Archive for non-christian gnosticism

Blank Sky Philosophy, Part Two

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 28, 2011 by theclockworm

The rich philosophical questions posed by Gnosticism seemingly lie untouched since Phil Dick’s death. The language he invented, or rather updated – a hodgepodge of Christian theology, metaphysics, philosophy (both contemporary and classical), linguistics, etc. – explodes with a kind of possibility that I have seldom seen. It has the potential to transcend the academic, the religious, the literary, and address some major ideas in a new way. At his best – in my opinion, of course – Dick managed to shake away the trappings of religion which often permeated his thinking and focus on the pure information encoded in his experiences. His process – the constantly changing interpretations; letting go of religiousness for a moment, then clinging to it even harder – is beautiful. His uncertainty is beautiful. I wish more of us possessed that capacity. I’ve seen others with a bent toward the Gnostic, who have had or claim to have had some sort of revelatory experience, convince themselves that their work is done, that Gnosis is Knowing, plain and simple. But knowing something of the truth is only a start. Understanding it, contextualizing it, knowing the details, figuring out what to do with it – these all lie ahead of that initial moment. Being Gnostic means being Agnostic – about everything. This uncertainty gives no comfort. And so it is often disposed of entirely.

I think the lack of obvious answer to that question is what makes the slide into religion so easy. If you have a savior, you have salvation. Gnosticism without this can tend to appear horrific – hopeless at best, suicidal at worst. Is the answer the total destruction of everything we know? Is there no answer at all? Is there a way out?

There’s also something frighteningly dull at the core of Gnosis. What if Cold-Pak or the Matrix aren’t literalizations of larger truths? What if they’re more or less accurate? What if our entire universe is just an old SF plot?

One must confront these issues, as unpleasant as they may be, and not simply search for an appealing answer. I don’t know how to deal with these things, but that doesn’t change the standing of those things in reality. If Dick was mad, it was a madness brought on by the veracity of his investigations. He did not back away from the void. And, if in the end the void proved itself to be what was real, he did not disavow it.

In the end, separating Gnostic thought from religious thought is about giving it the freedom to flourish because it is valid, rather than because it is appealing – the way science does, in an ideal world. We don’t wring our hands when physics tells us something odd or uncertain about the universe – or maybe we do. But that doesn’t make anyone stop doing physics.

I’m not talking shit on religion, believe it or not. I don’t even think there’s anything inherently wrong with it – or rather, there is, but there is also much that is inherently good within it as well. And if these things have led anyone to an understanding that is religious, I’m not judging that. I simply feel it is part of my own process to be stringent about these things, to really attempt to understand them outside that context. Perhaps we really are talking about the same thing; perhaps I’m splitting hairs in my differentiations. But to me, that’s responsible philosophy. It’s rigorous skepticism balanced by rigorous openness.

It’s starting to look like the basic conceits of Gnostic cosmology might not be so far-fetched. Science certainly hasn’t proven that a Gnostic view of reality is correct, but perhaps it will one day. This Oxford philosopher thinks the odds of our reality being computer-simulated are pretty high.  There’s some science that reveals, ahem, the crack in space; there’s also some that points out that our resolution could be better.

I’m not saying any of these things are certain. I’m just saying. There are crazier ideas to have.

True Names

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by theclockworm

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.