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Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?
The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”
Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.
Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.
It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.
The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.
Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.
The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.
To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?
This ego, which is but a ghost without a form of its own, comes into being by taking hold of a form; keeping hold of the form and enjoying sense-objects, it waxes greatly in strength: if the truth of it be sought, it will run away.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Reality in Fourty Verses
This is a topic which I have been wanting to revisit for a while, now. I first posted about the ego back in 2009 in a post, one of my most popular ever by statistics, called “In Defense of the Ego”. Even at the time of that posting, however, my understanding of the topic was shifting dramatically. In fact, said understanding went through such flux that I made that post private until I sorted the whole thing out at least a little better. While I in no way claim to have become enlightened, I think that I at least see quite a bit better where certain teachings come from, what they mean, and why they are correct. So, while I am about to largely contradict my three-years-ago self, I have unblocked the original post; if you please, go back and read it with my blessings.
I still agree with my former self that New Age and New Thought teachers largely misunderstand the ego, its place, and what ought to be done about it, but at that time I misunderstood the teachings of the East, especially of India (Hinduism) and those teachings which arose from India (that is, Buddhism). I made the mistake of accepting the Western misinterpretations for the teachings themselves. In point of fact, the Buddhist and Hindu teachings are much more sober and sophisticated than I had believed.
The ego is, of itself, simply that part of the soul, psyche, or ruach which declares, “I”; the word “ego” is, after all, only the Latin word “I”. In the advaita-vāda, it is taught that the ego is, in a sense, the root of the individual soul or personality because the ego is what declares “I, I” concerning the body, the body’s characteristics, such things as personal preferences and tastes, and the whole bag of goodies which we call “personality”. The ego is the trick or illusion of identifying with these things, individually or together makes little difference. It is, then, no less egotistical to identify oneself with one’s charitableness than with one’s good looks and, quite surprising to many, it is still no less egotistical to identify with one’s collective affiliations. Patriotism and sectarianism, just because they require identification with multiple other egos, does not in any way transcend ego but merely makes it as large, powerful, and impenetrable as the group with which it identifies.
If the ego is the root of the personal soul, it sprouts from the seed of the Intellect. To those familiar with the Scholastic, esoteric, and metaphysical definition of Intellect, this may come as a surprise; after all, the Intellect is—far from being one’s individual property or identity—quite transpersonal and Universal in nature and orientation. René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon even go so far as to identifyātma with Intellect. There isn’t space within the present topic to enter into all of the subtleties, here, or the how/how-not why/why-not of this analogy (which Guénon and Schuon definitely intended such identification to be, given the limitations of language in this subject matter), but suffice it to say that Intellect is to the Absolute as the moon is to the sun, and that the individual mind is to Intellect as a mirror to the moon; this analogy, like all analogies, is not perfect, but it gives us the sense that Intellect reflects the Light of Wisdom into the darkness of ignorance in a form which does not blind the unprepared; this Light is apprehended even indirectly, however, through the agency of the mind of the individual, more or less perfectly depending upon the polish and cleanliness of each mind. The capacity of the mind to discern the Intellect depends upon the degree to which it has identified itself with Intellect, and the revelations which we receive into our minds from Intellect come by way of the highest mental faculty of intuition.
Returning to our main topic, Intellect serves as the ego’s seed insofar as Intellect is the root of the sense of “I”; in the case of Intellect, though, this “I” is Universal and beyond any actual object of identification. It is, in short, pure subjectivity without any object. The ego is, paradoxically, both the source of object-identificationand this object-identification itself. As explained above, ego is the mere statement of “I am that,” pointing toward any given transitory object or event. Thus, it is ego which says, “I am this body,” and equally it is ego which says, “I am a fan of that sports team”, and again it is the ego which says, “I am feeling pain.”
