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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Leaving the Cult

“Gnosticism is a form of spiritual perversion. Its main teaching is focus on self salvation through knowledge only. Gnosticism comes from the mixing of the ancient teachings of the kabbalah with the teachings of Christianity. The end result of this mixture is a systematic distortion of the teachings of Jesus.” ~ quoted on [1]Leave the Cult Website.

The above passage from a Christian website which purports to reveal the 'truth' about Gnosticism is typical of the disinformation which I have come across on such sites. Its text scrolled on down in the same grand style for a length of time way beyond my own reasonable attention span, and left me wondering why almost two thousand years of vilification is apparently still not enough for orthodoxy to have done with Gnosticism.

So in the interests of delivering a better class of information, let's take each statement in the above short paragraph individually:

"Gnosticism is a form of spiritual perversion."
I would suggest that it is a form of spiritual perversion actually to kill someone for no other reason than that you happen to disagree with their beliefs. I’m still searching my history books for an occasion when Gnostics have done this, but can find [2]examples aplenty when the Church has done so – often enough against Gnostics, whose scriptural texts were destroyed and whose right to practice their beliefs was denied by the Church in a succession of 2nd-3rd-century persecutions. This to me is true spiritual perversion.

And to me (and I trust also to you who are reading this), sexual discrimination against women on religious grounds is a particularly insidious form of spiritual perversion. And yet even right here in the 21st-century, the Church still [3]practices wholesale discrimination against women on the question of holding positions of authority within the Church hierarchy. Contrastingly, Gnosticism, both Christian and pre-Christian, recognised gender equality in which women also could - and did - become spiritual leaders and teachers within their communities.

"Its main teaching is focus on self salvation through knowledge only."
Gnosticism certainly focused on self salvation. That was the whole point. Salvation – recognition – of one’s true Self, which was and is the Self which is the divine essence which lies beyond the selfish and illusory ‘self’ of the ego. In this personal quest, Gnosticism sidestepped the top-down religious chain of command set up by the Church, which insisted – and still insists – that the [4]Pope, quite literally, is closer to God than humble you and I, and bishops were to be obeyed without question.

'Gnosis’ is a Greek word usually translated simplistically as ‘knowledge’. But gnosis is more than finding out about things. It involves a profound sense of seeing into the heart of the world, which allows us to glimpse the oneness behind the many forms of our everyday experience. In this quest Gnosticism was profoundly spiritual in its intent, as such a quest was expected to lead to an experience of the divine, and the experience of true gnosis was therefore an epiphany which had perhaps more in common with the eastern spiritual experience of enlightenment.

"Gnosticism comes from the mixing of the ancient teachings of the kabbalah with the teachings of Christianity."
Pre-Christian Gnosticism included both the teachings of the wisdom of the Greek Pythagorean and Egyptian Hermetic mystery schools, which in turn influenced the Hebrew Mosaic elements which still can be found in the Old Testament – remembering that Moses was himself an initiate of the Egyptian temple mysteries. As to the ‘teachings of Christianity’: there was no ‘Christianity’ – and also no Bible – for at least the first hundred years following the events of the crucifixion. The popular misconception is that there were such people as ‘Christians’, but the historical reality is that there were many different versions of these beliefs, with no one version being more ‘right’ than another. But which version is today the ‘right’ one? Currently there are some 23,000 to 38,000 [5]different Christian denominations worldwide, many and perhaps most of whom would not worship in the church of a different denomination.

Despite the zeal of the early Church Fathers in their willful attempts to eradicate Gnostic beliefs from scripture, much Gnosticism remains [6]‘hidden in plain sight’ in canonical texts. So if you have no wish to be influenced by Gnostic beliefs, then I would strongly suggest that you stop reading your Bible. Seriously.

"The end result of this mixture is a systematic distortion of the teachings of Jesus."
Current [7]scholastic opinion now considers it likely that the original form of Christianity was Gnostic, or stemmed from Gnostic principles. Oh, the irony.

