MAY 19 - 25, 2005
Exile in Godville
Profile of a postmodern heretic
by A.W. HILL
Stephan Hoeller grew up in wartime Budapest, the only child of an
Austrian baron and a Hungarian countess, soon to see their ancestral estates
appropriated by the Soviet cyclops. As Hoeller tells it, his devoutly Catholic
parents were tolerant of his youthful fascination with the outlaw philosophies
of Simon Magus, Valentinus, Basilides and others whose visions had gathered
like vapors in the cauldron of second-century Alexandria. “Ah, well,” he says,
conjuring his father’s voice. “So the boy is interested in an obscure heresy .
. . let him explore. Perhaps one day he’ll write a book about it.” Indeed,
Hoeller’s spiritual rebellion remained mostly academic through his teens. He
went on to study for the Catholic priesthood in Austria and, briefly, in Rome
itself. It was the conjunction of a chance personal encounter in postwar
Belgium and a momentous discovery in Upper Egypt that fanned his own heretical
spark into flame. Both events convinced him that the Gnostic tradition had
withstood both the test of time and the slings and arrows of its persecutors.
As a boy, Hoeller’s own access to unfiltered Gnostic writings was limited to the three “codices” then in existence. One of these, the Askew Codex, includes the famous Pistis Sophia, the story of how Sophia (Wisdom), a distinctly feminine emanation of the godhead, was drawn into the dark sea of chaos by a reflection of her own radiance, ultimately conceiving through the error of self-desire the misshapen Ialdabaoth (Childish God), also known as Samael (Blind God), or Saclas (Foolish God), creator and Chief Archon of the Lower World. This, not the sin of Eve, is the Fall that Gnostics mourn, and Sophia herself went to great pains to reverse it. The revelation of God’s feminine face in this alternately tender and harrowing myth would have been enough to rock a Catholic boy’s world. But there was more to come.
Due to suppression and concealment of authentic texts, would-be Gnostics like Hoeller had been left for more than 17 centuries to comb through the anti-heretical screeds of early Church fathers for shards of meaning, an exercise which may explain the Gnostic knack for finding truth in opposites. Then, in December of 1945, it all changed. A fortuitous find in Upper Egypt brought Gnosticism home to Jesus.
On a cold, moonlit night, Mohammed Ali al-Samman and his brothers sheathed their knives and set off from the desert village of Nag Hammadi to avenge their father’s murder, stopping en route to fill their sacks with mineral fertilizer from the great caves at Jabal-al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with hiding places. While digging through the soft soil, they dislodged an earthenware jar a meter tall, and the rest, as they say, is history. Once Mohammed’s lust for booty trumped his fear that the jar might contain a jinni, he took a hammer to it and found 13 papyrus volumes, bound in leather, comprising 52 Coptic translations of sacred texts from the early Christian era, including “previously unreleased” gospels attributed to the apostles Thomas and Philip, and, most surprisingly, abundant references to the special status of Mary Magdalene. Once these fragile manuscripts had made their way through the black market into the hands of biblical scholars and archaeologists, there was no question of authenticity, only of orthodoxy — with an edge of shock and awe.
The Gospel of Thomas opens with the enigmatic line, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” You can almost hear the text’s first translator, Gilles Quispel, take a gulp. None of these “secret words” had been allowed into the canon we now know as the New Testament, yet it’s possible they were recorded before Matthew, Mark, Luke and John put quill to papyrus.
The Jesus who comes across in what are now known as the Gnostic Gospels is less a lawgiver and moralist than a kind of Zen master–cum–depth psychologist: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” He is alternately loving and stern, playful and sober, even sensual. He dances, drinks and, in the Gospel of Philip, kisses Mary Magdalene on the mouth, stirring a hornet’s nest of resentment among his male disciples.
Moreover, the Gnostic Jesus powerfully suggests that the words “I and the Father are One,” attributed to him in John 10:30, do not describe a unique relationship. Again, from the Gospel of Thomas: “He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am; I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” Anyone who attains gnosis, the knowledge of the greater self, will know that God resides both in a far country and within us (thanks to Sophia’s descent), just as in Indian religion, the atman (the soul) is one with boundless Brahman. If this is what Eve learned from the serpent, it’s no wonder Ialdabaoth wanted her uppity ass off the set. (See sidebar.) Seasoning his apocalyptic Judaism richly with Tao-like insights, the Christ of the Gnostic Gospels becomes the augur of the New Age, and “Know Thyself” is the one law that matters.