The esoteric cosmologies of Genesis, the Secret Book of John, the Vedas, and others, teach us that this process is both intensely personal and terrifyingly cosmic. Thus, we see in the classic Gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia a very clear retelling of this process in the form of a divine tragedy: Wisdom (Intellect-as-reflection) suddenly falls into a mis-identification or self-misunderstanding which produces the twisted creator-god. The limitations of language do not permit the story to say that this demiurge is both the misunderstanding and its result, though the Valentinian Gospel of Truth attempts to get this point across by the seeming autogenesis of “Forgetfulness” out of “Error”; the great ambiguity, of course, is how and why did the perfect and pristine Wisdom-Intellect make such a blunder in the first place, and why did the Father-Absolute permit it? No Scripture, to my knowledge, attempts to give a firm answer to this question, though the Masters who have said anything on it at all have largely demured by reminding us that the “why” is of no importance and will answer itself by way of Realization/enlightenment. The fact that this process creates both the cosmic illusion of a trap and the individual delusion trapped within it is a great clue as to the means of escape, as well as the motive behind teachings that every individual’s enlightenment, salvation, or liberation is an event of cosmic importance.
The ego (and, by extension, the demiurge) is thus less of a villain and more of an antihero. There seems to be no intention on the part of any Master that we should hate it, in a passionate or emotional sense, but rather that we should hold dispassion toward it. If strong language like “hatred” or “revulsion” are applied to it, it is only in the ends of emphasizing what our proper relationship with it should be: not identification.
We are brought, then, to the two complementary ways given of “dealing with” the ego, once and for all. I will use, for examples of these two perspectives, a Master and His student.
Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi often taught that the goal is to “kill” or destroy the ego; one of His students, a Westerner called Paul Brunton, preferred to speak of transcending it or learning to ignore it. Though perhaps confusing, at first, the point is, in fact, the same in either case, though worded differently. The Maharshi Himself taught, on many recorded occasions, the same notion that the ego is not to be assaulted with passion, but rather simply ignored. If we like, we may combine the two languages and say that the ego, rather than being slain, is simply allowed to die as if by exposure to the elements.
We may liken the method to using the ego’s method against it, or even using the ego itself, against itself. Recall that the ego is simply the identification, “I”, with some object. Tracing it, bit by bit, back to its source, we gradually (or, in some quite extraordinary cases—such as that of the Maharshi Himself—all of a sudden) train our minds to identify “I” with higher and higher, or more and more inward, objects. Advaita-vāda gives these object-stages the title of “veils” or “sheathes” and names five of them: gross body, the vital body, the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the causal body. Most of us, most of the time, identify with some combination of the gross body, vital body, and emotional mind; the first goal, then, is to first realize that “I am not this body”, and so to loosen identification with the gross and vital bodies. Once this has occurred to some appreciable degree, we enter upon the task of identifying with the rational mind and its capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood; this discriminative capacity of vijnana is aided greatly by dispassionate action (karma yoga), unitive devotion (bhakti yoga), and meditation on Scripture and teaching (nididhyāsana), along with exercise in mental concentration (dhyāna), all of these being methods of (among other important reasons for them all) opening one’s mind up to greater and greater clarity of intuition. In other words, the mind is itself purified and re-identified with Intellect.
All of these stages, in a sense, turn ego around on itself. They trick it into working for the proper Master, turning from one object-identification to another, subtler, one, thus “transcending” it; they rob it of its illegitimate force by simply ignoring its false authority and “allowing it to die”. They “slay” the ego with the sword of discrimination (between True and false), “drown” it in the Divine Ocean, and “cremate” it in the Fire of Truth. These are all different ways of expressing the same meaning by placing emphasis on a different part of the subjective experience of the process; at times, it is quite a painful process, and so we say that it is like death by fire; sometimes it is panic-inducing and stressful followed by subsidence, and then we call it drowning; yet again, we sometimes feel beset upon by our own emotions and thoughts, and then we call it combat, war, a duel; sometimes it is a calm subdual, and so we say that the ego has simply passed away in its sleep. And, yet, until the final curtain, in point of fact and in personal experience, the ego hangs on throughout (however submerged, scorched, or sliced up, at times) as both the lock and the key to the whole problem of wrong identification.
