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13205What Gnosticism Means To Me

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  • Chester Elders
    Nov 3, 2007
      No matter how sharp boundaries may seem, it's
      always possible to imagine a scale where "this" and
      "not this" mingle with tenebrous and attenuated
      fingers. Just as dusk is the border town between night
      and day, so every boundary is an outpost between
      what's on either side. Such frontiers are strange
      hybrids where the breath of one side mixes with the
      breath of another. The deciduous shadows of early
      morning are more a shade of light than of darkness.
      The black sky of the east blends seamlessly with
      sunset red.

      So, if I am "something", whatever that may be,
      then the boundary between what I am and what I'm not
      must follow the same logic. My edges diffuse into
      other edges which in turn diffuse back into me. Just
      as the tide is an amorphous boundary between coast and
      sea, the light of my self-awareness ebbs and flows
      redefining my edges. My outermost layer is also the
      outermost layer of the "other". So, while noon and
      midnight remain safely distinct, "day" is still more
      than noon just as "night" is more than midnight. The
      point is that, in order to know myself I must also
      know that which lies just beyond me, because it really

      Imagine the slightest possible breeze rustling
      through the hairs of your arm. The sensation is so
      slight you're not sure whether you feel it, at all.
      Somehow though, the breeze becomes an extension of
      your skin; it seems to move in syncopation with your
      pulse. The breeze carries your ambit temperature
      beyond your skin and for a systolic instant the atoms
      of the breeze are warmed with the heat of the atoms
      inside of you.

      When that happens, the breeze is like a phantom
      limb; you try to move it and it seems like maybe you
      actually have. Nerves wind like coiled snakes tapering
      into the nothingness of gentle air. Imagine when you
      lie on your arm and it goes numb. Isn't it more like
      moving an external weight rather than your own body?
      The experience takes you beyond the boundary of your
      own skin. The sensation is so brief, though you can
      experience it only as a memory. Yet, within that
      memory it's as if the whole cosmos were layers of your
      nerves and muscle.

      What does all this have to do with gnosticism?
      Before going farther, let me acknowledge just how
      problematical that word is. It's become a pernicious
      artifact of modern scholarship. There's just no one
      kind of "knowing" which the gnostics can be said to
      have utilized. (To justify this claim, I refer you to
      Michael Allen William's book Rethinking "Gnosticism".)
      When I use the word "gnosticism", I personally have in
      mind the least possible meaning it has when applied to
      the various texts known as gnostic. I'm happy with
      whatever modicum of sense the word happens to make
      when interpreting those texts. How can I be sure this
      claim makes sense? I'll explain what I mean by that.

      First, though lets note that Catholic dogma looks
      on gnosticism as little more than an attempt to
      placate and appease the governing archons of the world
      with magic. In a sense, they're right. The disciples
      of Valentinus, a second century gnostic teach that an
      "elect", known as the pneumatics are destined to
      return to the ineffable god beyond this world. In
      effect, their spirits are the same divine essence as
      that of the ineffable god. Ritualized magic was
      therefore used to portend the elect's progression
      toward that perfection. You might think of it as a
      "dress rehearsal" for salvation. Now, in order to
      appreciate those rituals, it's necessary to assume
      that you're also one of the elect, as well.

      This is where I flesh out what I meant by the
      modicum of sense implicit in the word "gnosticism".
      When I talked about the experience of the whole cosmos
      being an extension of your body, that is exactly how I
      believe the elect recognized themselves. It's likely
      the old Platonic notion that all knowledge is memory
      was familiar to the gnostics of antiquity. If I
      remember the fleeting experience of the cosmos being
      my body, that's because it's real. Since that memory
      is forever precluded from conscious experience, it's
      easy to understand the longing early gnostics had to
      articulate and give it meaning.

      I believe (and, I admit this is speculative) the
      knowledge which the gnostics talked about was this
      very same memory. It's as if the whole cosmos were a
      giant anthropos, or human body and the elect is the
      spirit. We can reverse this insight with even greater
      clarity: our physical bodies are a cosmos, in
      miniature. Magical ritual is necessary to express the
      mystical rapport between ourselves and the greater
      world. A tenet of many gnostics schools is that
      something of the ineffable and perfect god is trapped
      in the dross of matter. Just as perfection is trapped
      in the imperfection of the cosmos, so the same is true
      of our own bodies. In effect, matter is dessicated
      "spirit". In order to redeem that "spirit", elaborate
      rituals were enacted to show how "perfection" could be
      expunged from imperfect matter. In effect, then each
      of the elect could identify with the spirit of the
      cosmos. This provided the rational for the ephemeral
      experience of feeling connected with the cosmos.

      The fleeting memory which the elect have of the
      cosmos being their body, then is the minimal sense
      which we can attribute to "gnosticism". Ritual is how
      they bridged the gap between themselves and the
      cosmos. Just as a language remains unintelligible to
      those who don't know it, so the rituals of the
      gnostics were unintelligible to the so-called hylokoi,
      or people without souls or spirits. The gnostics were
      besieged and generally misunderstood, being a
      relatively tiny minority. So, naturally they would
      cloak their wisdom in arcane ritual. To make matters
      more complicated, humanity was also divided into those
      without a spirit yet who had a soul. They could either
      choose salvation or else perish along with the
      holokoi. For them, salvation came through the
      arbitration of the orthodox church.

