Gnosticism and My Experiences with Mysticism

Marcus Borg
Scores of widely accepted Gnostic works were excluded from the New Testament's canonization in 397 A.D. because they contradicted the beliefs of the Catholic hierarchy. Before and after the canonization, many such scriptures were destroyed, although one or more occasionally turns up in a cave or monastery. In 1945, a treasure trove of such documents was found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and, thirty years later, the Gospel of Judas was discovered nearby. Although Gnostic beliefs were diverse, the following suggest how different Gnostic thinking was from what became orthodoxy:

There is only one "true God," but there are numerous lower deities, three of which created the universe as we know it. Those three were: Jehovah, the god of the Hebrew Bible who behaved like a jilted lover; Saklas, the fool who created humanity; and Nebro, a blood-drenched rebel. 

Judas was hated by the other apostles because he alone understood Jesus' message. He turned Jesus over to the Romans at Jesus' command. 

Jesus didn't die as an atonement for sin but to escape earth. We're not saved by faith but by secret knowledge, and we can only obtain that knowledge if we're among the few people who are immortal. 

Jesus laughed easily, often at things that appalled his apostles. For example, he laughed at their piety; at their inability to understand him; at the heroes of the Hebrew Bible; and at the conceit of Jehovah. During his crucifixion, the essence of Jesus comforted his frightened followers in their hiding places.

In some Gnostic stories, Jesus occupied the body of a grown man after expelling its previous occupant. In others, he was born a baby, and his supernatural powers made him into a bad-tempered brat who killed, blinded, or paralyzed anyone who angered him. 

The Gnostic writings are so filled with absurdities that I assume their writers were either trying to be funny or else their intention escapes me. For instance, in one part of the Acts of John, the Apostle John successfully commanded bed bugs to leave his bed and stand outside the door; in another he raised from the dead a celibate married woman with whose corpse a man had tried to have sex, his attempt being thwarted by a guardian snake that encircled his ankles and scared him to death. Then, a few pages later, I came across one of the most hypnotic passages of Scripture. In it, the apostles joined hands and danced ecstatically around Jesus while responding Amen to his chanting. I will share but a few lines...

The number Eight singeth praise with us. Amen
The number Twelve danceth above us. Amen
The Whole on High taketh part in the dancing. Amen
He who doth not dance, knoweth not what is being done. Amen

A lamp am I to thee that beholdest me. Amen
A mirror am I to thee that perceivest me. Amen
A door am I to thee that knockest at me.
A way am I to thee, a wayfarer. Amen

As I read those words just before dawn, my bedroom began to spin; I became unable to judge distance; and my plants beneath their grow-light shone with glory. It wasn't the first time I experienced a euphoric hallucination, the early ones dating from childhood. I especially remember my inability to judge distance and the extreme clarity of objects, experiences that were like being in Oregon's High Desert on a sunny day when all things seem alive and it seems that I can reach out and touch mountains that are two miles high and eighty miles away. Although some of my later hallucinations involved drugs, they were all more real and memorable than most of life. 

A recent help to me in making sense of my experiences are the writings of theologian, Marcus Borg, who also loved the remote clarity of the Oregon High Desert and died there in 2015. Only upon reading about his experiences did I stop interpreting my own to mean that I am too sensitive, too suggestible, overly impressionable, or borderline insane, possibilities that worried my mother, although she didn't know the half of it. The word that Borg gave me was mystical, which seemed to leap off the page and with it, years of striving, of wondering, of challenging, of drawing demarcations, all fell away or, perhaps, came to fruition.

Do I mean to say that I have been in contact with something from without? No, but then I don't consider the distinction meaningful. I'll try to explain myself with an example. In 1978, after a night that started with waking nightmares during which I became too scared to speak as a succession of chimeras leaped toward my face, and that ended with a heaven of kaleidoscopic colors playing before my closed eyes in a darkened room, I sat atop a farm truck to watch the sunrise. As I looked across cotton fields at a row of large oaks that stretched along the bank of the Mississippi River, the trees began to sway, even to dance, and I knew that I was one with the universe, which, I believe, was what Jesus felt as the apostles danced. The fact that I had taken a chemical the night before in no way lessened the profundity of the experience because the drug was but a key to a place that had been there all along.

I've surely forgotten entire years of events that occurred during the intervening decades, but I'll never forget what I felt that Louisiana morning. Church is a little like that, its truth being in something other than consenting to dogmatic absurdities, something that is the result of many things, among them tradition, antiquity, community, sanctuarial beauty, liturgical elegance, the transition from sitting to standing to bowing to kneeling to making the signum crucis and back again, and to something else that I can't name anymore than I can name what happened as I sat atop that farm truck. After receiving the Eucharist, I watch as others proceed slowly and quietly down the center aisle and kneel before the altar, some of them so old and frail that they can't kneel. As I observe the poignant solemnity of a procession that started in Eugene 164 years ago and that always ends in death, tears sometimes come, and I don't know why. I just know that they come from the best part of me, the part in which trees dance, and rooms spin, and I experience compassion, and I love my wife as myself. 

"Neither shall they say, 'Lo here! or, Lo there!' for, behold, the kingdom of God is within."