For whatever reason, the two dystopian novels always chosen out to be compared and contrasted with one another are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is true that they project fairly dissimilar visions onto the future (for them) of human civilization. Orwell’s take was one of a Western Plutocratic Fascism and an Eastern Communism joining political forces behind the scenes in order to produce an indefinite Cold War scenario, all the better for both sides to maintain iron-fisted social, cultural, and economic control over their populations. As Orwell himself puts it, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Orwell’s is a future of tight social control and inhumane oppression upon what it means to be a thinking, feeling being.
Orwell’s dystopia has one major factor in common with Huxley’s: the suppression of rational thought and promotion of irrational emotionalism is used as the means of undercutting any possibility of escape or revolution. In Orwell, the overriding emotional factor is, of course, terror. In Huxley’s, it is quite different: it is pleasure.
In point of fact, neither one has come to pass in full, but both have come upon us in different ways. Whether or not it is entirely intentional, it is quite clear that we are being manipulated by our fear-responses. This seems to be the basis, however, only of foreign policy and international economic policy. Within countries, at least in the West, Huxley appears to have largely won the day. Again intentionally or not, people largely keep themselves in place by way of unquestioned consumption, unconscious absorption of endless streams of advertising, and psychological infantilization in the guise of “self-actualization” and by way of “self-esteem”. (An important documentary on this topic by Adam Curtis of the BBC may be found, for free, here. If you cannot download from this link for any reason, just do a search for “Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis.) In point of fact, though, and as strange as it may now sound, this particular post is not a political one.
As I have stated before, my approach to political question is essential moral rather than political in the usual sense. As such, I have no interest at all in merely dissecting various political ideas and then arguing over my own preferred version of them. I would rather discuss Huxley’s ideas within their own context: the Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was himself of a Perennialist persuasion; he even wrote a book about it, and a very good book at that.
You see hints all the time in Brave New World (BNW) that Huxley was not just lamenting the decay of liberalism (though he was indeed so lamenting); he was simultaneously lamenting the loss of Traditional values. Let’s be clear: Huxley’s values, though Traditional, were not at all narrow. No, the Perennial Philosophy permits of no bigotry, certainly no sexism nor racism. Homophobia is a dangerous byproduct of “family values” tribalism which passes under the name of “tradition”, but really has no place in Tradition. Where any of the Revelations mention it, it is generally for a very specific purpose that they do so, one which unfortunately has become obscured by time and the unfortunate human tendency to utilitarianism. I do not know what Huxley’s personal feelings were on homosexuality, but given his own friendships and acquaintances in life I would very much doubt if he took other than a neutral, disinterested view of the topic. But that is, really, neither here nor there; it is merely an important aside to make, given the present day’s social climate.
Huxley laments, in BNW, the loss of Christianity. This he does not because of the prejudices of exoteric Christian theology, but because of Christianity’s perennial sense of morality (karma-yoga), its salvific sacramentalism, and its rich and inspiring hagiography. What Huxley misses from Christianity in his dystopian vision is not “churchianity” but rather the living, operative core of the religion, the very fact that it, like all of the revelations, has something to it which hasdescended to us that we might become liberated from the shallow, the fragile, the meaningless. BNW illustrates this in narrative fashion by pointing to a sort of sacramental parody practiced by the citizens of the “one-world” society in the book.
