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Re: What Gnosticism Means To Me

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  • Mark
    Chester, Thank you for sharing these well written and thought-provoking reflections. I do have one question. You state the following: The disciples of
    Message 1 of 3 , Nov 5, 2007

      Thank you for sharing these well written and thought-provoking
      reflections. I do have one question. You state the following:

      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.

      I am curious to know more about these rituals. Can you direct me to
      some of the source material? Also, I am curious to know if these
      Valentinian practitioners actually understood these rituals
      as "ritualized magic."


      --- In gnosticism2@yahoogroups.com, Chester Elders
      <chesterelders@...> wrote:
      > 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
      > doesn't.
      > 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
      > Gospels.)
      > 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
      > literature.
      > 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
      > meaning.
      > 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
      > congeal
      > in the grave just as they did in the womb. This is
      > what gnosticism means to me.
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