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The Socio-Politics of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is not a religious movement easily politicized; anybody with a genuine understanding of the “nature of Gnosis”, whether they accept it or not, can see that Gnosticism is an enemy to temporal power in all of its forms, natural as well as supernatural. We aren’t likely to lay ourselves down for a politician or a god who makes us promises we know they cannot keep. Still, this is not an argument for isolationism or quietism. An equally important aspect of Gnosticism’s rejection of authority is its general insistence on courage in the face—or jaws—of authority. The early Christians who got branded as Gnostics by heresy-hunters (a name which we moderns have taken up proudly, but which we must remember was rarely, if ever, used by our predecessors to describe themselves) were largely no big fans of martyrdom, but understood that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and die with dignity and faith. But not only do we not want to walk into the grinding maw of suffering, but most especially we do not want others to be forced into that position.

Gnosticism is not a faith of elitism, but neither are we populists. Really, we refuse to limit ourselves to such categories, as if we had to leave behind our suffering sisters and brothers in order to accept scholarship, ideas, and personal experience. And that’s the rub: our fellow humans, our fellow life-forms generally, are suffering just by virtue of living in this world-system. And so are we, personally. Neither is the problem purely collective, nor purely individual; it cuts across such simplistic notions. And so does salvation. Fundamentalists are all about the individual, while liberals are all about the Group. Gnostics don’t see a conflict, there, but only a confusing array of artificial barriers which are designed such that to break one down another one must be erected; to get rid of racial tensions, we must substitute religious ones, to evoke a particularly successful (read: pernicious) example from American society. (This is not to say that racism doesn’t still exist, and strongly, but only to point toward one of the strategies of social integration.)

If you put a gun to my head, I would call myself a “social democrat”, but that hardly encapsulates my entire socio-political worldview. It just gives you an idea. Similarly, many Gnostics of my acquaintance identify as “libertarian”, but I would never try to argue with them as if they were simply Tea Party stooges. That would miss the point. Just like everybody else, Gnostics try to ally themselves with whichever mass movement seems to be aiming in the direction of the Good; the difference is, we also try to remind ourselves that the Good, in the Enlightenment sense, is inherently unattainable in this world. We aren’t caught by empty promises quite as often because of it. Of course, we often fall off the opposite edge into raw and bleeding pessimism, a possibility we must try to guard against by invoking the Romantic sensibility of the inherent divinity of each and every human and of humankind as a manifestation of a profound spiritual totality.

That is the crux of the Gnostic worldview in the modern world, especially as concerns politics and society: we are neither wholly of the Enlightenment, nor wholly of the Romantic, but both speak to us deeply. We are truly children of the Greeks, for we see the bare pathos of existence while trying to reason-out an ethical response to it.We lop-off the nihilistic relativism of postmodern culture with one edge of the blade while slicing through the prefab truths of absolutism with the other. We live with contradictions and seeming-paradoxes until resolution comes, always by a drop of reason, a bucket of sweat, and a downpour of Grace.

So, when we Gnostics enter into political discourse, we do so not as liberals or conservatives, not as progressives or libertarians, certainly not as Democrats or Republicans; we enter in as smiling-faced Siddharthas, as laughing Jesuses, as Strangers to the Powers of this world-system, who aren’t willing to play by those rules for the brute fact that they have been decreed. No empty iconoclasm, here; it isn’t by whim that we ignore the rules to the game of life, but because it is by those rules that we are made sinners, while freedom from them allows us the chance to be truly moral, truly good, truly loving. And that won’t mean the same thing from this moment to the next.

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The Convocation of the Silver Rose & Golden Cross

September 28, 2010 1 comment

Please take a look at the blog/manifesto of the Convocation of the Silver Rose & Golden Cross. It is an evolving set of principles pointing toward cooperation between all those who seek or serve the Light in the midst of the darkness.

The Present Age: Some Political Comments

If a generation were given the diplomatic task of postponing any action in such a way as to make it seem as if something were just about to happen, then we should have to admit that our age had performed as remarkable a feat as the revolutionary age. (The Present Age by Søren Kierkegaard)

I don’t generally discuss politics here, and there is a very good reason for that. The purpose of this blog, successful or not, is to explore topics significantly deeper and more essential than politics. Political arguments of the past few years have taken quite the religious turn, though, and with some of the most popular mainstream political commentators being also religious commentators, I feel the need to make a few comments of my own, though my audience will certainly never equal theirs in number.

In the same essay from which the opening quotation has been extracted, Kierkegaard had the following to say:

A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times.

Writing in 1846, Kierkegaard couldn’t have been more wrong about his own age, given the bloody rebellions across Western Europe only two years later. Still, more apt words could not be written for America here at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. (Of course, Kierkegaard and I both can only write about what we have so far witnessed, making inductive projections into the future, so I can’t be too critical of Søren’s observations.) There is perhaps no area of our lives in which this is more true than in the political arena. We do not have far to look in order to see politicians and pundits making grandiose claims, compiling massive plans, and organizing sparkling rallies, but really to what end? Our eyes are dazzled, our ears left ringing, our brains confounded, our souls enlarged by the promises of HOPE and CHANGE, and declarations that “America today begins to turn back to God.” Where, then, is the hope? It seems to have died, because the change surely hasn’t made itself known. The fact is that the one needed to fuel the other, which would have then fed back into the first, and so on, but of course there was never any real chance for that to happen. Call it indolence.