The Twelve Apostles are replaced by the twelve participants around the table during the pseudo-religious service known as the Solidarity Service. Christ is Himself replaced by Henry Ford, whose prominence is assured as the one who perfected the concept of the factory assembly line and, thus, of efficiency over humanity; it is also dryly remarked that in his inscrutability, “Our Ford” referred to himself as “Freud” when discussing matters of psychology. (Again, see the documentary linked above.) All of the crosses of the world have had their heads cut off to make them capital Ts, after the Ford Model T. The hymns to God Almighty, the pre-existent Reality, are revamped into songs invoking the mere “Greater Being/Social Friend”, an egregore of the society itself rather than anything higher or deeper than itself. The Holy Sacrament is nothing but a narcotic/hallucinogenic/aphrodisiac drug cocktail called (in another nod to Traditional religion) soma after the Hindu mythology’s equivalent of manna or ambrosia. The whole affair is wrapped up with, well, an affair called “Orgy-Porgy” in which the twelve participants, alternating male and female, give in to mere lust and conduct a soporific orgy around the periphery of the circular chamber. Even this last detail is symbolic; given his knowledge of the esoteric dimension of the world’s religions, Huxley was fully aware that the Altar of the Divine Mass, no matter where it is actually situated in the church building, represents the Center where, if the metaphor will be permitted, Heaven and earth conjoin and Heaven makes Herself manifest in a way that permits of participation by unregenerate human individuals. Orgy-Porgy, on the other hand, takes as its position the periphery of the “worship” space, representing a moving-outward from Essence to form rather than the other way round.
It is often said that Huxley spent much of his intellectual life trying to reconcile “passion” with “rationality”; this seems to me to be a rather shallow interpretation of Huxley’s actual aims. Brave New World, along with many of Huxley’s other fictional works, certainly presents passionate feeling as a counterpoint to a stifling sort of rationalism. Those qualifications, however, count. It was not rational thought itself to which Huxley made himself an enemy; how could he have? No, it was the mechanizing rationalism of the modern movements he saw around him which troubled him, and whose fruits we are now eating today in blissful ignorance of the diseased tree from which they have fallen. Just as Aldous predicted. (And, now, another documentary from Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.)
As all of the Revelations attest, passion-as-such is not necessarily a good thing. More often than not, it is intensely destructive and tends to act as one of the primary imprisoning forces in our lives. After all, when we are passionate about something, we are unduly attached to it and will tend to go to absurd lengths to obtain our ends, or at least make certain that nobody else will be able to get it away from us. In the face of oppression, however—especially the sort of oppression which dissipates even healthy emotion—it may well be passion which allows us our first real contact with something other than the controls put in place to maintainstatus quo. Emotion is a lot like plumbing for a shower; if the pipes are kept too wide, we will likely not even get a trickle, as gravity will not permit the water to rise beyond a certain base level. If, however, the pipes are made more and more narrow, capillary action draws the water up the pipe by way of its own surface tension and, fwoosh!, you get a nice, hot shower with plenty of water pressure. Likewise with emotions; if the channels for their expression are wide, the emotions remain shallow and soft, while if the channels are tight, the emotions will naturally tend to burst forth by the power of their own tension. If we are permitted to determine our own emotional channels and our own mental focus (the tightness of the pipes), we might be able to use the resulting force to burst out of our selfish prisons. In order to ensure liberation, rather than reincarceration in a higher security prison, this process requires intense discipline; hence the difficulty of authentic Yoga, Tantra, Alchemy, theurgy, contemplative prayer, and other forms ofsadhana. Still, if passion is not permitted at the outset, any and all of these methods are immediately closed off from all but the born contemplative, a rare enough breed in any case. So the tension, here, is not between rational thought and emotion, but rather between the misapplication of rational thought over against a deeper mental discipline which uses the passions as its fuel without being overwhelmed by them.
Huxley’s Brave New World still seems somewhat far off to many people. To those with eyes to see, however, we are living in the thick of it, albeit in a modified form. Rarely is a prophet correct on specifics, even where he is deadly accurate on the overall trend. But it is this bird’s-eye-view that is most dangerous to the powers and principalities of this world. As Huxley wrote barely into the first chapter of Brave New World: “For particulars, as every one knows, make for virtue and happiness; generalities are intellectually necessary evils. Not philosophers but fretsawyers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.”
I seem always to be caught in a bit of a bind as far as ideological commitments go. On the one hand, I am a religious Traditionalist which, assumptions have it, ought to incline me toward social and economic Conservatism; on the other hand, I am a political Liberal. “Liberal” is, in my case, certainly not to say “secularist” as I am far from convinced that non-spiritual values can in any way serve as a firm foundation for an authentically ethical society.
