Gnostic Morality, Part 1
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is the first part of multiple-post series to discuss the ways
in which we can articulate a Gnostic morality that is both faithful
to the long traditions that have preceded us and relevant to the
modern world. I hope these discussions will help prompt you to
consider first how you conceptualize your own personal ethical
framework, and also how you move into life applying this framework
in a practical way.
For those of you that have read the various posts in the brief time
that this group has been active, you know that much of our
discussion of Gnosticism is heavily theological, theoretical, and
intellectual in tone and subject matter. And indeed there is
nothing wrong with that – it is a wonderful way to help shape our
minds toward the life of the spirit. In fact, it is probably this
intellectual dimension of Gnosticism that has drawn many people to
the system over the course of history. Taking myself as an example,
my first forays into Gnosticism came about because I was not
satisfied with the mainstream Christian explanation of innocent
suffering, the "mysterium iniquatatem" so to speak, the
contortions of a theology that tried to simultaneously reconcile an
omnipotent and all-loving God with the existence of evil as a
fundamental metaphysical category (as opposed to a simple division
between perfection and imperfection). It was with the light of
natural reason that I first began to question the validity of such
mainstream Christian claims, and took my first steps on the journey
of gnosis.
Again, all this is well and good, but we soon come to a looming
question: So what? Or, we might say, what do we do with what we
have found? For many of us, theological speculation is compelling,
even exciting and thrilling, and there is no sweetness in life
richer than first tasting that fruit of divine knowledge, and laying
our eyes upon a system that can finally help us make sense of the
mysteries that have confounded and disturbed us for so long. But if
religion ends on this merely speculative level, it is really no more
than an exercise in theological sophistry; it is totally irrelevant
to our lives unless it can help guide those lives and provide us
with principles that will help us move through the world as we
journey toward the achievement of gnosis.
That is the purpose of these discussions – to begin to articulate
the rudiments of a neo-classical Gnostic morality. My intention
here is not to force my ideas upon any of you, or indeed
create "official teachings" for our Church, but rather to begin to
define some avenues and vistas which then will be paved by you, and
hopefully shared in this venue as you begin to play out some of the
central implications of Gnosticism in the modern world.
As Gnostics, our moral thought and the actions that follow from it
must be fundamentally rooted in the division between the physical
and spiritual principles that we discern within the human person and
indeed in the larger cosmos. In short, the goal must be some way
of, as Christ himself taught, being "in the world but not of the
world," of living and dwelling in the physical world but attuning
our innermost being to the currents of the spiritual realm, and if
possible even using the physical and the intellectual as great
cosmic steppingstones toward the spirit.
Once again I say this is all well and good, but it is not at all a
simple task to carry out. There are several reasons for the
difficulty we face in doing so. First, while the physical and
spiritual principles are fundamentally and theoretically distinct
and have separate points of origin, in _actuality_ the human person
and the natural world consist of an interpenetration of the physical
and the spiritual principles. That is, the physical contains and
limits the spiritual precisely because the two are mixed together in
the way time and space are presently manifested – if this were
not the case, we would have no need for Gnosticism at all and indeed
I believe that the physical universe would collapse into itself, but
that is a topic for another day.
The consequence of this interpenetration of actual being is that we
cannot simply "reject" the body and the mind in favor of the
spirit. To be sure, there have been many Gnostics or semi-Gnostics
throughout history who have attempted to do just that, through
various forms of asceticism intended to bring physical impulses into
submission to spiritual ones. This indeed has been one of the
sources of Christian anti-Gnostic polemic over many centuries –
the accusation that we are "world-hating," dour, pessimistic,
asexual monks who roam through the world trying to exterminate all
happiness. At any rate, and apart from our desire not to play into
such stereotypes, I think there are some serious problems with
positing such an ascetic lifestyle as the necessarily conclusion of
Gnostic thought. Not least of these is that there is a very real
difference between "engagement with the world" and
"attachment to the world." Our goal is indeed to
reduce "attachments" to the merely physical and intellectual levels
of our beings, because these attachments direct our lives in such a
way that we are unable to taste the joy of the spirit. The
important point is that we can be attached to the physical by our
very rejection of it. That is to say, if the focus of my life is on
living an ascetic lifestyle that rejects "physical elements" such as
sexuality, pleasurable food and drink, enjoyment of artistic gifts –
I am just as attached to the physical as a crazed glutton having
orgies all day long, the only difference being is that he continues
to seek a kind of salvation in the physical by diving into it,
whereas I continue to seek salvation in the physical by a kind of
pride in my being able to deny it.
