True Names

Look: Gnosticism is not whatever very particular thing you think it is. No matter what you think it is. It includes, as primary facets, cosmology, cosmogony, and something basic I think I will call “Adversarial Orientation;” that is, a notion about the absoluteness of roles, an orientation about whether our enemies are evil or simply other, whether we are holy or simply closer to truth, whether the world is malign or benign or something less myopic. It could also be called “Philosophical Maturity,” and I don’t see most “Gnostics” demonstrating the kind of nuanced meta-thinking I see so clearly in many of the Nag Hammadi documents, as well as in the writings of Philip K. Dick, whose life-changing exegetical explorations have, especially of late, been pointing some people toward a sort of religious stance that is both a little frightening and a little silly. At least one part of this stance is anchored to the idea of Dick as a Christian.

The problem is ontological and semantic possessiveness. People become attached to a particular aspect of meaning, and then seek to disjoin all shades or aspects which do not satisfy the primacy of their pet meaning. It’s a struggle, in some places more than others, to talk about non-Christian Gnosticism, let alone non-religious Gnosticism. Some people are so absolutely certain about the gestalt implications of “their” beliefs that they become pig-headed and idiotic.

To me, calling PKD “Christian” with a straight face is just silly. It comes through so strongly to me that this was a sort of platform he returned to in order to feel a kind of inner security of belief that his wildly speculative nature usually didn’t allow him. He spouts ‘heresies’ left and right – a heretic amongst heretics – and bounces back to Jesus, but this seems to be edited out in favor of some notion of a Christian whole. I think it’s self-serving to choose one freeze-frame in a wild dance of ideas and say, “This is the dance.” But I also realize that I’m doing the same thing I find so distasteful: I’m trying to minimize something which was obviously very important, for whatever reasons, something central to his ideas, however varied they were. In the end, it’s simply fruitless to get into a debate about the religious affiliation of anyone, especially someone who is dead.  I’m just taken aback when I see such certainty expressed (in this and other things) by the same people who claim to value his commitment to the full range of possibilities.

A smart person would have no problem identifying the non-religious aspects of Gnosticism, admitting they were inherent to Gnosticism, and discussing them without the religious aspects. Shall I abandon all connections, valid though they may be, because “all” I feel compelled to believe about Gnosticism is related to those traits which are arguably most distinct to its nature? Dick explored the cosmological aspects of Gnosticism with and without religious ideas, or Christian ideas, or alien ideas. In some ways, it almost feels like religion was just another SF trope to Dick; the caveat is that, somewhere in his heart of hearts, he took all those ideas seriously: every alien invasion or telepathic villain seemed to ring with the same resonance as the rest of humankind’s epic history. When they landed, Wagner would play, and it would be just as terrifying and mythic as the rapture.

I’ve gone through quite a few stages of personal understanding about this stuff. I used to make big bones about the importance of disambiguating language – that it’s not philosophically responsible to say “Oh, I’m sure we’re talking about the same thing” when it’s obvious you’re not. I still do feel this way to some degree. I feel that, even if you think you know better, the words you use will influence the way you think about the subject. If I start saying “god,” using religious language, when what I’m talking about, though certainly transcendent, is distinct from the common-denominator ideation of deity, I will end up doing it a disservice (“It is not right to think of it as a God or as like God. It is more than just God. Nothing is above it. Nothing rules it. Since everything exists within it, it does not exist within anything.” – Secret John).  This reflects a slightly-modernized adaptation of the most basic tenet of magical thought: that words have real, physical effects. That true names contain power. This isn’t magic; it’s semantic reality. Or maybe the correct statement is: this isn’t semantics, it’s magic.

At the same time, in a world where very few are willing to have a conversation unless the vocabulary is the same (and even then), one runs the risk of doing the subject the greatest disservice: neglecting it completely in favor of bickering about the subtleties of meaning.

I don’t have any interest in being part of any Gnostic community, group, church, or forum I’ve yet encountered. To me, the Christianization of Gnostic concepts seems like a deviation from the more central ideas, and even the religiousness seems to overwhelm the core. There seems very little room for new ideas, despite protestations to the contrary. Not only that, though: I don’t have any particular desire to be part of a Gnostic community in theory.  So I don’t even really know who I’m writing this for, other than myself.  I guess it’s just that simple.  But that doesn’t mean I’ll be keeping my ideas to myself; it doesn’t mean I won’t be applying them in my writing (perhaps the most venerable Gnostic tradition of all); and it doesn’t mean I’m going to let myself be bullied out of using a term that (let’s be honest), everybody knows doesn’t belong to anyone and never has.

What’s the problem with Christian Gnosticism? It’s the worshipfulness. It’s the lack of differentiation between itself and orthodoxy. It’s the fact that, unfortunately, it’s not as unrelated as it should be. It’s the slip from veneration of one man’s teachings to deification of him as some two-dimensional hero figure, again selling short the philosophical maturity of Gnosticism for the overblown simplicity of Christianity proper. It’s the way that slip translated into a cobbled-together syncretism, a grafted-on collection of original ideas and concessions to the spirit of the age (“Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.” – The Gospel of Thomas). It’s the defensiveness, the unwillingness to accept pre-Christian roots because it offends the sensibilities, despite the truth of the matter. It’s the fact that there is simply too huge a semantic incongruity between ‘teacher’ and ‘savior.’

