FINDING MY RELIGION I – Tau Malachi, a Sophian Gnostic bishop, talks about Gnosticism and ‘The Da Vinci Code’
No matter what you think about the book or the movie — love it, hate it or totally sick of hearing about it — “The Da Vinci Code” has sparked a debate about the nature of faith and the foundations of Christianity. It’s also turned a spotlight on some lesser-known religious traditions that have been operating quietly for centuries.
Among the religious groups brought blinking into the “Code”-inspired publicity glare are Gnostic Christians. The word Gnostic, from the Greek word for knowledge, expresses the central tenet of this faith — Gnostics believe Jesus’ mission was to teach people that the divine lives within each of us, and that salvation can be achieved through spiritual knowledge rather than faith and good works. Only through truly knowing God can humans transcend the sins and flaws of this world.
Gnosticism was declared a heresy in the early days of Christianity. But the religion didn’t die, and it’s flourishing in the 21st century. As in the Protestant faith, there are many separate factions within Gnosticism. Gnostics, like most initiatory mystical faiths, refer to these sects as “traditions.”
Tau Malachi is a Gnostic bishop of the Sophian tradition, which teaches that Mary Magdalene was also a savior and spiritual teacher, equal to Jesus and an embodiment of the divine. He is the author of several books, including “St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride.” He spoke with me last week by phone from his home in Nevada City.
Gnostic ideas figure prominently in “The Da Vinci Code.” What is your take on the book’s presentation of Mary Magdalene and Gnostic beliefs? Is it on target?
Well, I think it hints at things. But I’m not sure the spiritual content that Gnosticism teaches is really present in the book. To give you an example, Magdalene is referred to in “The Da Vinci Code” as the grail and mother of the royal blood because she is a close disciple to Jesus — she is his wife and has his children. That’s kind of painting her as being similar to the Virgin Mary, simply because she has had children.
In Sophian Gnosticism, she’s viewed as a spiritual master, a close disciple to whom Jesus pours out the fullness of the light, or the Christos, and she becomes a Christ-bearer (messiah) also. She is the apostle to the first apostles, igniting what we call the Gnostic apostolic succession. And in this end she is mother to the royal blood on a spiritual level. So the issue for us wouldn’t be whether she literally had children or not. Either way, it wouldn’t make a difference.
How did you feel about the book in general?
The book didn’t have quite the same power for me that it did for other people, I think, because I’ve been practicing the tradition that honors Magdalene since I was 8 years old. Really, I felt like I was reading a thriller like any other. But I could also see that if I knew nothing about Magdalene this would be a very powerful book. To many, these are revolutionary thoughts — the idea of Magdalene being innermost disciple, wife and consort [to Jesus].
It seems like there’s no end to the controversy about the book and the movie. Do you think it’s worth all the fuss?
For some mainstream Christian churches, alternative views of Jesus, of Christ, of Christianity are very threatening. So in that sense it’s understandable.
Personally, I think it’s interesting that we are having discussions about traditions and ideas based on a novel. Not to say that there aren’t grains of truth in it, but it wasn’t written to be something other than fiction — it’s entertainment.
Your latest book, “St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride,” presents what are described as secret oral traditions concerning the Gnostic view of Mary Magdalene. Why publish those secrets now? Did the popularity of “The Da Vinci Code” have anything to do with it?
No. Actually, all this was underway before the “Da Vinci Code” phenomenon. Sophian Gnosticism has been moving away from a more private or secretive mode for some time. We’ve been progressively sharing teachings more and more openly over the years.
Why was this information kept secret in the first place?
Sophian Gnosticism has a known history that goes back to about the mid-18th century. That was a very dangerous time to hold alternative Christian beliefs — there was a great deal of persecution by mainstream Christians. So that drove a lot of Gnostics underground.
What originally drew you to Gnosticism?
As a very little boy, I guess you could say there was a propensity in me toward a spiritual life, and apparently toward a Gnostic Christian spiritual life. But when I met a Sophian teacher, whose name was Tau Elijah ben Miriam, and I started to get to know him, it just fit. It was so familiar to me. I felt like a duck in water.
Eight years old is pretty young to get started with a spiritual teacher. What was that like for you?
Elijah was a very fascinating spiritual master. When I met him, he was 81 years old but a very active gentleman. He was a brilliant man. I basically became his sidekick when I wasn’t in school. Hanging around him and his circle became much of my childhood life.
And your parents were OK with that?
Yes. My mom actually had been a student of his when she was younger, but due to illness couldn’t continue [working with him]. So she was very happy that one of her children had this interest.
