Book Review


The Laughing Jesus

Religious lies and gnostic wisdom

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Winchester, O Books, 2006, 264 pages    

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy describe their book The Laughing Jesus as ‘a damning indictment of Literalist religion and a passionate affirmation of Gnostic spirituality’ (p. 5). They summarize some of the key differences between these two approaches as follows:

Gnosticism is about waking up from the illusion of separateness to oneness and love.
Literalism keeps us asleep in an ‘us versus them’ world of division and conflict, inhabited by the ‘chosen’ and the ‘dammed’. ...
Gnostics use symbolic parables to communicate the way to wake up.
Literalists mistake Gnostic myths for literal accounts of miraculous historical events and end up lost in irrational superstition. (pp. 6-7)

The history of the three major western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – illustrates that Literalism is ‘a pernicious source of ignorance, division and suffering’. From Sudan to the Middle East, from Kashmir to the Philippines, many of the conflicts that afflict the world today are either rooted in religion or have religion as one of their main contributing factors. They are a continuation of a long and gruesome history of killing and dying for the sake of God.

Although attention currently focuses on the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, we should not forget the horrors the West has perpetrated in the name of Christianity. The Crusaders, for example, butchered more than 70,000 Muslims in the Al-Aqsa mosque alone, burnt thousands of Jews alive in their synagogues, and impaled children on spits. In Europe thousands of men, women and children were condemned for heresy, subjected to gruesome tortures and burned alive by the Inquisition, which then repeated the slaughter on an even grander scale in the Americas.

As the authors say, fundamentalists of all religions ‘have willingly abandoned rationality in favour of blind faith in old books’ (p. 20). The reason fundamentalists are so extreme is that they have an absolute certainty that they are right and everyone else is wrong.

Religious Fundamentalism is an irrational pathology which leads otherwise decent men and women to become enemies of openmindedness and big-heartedness, and enlist in the service of divinely sanctioned bigotry. Fundamentalism creates dangerously self-righteous people who turn against those who espouse the truly spiritual values of love, tolerance and understanding. (p. 17)

If we examine the ‘sacred’ scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam critically, we quickly realize that, while they may contain profound spiritual allegories and passages of inspiring beauty, they are also full of contradictions, wanton cruelty and mindless violence – with ‘God’ himself often being the worst offender. Clearly, ‘they were not written or inspired by God, but created by men. And often by the worst kind of men. Politicians dressed up as priests’ (p. 8).

The Old Testament and Judaism

The Old Testament, or Tanakh, contains fragments drawn from Palestinian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folk traditions, woven together into a pseudo-historical narrative – but one riddled with inconsistencies and anachronisms. In 161 BCE the Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus made an alliance with the Romans that led to a rebellion against the Jews’ Greek rulers. Judas and his sons established the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled Judea for the next century. The texts we know as the Tanakh were written, compiled and extensively edited during this period, ‘to serve as the mythological justification for the Hasmonean desire to rule all of Palestine’ (p. 37).

The Hasmoneans constructed a history that portrayed themselves as descendants of an ancient people who were bequeathed this whole area by God himself. ...

What marks the language of the Tanakh is its self-conscious ethnicity and narrow sectarianism, both of which were pronounced features of the Hasmonean dynasty. Several scholars now consider that the Tanakh was produced by a ‘Taliban-like Fundamentalist core of religious bigots’. (pp. 37-8)

Jewish Gnostics interpreted stories such as the Creation, the Fall, Noah’s Flood and Exodus as symbolic: ‘Genesis was seen as an allegory of how human beings became lost and exiled in the world, whilst Exodus was seen as an allegory of awakening to gnosis’ (p. 49). Some parts of the Old Testament seem to be more realistic and historical, but archaeological research has proved them to be grossly inaccurate. The kings named Saul, David and Solomon appear to be mythical, King David’s allegedly vast kingdom never existed, and Jerusalem was not the capital of a huge empire but just a small village. The region was occupied by a few wandering nomads and pastoralists, and there are no remnants of grand palaces, temples or dressed stone buildings. Nor is there any evidence that the Jews were ever held captive in Egypt, or made an exodus from that country, or invaded the land of Canaan, or were held captive in Babylon.