Kierkegaard continues:

On the other hand a political virtuoso might bring off a feat almost as remarkable. He might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home—having spent a very pleasant evening.

Does this sound familiar? I can recall the excitement of Obama’s rallies, the enthusiasm of going to the polls to elect him, and the resulting ecstasies (perhaps “seizures”) upon the announcement of Obama’s election. And what happened immediately after? Immediately after sex, the warm, relaxed, “fuzzy” sensation which washes through the bodies of many men and women can serve to bring us closer together as individuals, or it can serve to make us lazy. Immediately after a “revolutionary” election, the warm, relaxed, fuzzy sensation which washes over us can serve to enliven us for our mission, or it can serve to put us to sleep. So much for the afterglow!

But the present generation, wearied by its chimerical efforts, relapses into complete indolence. Its condition is that of a man who has only fallen asleep towards morning: first of all come great dreams, then a feeling of laziness, and finally a witty or clever excuse for remaining in bed.

Now, I am not blaming President Barack Obama for this state of affairs; I am merely saying that he, like most politicians, took full advantage of it. I do not know if he and his speech-writers and aides did so on purpose, but it is rather bad in any case. Either our President did not understand the very forces and trends which brought him to power, or he did know and took advantage of the combined boredom, anxiety, and laziness of the American people. And Obama is certainly not the only politician to have taken such advantage! Look at the “anger” of the Tea Party movement, and you will see many politicians riding the coattails of that hollow sensationalism. Whether we dress it up as HOPE or RAGE, we are dealing with the same SUBSTANCE, in truth no substance at all.

Equally unthinkable among the young men of today is a truly religious renunciation of the world, adhered to with daily self-denial. On the other hand almost any theological student is capable of something far more wonderful. He could found a society with the sole object of saving all those who are lost. The age of great and good actions is past, the present is the age of anticipation when even recognition is received in advance.

Golden Age romanticism aside, Kierkegaard’s point here is clear, if stated somewhat sarcastically: it is easy, now, to found a society, what we today might call a “special interest group”, for anything at all, but nothing ever changes. The answer to this, which Kierkegaard also says in the same essay, is simply that such societies are worthless, without substance, unless they are made up exclusively of substantive individuals. In other words, as the old trope goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When we are dealing with a “chain” as large as a social movement, a political party, or a nation, how many weak links must there be, and how weak must the weakest ones be?

And what of Glenn Beck and his ilk? It is common to place Obama, and those like him, at one end of the American political scale, and Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and so on, on the opposite end. But is this accurate? It depends, I suppose, on the metric. As far as how much good they do, we could safely place them both firmly in the “negative influence” side of the slider-bar. Are they evil people? Almost certainly no; evil is an extremely strong term, and I hesitate to apply it to flawed human beings, likely no better and certainly no worse than myself. Though likely not “evil”, there is a rather terrifying political messianism surrounding and vivifying both camps. Beck has gone so far as to actually place himself in the role of prophet, a role which traditionally is not assumed but rather imposed; we must always be careful of those who are glad to be God’s mouthpieces!

And so the whole thing comes down to one essential: American society has no essence. It is empty but unwilling to be filled. What can we do? I cannot answer for everybody, but my own intention is to work upon myself, rather to allow God to work within me; if only substantive individuals are of value for creating positive change, if only such individuals can profitably create and join organizations, we must become substantive individuals! Take Kierkegaard’s advice or no, but his vision for becoming such a one was simply

behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade—and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God’.

(All quotations from The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion by Søren Kierkegaard, translated by Alexander Dru, with an introduction by Walter Kaufman, 2010, Harper Perennial Modern Thought paperback edition.)

Fiery Souls

I keep being forcibly cheered-up. About two weeks ago, I was in a very bad mood as I was walking in to work. An elderly Hassidic man and wife were walking toward me on the sidewalk. I’m accustomed to the Hassidim of the area more or less ignoring gentiles like myself, at most exchanging brief nods to one another from across the cultural gap. On this occassion, though, it was not to be. The couple stopped in front of me and the gentleman looked in my eyes and pointed his curved finger at me imperiously while saying, “You have a good day. And that’s an order!” Then he and his wife gave me two of the most sincere smiles I’ve ever seen and kept on their way past me. I was not able to be grumpy for the rest of the day.

My fiancé and I were recently in a harsh conflict with one of her housemates who took it upon herself to be needlessly abusive. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that I was angrier than I have been in some years, and for several days in a row at that. On Friday night when everything was coming to a head and I was expecting a real conflict as my fiancé returned to the house to retrieve her more important belongings, I waited outside so as not to make things worse by my temper. I was vaguely aware at this point of a group of three Hassidic men walking up the street in the gloom. When they got close to me, they stopped, and out from behind the two younger men in front stepped a particular elderly man who pointed his curved finger at me and said, “And that’s an order!” He then chuckled and all three men continued on their way. I think the two younger men were quite taken aback by their elder’s mysterious gesture and words toward a strange gentile, but the old man and I shared a moment then which brought a smile to my lips, a laugh to my throat, and tears to my eyes.

