in our practice, however fun they are to debate in a pseudo-academic setting.

And this is getting really long, so once again, thanks for the great essay. I very much enjoyed it!

Gwynt-Siarad said...

Really loved this Essay! It Echos my thoughts and feelings exactly. It's interesting that I was talking about this just last night with my wife. This essay has helped to organize my thoughts and feelings on this subject. Again Thank you.

Jake said...

Totally get your point about the one god, Neoplatonism etc. I'm not so sure this applies equally strongly to late-pagan 'solar pantheism'. This retained much older traditions; the 'top god' was not exterior to material creation; no matter/world hating philosophy need be implied.

Lewy's study of the Chaldean Oracles shows very clearly the kind of philosophical and Zoroastrian strata built on top of an archaic and solunar magical paganism. Though his purpose was to elucidate the development of Theurgy, the analysis enables a very direct route to deconstruction in the other direction. Recovering 'archaic solunar goetia' from what I have termed 'host traditions of another character' is thus not as difficult as it seems. Incorporation of some elements from later formulations is inevitable, and in the case of grimoire materials &c also desirable. Starting from scratch with more recent formulations appears to lose way too much.

IanC said...

Replying to Jake - thanks for writing in...
Agree that not all late classical Hellenism was that sort of gnostic, and the older we get, away from the late classical, the less of it I think we see. I do think some of it is rooted in, or has the same roots as Orphic purity and salvation. It’s an honest part of the Euro-Pagan complex, just not my favorite.

For me, ‘Solar Pantheism’ is just too abstract and proto-monotheist, and I’m just not that much of a sun-worshipper.

OK, love “archaic and solunar magical paganism”. Working from a Northern perspective, the importance of the seven planets and even the Great Lights lessens as one goes further north. Efforts of early 20th century mythographers to find common-or-garden sun and moon deities among the Celts and Germans are mostly set aside at this point. I guess I’d say Urano-Cthonian, or some such – in the North the Underworld was never moved to the stars.

Jake your material on the relationship between the heavens and the underworld has more in it than my one reading of Geosophia has taught me. I’ll be having at it again at some point.

Damn Lewy’s expensive, and even Cleveland’s White Collection doesn’t seem to have it. I’ll admit that my study of the Oracles extends no further than a familiarity with the text.

I think I’m willing to be more overtly re-inventionist than you enjoy, which I hope helps me to build a practice. I’m trying to find an archaic stratum in the North, and there might be an advantage in that ‘archaic’ ideas and practices seemed to persist there as public religion when southern myth had become poetized and occultized. Mound-cults, corpse-magic, formal employment of wailers, all persist into the medieval period (Maybe they do in Greece…). Unfortunately, no manuals of practice do – that’s where the Hellenists have the edge.

I continue to find value in Indic sources as well. So much Tantra seems to be applying the same principles as theurgy, and plenty that looks like what goetia might be. It was really through looking at Indic (and Persian, i.e. Zoroastrian) ritual work that we deepened our Fire and Water Sacrifice thing.
Nine blessings!

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Stephane Lavoie said...

I too, do not buy the “fall of man” theory. Most, if not all, the problems on earth are manmade. WE are the ones creating a “hell on earth” with pollution, over-exploitation, deforestation, extinction of many animals – insects- plants, slavery etc.
And what you refer to as Gods, I call Divine Spirits. And I view the “one God” for lack of a better term as the whole of creation (the limitless). Since it is traditional to refer to Sky Father (or Sun God) and Earth Mother, I use those terms when referring to the 2 powers. To my understanding, they are two aspects of the same “Oneness” just as much as we are part of it. The Sky Father is the cosmic energy in its raw form and the Earth Mother (telluric energy) is a more digestible form of that same energy (like the mother’s milk is food made more digestible for the baby). Sky father gave the seed of life and Earth Mother sustains us. Now I do not worship the One God, it would be pointless since I do not think they are Entities as we understand it. But I imbue myself with the 2 powers (Cosmic and Telluric, Sky and Earth), and work with the 3 kindred.