09 May, 2013

Q&A: What do Thomasine Seminarians Read?

Q: Bishop, I'm curious about what kinds of texts seminarians study while preparing for ordination in your church. Can you tell me about the kinds of texts read?

A: We don't really have a formal seminary to speak of. There's an old English concept called "Reading for Orders" where one studies under the tutelage of a bishop. I try to be reasonably thorough with those I prepare for ordination and ask students to read and discuss a variety of topics. Many of these books are in fact read by all initiates of the Thomasine Church as a part of the theological and philosophical education we encourage every initiate to pursue.

For example, every initiate is encouraged to read Elaine Pagel's The Gnostic Gospels and German theologian Hans Kung's The Catholic Church. We also tend to discuss various hypotheses like Robert Eisenman's James as The Righteous Teacher at Qumran and the development of Pauline vs. Jamesian/Jewish Christianity in small group settings. We make use of handouts and other materials to do this, as asking every initiate to read, say a 1600 page treatise on the role of James in the early church is a bit much.

The core goal of Thomasine education is to produce an intellectually sound understanding and context for the development of Early Christianity.

The master reading list contains somewhere around 40-45 titles. The exact number is currently in flux.

Those studying for ordination are expected to have an understanding of Homiletics (how to preach effectively), Pastoral Care, the development of theology and dogma in orthodox Christianity, the Philosophy of Mind, and Cognitive Neuroscience in addition to the topics covered with all initiates.

If an initiate wants to pursue preaching in a local Thomasine group or undertake non-ordained pastoral care work, we also work with the individual initiate's needs and desires.

Outside of this, every initiate is encouraged to read, discuss, and debate as widely as they like.

Q: How you you decide what to share with initiates and non-initiates? 

A: I'll share the basics of Thomasine philosophy and technique with pretty much anyone who asks; we'll talk about the foundations of our philosophy, like Ignorance and Arrogance and Perception and Observation; I'll teach a basic meditation like Luminescent Water or Centering Prayer. This is also the stuff that will probably be covered in my new book, which will hopefully be done in 2014. Also, absolutely everyone is welcome for our Liturgy (AKA The Leitourgia) provided it isn't being celebrated in a private home. Our Liturgy is also an active and corporate (e.g. group) meditation. 

The practices and philosophy that require more one on one mentoring and discussion are those I tend to reserve for people who are, or are seriously considering becoming, Initiates. This is mostly due to logistics; the Thomasine philosophy relies on an individual relationship and interaction between teacher and student; it's how the Thomasine Church was designed to work. So, at some point you're going to have to officially join if you want to go deeper with our method of practice. 

Q: The new website is pretty! It seems like you've been quiet for a while. What else are you working on?

A: Thanks. It's actually a template called Zion by Vandelay Design. While I have a decent knowledge of HTML, CSS, and various technologies, I absolutely suck at design.

I have been a bit quieter than I might like on the Thomasine front over the last few years; I've had some family and personal circumstances that have left me with little time for this kind of work. The next two months will be very busy, so you may not hear from me very often until after August.

I am working on a pod/vodcast called Enormous Fiction (thanks Iraneus!). I hope to start that endeavor sometime in late July or early August as time permits. I am also working on the outline for my new book; I am currently waffling over whether or not to include a chapter on the history of modern Gnosticism and the new Gnostic churches; I tend to agree with Jeremy Puma on the state of modern Gnosticism, and I think he has done an admirable job making the case for Gnosis without Gnosticism. I'll probably need to wear a flameproof mitre if I do include said chapter.

Q: Do you use social media at all? It's like you're a ghost!

A: I do have both a Facebook account and a Twitter feed. I reserve Facebook for friends, family, and colleagues I have extant relationships with; I don't tend to add readers or students as friends.

However, you can follow me on Twitter. I tend to talk about video games, politics, and other non-Gnostic things on Twitter, although I do sometimes write a tweet about Gnostic stuff.

You can also reach me via the Thomasine Eparchy of Florida's website by clicking here

11 April, 2013

The Thomasine Church (in Florida) has a new website...

This is something I have thought about doing for a number of years. Since my teacher withdrew from teaching, the Thomasine Church has lacked a public presence on the Internet, aside from my blog and some random websites that scraped some content from us years ago. It isn't something I have had time to address, until now.

I will not be moving my blog. You can also reach me at marshimun (AT) thomasinefl (DOT) org.

23 March, 2013

Q&A: Jesusism, Growth

Q: What is the relationship of Thomasine philosophy to Jesusism? Is Thomasine philosophy an expression of Jesusism?

