The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is both fascinating and tedious.  Who Jesus was has been argued by billions for thousands of years, so why should anyone assume we can solve an unsolvable puzzle?  Before the Catholic Church became the monolithic institution that defined Christianity for centuries, there were a few centuries after Christ’s death where many different Christian beliefs flourished, and among those were the Gnostics.  Gnosticism wasn’t limited to Christian thinking, but Christian Gnosticism in various forms were large enough movement that early orthodox leaders wrote books teaching against Gnostic thinking.  Gnostics were heretics early orthodox Christians hated even more than the Romans.  The orthodox did everything it could to wipe out the heretics and burn all their books.  In 1945 we found 52 texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.


The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a short overview of alternate Christian beliefs before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Now here’s the rub.  You have many Christian philosophies before 325 AD, then hundreds of years of the Catholic Church, and many Christian philosophies after the Protestant Reformation in 1517.  The Catholic Church spent centuries hammering out who Christ was and what his teachings meant, but there are always other people believing he taught something different.  Gnostics had very radical ideas about Christ that sound just as good or better.  Who is the real Jesus?

How Christianity evolved is a fascinating historical mystery.  I’ve been watching Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication, A Great Course lecture by Bart D. Ehrman.  I got The Gnostic Gospels as a supplement.  The Gnostics are intriguing because they claim to have secret knowledge of Jesus based on his mystical teachings, like Eastern religions.  Some Gnostics thought the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were silly stories the orthodox Christians believed in and claim to know the real truth.  They said Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was within and had already arrived and with the right practices and secret knowledge it would be revealed here on Earth.  It wasn’t faith, but direct experience.

While studying these early Christians I got a strange idea.  History is full of religious charlatans and con men.  What if Jesus had been a con man gathering his flock with a promise of secret knowledge.  Then he gets killed, and after that all his followers taught something different about his “secret knowledge” creating endless religions never knowing they had been conned.  Most people like to assume that one view of Christ is the right one.  But what if they are all wrong?

The more I study the history of Christianity the more its obvious that every Christian see a different Jesus and it’s impossible to know the real Jesus.  Reading The Gnostic Gospels only made me feel more conclusively that Jesus and his teachings are unknowable – and all we can know is an endless series of imaginary Christs created by people who have their on unique beliefs.

JWH 1/4/12

Philip K. Dick–The Penultimate Truth

At the online book club Classic Science Fiction, we had a series of posts discussing whether or not a book should stand alone or if it helped readers to know about the writer and why they wrote their fiction to fully appreciate the story.  Most of the members wanted books to be completely self-contained and did not want to know about the author.  If fact, many readers worried if tales about the writer were slanderous or gossip it might unfairly color their appreciation of the story.  They were responding to my comments about Radio Free Albemuth and how I judge Philip K. Dick to be crazy.  My response was that certain writers like PKD, Proust, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Wolfe and other autobiographical novelists almost demand knowledge of the writers to fully appreciate their work.

Let me say upfront that if you are reading just for entertainment, books have to be standalone and self-contained.  No knowledge of the author or literary history should be required.  And I do read for entertainment, but for me it’s the foundation to the house, and the real architectural design to be admired is what fiction says about reality.  I’m just not interested in one dimensional fiction.  The novelists I love the most are natural philosophers and reporters.  Now that doesn’t mean I want pontification in fiction – no, fiction is about catharsis, not messages.  To me the best philosophical stories are those where the author is invisible behind the scenes, and their characters, setting and conflicts presents the reader with a deeply emotional experience, whether tragic or comic.

I used to think that only Dick’s last novels were about his personal experiences, but after watching Philip K. Dick-The Penultimate Truth  I now think different, and realize he was always autobiographical to some degree.  Philip K. Dick is very close to Jack Kerouac in that their novels are spiritual journeys that try to make sense of their troubled souls.  Although this documentary about PKD is framed with a cheesy X-Files setup of two FBI like agents brainstorming from boxes of evidence about who Philip K. Dick was, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for Dick’s life.  FBI agents were watching PKD, and he was obsessed with being watched.  You can view this documentary online at YouTube, or get it from Netflix, or follow the link to Amazon above and buy it.  I highly recommend this film.

Here’s the first of nine parts on YouTube:

The documentary gathers three of Dick’s five wives (Kleo Mini, Anne Dick, Tessa Dick), many of his girlfriends, and several of his closest friends (Ray Nelson, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter) to talk about him while the agents pin photos on a wall as if they were trying to solve a crime.  Some people like to think that PKD actually experienced mystical events and they are unexplained revelations of truth, but I don’t.