Your story reminds me of the Dalai Lama and how the Buddha of Compassion is believed to reincarnate in an infant who begins his religious training as soon as he is identified as such. What are the Gnostic teachings on the afterlife?
It’s actually very similar to those found in Bhagwan or Tibetan Buddhism. We believe that one continues to go through many lifetimes until one’s soul is fully realized, or awakened.
Have you explored many spiritual paths besides Gnostic Christianity?
I’ve studied Native American spirituality, Sufism, Vedanta, Taoism, among several other traditions. Our view is of the cosmic Christ — we very much accept all wisdom traditions.
What are the basic teachings of Gnostic Christianity?
There is a huge spectrum of Gnostic beliefs, so I can’t speak for all forms of Gnosticism. But generally speaking, mainstream Christianity believes that we all inherit original sin. So the purpose of the incarnation [of Jesus] is atonement for that sin. This isn’t the Gnostic view, however. Gnostics believe that the real problem isn’t sin — it’s ignorance, because we don’t know our origins, who we really are.
We also believe that everyone has the potential for gnosis. Everyone has a spark of the true light or the divine in them. The whole point for Gnosticism is to help reveal that spark so that a person recognizes it inside of himself or herself.
How do you help a person reveal that spark?
We serve as midwives for each other, so that we can each remember the light within us, and then live according to that truth and light revealed in our experience. So rather than tell them how to live, we would be more inclined to help them find the divine within them and let that instruct them.
You lead a group of Gnostic initiates. What is the teaching process like?
We have weekly meetings as a group. We also work with our new students for a period of about three years in one-to-one mentoring. Sometimes we’ll take that process up again, if a person goes into advanced study and practices. We will also facilitate ceremonies and meditation circles that people can attend to draw out their spiritual experiences.
We’re living in complicated times. There is a lot of upheaval, a lot of change. What does Gnosticism have to teach us about dealing with these pressures?
Gnosticism — particularly Sophian Gnosticism — proposes that creation is an evolutionary process. We are constantly going through change, growth and development. And everything that we encounter in the material dimension is an impermanent phenomenon. So when we are looking at the world, we know it’s a continuum of change. And our way of spirituality is to move with what’s happening as it’s happening, to remain in the flow.
In a Gnostic view, rather than root ourselves here outwardly, we learn to go within and live within — and to root ourselves in that transcendent being that we recognize and realize inwardly. So we’re very empowered, very free to live fully here. But also we are aware that we are just travelers here.
Where are you traveling to?
Gnostics see this world as the tip of the iceberg of reality. And rather than identifying with just the tip of the iceberg, we seek to be aware of the entire iceberg — all of these various layers and levels, dimensions of reality — while we are here and now. And when we do this, it changes how we relate with this dimension, with this world, with this body. We know that we are more than this body, that our consciousness is beyond this body while within it. And this empowers us to embrace the challenges, to embrace the constant flow of change in our lives.
Gnosticism was the centerpiece of the recent National Geographic show on the Gospel of Judas What’s your take on the Gospel of Judas?
It’s another Gnostic text that’s showing us the wide range of views that original Christians had of Jesus and the spirituality that he taught — that it wasn’t quite as narrow as it came to be passed down to us. This invites people to examine their own views and perhaps entertain wider perspectives in their spirituality as Christians.
It’s also interesting from a Sophian perspective. We have been teaching in our oral tradition that Judas may have been asked to do this task. It’s interesting all of a sudden to have an ancient text where there are ancient Gnostics who are proposing the same idea.
Do you think the Gnostic gospels, the 40 or so texts that were officially excluded from the Bible, should be part of the Bible? Or are they better kept separate?
I think they should be made available, just as the Bible is, so people can read them and see what truth speaks to them. But one has to understand that Gnostics don’t tend to a literal interpretation of scripture. Be it the Bible or Gnostic scripture, it’s seen as much more a source of inspiration and insight than instructions about who to be or what to do. We also don’t take it as historical. It’s metaphorical for us. So in this context, whether Gnostic scriptures are included in a book with the rest of the books of the Bible doesn’t make a difference. Besides, if you really start including all of these books, it would be hard to carry the darned thing around. It would be too big!
By David Ian Miller
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
His “Finding My religion” series of interviews that you can find in SFGate.com look at individual experience of how different people found their religion. It is considered that this is a subject close to all Templars heart, that will surely resonate with some of our own individual experiences, helping us understand how mystical traditions far apart from ours have so many common points. You will also read about people that today follow mystical disciplines that it is said the historical Templar Order was familiar with, including Sufism, Kaballah, Gnosticism, Sacred Geometry, Meditation, etc.