I recently made known in a social medium my enjoyment of David Berlinski’s latest book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, an amusing and well-argued dismantling of the “new atheist” movement’s claim to scientific objectivity. I purchased, read, and enjoyed most of the book before discovering that Berlinski is a senior fellow of the conservative “intelligent design” think-tank “The Discovery Institute”, and his friendship with neo-con talking head—and professional bigot—Ann Coulter. Well, this just illustrates my point. I still agree with much of what Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion. As long as he and I stay away from politics, we could have a rather fruitful friendship.
Yes, I am a religious Traditionalist or, to use my preferred terminology, a Perennialist. I see something inherently, even absolutely (in the “relative-absolute” sense of Schuon), valuable in the sacramental forms of the world’s great Revelations—a category, I hasten to clarify, which is not limited to the three major Abrahamic monotheisms. Somehow, though, my moral obligations within this framework have gone askew of those of many of my cohort. Or, just maybe, theirs have gone quite seriously askew.
Modern Conservatism has gone off to the impossible geography of the land of Ayn Rand-and-some-few-selective-readings-of-Leviticus-and-Paul and left us (not to mention Jesus) in a dust cloud wondering what the hell happened. Politics, at its best and at its core, is not a matter merely of convenient policy-making, nor of unscrupulous deal-making; an authentic political system is moral to its very soul, and is thus founded on the moral assumptions of those who create and recreate it. This being the case, the Conservative fairy-tale becomes, like an unvarnished Grimm story, quite disturbing: we see a narrative of blood and tears, God’s Justice and Mercy belonging only to a select few supermen who have managed effectively to invent a god in their own image. (“[S]o also in this world people make gods and worship what they have created. It would be more fitting for gods to worship people.” The Gospel of Philip) This free-market-god is a total inversion of the God spoken of by the Prophets and God-men; he is not the God of the Logos but, if the expression will be forgiven, the god worshiped by the devils and archons. But what more should we expect of the Age of Iron?
It is certainly not practical to enforce the same scheme individually and locally as on a very large national scale, and this is sometimes the excuse given (when any is proffered at all) by the more thoughtful among this sort of history- and doctrine-ignoring neo-Conservative for their extremely un-Christ-like political and economic ideals. The extremes to which this excuse is stretched, however, make a veritable non sequitur of what would ordinarily be a common-sense observation. Local and individual charity, whether helping people with their chores, donating blankets to homeless shelters, setting up a soup kitchen in your church, or whatever it happens to be, is absolutely vital, andall charity—in the sense of the biblical Virtue—manifests first and necessarily out of the individual’s deepest commitments. But there is no magical ring-pass-not at which, suddenly!, spontaneously!, Mercy must give way entirely to Justice and our judgments of people who are not ourselves need kick in at their very harshest. We may need to soften certain personal moral requirements in order to relate them to society—pacifism being a good example—but that is not the same thing as abandoning them as irrelevant at a certain numerical threshold of living human bodies, land measurement, or—most damning of all—dollar value.
Religion not only does not demand of us that we turn the unfortunate, diseased, orphaned, widowed, or even just irresponsible, out to the unkind elements, it outright condemns any such tendency inherent in earthly human nature. And let us not be coy on this point: “original sin”, at least in the sense of selfishness and schadenfreude within the human psyche, is an observable phenomenon whether or not we choose to attribute it to a primordial event or simply to a naturalistic evolution. To accept fiscal conservatism, then, is simply togive in entirely to the “fallenness” of the world.
Social conservatism is equally problematic, despite the seeming strength of the “religious” argument in favor of it. As fiscal conservatism turns people materially out into the cold, social conservatism does so psychologically and spiritually. If fiscal conservatism casually (or gleefully, as in the case of Ron Paul supporters) condemns people to disease and death from exposure or starvation, social conservatism forces them to despair and the brink of suicide. Combine the two, and you have a kenomic cocktail—a samsaric Screwdriver, if you will—of which Old Scratch himself would be proud.