All through the documentary they show clips from a speech Dick gave in Metz, France in 1977, that to me is conclusive evidence that Dick was crazy.  He essentially confesses his madness in front of the audience.  His girlfriend that was with him at the conference, Joan Simpson, said the speech was quite horrible and she wished she could have been anywhere else.  She said the French audience was kind to him, but she felt they had been greatly disappointed too, because they expected his wild stories to be creative rather personal visions that Dick confessed to believe.

Now I’m not saying we should write off PKD as a man lost in madness.  As K. W. Jeter says about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, that Phil provides a critical self-portrait and realizes before he dies that he had been crazy, and as Jeter would like to think, he didn’t die insane, and had finally accepted this reality.

This is an excellent documentary that expertly summarizes the life and work of Philip K. Dick in 89 minutes.  Philip K. Dick was a major explorer of reality and he ventured to some very dangerous places, but ultimately he comes back to report that we shouldn’t go where he’s been.  PKD is a teacher about what it means to explore madly divine concepts.  He is a professor of paranoia and Gnosticism.  We like to think that penultimate realities don’t exist, but Philip K. Dick traveled into them and wrote mission reports back to us.

Here’s the thing.  If you are sane and have a firm grasp of reality, those penultimate gnostic worlds don’t exist, but if you have a weak understanding of this reality they do exist, and they are very real.  It’s not that Dick’s mad ideas explain the ultimate reality because they don’t, but they do explain penultimate realities that we really don’t want to visit.  What’s sad, tragic and troublesome is the people who ask if what PKD experienced was real in our ultimate reality – those people are too close to a penultimate reality, and to them Dick’s visions explains a reality they see but we don’t.  Anyone familiar with mentally ill people will recognize many of the belief systems Dick explored.

Reading Philip K. Dick’s books are a study in madness, and not philosophy, religion or even science fiction.  They are meta-fiction, autobiographical, epistemological,  and a form of exegesis.  PKD even kept a journal he called The Exegesis.  I believe that at times Dick fully believed his visions, but at other times he questioned his sanity.  Many people read his books as science fiction and find them entertaining.  Dick was good a writing fiction.  At the entertainment level many of his books are self-contained stories that work without knowing anything about his life, but the more you know about PKD, the more you see something different about his work, and you see that he was an explorer of penultimate realities.

And when I say “penultimate reality” I’m not riffing on PKD’s titles.  I’m talking about people with gnostic mindsets.  To them, they seek the ultimate truth, or hidden knowledge.  They think they are living in a penultimate reality and are being told lies, and this reality is a sham, and the real reality is a secret being kept from them.  Such thinking has always been a part of various religious sects in world history.  PKD is a modern Gnostic.  Conservative religions don’t like to discuss this, but madmen are often the driving force of the early stages of their religions.  People with mystical instincts are attracted to seers like Philip K. Dick as a form of validation, and Dick knew this.  He was seduced by his own visions too.

Christianity rejected Gnosticism in the early centuries of the common era, but the modern faithful also believe this reality is a penultimate reality.  And this is why we should read Philip K. Dick, he’s a modern day example of a prophet, mystic, seer, writer of revelations, like those in the Bible and other holy books.  If you believe in science, this is the ultimate reality, and mystic people are crazy, now and then.  If you believe this is a penultimate reality, then Dick was a visionary, and from my perspective, you are a tortured soul like he was.  Because any believer in hidden knowledge finds this reality confusing and upsetting.

This is why I say books by Philip K. Dick aren’t just for entertainment and escapism.  You need to know as much about PKD as possible to decipher them.  Sure you can read them as far out science fiction and just consider them weird ass stories to be amusing.  But my fear is some PKD fans live in a penultimate reality, and see Dick as a mystic and that’s really scary.

For me, the real reason to read Philip K. Dick is to study the madness of metaphysical worlds and to avoid them.

JWH – 6/4/11

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

I’ve always asked two questions when reading science fiction books.  First, why did the author write it?  Second, why do I want to read it?  The easy answers are usually the author wanted to tell an entertaining story and make some money, and I want to be blown away by an exciting new science fictional idea.  Now that might be true for Neuromancer and Dune, but not for books like Stranger in a Stranger Land or, in this case Radio Free Albemuth.  When science fiction writers write about about religion I can’t help but wonder if they believe their own fiction, or want us to.


I actually prefer science fiction with an agenda.  Fun fictional adventures are great for being entertaining, but I love science fiction novels with vision.  During the 1950s I think Heinlein had an agenda for his juvenile books – he wanted to jump start manned space exploration.  Heinlein’s books after 1960 have another intent which I never cared for.  I think Philip K. Dick spent his entire career exploring the same ideas – he wanted to understand what is man and why are we here.

