05 February, 2011

Wherein I talk about doing stuff

Last night I "participated" (read: hardly said a thing) in a Gnostic skype conference call that some of you reading this may have also participated in. We talked about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which, as it turns out, may or may not actually have been written by Gnostics. As you probably know, I'm neither a Christian nor a Gnostic, but a second cousin twice removed, a kabbalist and a Neoplatonist (it's up for grabs which of those should be listed first). That isn't entirely relevant, except perhaps an excuse as to why I seemed to approach the text as a relative outsider to it, because I am.

If you're not familiar with the Gospel, a translation can be found here (thanks to the conference call coordinator for the link):

At any rate, there were a few things that really interested me in this Gospel. First, there is some interesting political infighting it seems, between Peter and Mary/Levi. We see this sort of thing in other Gospels. For instance Kelber suggests Mark has a current of anti-Jerusalem Church (i.e. Jewish Christian Church) polemics in it. It was pointed out that the inter-community bickering in Mary is a little different, the disciples themselves are doing the fighting here. I point this out only because we often forget that our scriptures, though derived through divine inspiration, are certainly also products of humanity.

Second, there is a brief segment, surrounded by missing pieces, that mentions soul, mind and spirit. This is a very interesting, likely Platonic use of the terminology. The Gospel, through the mouth of Christ, tells us that visions are seen not my the soul but the mind. The Platonic mind, the Nous, is not the mind as we think of it today. The Nous, analogous to the Neoplatonic Demiurgos (but not the Gnostic Demiurgos), exists far beyond our conscious, rational, dialectical mind. That it is the mind that experiences the visions, not the soul, tells us something about the role of these logoi in the spiritual community of the Gospel's author, as well as the spiritual level whereupon Christ may be found.

Finally, there is a section, of which several pages are missing, that appears to describe the soul's spiritual ascent through . . . somewhere. In this description the soul encounters opposition; Desire, Ignorance and the seven forms of Wrath. The soul must overcome each opponent before ascending further. I was instantly reminded of Jewish merkavah mysticism, which would have predated the gospel but still existed while it was in circulation. More than this, though, I recalled the scholarship of Moshe Idel on ecstatic kabbalah and William Harmless on Christian mysticism. Both discuss how descriptions like these do not exist solely as theosophical texts; which is to say they are not simply descriptions of theological or philosophical constructs. Instead they typically represent the product of what we'd call mystical experiences. I.e. they are not just about talking, they are about doing.

It was brought up (not by me, by our esteemed coordinator) that the older Greek version of the MS (late 1st century or early 2nd century) is somewhat different from the later Coptic edition (5th or 6th century). The Coptic version puts the visions in the voice of Christ; it was he who described the experiences of the soul. The older version, however, gave Mary the experiences. Now, there are several possible reasons for the differences. I think that one of them is perhaps a change in Christianity between the 1st and 5th centuries. Not regarding the role of women (though that too probably happened to some extent) but the role of the practitioner in general. To me, and this is entirely speculation on my part, the differences in the texts demonstrates a difference in attitude as to who is capable of these experiences. The older text seems to tell us that you can (read: should) have these experiences. That having these visions, first of the ascending soul, then the Mind's beholding of Christ (in the context of the Gospel, your mileage may vary). But the important thing is to go out and do it, that living the spiritual life is living an active spiritual life, not a passive one. It suggests that we can sit and wait for revelation all we want, but, as per the kabbalistic axiom, action below stimulates action above.

Oh, and there's some interesting stuff on sin, and how it only seems to exist when we do it, but not in and of itself (sin is not ontological?).

Anyway, those are my muddle thoughts on last night's discussion. I think next time we'll be discussing part of the Gospel of Thomas.