If anything, I’d like to see an attempt made at uniting some Gnostic concepts with Judaism. People who aren’t busy kissing their own asses are probably aware of the roots of Gnostic thought in Judaism via exposure to Hellenistic philosophy. People who don’t accept this, aside from a poor understanding of how historicity is determined in scholarship, it seems to me must not be very familiar with Judaism; it’s really a very obvious fit.

But that’s simply a fanciful aside. My closing point: I don’t care that much if you call it god and I think that’s wrong-headed.  But I do wish there was more discussion focused on the cosmological facets of Gnosticism. Even if you can ignore all the issues with rectifying early Gnostic thought with the salvific Jesus, there’s simply so much more of interest  in the trove of ideas and codices available to us.


7 Responses to “True Names”

  1. I’m not well versed in gnosticism, however, I do know something of PKD. And you are right; calling Phil a Christian is wish fullfillment for many people. It’s obvious to me. I wish it could be clear to others. But, alas, this is one of the many things Phil was worried about.
    You may be interested that I’ll be publishing a memoir about my “mystical” experiences involving Phil. You can check out some of the rough-diary like entries on my website. They are easy to find. I think you’ll be intrigued. In the memoir, I’ll go into more discussion about the events.

    • Thanks, it’s nice to see that recognized. I’ll take a look at your site, I’d love to see what your experiences were; I’ve had my own strange events connected to PKD. I wonder how many others there are?

  2. Ben Nadler Says:

    Hey Jacen, I’m really digging your blog. In terms of Gnosticism in a Jewish context, if you’re not framiliar with the story of Elisha ben Abuya you should check it out. He was a Talmudic sage who entered heaven and emerged with a pure doubt. He’s considered a pariah within normative Judaism, but some of his judgements still stand in the Talmud. Here’s a start:
    Anyway, really digging this blog, figured I should comment so you know someone is actually reading it and you keep doing it. It might not surprise you to hear that since I’ve seen you last (how many years?) I’ve had my own experiences with VALIS. I hope that you are doing well man, keep rocking, all my love – Ben

    • Ben, it’s great to hear from you, I’m glad you’re liking the blog. And yes, it is good to hear it’s being read. I don’t know a lot of details about Gnosticism and Judaism yet, but it’s emerging as a serious area of interest as I pursue this process. Thanks for the link; any relevant info is much appreciated.

      I think it’s been about seven years… I remember you came down to Philly once around ’05 and we got to catch up a bit. I saw that you’re publishing a book – that is really great and I will definitely pick it up. On a SF publisher no less! I still recall your writing fondly and have liked the few articles and short pieces you’ve put out.

      I hope you caught your name in the Abrahamic Astronauts post – that little bit of wisdom has helped to foster my interest in Judaism in the intervening years.

      And of course, I’d love to trade tales of VALIS… PKD has a way of entering the real world in ways which seem to support some of the more outlandish parts of his ideas…

  3. Is the fact that PKD a self-professed Christian who attended Christian church of no value, then?

    “In 1974 the novel [Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said] was published by Doubleday. One afternoon I was talking to my priest — I am an Episcopalian — and I happened to mention to him an important scene near the end of the novel in which the character Felix Buckman meets a black stranger at an all-night gas station, and they begin to talk. As I described the scene in more and more detail, my priest became progressively more agitated. At last, he said, ‘That is a scene from the Book of Acts, from the Bible! In Acts, the person who meets the black man on the road is named Philip–your name.’ Father Rasch was so upset by the resemblance that he could not even locate the scene in his Bible. ‘Read Acts,’ he instructed me. ‘And you’ll agree. It’s the same down to specific details.'”

    • No, it’s not of “no value.” That’s why I admitted that I was as guilty of attempting to round him up or down as the other side. However, what I call into question is the wisdom of choosing one side of an inconsistent history – either side – and disregarding the contradictions. Lots of people are self-professed Christians – and lots of people change their minds, or flip-flop, or renounce. Phil Dick did, publicly and in a number of works including the Exegesis (I have only had the pleasure of reading the older, shorter edition, of course) at least some of these things at one point or another. He was dynamic in his beliefs in life, and I simply think rendering him static in death to be in poor taste.

    • From the exegesis: “For instance, it made me
      aware of God from the very start, but never of Christ;
      I deduce from this that it is non-Christian and proba-
      bly pre-Christian. Actually I can’t catch in it any influ-
      ences since the Greek Logos Doctrine.”

      “Probably the wisest view is to say: the truth—like
      the Self—is splintered up over thousands of miles and
      years; bits are found here and there, then and now,
      and must be re-collected; bits appear in the Greek nat-
      uralists, in Pythagoras, in Plato, Parmenides, in
      Heraclitus, Neo-Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosti-
      cism, Taoism, Mani, Gnosticism, orthodox Christian-
      ity, Judaism, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Orphism, the
      other mystery religions. Each religion or philosophy
      or philosopher contains one or more bits, but the total
      system interweaves it into falsity, so each as a total sys-
      tem must be rejected, and none is to be accepted at
      the expense of all the others (e.g., “I am a Christian”
      or “I follow Mani”).”

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