Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Do I Mean by "Gnostic"?

This blog is called "The Gnostic UU".  UU stands for Unitarian Universalist.  I will talk about UU more in coming posts, but to find out about what UUism you can go to the Unitarian Universalist Association website and explore.

What I mean by Gnostic is a bit more difficult.  "Gnostic" is a controversial term in many quarters (both lay and academic) and some think it is such a difficult term that it should be wholly abandoned.  On this blog, however, I am going to reflect on what a particular meaning of Gnosticism might mean for self-identification as a UU.  That meaning is derived from my wife's book The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today.  In that book she introduces her idea of Gnosticism as a type of spirituality that is characterized by five attributes that can be present in varying amounts depending on the tradition of the particular Gnostic.  I am paraphrasing the characteristics here, based on April's book.  They are:
  1. Experiential knowledge (gnosis) of a transcendent god.
  2. Ritual that is used to obtain these estatic states of gnosis.
  3. Belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that in the extension of this transcendence.
  4. A countercultural method of interpreting tradition religions that is transgressive.
  5. A willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources.  Gnostics tend to be open-ended with their beliefs and uses of religious ideas, and to remain "seekers."
These characteristics have to be approached with caution when using them to "define" Gnosticism.  Her system is based on cognitive science studies of how we conceive of ideal and realized concepts, not rigid dictionary definitions.

How this works in practical terms reminds me of a story a law professor when I was a student at The University of California, at Davis, Law School (King Hall) told us in class one day.  He was defending a client on a charge of "joyriding."  The definition of the crime in the jurisdiction his client was charged in was that a person was guilty of joyriding if they took and used a "motor vehicle" of another without permission without the intent of depriving the owner of the "motor vehicle" permanently.  (It was a lesser offense than auto theft.  In auto theft the State would have to prove that the defendant intended to permanently deprive the owner of the auto.)

The issue in the case was that what the teenager had taken for the joy ride was a motor scooter.  The question was whether or not the motor scooter was a "motor vehicle."  Our professor (before he was a professor of course) argued that when the legislature used the term "motor vehicle" they were talking about things like cars or trucks:


He argued that they didn't contemplate a scooter being a motor vehicle (the criminal statute gave an explicitly incomplete list of "motor vehicles" all of which were enclosed, more than two wheeled vehicles):


The prosecutor then made an error.  He overreached.  He argued to the jury that anything that moved by means of a motor should be a motor vehicle for purposes of this statute.  Our professor countered that if they accepted the prosecutors definition of motor vehicle, this would be considered a "motor vehicle.

The jury came back with an aquittal of his client.  (He said he found out what it felt like that day to go into trial thinking his client was guilty of the crime alleged, but getting him aquitted anyway.  He said "it felt like beating Notre Dame".  This, of course, was an era [never mind how long ago!] in which Notre Dame was a major football power.)

The point of this is that like there is a major range of objects that could be described as a "motor vehicle" (like a truck, a car, probably a motorcycle) there is a range of spiritual orientations that could be described as "gnostic."  At some point (like with the skateboard with a motor) you lose too many characteristics and the "motor vehicle" description doesn't seem appropriate anymore - likewise if you deviate too far from those 5 characteristics April describes at some point you are not talking about a gnostic anymore, but the lack or weakness of a characteristic or two doesn't mean you can't identify the spirituality as having a gnostic character.

In my next post I'll talk about what it was about those five characteristics that convinced me that Unitarian Universalism is so compatible with gnostic spirituality.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Call to Widen Our UU Scope in Reading


Speaker asks Unitarian Universalists to widen Our Scope

Link to the article above.  Dr. Amin says some things I (and many UUs I know) have often thought.  A key phrase to me: "... Unitarian Universalism has to do more than be an emergency room for spiritual trauma."  Her call for more "opportunity for theological study and religious engagement" is something many of us have been thinking about for a while.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Why a Gnostic UU blog?

I have been a Unitarian-Universalist since first encountering the faith in Decatur, Illinois, back in 1998.  So about 20 years now.  Those of you familiar with Unitarian-Universalism (or UU as it is commonly abbreviated) probably know if has some difficultly being described and summarized.  It is a religion that requires no particular or set beliefs about God - in fact you can be an atheist and still be a perfectly good UU.  Rather than a religion of shared beliefs, it is often referred to as a religion of shared values.  Congregations agree to affirm and promote seven principles that aren't specific beliefs but rather are general value statements.  And individuals in the congregations don't have to affirm or promote all of them - the individual just has to commit to be a part of the congregation that does.  (In practice if you don't buy into the seven principles, staying with the congregation that affirms and promotes them probably becomes tedious.  I don't know many folk [though I did correspond with one on email at one point] who are UUs but profess to not support the seven principles.)

But one does wonder what makes such system a religion as opposed to a gathering of folk who just happen to share some values.  After all, many Christians and Hindus share many values but don't consider themselves to be part of the same religion.  What defines UUism as a religion is not simple.  A popular thing for many Americans to say these days is that they are "spiritual but not religious."  If you look at the characteristics of folks who identify that way and compare them to UUs there is lot of overlap.  Many UUs fit very closely into the description of "spiritual but not religious" but are part of a religion!  This is hard to wrap one's head around, but recently I got some help in my thinking on this.  As usual the assistance came from my wife.

She is a religion scholar at Rice University and her most recent book is "The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today."  In it she comes up with a new way of thinking about what a religion is and how it relates to spirituality. In her model spirituality "points to the metaphysical orientation that directs our lives. ... It is our view of reality.  It is the metaphysical matrix that we live within."  How are spirituality and religion related in this model?  "It is the spirituality of a people, their orientation toward the existential, transcendent, and sacred, that generates an organized religion in which people can come together in community.  The religion serves as the institutional platform, reinforcing the spirituality that originally generated the religion."  (Quotes taken from the first Chapter of "The Gnostic New Age" - a really important chapter entitled "The Matrix of Ancient Spirituality.")

The way this helped me with UUism is that the spirituality is the foundation rather than beliefs.  And although UUism professes to have no set creedal beliefs, the sources and principles that each UU congregation covenant to affirm, helps us define a spirituality that UUism institutionalizes and then generates a religion.  In her book April (sorry, I just can't call my wife Professor DeConick - just doesn't feel right!) discusses several spiritualities common in western religions the most recently developed one being Gnostic spirituality. I won't go into the details right now, this post is getting pretty long, but the basis for me calling this blog "The Gnostic UU" is that of the four types of spirituality she describes the one that for me describes the UU spirituality is the Gnostic form of spirituality. I plan to use this blog for providing links to UU news, ruminating on UUism and Gnosticism, venting on politics, and discussing popular culture items related to UUism and Gnosticism.  It will be a journal for myself as I continue to work my way through all this for myself.

The immediate impetus was that my son is going through his "coming of age" year at our local church "Emerson Unitarian" in Houston.  I thought it would be a good time to go through a bit of thinking about UUism myself as he begins a year of study at Emerson exploring his own beliefs.  Harold Bloom has written about Gnosticism being, in a way, the American religion whether folk know it or not.  He was onto something, but rather than Gnosticism being the American religion, if seems to me that Gnosticism might be the American spirituality.  It is that idea that I would like to explore for myself over the coming years on this blog.