Archive for religion

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.


Blank Sky Philosophy, Part One

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

The words the ancient Gnostics used were, generally speaking, philosophical words, ontological words, and mythological words. They belie the vertex of Judaic academia and Hellenistic philosophy. This tradition of linguistic and philosophical inventiveness, this arsenal of descriptors, is the only real mainstay, the only thing that has survived all the iterations and permutations of Gnostic thought in the world.

The “Aeons” of the ancients were concepts, qualities, periods of time, and, to some degree, entities. But they were not deities. Above all, this multiplicity of forms was a way of demonstrating that the concepts they spoke of transcended the limitations of current ideas.  At the core of these things was not god, not an entity with will and a creative drive. Rather, it was a high concept, beyond limitation, the Apeiron, the Pleroma. It didn’t care about us; it was simply a meta-formation of the ultimate reality which interacted with itself to produce predictable reactions. It was, essentially, a substance, or force, despite the metaphysical trappings, which underwent chemical reactions – like any star or nebula.  The emanationist system of description was largely about breaking down those hard lines between things; it was a manner of conveying ontological complexity.

The thing that seems to be missing from most scholarship on the ancient Gnostics is how remarkably modern they were. This isn’t because of academic laziness – it’s because historians make assumptions about intent, about the level of complexity available to a particular people at a particular time. They assume the Gnostics meant it literally, even when a reading of pertinent materials without such tethers reveals as obvious a set of approaches and principles that put any such limited interpretation to bed.

The Gnostics also understood myth. It’s passé now, in the age of Joseph Campbell, to point out that mythology and religion serve purposes in culture; that their language, their ritual behavior, their communities, all fill roles in our world. It’s equally tired to paraphrase Jacob Grimm and point out that folklore and stories have similar roles to fill. But the ancient Gnostics didn’t live in our world. They lived in a time where these ideas were not widely known – indeed, according to historians, they weren’t known at all. But, while they may not have been expressed in a way we would recognize today as academic, it’s right there to see in the texts themselves.

The process of constant re-appraisal – rewriting the old myths, “remixing” prominent religious writings of the day– this was not an invention of Philip K. Dick. He was following the patterns laid down by the ancient Gnostics when he approached his Exegesis as a constantly morphing work which was about the search for truth more than any definable answer. Intrinsic to this process is irreverence – there were no “sacred” scriptures. That Gnostic culture not only allowed, but invited, its members to rework the texts which lay at the core of their beliefs is a testament to just how little they held those texts as perfect or permanent. The ideas in them were open to debate, to reinterpretation, to reinvention. This is what allowed this strikingly modern philosophy to thrive for as long as it did. It’s also what led to its downfall. That openness and freedom from doctrine and dogma meant an internal weakness that could be used to gradually lead away from those core ideas and into simple religion.

Over time, to make a very long story very short, the inevitable draw of religiosity pulled this utterly modern philosophical movement into merely another cult of Christ, who had been initially recognized as a great Gnostic teacher, but who was certainly not worshiped as divine – such a notion would have been explicitly un-Gnostic. Now, one seldom hears about Gnosticism in any form unless it is routed through Jesus.

One can strip out everything divine, everything “supernatural,” certainly everything Christian, and be left with a startling cosmology. I am aware that there is debate about the meaning of the word “religion;” I understand that, in some respects, a system of thought that includes a cosmology can be considered a religion. I am referring to systems which involve belief in or worship of one or more deities, specific moral codes, and public/group expression. We are so indoctrinated by religion that the notion of a system of belief or thought that is purely cosmological is simply a null concept, at least in the west. At best, the religious language is a semantic cushion, to lead into the difficult philosophical implications that Gnosticism imparts.