First PMCV, when it comes to Mani, I'd ask that you agree to disagree
regarding why the blessed Buddha of Light (as I would see him) is a
legitimate subject for discussion in this club.
While you readily acknowledge that it's o.k. to discuss Mani because
his movement is something of a close relation to ostensibly authentic
Gnostic sects, I would maintain that the primary grounds for
discussing him is that he simply WAS a Gnostic... plain and simple.
Neither of us seems inclined to move far afoot from our positions
anytime soon, so it seems fairest to resist categorizing his
legitimacy here, but rather let's simply leave him as a figure open
to debate (like most Gnostic subjects, I might add).
Now then, regarding my take on Mani, I'd first like to address the
context from whence the public at large (well, not really sooo large)
currently receives its impressions of him. Unfortunately, a quick
reading of the literature, past and present, reveals that both the
public's and adademia's understanding of Mani hasn't changed or grown
much over the years.
The same old Western prejudices of the past still haunt contemporary
academia's depiction of Mani, albeit in new clothing.
The currently fashionable academic error in asserting that Mani and
his movement were not Gnostic arises chiefly from an ill-advised
focus on means vs. meaning.
Ironically, this is the very charge that academics level at Mani
(i.e., he's more concerned with means than meaning), ande so they see
their reflections in the mirror without recognizing what stands
It's a fairly common experience for critics in the art worlde.
Closely watch for this trend in film reviews and you'll soon notice
that the reviews themselves are routinely guilty of the very same
criticisms that they aim at their subjects. But I digress
(strategically, as you'll see).
Reagarding these Manichean means, academics, at least TODAY's
academics, would no doubt be far more comfortable with a mythically
or else philosphically-oriented Mani vs. the spiritual artist and
visionary that he was. Of course, the academics of only a century
ago, and even half a century ago, mocked myth as much as they
But now it's safe to join on the bandwagon, thanks to C. G. Jung and
Joseph Cambell, not to mention the death of subjective positivism.
And a fine bandwagon it is. Far be it from me (or Mani for that
matter) to take issue with walking either a mythic or philosphically
oriented road to salvation. After all, gnostics have always been
practical, as it witnessed by their undeniably heterdox history and
In short, they'll take any approach that works. They have too many
forces working against them to do otherwise!
Why did Mani adopt his own peculiar approach?
For the same reason that any Gnostic does anything: Because it's what
works that really matters, and we only know it works when we know,
sylologistic as that may be.
That's because gnosis is a direct and real experience, self-defined
and self-evident, just as anyone who knows it, well, knows it.
Not to be overly simplistic here, but gnosis is none other than what
it is and therefore it is not something else--not a treatise, not a
myth, not a philosphy, and so on. The latter are merely roads to this
experience, and primacy must be placed on the experience.
In the case of Mani, he paved a new road, one that few academics
possess the imagination to apprehend, perhaps most likely because few
know the experience themselves or place a similar primacy up it.
And why should they?
Well, for their own good they should. However, we all know that they
define their own good in other ways (publishing in "A" journals,
obtaining appointments to "A" schools, gettings "A" in school, and
generally speaking, acting like "A"s, that is, academics).
All kidding aside, I don't mean to be too cynical about academics
here, for their contributions are great. But they are also limited,
for better or worse.
And for better or worse, one must confront the fact that this class
currently exercises the greatest control over public perceptions of
Mani. However, if one hopes to get to either a more sujective AND
objective truth, then one must fully appreciate THEIR ways and means
before we can ever assess the value of their critique of Mani.
We must critique the critics.
Unfortunately, first and foremost, it must be observed that their
ways and means do not mandate or even orient themselves toward the
actual experience of gnosis.
That said, of course, it must be conceded that one does not
necessarily have to share an experience to effectively write about it
or else understand it. But in the case of Mani and his gnosis, it
just so happens that this lack of experience has devastated and
distorted their judgment.
In other words, sometimes you can get away with it, sometime you
As a highly relevant side note, it's well worth pointing out that
those academics who most appreciate or even describe themselves as
Gnostics, or are closely affinitized to it, such as Quispel and
Welborn, are invariably at odds with the 'consensus."
The main problem is that lacking the essential experience of gnosis,
academics know not where to categorize him, and categorization is a
primary occupation of any scholar, particularly Gnostic scholars
(also note that, again ironically, who studies Mani? None other than
the very same "gnostic scholars" who contend that he isn't Gnostic!
Such an obsession for a fellow outside their sacred area of
specialization! Indeed, methinks they protest too much!)