A: I don't know that there is a formal link between Jesusism and Thomasine philosophy anymore than there is a formal link between Thomasine philosophy and Humanism. Prof. Owen Flannagan identifies Jesusism as being naturalist and rationalist in nature; Thomasine philosophy is also naturalist and rationalist in nature, and we do place a considerable emphasis on the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Thomas. You could maybe make a credible argument that Thomasine philosophy is a kind of Jesusism.

Q: How does the Thomasine Church grow if it doesn't proselytize?

A: Slowly.

Q: Last year you answered a question about apostolic succession. You indicated that you didn't feel that apostolic succession gave you, and presumably priests you ordain, any special power. So, what's the point of ordaining people?

A: The point of ordination, at least for me, is the public acknowledgement that the ordinand is authorized to teach Thomasine doctrine and officiate Thomasine rites as appropriate to their office. Your experience matters and so does your relationship to what you experience. As to whether or not there is any special or mystical transmission of something numinous during the rite, I would invite you to experience the rite for yourself and form your own thoughts based on your own experience. I've already gone on record as saying that, aside from my irrepressible charm and copious charisma, I have no special power that makes anything I do any more efficacious than anybody else.

Q: What do you think of the Mythicist (e.g. Archarya S. and Richard Carrier) versus Historicist (e.g. Bart Erhman) debate? Do you have a position on the subject?

A: I will be honest: I generally don't think about it. That isn't to say that I've never thought about it, but I don't really think it's an important debate. If Jesus was credibly found to be an entirely mythic construct, it would change nothing for me; the message of The Living Jesus as a character in the Gospel of Thomas still remains. The author of the Gospel of Thomas had some profound insight into his or her own mind.

Similarly, if some archaeologist found a proverbial smoking gun showing that a guy named Jesus really did exist in first century Palestine and he really had 12 disciples and really taught many of the things recorded in the various Gospels, it would change very little.

What do I think? There probably was an itinerant preacher in first century Palestine whose name we translate as Jesus. He probably had some disciples. He may have even had 12 disciples; he may not have had 12 disciples at once. He most likely said things and had ideas. I don't think we will ever know what that guy definitively said or taught. I think The Gospel of Thomas has a closer relationship to what some guy named Jesus might have said than any of the narrative Gospels, but that's not a matter of faith. My world wouldn't be shattered if it turned out that The Gospel of Thomas was written by a guy named Bob while he sat on the toilet during a bad bout of constipation.

15 March, 2013

On Expectation and Hope

N.B. This post is from a talk I gave to a group of Zen students in Germany via Skype.

I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak with you; unfortunately, I cannot join you in person for this talk. Before we get to the topic for this morning's talk, or rather this evening's talk for those of you listening, allow me to briefly explain the Thomasine Church to you. The Thomasine Church is a modern contemplative body inspired by the Gospel of Thomas, which was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. We preach no dogma and do not tend to concern ourselves with religious speculation; rather, we focus on liberation from suffering caused by attachment and desire. I became a bishop in 2006 and was appointed Exarch and Apokrisarios later that same year. Our teachers are ordained into one of the three traditional roles of the ancient Church: that of bishop, priest, and deacon. Our clergy teach the Thomasine method of inquiry and officiate at certain public and private rites and ceremonies.

There were a few questions, which I am going to omit for the sake of brevity.

I would like to talk about expectation and also about hope.In both of our traditions we are taught that we should focus on what is; we should focus on right now and be fully present in this very moment. We all know what a struggle that can be sometimes. Our minds wander. We think about our aging parents or stress at work, or we think about schoolwork that's been left undone. Our attention is diverted from the present moment, and we begin to think about things that might happen. As we begin to fantasize about what might be, about whether we're going to be reprimanded at work, whether or not we're going to fail an exam, whether our significant other still loves us, or whether or not that attractive man or woman we met the other night is going to get back to us on Facebook, something begins to happen.

Our minds create these scenarios to help us cope with the unknown; naturally, we're somewhat suspicious of the unknown. We start to assume, after a while, that elements of our fantasy are actually true. This isn't necessarily a conscious thing. In the parlance of the Thomasine Church we call this a machination of the Fictitious Mind. Your mind likes to take a few details and occurrences and create these enormous fictions out of them. You can create whole scenarios based on something innocuous. You think your boss gave you a dirty look or that guy or girl you met the other night is taking a few days to message you back, so you start to imagine why that might be.

There's some laughter and nodding at this point.