We are often told that Judaism was the first religion to introduce monotheism – but this is merely Jewish and Christian propaganda. Freke and Gandy point out that cunning editorship and translation have disguised the fact that there are an embarrassing number of gods running around the Bible. The two main ones are El (often used in the plural: Elohim), and Yahweh (variants: Yahu, Yau, Nebo). The Jewish prophets repeatedly condemned their people for worshipping other gods, such as Baal, Ammon, Chemosh and Tammuz. Yahweh (Jehovah) was therefore up against a lot of competition, which may explain why he declares himself to be a jealous god! Freke and Gandy describe him as a partisan and cruel tribal deity, representing the crude self-interest of a nationalistic people.

The Old Testament is an incredibly bloodthirsty book. In this respect, it appears to reflect the Hasmoneans’ legendary capacity for cruelty and butchery. For example, Moses flies into a rage on learning that a returning Israelite war party has slaughtered only the adult male Midianites. He orders them to return, saying: ‘Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man’ (Numbers 31:17-18, New International Version).

The Old Testament is rarely ethically or spiritually uplifting.

Take the story of Noah, whom God saves after drowning the rest of humanity but who turns out to be nothing but a vindictive drunk! After the flood, Noah, always partial to a drink, passes out naked on the floor. One of his sons, Ham, accidentally comes across his father and goes off to tell his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who return and respectfully cover their father’s nakedness. When Noah regains consciousness he curses Ham’s son Canaan, declaring that his offspring would ever after be slaves to Shem, Japheth and their descendants. So the moral of the story is that the Canaanites deserve to be punished because their ancestor’s father saw Noah naked! (p. 46; Genesis 9)

God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with ‘fire and brimstone’ because he considers their inhabitants to be degenerates, and only Lot and his family are thought worthy of saving (Genesis 19).

But immediately after this we are told how Lot’s daughters get their father drunk, seduce him, become pregnant, and Lot then raises his daughters’ sons as his own. If this is the new standard of morality that God wanted to raise out of the ashes of Sodom and Gomorrah, why did he bother destroying these cities in the first place? (p. 48)

Abraham’s son Isaac was conceived when Abraham was 100 and Sarah, his wife, 99. God tells Abraham to build an altar of wood, tie up his son, lay him on the pyre and slit his throat (Genesis 22).

As if that wasn’t sick enough, just as Abraham is about to carry out this dreadful instruction, God tells Abraham that it was all just a trick to test his fidelity! ... Fortunately, if anyone today declared that they were about to slit their child’s throat on the instructions of the Lord they would be immediately arrested. (p. 47)

Abraham fathered his older child, Ishmael, on Sarah’s maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16, 21, 25).

Jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah urges Abraham to abandon them in the desert. Incredibly God thinks this is a good idea. Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness where he leaves them to die. A miracle saves them and Ishmael goes on to become the ancestor of all the Arabs.

As Freke and Gandy say, it’s hard to find any moral sense in any of this.

But as a way for Jews to denigrate Arabs its message comes across loud and clear. The Arabs are descendants of an outcast bastard whom God himself abandoned to his fate in the desert. (p. 47)

King David, supposedly the greatest king of Israel, seems to have had rather dubious moral standards. One afternoon he spotted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals, bathing. He seduces her and she becomes pregnant. He then sends her husband to the battlefront with the express orders that he be exposed to maximum danger and he is duly killed. David then marries Bathsheba. To punish him, Yahweh did not allow Bathsheba’s first child to live (II Samuel 11-12). As Freke and Gandy comment, ‘This is not ethics. It’s infanticide’ (p. 48).