As a result, we see that failing to fit into a tidy academic category
has relegated Mani to the (looney) basket bin of a kind of innocuous
religious fundamentalism combined with an exploitive syncretism. In
the process, Mani becomes nothing more than an intriguing curiosity,
though unfortunately most academics aren't curious enough.
In the end, Mani remains a bogeyman. Only whereas he used to be the
sort of bogeyman that struck genuine fear owing to his mysterious
power, he has now been supposedly deconstructed and demystified, and
what's left is something of spiritual softy minus any menace.
One can almost imagine harmless little Mani bears given to children
as safe and fun little monsters.
But if academics probed to the ultimate depth of understanding, they
would discover that Mani, Valentinus, Carpocrates, Marcion,
Basilides, etc. all share the very same core. Although they may have
differed in their modes of religious expression and their means of
transcendence, at the level that matters most they were all the same--
they all shared the same essential experience of alienation and
divine reclamation and so on.
It is an experience which Messina, or even Loggins & Messina, can
This poverty of experience begets a poverty of insight and
imagination that is truly appaling--and truly alienated from the
subject at hand. Most academics miss the boat on Mani because they're
not interested in riding the wave of gnosis--an authentic experience
of knowledge and meaning, and so they consign themselves to paddling
about in a ship of fools (for what else can one be accomplishing by
studying gnosis without truly seeking to know it?)
They seek what matters to THEM instead of what matters to their
subjects, and as a result of this misorientation, their observations
just don't matter.
Again, it may not be an academics job to achieve gnosis, but in their
abounding ignorance of the reality of this experience, not so
surprisingly they fail to cultivate either a real or imaginative
framework with which to do their job--to know Mani and accurately
However, while Mani was categorically different from most Gnostics,
this doesn't mean he wasn't a Gnostic at all.
For starters, his focus was a unique praxis of gnosis, which on one
hand was characterized by a literal (though not fundamentalist)
orientation towards the cosmos, while on the other hand, relatively
speaking, it lacked the more common Gnostic emphasis on myth,
philosophical or trascendental speculation, or other such means.
So what were his means? What sort of Gnostic was he?
One might devise any number of pithy phrases to describe him--some
which might even merit academic publication--but at the risk of
inexactititude I'll somewhat spontaneously toss out the
label "Spiritual Expressionist."
Other observers, such as Welborn, might be more inclinded to call him
a "pseudo-scientist," a fitting appelation as well, so long as one
bears in mind that in this case the "pseudo" prefix carries no
perjorative connotation. It is "pseudo" only in the sense that
Manicheans would recognize every so-called science as false precisely
because it must attempt to describe a false world!
Thus, there are always limits, and artifice beomces necessary to
bring us more closely to a more perfectly divine picture of this
imperfect world. Verification therein cannot be obtained though
science, per se, but rather it is exclusively derived through an
intuition about the reality that really exists.
In other words, gnosis.
And for Mani, his mode of artifice was a unique brand of religious
and spiritual expressionism rather than myth or philosphical
Now then, what do I mean by "religious" or "spiritual expressionist?"
Well, akin to either the German Expressionists of the 20s or the
later Abstract Expressionists, Mani sought to expose reality from
both the outside in and the inside out.
As students of art know, visual expressionists purposely distort
reality from its perceptual norm only to reveal that the normal isn't
so normal after all, and in fact, the distortion is more real than
its normative root, which was nothing more than a fiction when now
compared to the real root, which the artist skillfully reveals
through his craft.
Moreover, and this is pivotal, the depictions are meant to reveal
THINGS AS THEY REALLY ARE... REALITY AS IT REALLY IS.
Expressionists attempt to make actual and authentic visual
descriptions of the world--not merely analogues of the world or else
mytho-symbolic representations of it.
This isn't to criticize the latter techniques or hold them to be
illegitimate--far from it. Thing is, it just wasn't Mani's way.
Rather, Mani took a more scientific (and simultaneously artistic)
approach in that he wanted to observe and describe the world for what
it was, as he saw it (as he expressed it) and then take evasive
action within it to effectively deal with this reality--this powerful
force of enclosure and all of its vested interests (I humbly bow to
Morph here), not to mention the far more important otherworldly
reality of the divine realm of light.
These descriptions may not appear to us to be "real science," owing
to the way they appear (their antiquity) and our preconceptions about
what "real" science is. However, we must quickly remind ourselves
that no modern scientist has ever ACTUALLY seen a quark or a black
hole or a magnetic field, and yet they proceed to describe
these 'realities' as 'uneniable' or 'proven' realities, and
subsequently they intellectually abide by and engage in academic
rituals associated with these so-called realities.
Some even structure new religious beliefs around their findings!