Let us take the social-argument-du jour—homosexuality—as our example. And, let us say for the sake of argument that homosexuality is, in fact, sinful by its very nature. Well! How does it differ in kind from the sort of sex which produces children? Christianity, to mention the religion most commonly seen as vocally opposed to any sort of “gay civil rights”, has no traditional claim to a positive view of either reproduction or heterosexual sex-as-such. The idea that Christianity is all about “family values” is an entirely modern development, and one quite at odds with its theological and ethical roots. This is not to say that Jesus was totally anti-family, but He certainly taught that family is of secondary importance (at best!) when compared to our deeper (that is to say, non-biolgically-dependent) commitments. The body, in Christianity, is not to be intentionally harmed, but is also not meant to be venerated; what is family, really, but a biological commitment? Family is very important, biologically, but what makes members of one’s family morally and spiritually important is not the shared DNA, but the brute fact of their humanity. If we happen to share values and interests with them, more’s the better! So, it is hard to make a case for homosexual sex being significantly worse than heterosexual sex. What needs to be placed front and center in both cases is simply this: human love is a lower-order analogy (in the esoteric sense of the word) to Divine Love and, at its best, sex is a specific flowering of love (vide traditional—non-fundamentalist—Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teachings about sex). And this flows nicely into the other common “Christian” argument made in favor of homophobia: It just isn’t natural!
An “argument from nature” can hold no water with a Christian for the simple fact that “nature” is fallen. Nature is not morally evil, so let’s not be throwing any “world-hating Gnostic” accusations around, here, but it is broken and flawed from the perspective of the relative-absolute (which is to say, the personal God to whom most religions turn when they pray). So, while it is possible to draw metaphysical/esoteric/symbolic conclusions from Nature-as-Scripture, this is a process of higher-order epistemic sublation, of intellectual adequation, or of out-and-out Revelation; it does not follow from this essentially intellectual-intuitive process that nature-as-form is completely good and, thus, useful as a standard of moral guidance. If that were the case, we would have ample examples to follow in eating our own babies, or at least just taking craps wherever we happen to be when we feel the urge. In other words, moral arguments-from-nature simply do not hold in the Christian mind (when that mind is sincere and well-informed, that is). This is all, of course, leaving well aside the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are quite well-attested and frequently observed in the natural world. If arguments-from-nature do not work in the puerile “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” intellectual miscarriage, they cannot work the other way round, either.
What are most important in both arguments are the points of Love and of Humanity as Archetypes, as platonic Ideals. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin (to return to my initial assumption in service to the greater point), it is nevertheless an infinitely greater sin to assume that we are then in a position to devalue the central humanity and love which is being expressed by it. If it is incumbent upon me to not be gay, well, I’ve already succeeded; but it is in any case far more pressing that I stop caring so much about who a person loves and care more about Love Itself.
The Revelations place great, not to say exclusive, emphasis on morality. This is in part because we are fallen; we require, to some extent, rules to abide by. That is, until we are more fully able to live from the Real—that which is not and cannot be touched by the Fall, by samsara, by kenoma—at which point, morality falls away not because it is wrong within its own limits, but because the Love which lies at the heart of Justice-oriented morality may live through us more spontaneously. The law is transcended by the Law; the spiritual Torah floats above the written Torah. In just such a way, our own psychic narrowness must give way, sooner rather than later, to God’s Fullness.
This Way: Gnosis Beyond ‘Gnosticism’
This is a good book.
