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.

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