Mani simply engaged in alternative scientific practices and
associated rituals in an earlier age. His means may not have been
perfect, but he'd no doubt be the first to concede this (with far
greater humility than the modern scientist), again, because he would
not expect perfect worldly observations of an imperfect world.
The might be abstracted from it, but they certainly are not IT. The
perfection lies beyond this world.
Nonetheless, Mani's observations were taken as real, most importantly
because they were intuited as being true. In the case of Manichean
science, meaning and truth are liberated from all worldy subjects
through the power of this positive and highly practical process of
observation and creative expression.
This is why Docetism can be creatively construed as literal without
betraying gnosis, and in fact, promoting it. Conversely, a non-
docetic approach might be considered as 'potentially' anti-gnostic
(emphasis on the word potentially). For example, in the revealing
light of Mani's science, the literally distorted image of a tortured
and twisted Christ on the cross might be held as a great unreality,
or certainly a greater unreality than the laughing Christ standing to
the side of this worldly spectacle.
At any rate, as a spiritual expressionist or dinvinely-inspired
Gnostic Scientist (yea, I like that best... "Gnostic Scientist"),
Mani used religious ritual, dietary strictures, diverse ascetic
practices, cosmic descriptions, and other modes of spiritual
observation--no to merely present an indirect myth ABOUT reality, but
to capture a real, truthful, and meaningful picture of reality as it
is, and better still, an experience of the divine within us.
A Gnostic experience.
And so, if one looks at any Manichean practice and sees nothing more
than someone going through the motions, well, that's to be expected
because you're looking from the outside in. Mani did the same, but he
simply saw something different in the world outside of him, and he
simultaeously experienced a different reality within him--a reality
one cannot seen from the outside.
So, reconsidering Mani in this light (or is it still dark PMCV?), we
see that Mani's Gnostic mode of spiritual expression, his science of
gnosis, lead him to the same place as Gnostic mythologizers, which is
to say a place of mind and spirit that knows the basis of man's
alienation from the world, and the existence of a divine spark within
And let's never forget that all modes of gnosis hold these truths to
be SELF-EVIDENT, not necessary scripturally evident or mythically
evident or philosophically evident... and certainly not academically
But ultimately, all Gnostic experiences are direct and personal, and
most importantly, they are experiences.
In this further light, Mani's emphasize on praxis is to be admired,
at least in my book. And Mani was nothing if not practical in
religious matters. You've gotta give him credit for making such a
relatively radical, rare, and heterodox belief stick for 1,500 years!
I'm personally inclined to speculate that Mani saw that a
mythological approach might leave far too much interpretive room for
people to swim in and out of (again, I don't necessarily agree, but
this appears to be Mani's modus operandi). And so, he chose a more
concrete approach that brought with it the virtue of immediacy--a
resolve that could inspire people.
But to suggest that Mani pursued a more worldly approach for the
ultimate purpose of being more worldly is patently absurd. Again, we
should never pay so much attention to the means so as to miss the
ends (even if many Manicheans were no doubt guilty of doing the same).
No doubt there are dangers on this path, as with ALL paths (paths
being worldy roads, even if to otherworldly places). It was certainly
a highly proscriptive approach, one which doesn't suit many tastes,
particularly modern tastes, and especially contemporary academic
But if we understand Mani as more of an artist (and he WAS an artisy--
literally--he avidly and passionately painted and wrote music and
poetry, and lots of it by all accounts), then we come to see him less
as a firebrand-style Southern (U.S.) preacher saving damned souls
along the old Silk Road than a magnificent spiritual artist who
uncompromisingly depicted the truth.
Yes, Mani might say, there IS light in everyTHING, and unfortunatley
we can't ignore such THINGS, or ANY THING, including all of the
things of this world and including myths and even including that
cheeseburger in your mits. But let's never ignore the light within
you. That the ultimate trutyh of you.
And for Mani, this latter truth was no mere scientific observation.
It was no mere myth. It was nothing less than the truth--the reality
that really is behind the reality that isn't.
And it IS real. And it's here. And it's now. And you can do something
about it. You can become what you've been meant to be, but first, you
must see what you have not seen, so that you come to know what you
Ah, but my good friend PMCV, surely you have not forgotten.
Postcript: While I will attempt to bring forth some evidence in the
not so distant future, again, it can never supercede SELF-EVIDENCE.
And this self-evidence must come through experience. To all those
without such experience, my observations on Mani will be nothing more
than one more interpretation. But before dismissing them as nothing
more than this, please also consider that my interpretation is
unfashionable only because it stands outside academic consensus--not
because it stands outside of experience. Please also bear in mind
that fashion, after all is said and done, is nothing more than a
consensus reality based upon a series of interpretations by
individuals who are first and foremost dedicated to academic outcomes.