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.