Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Elaine Pagels on Gnosticism -- great interview!

"Pagels stressed this issue throughout much of our discussion for the basic reason the terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnostic" hijack an individual's ability to fully retrieve the bounty found in the formative stages of Christianity. In essence, these terms are a sort of light pollution that has dazzled scholarly and religious minds but obfuscated an almost endless constellation of elemental Christian sects, each emanating from the same theological Big Bang but with their own unique and educational illumination.

Pagels perhaps went further than other academics in stating that even accepting Gnostic subdivisions such as Valentinianism and Sethianism was potentially falling into the mental quicksand of leaning too much on expedient but generalizing labels. Doing this inevitably creates a myopic projection into the Nag Hammadi library itself, conceivably aborting the possibility of taking accurate snapshots of youthful Christianity."

I've been a big fan of Pagels since I first read her in college and grad school.
I don't understand why she isn't more highly regarded by scholars--at least the
ones I've talked to. I like this notion of the concept of Gnosticism as "light pollution" very much. Much of the writing in the field of Renaissance Magic has been clouded or washed out by this optical phenomenon. In reconstructing the actual visionary practices of whatever "Gnostic" group we want to study, we must be very careful about imposing some external, anachronistic category of "Gnostic Myth." But I understand those who feel that it's necessary to have a post-Jonas category of gnosticism that doesn't fall into the same traps, while somehow managing to cover the different "Gnostic" groups. I think it's important to make tables like we see in Michael Williams' book so that we can keep track of these differences, and after ten years of study I'm afraid that I simply despair at the notion of trying to keep "Gnosticism," although I'm just as shy about simply discarding the category. From a scholarly point of view I'm stumped, but from a visionary magical point of view I would insist that we respect these mysteries for the sacred and terrible things they are. This goes for all historical practice, but we should be especially careful when dealing with actual esoteric enigmas.

On the other hand, when using tools like the concept of "Gnosticism" to develop our own contemporary visionary practices, these technical problems of definition can be more or less useful--and I don't see a problem with contemporary practitioners who simply stop worrying about the problem. It doesn't matter if the term "gnostic" equally applies to Agrippa and Hermes, let along the Sethians vs. some other gnostic sect, or whether there's a rigorous historical meaning informing one's understanding of "Hermetic visionary magic." So long as one is having successful visions, philosophical contemplations, ecstatic transports, or whatever results one needs, historical accuracy is merely the icing on the cake. Whether or not we can get in touch with the visionary practices of the ancients (and I'm much more skeptical than many of my peers in the magical community, although I am getting therapy for all the terrible abuses of grad school discourse!) we can still be inspired by the mysteries and texts they left to our own visionary experiences. I would love to be able to understand exactly how the experiences I've had "really" tally against the experiences of my favorite hundred or so notorious mystics, but I'm content to understand that we are all approaching the same divine mystery from different angles. I don't feel any need to control the mystery, and I can live with not knowing those things that the sacred evidence won't allow me to know.

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