So, we have these ideas about what might happen, and we begin to act as if these things actually will happen. For us, these things become reality. They haven't actually happened. Our boss hasn't reprimanded us. We haven't failed an exam; that man or woman we met the other night hasn't told us we only had their contact information because we were being pests, but we begin to act as if our expectations are really what is happening. We begin to feel stress, we begin to feel fear, maybe we begin to doubt ourselves. This happens all on the basis of what we tell ourselves about situations; it happens because we're not here in the present moment, but rather we're lost in the labyrinth of our own mind.

We do this also with hope; I like to think of hope and expectation as two peas in a pod, and that is to say that I like to think of them as very closely related. I apologize, I am not sure how well the agricultural metaphor translates.

When we have hope about something it is something that we would like to occur or something that we would like not to occur. It can be as simple as "I hope to see you again soon" or "I hope you feel better soon." In other situations, like someone being gravely ill hope takes on another undertone. We begin to hope that someone will recover, that a last ditch treatment will work to reverse the course of a disease. Maybe we begin to hope that we will get a big promotion and that hope breeds expectations about what life will be like.

Well? What happens when that hope doesn't come to pass? We've gone and become attached to the narrative we've created around this hope with its attendant expectations about how  things will be, and it hasn't happened or when it did happen our expectations weren't met. So, we begin to suffer.

It's a little much to expect that we will never have hopes or expectations; sometimes those can actually be helpful. But, we don't want to suffer because of them. So what do we do? We pay attention, right? I'm sure none of your own teachers have ever told you this.


We cultivate an awareness of our minds. We do that in various ways; I teach my students to visualize themselves sitting in a tree watching themselves walk beneath it. We say to ourselves "This is my experience, but I don't have to react to that experience." We sit quietly in meditation with our own minds; we let thoughts come and go like waves crashing onto the shore. We pay attention to what they are, to where they came from. We pick them up and use them when we want to, but we aren't obligated to do that.

I am happy to answer any questions and to discuss your own thoughts about my talk this evening, so please feel free to speak.

I unfortunately didn't record the Q&A, either. 

14 March, 2013

Thomasine Morality or Living The Good Life

While giving an invited talk to a group of unaffiliated meditators I was asked to discuss how Thomasine practice could help someone live a "moral life." It is, after all one of the goals of the Illuminist philosophy taught by my own teacher.

It's true that there isn't really a Gnostic version of the Ten Commandments, and I certainly don't think we ought to have one; firstly, I don't consider the Decalogue to have much to do with living a moral life, and the moral customs and practices of an ancient largely nomadic culture do not serve us well in the 21st Century.

In the Gospel of Thomas, The Living Jesus offers relatively few directions on how one should live or how once should practice. The first logia where we encounter Jesus giving moral advice is the sixth, and the Greek fragment is usually translated like this:
His disciples asked him, "How should we pray? Are we to give charitable donations? What food laws should we follow?

Jesus said, "Do not lie, and do not do what you hate, because the Truth makes everything clear. There is nothing hidden which will not be made clear."

So, the first injunction to live a moral life is very simple: don't be a hypocrite and don't lie. That's a very difficult thing for many of us, myself included, to accomplish. We often see people behaving poorly, and we say or think about their behaviour in a negative light. Of course when we then go on and do there very same thing ourselves, we often give ourselves a pass on our behaviour when we just passed judgement on another person!

This same theme is continued in logion 14 where Jesus says:
If you fast you will cause harm to yourselves. If you pray you will be condemned. If you give charitable donations, you will cause harm to your lives. When you go in to any land and walk around in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they give you and heal the sick among them. What goes into your mouth will not pollute you - it is what comes out of your mouth that will pollute you.

Here, it is usually understood that Jesus was referring to public prayer and bragging about giving alms. Instead of bragging about the depth of our practice or about how much or how often we give to charity, we should simply do these things quietly without drawing attention to the fact that we do them. It's a normal desire to be recognized for one's good deeds; we, as people, enjoy being esteemed by our peers. Be careful, because you can become attached to the praise you receive from others; what happens when you cannot give anymore? Do you become depressed or spiteful? Envious of the praise other receive?

Also, don't worry so much about whether you should or shouldn't eat food; if it's given to you, eat it and be thankful. You're more likely to cause harm to yourself and to others by what you say than by what you eat. It's easy to stop paying attention to your thoughts and emotions and say something that is inappropriate in the current situation, or to say something which causes harm to someone else.