Having said all this, I do not want to suggest that some level of
asceticism is always wrong or counter-productive – I think such
things as fasts, temporary disengagement from impulses that have
become problematic for us, and so forth, can have an important role
to play in our spiritual element. What I am trying to emphasize
here is a rejection of asceticism as the FUNDAMENTAL crux of Gnostic
Now, we also know that some Gnostics historically, from very early
times, moved in just the converse direction. Their argument seemed
to be this: the spirit and the physical are distinct, and the spirit
is the only reality, therefore physicality is an illusion, and
nothing we do physically is wrong, so let's have a good time! At
any rate, this is the argument that Christian polemicists ascribed
to them – that Gnostics were crazed gluttons who had sex all day
while eating chocolate pastries, only stopping long enough to take
baths in expensive wine.
If I may be permitted to digress for a moment, I hope you see the
humor and the irony in this. Christians have historically (and
currently) attacked Gnostics in completely contradictory ways: we
are ascetic monks who hate sex and we are orgiastic gluttons, we are
dire cosmic pessimists and we are indulgent Epicureans. For those
of you who will be continuing in the Gnostic tradition, you must
realize that this will be a burden in your own journey, this
irrational and schizophrenic Christian fear of our religion.
Indeed, we are Christianity's great scapegoat, the sacrificial
lamb onto which is heaped all the sorrow, perversion, disgust,
hatred, fear, and pain that dwells deep in the underbelly of
mainstream Christianity and mainstream Christians. We are the great
whipping-boy of Christianity's bad conscience. As Jesus predicted
in the Gospel of Mark, we are throughout dragged before courts
(first the Inquisition, now the court of public opinion!) and rulers
by those who are baying for our death while believing they are doing
the will of the Father. We have our martyrs, we have our saints, we
have made our sacrifices, and centuries upon centuries after
Christianity compromised with the powers of the secular world from
Constantine on, we Gnostics continue to sacrifice for what we
To return to the point: we can call these groups "libertine"
Gnostics in order to contrast them to the ascetics. Whether they
actually had such extreme views as Christianity imputed to them is
doubtful, but at any rate their existence allows us to make an
important point. The crux of the libertine position is based on the
fundamental unreality of the physical principle. We by all means
agree with this in theory, if by "unreality" you mean that the
physical is not the ultimate reality, not the final unity into which
all being and existence will resolve at the end of time. In this
sense, physicality is indeed an illusion, a shadow, a reflection, as
compared to the full realization of being that is the spirit.
HOWEVER, we cannot mean by such statements that physicality does not
have its own internal reality that is inescapable within the
confines of physical dimensions of space and time; it is also not to
say that this physical reality cannot mire us further in the
physical world and restrain our ascent to the spirit beyond and our
descent to the spirit within us.
We can see the internal reality very easily – take a hammer and
bop yourself in the head. It is going to hurt like hell and swell
up no matter how spiritual a person you are. If someone bopped the
Buddha in the head, it would have hurt him too. We can't just escape
the inner laws of the physical cosmos by sheer will alone.
The other point is a bit more subtle, but becomes clear if we state
once more the fact that the physical and the spiritual are
interpenetrated in each human person. Because of this, what we do
in the realm of the physical world IS important, is significant, is
influential, because our present mode of being is so intermingled
between body, mind, and spirit. It is not like a layer cake in
which we can say, "Here is the hylic, here is the psychic, here
is the pneumatic"; if anything, it is more like a marble cake, and
when you take out a slice, you get the different essences mixed
So then, what physical actions help move us toward the spirit and
which ones move us farther away? Well that, my friends, will wait
until the next discussion. But what we have discovered here is very
important, and it forms what our particular church considers the
first of the three great principles of Gnostic morality,
MODERATION. The path toward detachment from the merely physical and
merely intellectual comes neither by denying them nor by denying
their reality, but by following the via media, the middle path. In
Christ and Sophia, we have the guideposts that keep us on this
middle road; we have the right and the left hand paths, so to speak,
and as we move through them in unison, we keep from veering too far
and going fundamentally off course in our quest for gnosis.
Next time I hope to move into much more practical applications, and
I will discuss the second of the three moral tenets: RIGHT INTENTION.
I fraternally extend the Church's apostolic blessing on all those
who read this letter.
In Christ and Sophia,