On the Tree of Life, there are Holy Names, Archangels, and Angelic Choirs associated with each of the states of being known as the Holy Sephiroth. The sephirah at the bottom of the Tree, Malkuth (Kingdom), has associated to it the Angelic Choir called “Ishim” (AYShYM) which translates as “Fiery Souls”.

Who are the Ishim? Well, you are one of them. Or, at least, you can be. In Kabbalah, the Ishim are said to be the souls of humanity when we are inflamed with love for God and each other.

That Jewish gentleman improved my life, possibly forever. If I never see him again, I’ll always have the memory of his visits and I think that it’ll always make me smile. That’s what being a Fiery Soul is about. We all can be heavenly angels just by loving, and spreading the love. You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to improve lives in any way you can. The argument of “grace versus works” is solved: God is most active when we let His grace flow into the world through our works.

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Please say “NO!” to Internet censorship


No Clean Feed - Stop Internet Censorship in Australia

Remember that censorship anywhere can open the door to censorship everywhere.

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The Pope flubs on AIDS in Africa

Old news by now, but I feel the need to weigh in. “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” said Pope Benedict XVI to a group of reporters on his Alitalia flight to Yaounde, Camaroon; “On the contrary, it increases the problem.” (Wall Street Journal article here.)

That’s hilarious. I hate to devolve into mere sarcasm here, but how else am I supposed to respond?

On the level of common sense, this is patently ridiculous and false information. With leaders like this, I weep for the faithful.

Are condoms 100% effective? Of course not. Are abstinence and monogamy the only methods which are? Barring rape and the odd accidental needle-stick, yes. Given my druthers, I’d love to see more people in Africa and elsewhere slowing down on their sexual promiscuity and being more willing to commit themselves to one another in loving monogamy. Given the choice between giving out good information and the practical tools to protect oneself and others, and telling flat-out lies to remain within one’s religious moral confines, however, I’d never try to tell people that condoms make it worse!

In this Interfax article, the Russian Orthodox leadership of Moscow support the Pope’s position, saying: “It is incorrect to consider condoms as a panacea for AIDS.” Of course it is, but that isn’t what most health activists are doing. No thinking person can believe that dropping a crate of condoms in every village will suddenly make HIV/AIDS go away, but putting condoms into the hands of people who will be having sex with one another no matter what anybody else says and teaching them how to properly use them will at least stem the tide somewhat, saving lives and giving the world more time to come up with a real solution.

Quoth Fr. Vsevolod: “If a person lives a sinful, aimless and senseless life, uses drugs and is lewd, some disease will kill him one day, neither a condom nor medicine will save him.”

Well that’s Christian love right there, isn’t it? “If you’re a sinner, why should anybody bother trying to help?”

I have a great idea. Let’s do a background check on anybody attempting to enter a church; if they’ve ever committed a crime beyond traffic violations, if they’ve ever had an abortion for any reason, if they’ve ever attended a sex education class that mentioned birth control as an option, turn them away. The next time you meet somebody with cancer, tell them you’ll pray for them only on the condition that they’ve never touched drugs, never had sex outside of wedlock, and never even considered playing a violent video game or going to a nightclub on a Saturday. Then we can organize, incorporate, and call ourselves “The United Church of the Holy Inquisition” and begin fundraising for a “landmine the lawns of the mentally handicapped” event.

Who’s with me?

(With thanks to Jonathan Swift, who has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his breast no more.)

Happy Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day!

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40)

Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face them and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.” Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists. (15 reasons Mr. Rogers was best neighbor ever, reason #5)

Once when she was in a deep depression, my fiance caught an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV. He looked directly into the camera and said, with complete sincerity, “I love you just the way you are.” And she wept.

That’s the kind of power that Faith acting through Love (Gal. 5:6) can bring to this world. A man like Fred Rogers is a rare blessing, a man who is both worldly and holy, down-to-earth and saintly, a modern-day Francis of Assisi for whom every one of God’s creatures is of the utmost importance. Imagine on your worst day, hearing Mister Rogers himself saying to you, “I love you just the way you are.” Put yourself there. You feel worthless, useless, ugly, stupid, damned, and this beautiful man says that he loves you unconditionally just because you are.

My friend Gentry once said, “Mister Rogers was a better Jesus than Jesus.” To most people, Jesus Christ and other truly loving figures (from Siddhartha Guatama to God Herself) are very distant in time and space. That is why we sometimes see a person like Fred Rogers, to provide a walking, talking reminder, one whom we might see at the supermarket or naked in a gym locker room (true story; Gentry again).

Whether you do it in the name of God, Christ, Allah, Krishna, Buddha, anybody else, or nobody else, please make today and everyday a very special day for somebody special: you and everybody else!

Happy Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day to one and all. Be good to one another. God bless you and God bless Mister Rogers and his whole earthly neighborhood.

(WYBMND official website)

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