Historically speaking, what the Gnostic scriptures reveal is that Christianity in its earliest phase was far from monolithic. The Church did not, in fact, become “Catholic” until the end of the second century. In a Mediterranean world with Alexandria as its intellectual capital, Christianity was a vibrant counterculture, more a new way to be than a new law to obey. At the beating heart of it was a conviction that the teachings of the Nazarene Jesus had sprung mankind from its prison; that the fallen world could go to Hell. The imperial right hand of Christ’s new church hammered this into self-serving dogma; the heretical left hand stirred it into ecstasy. The left hand was amputated and the Gnostics cast off. A New Rome, the orthodoxy said, could not be built on do-it-yourself salvation.
The availability of the Nag Hammadi scriptures fueled Hoeller’s own epiphany, but gnosis, in his words, “originates in an experience of the psyche,” not the intellect. You can’t read your way to enlightenment. As a refugee in post-war Belgium, still not yet 20, he encountered “live Gnostics” affiliated with a revived French sect. These mysterious mentors, living in a Europe that still branded them heretics, befriended him and opened the door to the spiritual kindred he found when, in 1953, he was admitted to the USA as a “stateless person” and placed in the city of Los Angeles.
In 1958, Hoeller was ordained a priest of the American Catholic Church by the bishop of the Church of Saint Francis in Laguna Beach. The ACC was a schismatic branch, and decidedly not on the Vatican’s party list. A year later, Hoeller founded his own parish at Melrose and Western and christened it Ecclesia Gnostica, drawing a small congregation from attendees of his frequent lectures at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Feliz. In 1967, while down the street the Doors held court at the Whisky, a visiting British Gnostic prelate known as Richard, Duc de Palatine, dubbed Hoeller a bishop of the Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church. It was the Summer of Love, and as Hoeller puts it, Gnostics “looked with great interest on the consciousness-raising endeavors of the counterculture” for signs of a genuine revival of their tradition. He knew by then what to look for, for only a few years earlier, Hoeller himself had broken on through to the other side. His faith was now beyond belief. It was a matter of experience.
The vintage Beachwood Canyon apartment Hoeller has occupied for most
of the 51 years since his arrival in Los Angeles is as paradoxical as its
tenant. Scholarly but unstuffy; modest, yet adorned with emblems of a noble
birth and memorabilia indicative of a nostalgia for vanished royalty. The
living room is a library stocked with old, hardbound books that reflect a
lifelong devotion to Jung and a youthful embrace of Theosophy and Freemasonry.
In a room that honors French existentialists, psychedelic pioneers and even
the institution of gay marriage, it is nonetheless not entirely surprising to
spot a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker curled in the nut bowl, but for reasons as
unconventional as David Lynch’s purported admiration for Ronald Reagan. You
don’t find standard left-right polarities in the home of Gnostics: They are
the quintessential contrarians, and Gnosticism transcends any convenient
category. Wherever there is a too-easy consensus, the Gnostic in the room can
be counted on to take exception. Then, too, there is the fact that young
Stephan Hoeller saw his father shot point-blank by Joseph Stalin’s goons and
left lying in a pool of his own blood.
In any case, a good Gnostic sees the world as the province of a bumbling, idiot son who mistakes himself for the real thing, so political affiliation may be a matter of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. These days, the word gnostic is on the wind, and on the sometimes windy breath of pop-culture pundits, so it seems a good time to learn from this learned man about the weirdly beautiful and unsettling worldview that gave him his calling.
I ask Hoeller about the recent revival of interest in Gnostic themes spawned by popular phenomena like the Matrix films and The Da Vinci Code, as well as Hollywood’s continuing dance with literary Gnostics like Philip K. Dick. At 73, Hoeller’s awareness of such things is keen, and he answers, “Well, I think that we need to remind ourselves, as Jung did, that pop culture is still culture, and that it reflects whatever is churning in the collective unconscious. Things got a bit muddy with all the millennium hubbub, but there are authentic expressions of the tradition out there. It’s a matter, as always, of separating the wheat from the chaff. One can only hope . . .” A rabbinical tilt of the head, a lifting of brows and a barely audible sigh follow, suggesting that Hoeller’s heavenly hopes are tempered by a worldly fatalism. If there is a Gnostic among A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters, it is most certainly Eeyore.
But then, beneath the bushy brows, there is a gleam in his eye, and when talk turns to The Matrix, it grows brighter. A scenario in which our everyday reality is a digitized illusion projected by malevolent overlords of AI. Shades of the Demiurge? “Yes,” Hoeller affirms. “The outlines are there. Especially in the first film, where this notion of a counterfeit reality in which we’re trapped, and a dark, manipulative will behind the veil, is clearly expressed. Neo seems to be a classic Gnostic seeker.”
There is something akin to the Hindu concept of maya in all this talk of veiling and illusion, and I ask him if it’s simply a matter, as the gurus say, of our failure to see things “rightly.” “Yes and no,” he answers. “As with Hinduism, the ‘righting’ of our perception comes with a change in consciousness. A jnana, which we call gnosis. But, in general, the Eastern religions don’t acknowledge that there are malign forces whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion — so well that most people never see it.”