      The elect, however are saved already. They alone
      are capable of the more penetrating hermeneutic which
      discerns the truth in orthodox scripture. They
      understand the hidden allegory which others missed.
      Their salvation gave them the freedom to see whatever
      they needed to see in the plain texts of the
      burgeoning church in order to justify that salvation.
      (For example: in her book, Gnostic Paul, Elaine Pagels
      discusses the hermeneutic used by the second century
      Valentinians to reinterpret the Apostle Paul.) In
      fact, the early third century church father Tertullian
      decried the gnostics for inventing new fables instead
      of being faithful to tradition as espoused by the
      church hierarchy. To him, such "innovation" was a sure
      sign that the gnostics were indeed heretics. After
      all, the gnostics texts are basically scripture,
      Hellenistic and eastern philosophies cobbled together
      with wild ecstatic experiences.

      Does that make the gnostic scriptures less
      valuable? There's precedent for such creative, if not
      tortured exegesis. Following the destruction of the
      first Jewish temple, Hebrew exegetes did the same
      thing. That suggests an interesting possibility, to
      me. Did the gnostics respond to what seemed to them to
      be an equally egregious catastrophe? In other words,
      just as Judaism either adapted to the destruction of
      the temple or else face spiritual and social
      bankruptcy, did the gnostics intuit a similar
      "bankruptcy" in orthodox Christianity? (Note: I'm
      using the term "orthodox Christianity" knowing full
      well that it's an anachronism. I believe it's useful
      enough, though in the present context.)

      I believe the gnostics did sense that orthodox
      Christianity had indeed lost something; namely, the
      immediacy of the divine. Hebrew scriptures are
      littered with so-called Epiphanies. Very ordinary
      people encountered God. According to scripture, those
      encounters were often hair-raising. That, however is a
      threat to organized religion with it's cadres of
      priests who want to mediate god. (This, of course is
      the thesis of Elaine Pagel's book The Gnostic
      The psychologist, Carl Jung spoke of what he called
      the "archetypes", those numinous yet formative images
      from deep in the subconscious. In order to put skin on
      an archetype, you have to incorporate it into ritual,
      in effect making it formulaic. Doing that, however
      robs the archetype of it's numinous attraction. (A
      cross pedant somehow lacks poignancy, doesn't it?. The
      horror of the brutal death it supposedly represents
      gets edited out.) As the Catholic church became more
      enmeshed in tradition, it's formulaic and bland
      rituals robbed the experience of god of it's
      numinousity. The gnostics wanted to rescue, well...
      let's call it the visceral spookiness of what made
      religion "religion", to them. (That explains the
      apparent discrepancy when I said, earlier that
      gnostics had no one way of "knowing", yet I claimed
      they "knew" themselves to be linked to the cosmos.
      Modern scholarship seems to regard "knowing" more as a
      social structure than as a numinous experience.)

      Mystics throughout history have recognized the
      dilemma of talking about numinous experiences. Talking
      about such experiences diminishes them; not talking
      about them, at all is to never understand the
      experience. However, as soon as you try to land on one
      side of the divide, you realize you've already crossed
      it. The gnostics had some pretty bizarre and twisted
      explanations of how the world was created. They were
      every bit as tortured and strained as any doctrine the
      church came up with. Yet, something of the truth
      survives even the distortion of such banal
      formulation. The difference between the gnostics and
      the catholic church is that the gnostics were willing
      to break the husk of their own narratives to redeem
      the truth. That's why there are so many conflicting
      accounts of where humanity came from in gnostic

      The gnostics were willing to break the husk of
      their own narratives in order to redeem the truth...
      Explanations always pull us away from the truth, don't
      they? Which is greater: a given experience, or the
      telling of that experience? I personally would rather
      see a beautiful woman than to hear about her. For me,
      it's better to stay as close to the experience as
      possible and to use as few words as possible to
      describe it. Of course, it's not possible to stay
      there, camped out next to an ineffable experience;
      mysterious currents always seem to carry us farther
      and farther away. That's why it's necessary to
      constantly deny the description of the truth and
      instead return to where descriptions aren't needed.
      This is what the gnostics tried to do.

      That's what I desperately want to do. I want to
      talk about the truth, and then immediately smash my
      own words. My words are like empty vessels into which
      I pour a precious liquid for storage, only to realize
      the liquid is then tightly sealed up and can't be
      used. There's a deep ennui which comes from knowing
      you can't have it "both ways". I need words to make
      experiences intelligible; yet they carry me far away
      from the very thing which gives the experience
      That "ennui" is the surest sign that I'm on the right
      track. Wisdom is a measure of what we've lost. It's
      like being blind while standing in front of the
      greatest possible beauty and having someone with
      touretts and a cleft palate describing it to you.

      I think Satan is wiser than God; after all, he's
      known both heaven and Hell, whereas God hasn't. Maybe
      that's why the gnostics known as the Ophites venerated
      the serpent: the tempter offered Adam and Eve
      knowledge of what it means to lose paradise. We, too
      lose paradise the moment we try to describe it. I've
      always been put off by Christians who anticipate
      Heaven. They want a perfection to which we can't
      return. I believe that, once the "elect" return to the
      pleroma, they don't know they've arrived. It's like a
      drop of water dissolving into the ocean: it's no
      longer a drop of water.

      To me, the gnostics were more honest than the
      "orthodox" church, whether they knew it, or not. They
      implicitly realized that "anticipating" and
      "having" must ultimately be severed. We might know
      that we'll be saved; we just can't know when it
      happens. The "knowing" part of me and the rest of me
      get seperated at death. Just as I didn't know myself
      before birth, I won't know myself after death. I find
      this to be oddly comforting: being and becoming
      in the grave just as they did in the womb. This is
      what gnosticism means to me.

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