I’ve recently been re-reading Love, Sex, Fear, Death by Timothy Wyllie and was once again struck by the potent iconography and influence of The Process Church of the Final Judgement. The 1960s were undeniably a time of heady social ferment and cultural creativity – the love and peace idealism of the Haight Ashbury set, cross pollinating with student unrest and a growing awareness of the inequalities that were present for many people on both sides of the Atlantic. While many were intoxicated by the popularity of spiritual traditions generically described as “Eastern”, it was perhaps surprising that through a haze of dope and incense, strode the hard-edged Gnostics of the Process.
“The Process” stood in stark contrast to the loose limbed ascetic of the flower powered. Sporting long robes and satanically shaped beards (optional), The Process appeared to be responding to a darker more visceral vision than many of their peers. In the 9 years during which its co-founder Robert De Grimston was at the helm, the Process integrated some initial insights gained from Scientology with a radical re-working of Judeo-Christian mythology.
Responding to a series of visionary experiences gained while in Mexico, the group set out a polarity in which Christ, Satan, Jehovah and Lucifer were in dynamic tension with each other. As is so often the case, this cosmology then provided much of the focus for initiatory work within the Process. Processeans would often identify which of the specific primary deities reflected their core psychological profile, and, which balancing quality they might need to pursue in seeking integration.
I would highly recommend Wyllie’s book, not only for its brilliant collection of original Process art work and magazine articles, but also its reflections on how group dynamics function within new religious movements. While it undoubtedly displayed many traits that raise concerns about cult-like behaviour, for those of us interested in how Luciferian/Gnostic imagery has been utilised in initiatory work, they provide us with much to learn from.
In my recent series of blog posts Gnostic Musings I sought to explore the potential value of trying to view the players on that mythic stage from a more systemic perspective. While the Gnostic scriptures provide us with a theological model that is full of dualism and oppositional tensions, it can also be helpful to view them with a more pantheon-focused or polytheistic lens. Whatever beliefs that we might hold regarding the ultimate unity (or not) of the Mystery, the reality is that as humans we tend to adopt religious frameworks that allow for some allowance of multiplicity and complexity.
Historians of religious history might consider the virtual impossibility of maintaining absolute monotheism. However desirable the Oneness of God may be at a philosophical level, the messy phenomena of how we do our religions seems to point toward a more team based approach. Whether it’s the 99 names of Allah or the evolution of the doctrine of the Trinity, when faced with the Mystery or “Runa” of whatever is out there, we often need a number of masks for our gods to wear.
As to the “why?” we do this, I’m sure there are a whole raft of reasons, but for brevity’s sake I will touch briefly on two:
Firstly the allowance for multiplicity allows us to make sense of new experiences of the numinous that disrupt our current worldviews. For the first century Jewish community trying to make sense of their encounter with Jesus, there was an inevitable struggle as they sought to harmonize their experience of the risen Christ with their existing monotheism – was this being a God? Should we address our perceived messiah as “Lord”? Certainly we can see the evolution of competing interpretations as the church evolved its thinking in the centuries prior to the Nicene creed (for those interested in this check out “Christology in the Making” by James Dunn). Multiplicity allows us to ‘upload’ new insights and experiences into our perception of the numinous.
As a Gnostic explorer travelling my path, I am aware of my own process of canonisation as I promote and demote incoming ideas and insights within my personal pantheon. While a degree of narcissism is somewhat inevitable for the magician, ideally this process is one slow evolution rather than merely being brash consumerism. In the pursuit of depth in my relationship with god-forms, I cast a spell on my self as their faces are reflected in my art, relationships and the altars I make.
Secondly, I think that many of us seek models of divine multiplicity because they more accurately reflect our experience of self. As human beings trying to make sense of our universe, we have to deal with a whole host of competing desires and demands as we try and prioritise the needs of individual, family and tribe. These competing and sometimes conflicting needs then become translated into self-states that we oscillate between, dependant on a complex mash-up of genes, conditioning and personality structure. To experience such tensions seems to be an inevitable part of the human condition and it is perhaps unsurprising that we seek spiritual myths and metaphors that make sense of them.
My own interest in weird cosmologies like that of the Process and the early Gnostics is that the maps that they were working with seem to have a more creative engagement with both darkness and dynamic tension. Unlike the rather safe stylings of a Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are rarely at odds with each other, the various players of the Gnostic stage often represent stages of unfolding and the resolution of various core conflicts. It was hardly surprising that as Jung sought to evolve his model of depth psychology, he found so much of interest in these strange waters. Such rich mythic multiplicities steer us away from the shallows of safe ‘belief’ and ask that we push out into the depths of the unknown.