We never see it, I think out loud, unless there’s a tear in the fabric of our “reality” that suddenly reveals the Man Behind the Curtain — as when in The Truman Show the spotlight falls from a clear blue sky and lands at Jim Carrey’s feet.
“ ‘There’s a crack in the world,’ ” adds Hoeller, quoting Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.” The bishop smiles a Mona Lisa smile. “Yes,” he adds. “You see, to cite another chapter from the Matrix series, the Architect of this illusion is not all that skillful. There are flaws in the blueprint, fissures in the foundation, through which we can glimpse the supernal reality. But we must be very attentive, because as soon as a crack appears, the enemies of gnosis — enemies of a direct human perception of the true nature of God and man — begin to paper or plaster it over.”
Hoeller is speaking of the Demiurge and his cohorts, the Archons, and I cannot stop myself from asking the agnostic question: Are we talking allegorically here, or should I double-bolt the door tonight? His answer provokes a shiver, and makes me wonder if M. Night Shyamalan should be added to the list of Gnostic filmmakers. Hoeller describes these “enemies of gnosis” as “forms of transpersonal consciousness which have been actualized in some way and have an existence outside the individual psyche.” In other words, they’re not simply “in our heads.”
For the skeptical (and all Gnostics begin as skeptics), it may be worth noting that no less an authority on human psychology than Carl Jung wrote that flying saucers were an actualized projection of both nuclear-age anxiety and the deep longing for wholeness. They were not merely in our heads either.
Unlike Kabbalah, the mystical strain of Judaism whose mythos of divine emanations and scattered sparks of God-stuff closely parallels its own, Gnosticism doesn’t have a celebrity spokesperson like Madonna. That may be partly because its sobering epiphanies don’t lend themselves to a feel-good conclusion, and partly because Gnostics tend to observe the Zen axiom that “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” But the Gnostic tradition is clearly enjoying a revival by way of popular culture and cyberspace, and the Gnostic worldview, while underground for ages, has always been “in vogue” among the intelligentsia. A bold case could be made that gnosis is the ultimate form of hip, in the sense of knowing the score: You couldn’t ask for a headier jolt of inside dope than that the god of this world is a fraud. From William Blake to William S. Burroughs, from Goethe to Henry Miller to P.K. Dick, anyone who’s ever sought his illumination straight from the source, or doubted that the evil in the world was owed to the “Original Sin” of one errant couple, has felt the Gnostic twinge. It may be true, as Hoeller asserts, that “any serious artist is already half a Gnostic.” Certainly, any serious comedian is, comedy being the rearview mask of angst.
For a “man of the cloth,” Hoeller can be irreverently funny, a sort of ecclesiastical H.L. Mencken. On the eve of the millennium, he hosted an “End of the World” party that included such “guests” as clueless ’50s TV prognosticator Criswell (raised from the dead) and outré diva Tequila Mockingbird. I once heard him quip at a Friday-evening lecture that “a more suitable doctrine for modern life than utilitarianism would be futilitarianism.” I ask him if he thinks that cutting-edge comedians like Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison were Gnostics in their own way. “Well, yes,” he replies. “Freud wrote that our reaction to a joke was an explosion in the psyche. When a person gives up the attempt to make sense out of a world that is largely bereft of it, it’s liberating. The realization that the machine is defective frees us from the constant temptation to tinker with it, and lightens the soul.”
Well, maybe not for everyone. The pessimism implicit in the Gnostic outlook has made it a tough sell from the first century onward, with critics asking, essentially, “Where’s the comfort in a religion that says the inmates are running the asylum?” Hoeller emphatically does not back away from the controversy when he fumes, “I’m fed up with hearing everyone chant ‘I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.’ Well, everything is not okay!” And he’s decidedly not prescribing his doctrine as an opiate for the masses when he cautions, “When encountering Gnosticism in the spiritual supermarket, we may be tempted to embrace some parts of its worldview and disregard others . . . such as the presence of evil in the very fabric of the universe.” Although it may be more accurate to characterize Gnosticism as mystical existentialism than the nihilism it has often been labeled, it’s clearly an acquired and rarefied taste, like absinthe or Nick Drake or, to cite another cinematic exorciser, David Lynch.
Lynch’s work has frequently been pegged by film critics as “Manichaean,” and Mani, the third-century Babylonian prophet who framed the world in terms of the eternal struggle between co-equal forces of Light and Darkness, is a Gnostic hero. Hoeller has seen Mulholland Drive, and I have a hunch he might view the gruesome bum with the blue box who occupies the alley behind Winkie’s Diner as an embodiment of the Demiurge, manipulating reality so as to keep the characters (and us) from seeing the truth. His reply is Jungian: “I can’t say if David Lynch is familiar with the writings, but Gnostic archetypes are present in the underground stream of the subconscious, a place he clearly taps into.”
