Wednesday, August 03, 2005

gnosis 11: spirit and psyche

   The gnostic movement that pervaded the religious thought of the Mediterranean world into which Jesus was born was confident in its high esteem of the spiritual elements it saw in man and the universe. Its way of expressing this confidence was to contrast that spiritual or psychical realm with the "material" world, to the detriment of the latter. From this perspective, everything spiritual or psychical seems good and everything material bad. To call this a spirit-matter or mind-matter dualism is useful enough labelling so far as it goes; but it can also be misleading, not to say anachronistic. The ancient gnostics were intoxicated with the discovery of the value of the spiritual or psychic element in man and the universe. They had not yet reached the stage at which thinkers have found it necessary to go beyond that particular perception and see that the situation is more complex. Yet I believe the gnostic insight at this point, even it is more primitive forms, is essentially right: the psychic realities are the more important, though it is no doubt a most unfortunate mistake to suppose they are inseparable from the "material" world as is cheese from the cheese dish that contains it. The fundamental truth, however, remains. That is why Jung, who makes so much of the emphasis on the psychic realm, on archetypes and the collective unconscious, is properly called neo-gnostic. He sees what the gnostics of every age, in the West as in the East, saw so well: the great verities about the universe are to be found in its psychic realities.

- MacGregor: Gnosis, pp 56-57.

Gnosticism, Christianity, all religions in fact, place a lot of emphasis on spirit, usually as contrasted with solid material aspects of the world. At one point in the Masnawi, Rumi equates a flute with the material world and its music with spirit, the unseen force that moves us, that issues forth from us, that we have tended to call God (or Allah).

We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee;
we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee.

We are as pieces of chess engaged in victory and defeat:
our victory and defeat is from thee, O thou whose qualities are comely!

Who are we, O Thou soul of our souls,
that we should remain in being beside thee?

We and our existences are really non-existence;
thou art the absolute Being which manifests the perishable.

We all are lions, but lions on a banner:
because of the wind they are rushing onward from moment to moment.

Their onward rush is visible, and the wind is unseen:
may that which is unseen not fail from us!

Our wind whereby we are moved and our being are of thy gift;
our whole existence is from thy bringing into being.

-- Rumi, Masnavi Book I, 599-607

This is a gentle and a simple image for it also honours the material world ever so subtly. How can one make music without a flute? an echo without a mountain chasm? a war without participants? If the spirit had nothing to move and nothing to witness the result, where would it be? Lonely, desolate, forlorn. And that, in many many creation myths, is precisely why God did create the material world. We say so readily that God created humanity, forgetting that humanity also created God. We say so readily that God is omniscient and sees all we do, forgetting that humanity has been watching God since its beginnings. We totally control how God is presented and perceived while assigning Him (Her? It?) omnipotence. There is much irony there.

I have always found spirit to be a difficult word especially when it seems to suggest a ghostly being or presence. I like soul or psyche better because it feels more personal and real. Hindu religion quite frankly and unself-consciously equates Self with God and this is why it is the most gnostic or the most psychologically perceptive religion of them all. Hinduism has never felt a need for restraint when it comes to a multiplicity of religious ideas and images. That is why it was so viciously attacked by Islam which insists on a singular God and a pre-eminently final (and therefore ultimately singular) prophet. Islam is profoundly anti-gnostic and it has paid the price in stagnation, ossification, and a cultural version of the living dead or zombie. Without its Sufi poets like Rumi, it is as vacuous as a neat and perfect circle drawn in the sands of the desert, containing nothing, meaning nothing, and failing even to see the irony therein.

Islam may have achieved dominance largely by the sword but today, in Pakistan, it is Hinduism that will vanquish it, this time with modern technology and Bollywood movies. The towers of capitalism crumbled on sep11 but the folly of Islam has yet to fully implode.

Isaiah 40:4-5 (KJV)

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.


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