Though I gladly belong to one of the 19th century “occult” Gnostic churches (namely, l’Eglise Gnostique Apostolique) which Jeremy Puma softly but clearly maligns in the beginning of his book, I acknowledge all of his criticisms of said organizations. There are many who make harmful false historical claims, whose “leadership” consist mostly of those who want power and prestige in religion because they cannot have it elsewhere. There are, however, plenty of individuals and groups of the “Gnostic revival movement” who are truly doing God’s work. I am involved with the EGA, for instance, not because of any claims of privilege, but because Tau Vincent II (Bishop Phillip Garver), who baptized and confirmed me into the Church, is a wonderful human being with a soft heart, a powerful mind, and spiritual gifts which I cannot begin to put into words. To Puma’s credit, he acknowledges that these groups are not “all bad” and that there are “good people” in them, but I do believe that his criticisms of the Gnostic churches is not altogether fair.
For instance, Puma makes the assertion that because these Gnostic churches are based in 19th century occultism (which is true) they are therefore somehow uniquely artificial or without some sort of more appropriate foundation. This does not follow. Valentinian and Sethian teachings—like the Hermetism of the same periods—were quite esoteric, possibly intentionally so. Occultism is by its very nature syncretic. The Valentinians and Sethians (referred to collectively hereafter as “Gnostics” for simplicity, though it may not be strictly correct) certainly had their own unique private rituals, their own secret teachings available only to those who proved their commitment, and their own reinterpretations of various religious symbols and myths. All of these traits smack of the charge of “occultism”. It is not mere fancy to point out that they were, in a sense, facets of the esoteric movements of their own place and time. This does not in any way degrade their value as sources of spiritual guidance. So why should it do so for modern reconstructions?
The next important criticism which I would like to briefly rebut is that these groups are somehow not Christ-centered enough. This may be true in many cases, and we would be quite justified in brushing-off such groups’ claims to being Christian in any meaningful sense. However, l’Eglise Gnostique Apostolique and her fraternal twin sister the Ecclesia Gnostica are about as Christian (in the sense of being Christ-centered) as you can get. Jeremy Puma is himself proof positive that one can be a sincere Christian without being closed-off to non-Christian sources of wisdom. So, too, are the aforementioned churches. Of course, I do not think that Puma intended to claim that all Gnostic churches are insufficiently Christian, but I believe the point bears some clarification.
Now to a major point of agreement in this opening, critical chapter of Puma’s book: we, whether within or without these Gnostic churches, are far better served by honesty as to our institutional origins than we are by asserting unbroken lineages. The same goes, however, for the Roman Catholic and various Orthodox churches. Bishop Garver is himself quite honest about the origins of the EGA, of what truth and tall tales there are behind claims of apostolic succession, and so forth. One of the EGA’s claims is that its foundation came on the heels of a revelatory visit from a Cathar’s spirit to a Christian occultist in France in the 1800s. It is reasonable to question whether or not this event was actually a spiritual visitation, but there is no evidence to suggest that the story is basically a lie; either the spiritual visitation occurred and we thus got our first Bishop, or else our first Bishop hallucinated and was inspired thereby. Either way, I take that Bishop at his word that he had the experience, whatever it may have been “in reality”. Perhaps it is an example of how, as Jeremy Puma put it in This Way, Gnosis is the same for everybody but everybody who experiences it expresses it differently.
In the following chapters, Puma’s main efforts move close to my own. He seeks an interpretation of Christian myth and poetic imagery which does not chafe the rational intellect, nor cut against compassionate morality, and which presents us with the possibility of practical steps for incorporating their message into our day-in-day-out lives. Puma’s main focus, at least in This Way, is on the primary Sethian mythical rereading of the first few chapters of Genesis embodied in The Secret Book of John. Though I generally consider this particular myth to be cumbersome at its best, Puma does an admirable job of mining it for inspiration and, more impressive still, constructing from it a coherent philosophical edifice for spiritual living and practice. A big part of his methodology is to borrow ideas and techniques from Zen Buddhism. This is a common enough approach to applicably reconstructing Nag Hammadi Library materials in our own time, but Puma does it with a refreshing clarity and honesty. At no point does he attempt to hide what he is doing, but rather points it out very early. He is unafraid of using Buddhist terms alongside Christian ones when the two can suitably clarify one another for the modern reader.