Aside from its dismissal of Judaic law and its challenge to Papal Writ, one of the things that undoubtedly drove the suppression of Gnostic scripture was its depiction of “the prostitute,” Mary Magdalene, as holding equal status with the 12 disciples and special rank with the Son of God himself. Like Eve, M.M. “gets it” before the guys do, not infrequently prompting grumblings of “What’s up with her?” This brings us to the zingers breathlessly reported by Dan Brown in the widely read pages of The Da Vinci Code.
Since Bishop Hoeller is a bona fide scholar of the lore alluded to by the now stupendously rich Mr. Brown, the question must be posed: Was it some sort of tantric sex thing between J.C. and M.M.?
“Although I’m delighted by the interest in Gnosticism it’s stirred up,” Hoeller says, “and by its part in restoring Mary Magdalene to her place at the side of Jesus, I must confess that my regard for The Da Vinci Code is considerably less than for The Matrix. For one thing, Mr. Brown seems to have an agenda. He appears to be deliberately courting certain ‘interest groups,’ among them conspiracy buffs, enthusiastic but badly informed Goddess worshippers and almost anyone who harbors a grudge against the Christian faith. And though the Gnostic Gospels do identify the Magdalene as having a unique spiritual kinship with Jesus, there’s no suggestion that the relationship was sexual, much less that it produced offspring. This is a canard derived almost wholly from an earlier piece of sensationalistic pseudo-history called Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”
“According to which,” I interject, “the bloodline of Jesus produced the French monarchy . . .”
“Yes, well . . . the Merovingian dynasty.”
“And your opinion of the Holy Blood theory?”
Nookie or no, the stupendous popularity of The Da Vinci Code has let certain cats out of the bag, and Hoeller is the first to admit that it could not have found such a ready audience if intimations of the Divine Feminine were not already percolating through the collective unconscious?. The psychic tremors from a discovery like the Nag Hammadi texts aren’t felt immediately. By analogy, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was published in 1905, and most of us are still struggling with the notion of space-time. But at Nag Hammadi, the dike of orthodoxy, built by the Fathers in part to keep sexuality and subversive “feminine” elements at bay, sprung a major leak, and the amniotic waters have been trickling through ever since. Gnosticism’s most formidable and vociferous foe, Tertullian (155–225 A.D.), may yet have to eat his words on Woman: “You are the devil’s gateway . . . The sentence of God on your sex lives on in this age; the guilt, necessarily, lives on, too.” Contrast this misogyny with the gender-bending of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you make the male and the female one and the same . . . then you will enter the Kingdom.”
In spite of Hoeller’s somewhat bristly relationship with feminist theory, the fact that two of his order’s priests, one deacon and two acolytes are female seems testament enough to his rejection of ecclessiastical misogyny.
Today, the Gnostic Revival is abetted by a sea change in popular culture that began in the pre-millennial ’90s: The “alternative” now becomes mainstream in a heartbeat, chaos theory and quantum uncertainty rule the scientific roost, and no less a scholastic Brahmin than Harold Bloom calls Gnosticism “America’s native religion.” I ask Hoeller whether he thought that 2,000 years of persecution had come to an end. His reply is that of one who, in the words of a friend, has “lived out the myth of the exile” and learned how hard it is to come home.
“We’ve been persecuted because we assert that genuine salvation comes only through an essential change in consciousness which has nothing to do with obeying rules. This makes fundamentalists of all stripes crazy, because they’re all about adherence to ‘the Law.’ As long as this remains true, I suspect we’ll remain outsiders. Gnostics obey the traffic laws like everyone else . . . we just don’t happen to believe you can get to Heaven that way.”
And what of Rome, I wonder. Will His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI extend a hand to his estranged Gnostic brethren as his predecessor did to the Eastern Orthodox? “Is the Pope Catholic?” Hoeller replies, with a twinkle in his eye. “No, he seems to be a damage-control man, and there is plenty of damage to attend to.”
The last question is the toughest: Once our eyes are open to the absurdity of the world, what do we live for? It’s essentially the same question asked by Sartre and Camus in the midst of the Holocaust, but Hoeller’s reply is lit by that glimmer in his eye. He quotes the Gospel of Thomas:
“And Jesus said, ‘Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.’”
Bishop Stephan Hoeller conducts Sunday services, and lectures at 8:00 p.m. on almost every Friday night of the year, at Ecclesia Gnostica, in its new location at 3363 Glendale Blvd. in Atwater Village. He is the author of Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing, The Gnostic Jung and The Fool’s Pilgrimage, and can be tracked down at www.gnosis.org.
(c) Copyright LA Weekly, 2005