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Book Review: “This Way” by Jeremy Puma

February 15, 2012 2 comments

This Way: Gnosis Beyond ‘Gnosticism’
Jeremy Puma
2011, self-published
108 pages

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.

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