There are countless other examples of the Old Testament God’s passion for sowing death and destruction. For instance, he killed Judah’s firstborn son, Er, for being ‘wicked’. Then he slew Onan, another of Judah’s sons, because while copulating with Er’s wife (on his father’s instructions) he deliberately ‘spilled his semen on the ground’ to avoid making her pregnant – which God also considered to be ‘wicked’ (Genesis 38). He attacked the Gibeonites by hurling large hailstones down on them from the sky, killing even more of them than the Israelites with their swords (Joshua 10:11). He sent a plague on Israel, which killed 70,000 men, then sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem, but relented before the violence could begin (1 Chronicles 21:14-15). He slew all the firstborn in Egypt, both humans and animals – which understandably gave rise to ‘loud wailing in Egypt’ (Exodus 12). In another incident, God struck down 5070 men at Beth Shemesh, after they had made the mistake of looking into ‘the ark of the Lord’ (1 Samuel 6:19). The Assyrians suffered an even worse massacre: the ‘angel of the Lord’ slew 185,000 men as they slept in their camp (2 Kings 19:35, Isaiah 37:36). The orthodox response to all this bloodletting is that since God is, by definition, all-good and all-wise, his murderous acts – however despicable they may seem to us lowly mortals – are really perfectly just and ‘divine’!

The New Testament and Christianity

All the various mystery religions of antiquity had a myth about a dying and resurrecting godman. In Egypt he was Osiris, in Alexandria Serapis, in Greece Dionysus, in Asia Minor Attis, in Syria Adonis, in Persia Mithras. Elements shared by many of these myths include the following: the godman is born of a virgin, in a cave or cowshed, on 25 December and in front of shepherds; he surrounds himself with disciples; he turns water into wine; he dies at Easter time as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, sometimes through crucifixion; he rises from the dead on the third day and ascends to heaven; his death and resurrection are celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, symbolizing his body and blood (pp. 53-4).

The New Testament story of Jesus is therefore a Jewish version of a pagan myth. Jewish Gnostics of the 1st century CE were eager to synthesize pagan and Jewish mythology; the Jesus myth fuses the pagan godman with the Jewish Messiah. The gospel story is a critique of literalist Judaism, and its hero, Jesus, constantly breaks Jewish religious laws. The Jesus cult was also designed to give less orthodox Jews hope and reassurance following the suppression of futile revolts led by Jewish zealots, notably in 70 and 135 CE. While gnostic Christians recognized Jesus as a mythical figure, literalist Christians claimed that he was a real man who lived out the pagan myths of the godman, and that these earlier myths had been inspired by the devil to lead the faithful astray!

There is no serious evidence that the biblical Jesus was a historical figure. The Romans kept detailed legal records, but no record of the trial or crucifixion of Jesus has ever been found. The Jewish writer Philo never mentions him. There is a paragraph referring to Jesus in the works of Josephus, but it is an obvious interpolation; it is not found in the earliest manuscripts and when removed the text makes more sense. Paul’s letters, the earliest Christian documents we possess, never quote Jesus or mention any details about his life. Paul is clearly a Gnostic who regards the Jesus story as an allegory encoding mystical teachings. The only elements of the Jesus myth that Paul mentions are Christ’s death and resurrection, which are understood as symbolizing the process of initiation.

It was Justin Martyr, in the second century CE, who first began to speak of Jesus as a real man who had been put to death by Pontius Pilate. The Literalists tried to rebut the charge that the Jesus story had been plagiarized from pagan myths by inventing more and more pseudo-historical details. At that time there were dozens of Christian gospels in circulation, many of which have now been found at Nag Hammadi, which portrayed Jesus as a mythical figure. A generation after Justin, literalist bishop Irenaeus suddenly produced the four canonical gospels, which tell the Jesus story as a historical narrative; he rejected all other gospels as spurious. Irenaeus also came up with several other previously unknown texts – The Acts of the Apostles, ‘a crude piece of anti-Gnostic propaganda forged in the late second century’ (p. 67); and a number of additional letters by Paul (known as the pastorals), in which Paul has been transformed from a Gnostic into a Literalist.

Freke and Gandy write:

In the third century CE the holy forgery mill of Literalist Christianity continued to churn out documents to add to the new Testament. ...