Chapter 4 of the book, “Moving from Emptiness to Fullness”, is a truly exceptional essay which does a better job than almost any other recent source of making clear the methods and goals of the spiritual life. It seems a crime to attempt a summary of it, so I will instead quote a particularly illustrative bit of the text:
The Pleromic Worldview, the goal of this Way, manifests as a sense and knowledge of purpose and spiritual fullness in the face of the imperfection of the world of Forms. In the Pleromic individual, body, soul and spirit are aligned with the Aeons, or higher aspects of the self, as a manifestation of the perfected human. In contrast to the Kenomic person, whose actions and life seem aimless and listless, the Pleromic person has a heightened sense of purpose. This certainty may not be discernible or recognizable; it may dwell beneath the surface of one’s day-to-day activities. As the hallmark of the Pleroma is shared experience, the sense of purpose of the Pleromic person never materializes as megalomaniacism or egocentricity. There is never a need to “take over the world” or become material [sic] successful in the physical realm. The Pleromic Worldview decreases, instead of increases, a need for power of any kind. (page 43)
The other most noteworthy sections of the book are chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 6, “Porosis: The Opposite of Gnosis”, quite cleverly demonstrates the moral dimension of Gnosis and its opposite. This is a point which is often given short shrift in studies of Gnosis, but which is of such singular importance that it is good to see somebody giving it proper emphasis. Chapter 7 follows from 6 quite nicely. It is entitled “Word: The Gate of the Nous”, and serves as a sparkling corrective of the common tendency to equate spirituality with strong emotions and irrationality. Here, Puma brings to the fore the fact that study, thinking, asking questions, and intellectual rigor are all major parts of the Way. While it may be true that there have been people who have attained enlightenment without having read a single book, it is incumbent upon us to seek out answers from as many angles as we can in our own process; we are not all such ripe fruits as to fall from the branch unbidden. “Touchy-feely” sentimentalism needs must give way to the intellect not so that “brain” can overpower “heart”, but because “mind” and “heart” are not two different things! The intellect gives meaning to sensation by interpreting it.
Chapters 10 and 13 are, I believe, some of the book’s weakest points. Chapter 10—”The Self”—is not poorly written or without substance, but is simply far too short to really explore the subject at its center. The concepts of “self” and of “identity” are simply far too layered to be slammed through in about five pages. This is not the fault of Jeremy Puma’s thought or writing, but rather of space allotment, and I would like to see him try his hand at a fuller treatment of the topic.
Chapter 13—”Make Your Life Your Practice”—begins with a great premise, but falls flat by what I take to be a lack of clarity. The essential point, with which I heartily agree, is this: that spiritual practice is only important relative to the way in which we live the rest of our lives, and we cannot judge the spirituality of a person by how regularly or frequently they attend Mass or how long they meditate each day. Puma’s wording goes a bit too far in the opposite direction, however, by seeming to claim that these things are totally unimportant. He obviously does not mean this, or else he would not have devoted the entirety of chapter 9 to a contemplative technique. A better way of making the point, I think, would have been to say simply that our dedicated spiritual practices, such as meditation and sacraments, are important only insofar as they serve as foundations for bringing our spiritual ideals into the rest of our time and activities. This is a point made explicit in Vedanta, most forms of Buddhism, and of course in many “orthodox” Christian contemplative traditions.
All told, this is a really great little book with a lot to say. It definitely has the feel of a “preliminary sketch”, however, and many of the big ideas brought to bear within it could certainly handle quite a bit of fleshing-out. Those who are searching for a pocket guide to the “practical application” of Nag Hammadi Library-inspired Christian spirituality (which, I think, can still usefully be described as “Gnostic”, let Mr. Puma and others object as they may) have indeed found a treasure. Most of my criticisms above really come down to one big request: I would love to see, one day, a much-expanded version of this book, or perhaps a series of sequels which delve much more profoundly into the many topics only skimmed-over in This Way. As it stands, though, Jeremy Puma’s This Way has already earned its place on my bookshelves and a strong recommendation from me, for what that’s worth.