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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Why Im Not A Gnostic

Why Im Not A Gnostic Image
"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.

Books in PDF format to read:

Toby Hemenway - Why We Love The Apocalypse
Lil Bow Wow - What Is A Warlock
Bertrand Russell - Why I Am Not A Christian

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