The process that created the New Testament was uncannily like that which produced the Old Testament. Both were put together by sectarian Literalists intent on creating and maintaining their own power and authority. Both contain the remains of Gnostic myths which have been buried beneath accretions of blatant political propaganda. Both are riddled with contradictions and anomalies because they have been altered and amended by so many editorial hands. The Literalists’ Bible is not holy scripture. It’s an unholy mess. (pp. 70-1)

The brutal persecution suffered by early literalist Christians whipped up religious fanaticism and many eagerly embraced the opportunity for martyrdom. The situation changed completely when the despotic Roman emperor Constantine adopted literalist Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century CE. Literalist Christians set about persecuting their gnostic and pagan rivals out of existence. In the 5th and 6th centuries bands of black-robed Christian monks roamed through the disintegrating Roman Empire, laying waste to pagan civilization. The West reverted to a brutish life of ignorance and superstition, resulting in a thousand years of misery called the Dark Ages. For a time, the Islamic world became the centre of gnostic spirituality and science – until it too finally succumbed to orthodoxy.

Muhammad and Islam

Islam means ‘surrender’; through Muhammad, God supposedly calls on humanity to surrender to his divine will and recognize his chosen prophet. The mystical Muslims known as the Sufis say that Muhammad began as an inspired prophet channelling divine wisdom and gathered a small circle of Gnostics around himself. But he quickly became the most powerful man in Arabia, and built an empire with himself as God’s military dictator. Muhammad originally followed the Gnostics’ example of treating women equally, but this didn’t last long: ‘As Muhammad changed from mystic to mobster, his revelations from God began to take on a more authoritarian and patriarchal tone’ (p. 80).

Muhammad received his first ‘revelation’ in 610 CE and the last one just before his death in 632 CE. They did not begin to be compiled into the Qur’an until around 660 CE, and some scholars have concluded that no definitive version existed until as late as the 10th century. The Qur’an suffers from the same failings as other scriptures. It is chaotic, extraordinarily repetitive, and riddled with inconsistencies. In one place God declares that Muslims must remember that no human is God, so men and women should be just with one another. But a few lines later we find a completely different message:

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other ... Good women are obedient ... As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart and beat them. (Qur’an 4:34)

As Muhammad changes he is forced to revise many of his earlier ‘revelations’ to suit his new agenda. Some of his followers regarded this as forgery, but the Qur’an replies by saying that God was merely making improvements – though it seems strange that he couldn’t get it right first time!

Muhammad is above all an Arab nationalist promoting a specifically Arabic religion. His divine revelations ‘merely express the nationalistic sentiments one would expect from the prophet of an Arabic tribal deity called Allah’ (p. 85). God declares, for example, that the Arabs are ‘the best nation ever brought forth’.

Over a 20-year period, Muhammad led 82 attacks against his neighbours in the Arabian Peninsula.

Other Arabs, Jews and Christians were ruthlessly plundered to build the wealth and power of Muhammad’s umma [community]. But this was no longer just the usual banditry that was customary for the time. It was now legitimised by Muhammad’s revelations from God. It was God himself who now declared, ‘Eat of what you have taken as booty’. (p. 85)

God prevents Muhammad from showing mercy to his captives by saying: ‘It is not for any prophet to have prisoners until he make wide slaughter in the land’ (Qur’an 8:67). A conquered people’s wealth, women and children were distributed among Muhammad and his companions. Muhammad himself had either 9 or 27 wives, depending on which story we believe.

The tribe to which Muhammad belonged claimed to be descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael. As already noted, according to the Old Testament, Ishmael was the result of Abraham’s adultery with a slave. Not surprisingly, Muhammad rewrote this tale, claiming that it was not Abraham’s son Isaac (the ancestor of the Jews) but Ishmael who was offered as a sacrifice to God, and that it was Ishmael, and not Isaac, who was God’s favourite. In other words, the Arabs were God’s preferred tribe rather than the Jews, whom the Qur’an declares to be ‘cursed’.

