Have you ever felt haunted? Haunted by an idea or a person who, despite all your best efforts, seems to be lurking at the edges of your vision and prodding your unconscious to give them a bit more space. These phantoms of our history often point towards past explorations and adventures that were left unresolved; untidy longings that may seem embarrassing when viewed from a more urbane present.
In all my recent writing about the Gnostics and other Christian heretics, the figure haunting me from the shadows is that old trickster Yeshua Ben Joseph (Jesus to his Greek speaking friends). It may well be a projection on my part, but in my mind Jesus and I are trying to negotiate a different kind of relationship. Those dusty half-truths from fan-boys of old simply don’t fit any more. Rather than taking shape within a dogma that does violence to either kindness or thinking, I keep getting glimpses of this Jesus in the dreamtime and the strangest of places. This is a decidedly Surreal Christology.
It is hardly surprising that Surrealism’s emphasis on the unconscious and the realm of dreams coincided historically with the birth of psychotherapy and fin de siècle occultism. For me, the sense of mystery and strange juxtaposition that are synonymous with Surrealism have helped me to explore aspects of my spiritual history that I had previously felt unable to reconcile.
In the “Art and Science” definition of magic according to Crowley, I will definitely acknowledge my own personal bias towards the art end of this equation. Surrealism as an artistic movement manages to capture the creativity and willed engagement with the unconscious that was later embodied so potently in the work of occult artists as diverse as Austin Osman Spare and Thee Temple of Psychick Youth. Such art revels in the conscious distortion of the familiar as we push up against the fuzzy edges of the known and the knowable (think melting clocks and fish on bicycles). Such an approach is radically subjective and relational, but uses images in a way that connects to shared meaning so as to provoke new ways of perceiving and understanding:
“Artist, you are a priest: Art is the great mystery and, when your effort leads to a masterpiece, a ray of the divine shines down as on an altar… Artist, you are a magus. Art is the great miracle and proves our own immortality.”
– Joséphin Péladan
Surrealist artists such as the fabulous Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) took this emphasis on the magical and alchemical a step further than most of her male forebears, and her work remains a potent example of the surreal genius engaging with the spiritual realm.
Whichever occult tools we think we may have mastered as we enter the faery realm of sleep, we soon realise that we are riding on waves of unconscious that are ultimately beyond our control. The esoteric skills of automatic writing and dream interpretation (both of which the Surrealists employed) may be effective vehicles for entering these waters, but we must still realise the limited control that we finally have over what creatures emerge from its depths!
I would highly recommend the use of Surrealist art (especially Carrington’s and Max Ernst’s) as an aid to meditation and reflection. The Surreal landscapes encountered via dreams and our art can be challenging and uncomfortable, but their jarring and vivid images can trigger awakenings more potent than if we were relying on words or reason alone.
For me, my own departure from Christianity came following a profound psychological crisis in which I was no longer able to tolerate the exclusivity of that religion’s claims. My book A Gnostic’s Progress looks at this experience in greater detail, but it would be fair to summarise the direction of this journey as being inwards in search of greater, more authentic depth, a move away from faith based belief, and towards an acceptance of responsibility for insights gained.
This journey inwards was greatly aided by the works of Jung, and it was via his work that I encountered the richness of the Gnostics for the first time. Jung was also a person who was haunted. His desire for personal authenticity and integration drove him to break with Freud and he emerged from this crisis with insights that are truly profound. At points Jung’s haunting was quite literal, and his reception of the Seven Sermons to the Dead was accompanied by etheric and poltergeist activity: “The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they found not what they sought. They prayed me let them in and besought my word, and thus I began my teaching.” Sermon 1, 1913. For more insight on this critical chapter of modern Gnostic history, you may want to check out Stephan Hoeller’s excellent The Gnostic Jung.
In many ways my fairly persistent preoccupation with the Gnostics and heretical Christians is also evidence of my own ongoing struggle with the ghost of Jesus past. For me this is a relationship that feels markedly different to previous attempts at belief and certainty, for now my haunting is about the discovery of what the sacred flame of my own Christhood might mean for my liberation.