Throughout Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick defends himself against his reputation as a drug writer, which he blames Harlan Ellison for starting in Dangerous Visions.  But he doesn’t defend himself from his reputation for paranoia and imagining endless crazed explanations for the reality around him.  PKD couldn’t let epistemology and ontology alone – it was two bones he would gnaw at his whole life.  So when I read something like Radio Free Albemuth I must ask:  Did PKD believe in the Gnostic ideas discussed in the book?  If Gnosticism had been the theme of only one book I would have said no, because it does lend itself well to a weird entertaining science fiction plot.  But Dick spent too many books exploring the idea.

If you haven’t read anything biographical about Philip K. Dick and read Radio Free Albemuth it would be easy to dismiss it as a wild idea for a science fiction novel, but Dick had experienced many visions in February and March of 1974 which he could never stop trying to explain, so he wrote several novels about them, and a journal called The Exegesis.  Now people with mental problems will fixate on such ideas, and explore them endlessly trying to make some kind of sense of the confusion they live in.  I can’t help but feel that PKD was mentally ill, but he had the outlet of writing to explore his obsessions, so do we just ignore his ideas as wild science fictional stories, or explore them along with Phil?  Or do we consider his books meta fiction and consider them a study in madness?

John C. Lilly, noted scientist who studied dolphins, went off the deep in when he began using sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs, and wrote a book, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, which led to experiences like those found in a Philip K. Dick novel.  If you push the mind, either through physical defect of the brain, stress, deprivation or with drugs, you get to some very far out places.  To me it’s easy enough to write those places off as hallucinations, but I think we should psychoanalyze these communiqués from the deepest part of our minds.  Philip K. Dick was exploring the same territory as saints, mystics, yogis and madmen.

Gnosticism tells us this universe is crazy, but there’s a hidden reality that does make sense.  In Christian Gnosticism Christ was the teacher of this hidden knowledge.  I think PKD really wanted to believe in the hidden knowledge.  I think this world tormented him, and he was desperate to find a rational truth.  This is no different from many religious teachings.  People have a hard time accepting this reality – in fact most are ready to reject it.

Radio Free Albemuth is about two men living in an alternative America ruled by a police state.  They are Nicholas Brady and Philip K. Dick.  Radio Free Albemuth was written before VALIS, but published after Dick’s death.  In VALIS, Phil is the narrator, but the other character is Horselover Fat, which is a weird translation of his own name.  Both books were inspired by the same real world experiences.  Both books deal with hidden knowledge, and Dick’s particular view of Gnosticism.  To me, Radio Free Albemuth has a more traditional story structure, and it’s the book that was made into a movie, which seems to confirm it had the better story structure.  But most people consider VALIS the masterpiece version, and it’s the version collected in the Library of America edition.

I can’t explore the ultimate details of the story without giving away the plot, but let’s just say it’s very hard to tell the science fiction from Christianity in this novel.  Imagine if God talked to you with technology, would you think it’s God or an alien?  Philip K. Dick felt his mystical experiences were real, and wanted to believe they were clues to hidden knowledge, or did he?  In the end, we have to ask, does Phil believe his own far out ideas?  But isn’t that like asking if Christians really believe in Heaven and salvation?  I’d like to think Phil was always just examining these ideas, like the blind figure of justice holding the scales, weighing the issues, but what I like and what really happened is probably unknowable.

Up to now I’ve been exploring how and why PKD wrote Radio Free Albemuth, but I haven’t asked we we should read it.  Should we just be amused by the wild craziness?  I worry that crazy people will find satisfying proof in this book for their own mad ideas, but we can do nothing about that.  How is Radio Free Albemuth any different than Harold Camping predicting the arrival of the rapture on May 21, 2011?  If you call the book just entertainment, it’s not the same thing at all.  But if we accept the idea that Philip K. Dick considered it a legitimate philosophical exploration, we have to wonder if Phil was a crazy prophet too.

I’m afraid that any exploration on metaphysics has to be analyzed as a kind of madness.  And I think most people will just chuckle and say ideas like those PKD explores is just crazy stuff.  Something to be laughed at.  Sadly though, a large percentage of our population will say no, metaphysics is real.  But I say, hey, we need to study people who believe in hidden knowledge and see how such beliefs affect our world and history.  Maybe PKD was saying, I’m mad, and here’s how my madness works, you better study me, but I tend to doubt that.  I tend to think poor Phil worried some of his hallucinations were real.  I say that because I know too many people people who believe their hallucinations are real too.

I’m not sure PKD is a sci-fi writer, but a psy-fi writer.

JWH – 6/22/11

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