As Muhammad became convinced that he had a divine mission to impose Islam on the world, his messages from God became more sectarian and violent; non-Muslims are described as ‘unclean’ and ‘the worst of the beasts in God’s sight’. Muhammad began to claim that God wanted Muslims to wage a jihad, or holy war, against all unbelievers. He unleashed a savage policy of ethnic cleansing that eventually led to the expulsion of all Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula. His vengeance on the Jews for not accepting Islam was particularly brutal. In one incident 800 men of the Jewish Banu Quraiza tribe were slaughtered by beheading, their women were turned into concubines, and their children into slaves – all on the advice of the angel Gabriel!

Muhammad proclaimed himself to be the last and greatest of all prophets, including Moses and Jesus. The Qur’an states: ‘Whosoever disobeys Allah and his Messenger has gone astray into clear error’ (33:36). It declares that ‘those who make war on Allah and His Messenger ... will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or they will be expelled out of the land’ (5:33); after death ‘an awful doom’ awaits them.

At the end of his life Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven, where he now gives God binding advice on who should be saved and who should be damned. ‘With this myth’, say Freke and Gandy, ‘the transition from humble prophet to divine super-being is complete’ (p. 93). Needless to say, ‘infidels’, however good they may have been, are destined for eternal torture in the ‘fire of hell’, where they will ‘drink oozing pus’. Each chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words ‘In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate’ – but apparently his compassion only applies to those who obey Muhammad. Every man who enters Paradise will be given 72 ever-young houris, or virgins, and will possess the virility of a hundred men. The houris are described as very beautiful, with ‘large rising breasts which are round, and not inclined to dangle’. There are also ever-young boys, dressed in silks and ‘pretty like pearls’ – whose purpose is left to the imagination.

It seems, however, that we have little free choice as to the path we tread in life; one saying states that 14 days after a foetus is formed in its mother’s womb God sends his angel with instructions concerning its livelihood, death, deeds and fate.

The Qur’an makes quite it clear that it is God who leads someone to Islam or away from it. Yet in the very same verse God holds unbelievers completely responsible for their own actions. ... It doesn’t make sense. But, then, religion seldom does. ...

Muhammad claimed he was bringing a new and better religion to humanity. But actually it was just the same old nonsense with a touch of Arabian spice. Just like the Tanakh and the New Testament, the Qur’an was put together by religious extremists to fulfil their sectarian agendas. And like these other ‘sacred scriptures’ the Qur’an continues to be a source of conflict and division today, especially in the so-called Holy Land. ...

Inspired by Muhammad’s teaching that the Day of Judgement will not come until the Muslims have destroyed the Jews, Islamic Fundamentalists are still butchering Jews. And the Jewish Fundamentalists, who want to appropriate Arab land to re-establish the mythical Kingdom of David, are murdering Muslims. And Christian Fundamentalists, who want to re-establish the Jews in Israel because it is a pre-requisite for the Second Coming of Christ, have armed the Jews to the teeth. (p. 96)

In conclusion, the Tanakh, New Testament and Qur’an contain moments of beauty, insight and wisdom, but also dreadful passages of intolerance, bigotry and hatred. Most believers simply select the passages they like and ignore the ones they don’t. As for fundamentalists, it is amusing to think that if they had been brought up in a different culture they would be fundamentalists of another persuasion.

The irony is that the most extreme Fundamentalists are actually only one small step away from waking up. They are already completely convinced that everyone else’s religion is utter nonsense. All they need to do now is realise that so is their own! (p. 103)

Gnostic awakening

In the second part of their book, Freke and Gandy present their own distillation of gnostic philosophy. They describe it as an experience rather than a theory. Experiencing gnosis means recognizing that ‘life is a dream’ – not in the sense that it is a pure fantasy, but in the sense that we don’t see things as they really are. The body/person we appear to be, with its ever-changing qualities, is part of the life-dream, and not the real us. Our essential, ‘unchanging’ self is awareness, unborn and undying, and it is the same awareness in all; our apparent separateness is therefore an illusion, and in essence we are all one. Instead of matter producing consciousness, say the authors, it is consciousness that gives rise to matter.

