Tuesday, February 6, 2018

UUism and the Five Characteristics of Gnostic Spirituality

Let me state up front that this is not intended to be any kind of academic analysis of the post topic as given above.  (I am not professionally qualified for such and don't have the time for it anyway!)  What I intend with this is to share how the Five Characteristics of Gnostic Spirituality, as described in my wife's book "The Gnostic New Age" have helped me personally relate to UUism in a new way.

Paraphrasing these five characteristics from the 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."
Although Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion, the member congregations of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) agree to affirm and promote seven principles:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The UUA also specifies that
Unitarian Universalism draws from many Sources:
  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Some of these UU principles and sources line up directly with April's Gnostic Spirituality characteristics.  Characteristic of a Gnostic Spirituality is an "experiential knowledge (gnosis) of a transcendent god."  UUs don't use the word "god" but do express as our first source, "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life." It is quite a bold claim to say that "all cultures" affirm the direct experience of a "transcending mystery" and it is hard to imagine that it means anything other than (at least for some cultures) gnosis of a transcendent god.

Gnostic Spirituality's "belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that in the extension of this transcendence" corresponds very well with UUs first principle "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  The key to the link between them is the word "inherent" in the principles.  In UU the worth and dignity of human beings is not given by a higher power, it is "inherent" - not a gift of grace, but a gift of existence itself.  One can certainly think of this inherent worth being a result of the innate spiritual nature of human beings.

Like Gnostic Spirituality, UUs certainly have a countercultural way of interpreting traditional religions. Although the sources make it clear that UU draws upon "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves" and general wisdom from the world's religions, the very fact that our net is so broad is very transgressive.  In practice UUs draw from all these religions in ways that allow us to see the UU principles as transcending all of them. We draw from all world religions but interpret them transgressively to fit all of them into the seven principles. Most obviously, UUs do not accept the exclusivity of any religion in favor of acceptance of each other's spiritual growth utilizing a free and responsible search for meaning. Exclusivity of any one religion would hinder acceptance of those who did not adhere to it, and is difficult to reconcile with a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

 Gnostic Spirtuality's "willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources" is obviously more than compatible with UUs list of sources.  UUs are, in a Gnostic Spirituality sense, very open ended with our beliefs and religious ideas.

Of the five Gnostic Spirituality characteristics, the above four line up very well, in my view, with UU principles and sources.  Even ignoring the final Gnostic characteristic, UU therefore has a very "Gnostic" feel to it. But I don't think the last characteristic of Gnostic Spirituality is a lost cause for UUs either.  That characteristic is that Gnostics often employ ritual to obtain estatic states of gnosis - the state of gnosis being the afore-mentioned experiential knowledge of the transcendent. The closest UUs come to this characteristic in the principles or sources would, I think, be the "direct experience" of the transcendent mentioned in the first source and the "wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life" found in the third listed source. Although UUs do not specify any kind of particular ritual to have a "direct experience" of the transcendent, in practice UUs often study meditation and other specific methods in their pursuit of this experience. A common practice among UUs is to adopt a variation, or UU version, of a Buddhist meditation (as a part of the wisdom of that world religion) to do so. But there are many other common practices too (such as humanists who often talk about using walks in nature that they say induce a sort of Emersonian transcendental experience of the transcendent for them). In other words UUs adopt many different individual rituals and practices to have "direct experiences" of the "transcendent mystery" mentioned in our first principle.  This is, I feel, a too often minimized part of our UU faith and in my experience UU congregants are quite thirsty for such rituals and are delighted when we explore them in our services or covenant groups.

The bottom line of all this to me was that UU fits quite well with Gnostic Spirituality.  The next post will discuss why I consider this important for me.

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