In logion 25 we have The Living Jesus exhorting us to "Love your brother [sister/fellow humans] [the Greek word carries a gender-neutral connotation] like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye."

Have you ever had something in your eye or perhaps scratched part of it? It's very painful, and protecting your eye is a very instinctive thing. The Living Jesus says that we should love our fellow man (and woman) as dearly as we love ourselves and that we should be quick to protect them from harm.

There are not many direct moral exhortations in The Gospel of Thomas: love each other as yourselves, don't be a hypocrite, and watch what you say.

I think those things are difficult enough without having to add anything else to the list; I certainly struggle to live up to those ideals each day.

I cannot, and will not, tell you who to love, or how to love. I will not condemn your relationship because it defies convention. I will try to be mindful of how the things I say affect those I say them to, and I will try to avoid behaving like a hypocrite.

That is all I can do, and that is all I can ask anyone else to do. If we can all do those things, then the Kingdom of Heaven would indeed be manifest on Earth.

22 February, 2013

Q&A: Pastoral Care and the Thomasine Creed

Q: Is a Thomasine bishop always a "harbinger of disquet?" What about situations where disquiet would be a detriment to someone's well-being. How do Thomasine bishops address pastoral care of the grieving or the dying?

A: I suppose I walked right in to that one. Now I've got egg on my face. How you choose to interact with someone is a fairly situational thing. So, if I were speaking with someone who was agitated, grieving, or going through the dying process, I would certainly be mindful of what I said and how I said it. There are times in these situations where it is beneficial to be both a comforter and a "harbinger of disquiet." With individuals who are dying, there are times when disquiet is helpful and comfort is harmful. As with all things, anyone in this situation ought to do his or her best to meet the person they're talking with where they are.

Q: I notice you speak strongly against religious or theological "speculation." Do you feel this is congruent with the existence of a Thomasine Creed? Is your Church's creed not also theological speculation.

A: Here is the text of the Thomasine Creed for anyone who is unfamiliar with it.
I seek the illumination of the Light of Truth.
I seek reintegration with the Living Father, the Ruler of Rulers, the Silence and the Deep.
I seek the annointing of the Mother, the Holy and Comforting Spirit, who is the front of all wisdom, to guide me to find that which internal, invisible, universal and secret.
I seek the knowledge of the Master, the Living Jesus, upon whom the annointing of Truth, Light and Life was given.
I seek to remove the veil of the Wicked Ones, so that I may obtain true understanding and attain liberation.

 Creed comes from the Latin word Credo, which is usually translated "I believe." If we were to translate the Thomasine Creed into Latin the first word would be Quaero, which means "I seek." The Thomasine Creed is a reminder of what the Thomasine initiate does or aims to do in his or her practice. As a meditation, we also focus on the meaning of particular words and phrases in context. For example, what does it mean to seek reintegration? What is "the Silence and the Deep?"

The Thomasine Creed doesn't invite the initiate to speculate about the nature of the Godhead or about morality or about supernatural events; it actively encourages you to do something. The creed is usually commended to an initiate as a meditative practice in a specific way at a specific time.

I'm not sure if I answered your question or merely dodged it with a bit of tom-foolery, so feel free to let me know if you're not satisfied with my answer.

Two posts in one day. I think that's a record for me. If you're lucky I'll not post again until March.

Whatever "It" Is

I've spoken in the past about how what the Thomasine tradition teaches is not exclusive to it. The kind of insight and experience one gains through Thomasine practice can be found elsewhere. When I give talks to audiences people sometimes tell me that I sound like a Buddhist or a Sufi or some sort of mainstream Christian mystic.

I think there's a good reason for that. Independent of whether or not there is or is not one God, many gods, many faces of one God, or whether or not God is three persons in one or whether or not Jesus had two natures or was merely completely human, there is a single stream from which all contemplative and mystical traditions draw.

I can't tell you precisely what "It" is, because I don't rightly understand that myself. Wisdom, Understanding, Insight, Englightenment, experience of the Abyss: these are all words that have been used to describe the experience. When you dispense with the theological and religious speculation, and instead experience Now, "It" becomes profound and omnipresent. "It" isn't the exclusive province of one religion or another; "It" is like a wild yeast fermenting dough left out overnight. 

Religious bodies, at least the mono-theist Judeo-Christian sort, like to make claims of exclusivity. Truth is exclusive only to our way of doing things. If you don't do things our way you'll find yourself bereft of Truth. No. Doesn't work that way. Rumi understood what "It" was. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila understood what "It" was. Buddha understood what "It" was, so did Dogen, and so did the monks who contributed to the Philokalia, All of these people expressed their understanding of "It" in the only ways they could; they used the language and understanding of their particular time and place. That's all any of us can do.