I have just read on another [8]website similar to Leave the Cult the startling statement:
"To conflate the bogus [9]pseudographia (sic) of the Nag Hammadi library with genuine scriptures is immensely dishonest." …which is itself an ‘immensely dishonest’ statement. Why? Because it slips in a [10]non sequitur by presuming that the Gnostic scriptures contained in the Nag Hammadi library are ‘bogus’. Of course they are not. And that 'genuine scriptures' phrase warrants critical scrutiny. Genuine to whom? To impartial scholarship? To those who are prejudiced in one direction or another by their faith?

As I have said before on this blog: at this time frame, no scriptural writings (and there were many of them) were more or less authentic than others. There was no Bible. There were no ‘authenticated’ scriptures. And what ultimately became canonical doctrine was hammered out under the fist of Emperor Constantine, measured and found wanting (or not) in the personal opinion of Augustine, and in the enforced wills of such individuals as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Tertullian, Eusebius and others. And it is always worth remembering that not one single original Biblical text is known to exist. In any case, the description ‘bogus pseudographia’ is not merely tautological; it is disrespectful to the sincerely-held beliefs of others.

My use of the word ‘enforced’ is intentional. Anyone who seriously (and fearlessly) looks into the history will encounter a chronicle of systematic persecution of Gnostics, destruction of Gnostic texts, and annexation of places of Gnostic worship orchestrated by the handful of individuals who decided that their version of Christian doctrine was the only ‘correct’ one. This is the stone cold reason why orthodox doctrine now prevails. Since such doctrinal issues are to be read nowhere in canonical scripture (no, not even what the concept of the Trinity specifically is) the scope for personal interpretation was and is as wide as a Texas horizon.

(Note added February 21, 2015:
The 'Leave the Cult' website has now been deleted.)

[2] Apart from the persecution of the Gnostics themselves, other obvious examples from history include the Thirty Years' War, which saw Catholics and Protestants increasing each other's death toll with grim abandon, the infamous practices and sentences of the Inquisition, which, as a Church-founded and run organization, had the power of life and death over those who came before it as 'heretics', and the notorious Papal-instigated Christian-against-Christian Albigensian Crusade (please see my post A Dark Crusade for an overview of this desperately tragic and very dark episode in history).

[3] Please see my post "Behold This Woman".

[4] Please see my post Martin Luther's Final Solution if Protestantism is for you an acceptable alternative, and read about how the decidedly anti-Semitic Martin Luther urged an act of genocide, which then actually took place. Yes, it is historically documented.

[5] This total is given in the World Christian Encyclopedia. This is inevitably dependent upon how a denomination is defined, and the total could well be much higher.

[6] Please see note [12] in my post Vesica Piscis: The Tale of a Fish.

[7] Pagels, Meyer, Scopello, Robinson, et al.


[9] Alas, there is no such word as 'pseudographia', I'm assuming that this writer meant pseudepigrapha ('spuriously attributed writings'), a term which also covers those texts ascribed to a specific person, but unauthenticated to be by that person. Since this includes most texts in canonical scripture, the Bible as well comes under the classification of pseudepigraphic writings. If you think that you're on safe ground by ascribing the authorship of the four Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I invite you to read my post The Gospel According to Somebody.

[10] Non sequitur: a conclusion doomed to be false because the starting point is itself a false or erroneous assumption. In this case, the non sequitur is to describe the Nag Hammadi scriptures as 'bogus', without providing any rationalization of this assumption. Actually reading the Nag Hammadi texts offers a profound experience, containing as they do both great wisdom, deep spiritual reflection and intense poetic phrasing. And they are notably free of the genocidal body count, the rough and ready justice, and the guilt-inducing reward-and-punishment views of sin found in canonical writings. For those interested (and open-minded enough), the complete English translations of these texts are available in a single volume as The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer, and published by Harper One for Harper Collins.

The images are taken from the painting Pythagoreans’ Hymn to the Rising Sun, by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov.

For a further moving description of an aspect of Gnostic beliefs, you are invited to read the post on Emma's blog: Dazzling Darkness.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Lot and his Daughters: The Inside Story

You perhaps know of the story. It can be found in the Old Testament’s [1]Book of Genesis, and the names of the protagonist and the places are familiar enough, even to those souls who never pick up a Bible. There is old Lot sitting at the gate of the city of Sodom, when up come two angels. Except these angels apparently are human-enough in appearance for Lot to assume them to be ordinary mortals – albeit strikingly good-looking ones. They tell Lot that they are newly-arrived to the city, and having nowhere to stay, plan to spend the night on the street.

Being familiar-enough with the fancies of his home city’s menfolk, our hero sees the dangers, and rather than have them become easy pickings on the moonlit streets of Sodom invites the two strangers to spend the night under the safety of his roof, to which the two assent. Ah, but no sooner do the trio make it to the safety of Lot’s front door when the house is surrounded by a generous number of the city’s male population who, having already caught a glimpse of the two handsome strangers, are only too eager to press their penchant for something more.

So far it’s not a bad story. It’s what happens next that sends things down a mind-spinning chute of deeply-dubious morality – and that morality has nothing to do with the sexual preferences of Sodom’s menfolk, whose city’s name has become a verb still current today. No, that morality has to do with Lot’s own decision making. Because what happens next is that Lot steps outside to calm the crowd, and his attempted means of doing so is to offer his own two virgin daughters to the rabble to have their way with as long as they agree to leave the two strangers alone.

And it’s not just a bluff. He actually means it. Lot actually seriously offers his own daughters to be gang-raped on the street, rather than (as he sees it) compromise the sanctity of his hospitality. Each time I read this story, this is the point at which I shake my head in numbed disbelief. Not just because of Lot’s offer to the mob, but because it is supposed to be Lot’s virtue that sways the angels to warn him, and him alone, of God’s coming destruction of the city, which is why he’d better leave town in a hurry. Virtue? What virtue? For pity’s sake, this is a man who is more than prepared to hand his own young daughters over to be gang-banged by a sex-hungry street mob. I’m not making this stuff up: it’s right there in Genesis 19:8 if you want to check.

Recovering our mental equilibrium enough to read further, we learn that the mob now rounds on Lot, which to me smacks of rough justice, but justice deserved nevertheless. He is, however, dragged inside to safety by his two guests, who for good measure use their supernatural powers to strike the seething throng collectively blind. This is the point in the story where we realise that sleeping on the street for these two would actually have been a viable and completely safe option anyway.

Dawn’s light sees Lot and family fleeing from the city and its coming destruction. God does his fire-and-brimstone thing, Lot’s [2]wife looks back at the ghastly destruction and, as we all know, is promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Not that old Lot shows any particular signs of remorse at being summarily widowed by the Almighty: he’s too busy negotiating with God about where he’s going to flee to. He drives a [3]bargain with God that he can flee to the nearby city of [4]Zoar, because, well… it’s only a small city after all, and hardly worthy of God’s destructive attention. So God wouldn’t mind sparing such a small city, would He? God agrees.

But even in Zoar Lot feels ill-at-ease (which to me smacks of mistrust in God’s word), and flees farther. He takes his two daughters to a cave in the wilderness beyond the city walls, and there occurs probably the most astonishing twist in the story. With their mother no longer a going concern, the daughters realise that their father has no possibility of siring male heirs to carry on his line. So they ply old Lot with wine, and that night the eldest daughter, in that grandly coy Biblical euphemism, ‘lay with him’. We are reassured that Lot sleeps through the whole process, apparently as a way of excusing the whole thing. The next night the younger daughter: ditto. So the two daughters lose their virginity to their own father, and the incestuous results are two sons who go on to found the Moabites and the Ammonites.