I am quite serious when I say that I don't have much patience for religious and theological speculation. Whether or not God has a shin, whether or not a historical Jesus existed or said and did half the things written in the New Testament, whether or not God likes condoms, all of those things are merely dross to be expunged in the crucible of the contemplative mind. Those things are simply distractions from "It." 

In the Thomasine tradition, we try not to deliberately put things in the way of "It" and prefer to get down to business in short order. I understand that for traditonally theistic and religious people hearing a bishop call unimportant most of the concerns of religion might be jarring, but there you have it. As I have said to many religious groups in the past, a Thomasine bishop is not a shepherd and has no sheep. A Thomasine bishop is a harbinger of disquiet, not a comforter. 

16 February, 2013

Q&A: More on Theism, Theological Influences

Q: Bishop, can you clarify your stance on theism in Thomaisne tradition? Are you arguing for a particular position as to the nature (or lack thereof) of God?

A: I am not arguing for a particular position on the existence or non-existence of a theistic God. If I am arguing for anything, and I am, it is for quiescence on the matter of the existence or non-existence of God. I am not particularly sympathetic toward speculative or religious thought in general. In very early Buddhist writings, Buddha talked about the idea of a View (diṭṭhi), a highly charged, experiential interpretation that exerts a strong influence on thought, perception, and action. Theism (the existence of a God that intervenes directly in human affairs) and what most people, to my mind, misunderstand as Atheism (the absolute non-existence of a God) are both Views and Attachment to Views is a cause of Delusion and Suffering.

This is something I would like to expand on at a later date, but I hope my brief answer is helpful.

Q: Who were your early theological influences?

A: I was deeply influenced by John Shelby Spong (particularly his 12 Theses and call for a New Reformation), Paul Tillich, Marcus Borg, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Francis of Assisi.

31 January, 2013

Gnosis without God

One of the struggles people often have when studying the Thomasine path relates to the notion of god or divinity. Most of the enquiries I receive are from people who would probably think of themselves as religiously or philosophically oriented. The idea of God and divinity in general is an ancient and potent one that is present in many cultures. It represents the human need to make sense of a chaotic world. God is a box which is used to create boundaries and provide a sense of order and justice.

Classically, religions identified as Gnostic or as being a part of Gnosticism tell a story of alienation from the Prime Mover or Supreme Creator. The God of most Gnostic schools of thought is separate from the world you and I live in and, while not omnipotent, it is certainly capable of manifesting its presence in this world through various messengers.

Further, many modern Gnostics do a lot of talking about God. They insist that Gnosis itself is a knowledge of God or of the divine, that we all contain a divine spark, flame, or ember, and that we are quintessentially of God. The modern Thomasine tradition diverges here, because we are not theistic. We do not begin with the assumption that there is a divine being of any sort who is conscious or capable of intervening in the world; whether there is or is not a God within our without the boundaries of the world is not something that can be definitively proven, so we begin with the question "What reason do I have to presume that there is or is not a god?"

For the Thomasine initiate the existence of God is no more a serious question than the existence of the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.

Thomasine initiates aim not to obtain divine knowledge, because such a thing cannot be reasonably proven through experience and experimentation to exist and exert an effect on human life, but rather we aim to attain liberating insight into the nature of what is. We can know, excepting perhaps philosophical solipsism, that we exist. We can know that we think, that we feel, and that we experience desire. We can know, through experience, that these things have an effect on our lives and on the lives of others. We can begin our enquiry into all of these things without even the briefest mention of theistic though or philosophy.

04 January, 2013

Q&A: Do people actually read this thing?

Q: You don't seem to get many comments, do people actually read this blog?

A: Between 500 and 700 people and/or search engine robots read and/or index this blog on a monthly basis. Sometimes people leave comments or send e-mails. Sometimes I respond to them.

I write a blog because, well, I like writing. The stuff taught by the Thomasine Church (or my teacher anyway) was, and is, exceptionally helpful to me. So, I write about the things I feel I can explain in this medium. Some people seem to get something out of reading.

Q: How do you decide what to write about?

A: I either try to answer a question someone asked or I write about something I've been thinking about. Sometimes I write about things that other people have written about or in response to thoughts that have germinated as a result of other writing.

I have a bunch of posts on topics that are not quite done yet, and I try to work on those topics and then publish the post if I still think it's worthwhile or people will be interested in it.