It’s a story with threatened rape, threatened sodomy, actual incest, and plenty of disaster movie-scale destruction. And the moral standards of its central character whom God chose to spare are plainly as dubious as those of the inhabitants of the city which God in his wrath destroyed. But it’s in scripture, so all this must be okay, right? And hands up anyone who believes that old Lot was only pretending to be asleep? I thought so… J

[1] Genesis 19:1-38 contains the complete story related here. Aside from a necessary condensing of some details, all the events related in this post can be found in this passage of scripture.

[2] As with his two daughters, we are never told the name of Lot’s wife. This is certainly not the only instance in scripture when protagonists who play a key role in a story remain unnamed, apparently for no other reason than that, being female, their names were considered not worth recording. As if in support of this chauvinism, we straight away learn the names of the daughters’ sons: Moab and Ben-ammi. Please see also my previous post Frontier Justice in the Promised Land for another instance of a female lead character remaining anonymous, and a father’s callous behaviour towards his own daughter at least as heartless and despicable as Lot’s in this story. Jephthar, in case you’re not aware of the story, actually offered his own daughter up to God as a human sacrifice (Judges 11:29-40) to keep a bargain with God for his resounding victory over the Ammonites: the people of the line of Lot’s youngest daughter’s son. Oh, the irony.

[3] Lot was not the only one to drive a bargain with the Almighty. In a preamble to this story (Genesis 18:26-32) we learn that Abraham, disapproving of God’s ruling that fifty righteous men must be found in Sodom for him to spare the city from destruction, actually haggles God down until God agrees to spare the city if only ten righteous men of Sodom can be found, thus considerably reducing the odds for the coming omnipotent devastation. As we know, even these reduced odds prove to be of no avail, and Sodom was wiped from the map. And no other commentator on these events whom I have so far read has picked up on the supreme irony that Abraham, in pleading with God for his nephew Lot’s life to be spared, could have saved his descendants much misery had he not done so. For it was these very descendants of Abraham who were so harassed by the Moabites and the Ammonites – the two tribes who themselves were the descendants of Lot’s two daughters by their own father!

[4] This city is now the only one of the five original ‘cities of the plain’ whose location can be traced with reasonable certainty.

The Paintings:
Lot and his Daughters, by Francesco Furini, 17th-century. Furini’s intense interpretation is a scene which the artist depicts as a grand seduction, as one of Lot’s daughters offers their befuddled father a goblet of wine while the other tugs teasingly on the hem of his cloak. Here there are no tableaux of destruction as a backdrop, no suggestions of cave or wilderness. Instead Furini treats his background as a blank screen onto which we project our own imaginations, and in so doing thrusts all the focus onto the human drama of the moment. I discuss another work by Furini on my art blog here.

The Sodomites, by James Tissot, 19th-century. Tissot enjoyed a reputation as a painter of elegant society scenes until he turned his attention to Biblical subjects such as this one. We see Lot confront the agitated crowd as the two credibly-human angels shelter behind the shutters. Intriguingly, the artist has chosen to portray Lot as a younger man than is usually the case with this theme. And the two angels are also exceptional in that they suggest an altogether darker mood: fitting enough for these two who serve, after all, as the hit men of the angelic host. 

The Destruction of Sodom, by John Martin, 19th-century. Martin was the ‘master of disaster’ of his era, and painted many such Biblical scenes of destruction so dramatic, and on such a grand scale, that his canvases would collect audiences in the same way that disaster movies do today. Indeed, Cecil B. DeMille was inspired by his work to make the films which he did, and the artist’s visionary genius continues to influence film makers of our own time. Martin portrays the Almighty as an accusing finger of lightning stabbing down to transform Lot's wife into the famed portion of sodium nitrate. 

Lot and his Daughters, by Hendrick Goltzius, 17th-century. The artist’s treatment of the subject is typical of many: Sodom burns in the background as the two seductively nude daughters ply their father with the necessary alcoholic beverage. Goltzius was by no means the only artist to seize upon the subject as a veiled excuse to portray voluptuous female flesh, but what charms is his inclusion of whimsical details: the scene includes half a wheel of good Dutch cheese, the family’s pet dog (definitely not a part of the original story!), and even an inquisitive fox in the background.