This is a rather simplistic, dualistic version of the perennial philosophy. Theosophy teaches that consciousness and matter, spirit and substance, are essentially one. What we call physical matter is a relatively condensed grade of consciousness-substance, but there are infinitely varying grades, forming endless interpenetrating worlds within worlds, all of them being just as perceptible and tangible to their own inhabitants as ours is to us. Similarly, instead of us being simply a physical body animated by an ‘unchanging’ self of pure awareness, we are composed of a series of increasingly subtle ‘bodies’ or ‘souls’ or ‘energy fields’, from physical to relatively divine. Different traditions divide up our constitution in different ways, but it is useful to distinguish the physical body, astral model-body, lower mind, higher mind (reincarnating soul), and spiritual-divine self. However, even our highest self is not immortal in the sense of absolutely unchanging.

Freke and Gandy say that to live lucidly we need to recognize our essential spiritual unity, leading to an experience of all-embracing compassion or ‘big love’.

Big love has nothing to do with liking other people. It is an unconditional love of all, friends and enemies alike, because we know we are one with all. (p. 133)

When we are lost in the nightmare of separateness we become embroiled in a relentless quest to feel good as a separate individual, even if this means causing suffering to others. But when we become conscious of our shared essential nature we love living and are moved to help others wake up and enjoy life as well. We become compassionate participants in the epic adventure of our collective awakening. (p. 134)

The authors stress that it may sometimes be necessary to criticize, reprimand or even punish others – but without ceasing to love them for what they essentially are, as opposed to what they may temporarily have become.

Reincarnation is a key tenet of gnostic philosophy: the journey of awakening takes many lifetimes. Freke and Gandy choose to speak of ‘re-emergence’ rather than ‘reincarnation’, and take issue with the idea that we have to be reborn here on earth: ‘We should not assume the life-dream is limited to the experience of this world or even this cosmos’ (p. 138). However, if we live in an ordered, causally-interconnected universe, it hardly seems likely that a soul would flit off to another planet or cosmos for no reason at all. If we sow karmic seeds here on this earth, in interaction with other members of the human family, it is only logical that we would have to reap the fruit of those seeds in the same environment, and that we would not move on to another planet until we have graduated from our present school of life.

Freke and Gandy insist that reincarnation is just a speculative theory. And although they call Gnosticism ‘a profound exploration of the mysteries of life and death’, they are convinced that no one can ever know what really happens after death (p. 139). But can they really be so sure that there are no humans far more evolved than we are who have acquired powers permitting them to study at first hand the processes of death and rebirth that occur in the more ethereal realms? They say that the gnostic life has nothing to do with acquiring paranormal powers – but it would be very narrowminded to deny that such powers exist.

Most mystic traditions speak of sages, seers, mahatmas, etc. who have acquired direct knowledge of some of the inner, invisible worlds. And two such mahatmas belonging to the Himalayan Brotherhood are said to have taken the initiative to form the Theosophical Society, in order to present more openly some the teachings often found disguised by myth, allegory and symbolism in the world’s scriptures. Everyone is free to decide for themselves what value they wish to attach to these wide-ranging, far-reaching teachings.

Freke and Gandy write: ‘Heaven is the experience of big love. It is not somewhere we go when we die. It is a state of loving life which arises when we wake up and live lucidly’ (p. 147). So they have nothing to say about after-death states – except that we don’t go to heaven. But as well as our being able to achieve a ‘heavenly’ state of consciousness while alive, theosophy teaches that most human souls enter a blissful, ‘heavenly’, dreamlike state of consciousness after death, once we have shed our lower astral elements. The after-death processes differ in their details for each individual since they are a logical consequence of our thoughts and deeds in our past life.

Freke and Gandy say that we need to emancipate the ego from its illusionary isolation, so that we experience our individual identity as part of the greater whole. ‘Awakening is not eradicating our personality and living a bland, boring existence as some sort of saintly zombie. [It] doesn’t diminish our individuality. It enhances and fulfills it’ (p. 140). It is not true, they say, that we have to become ‘selfless saints who are never angry and fearful’. Anger, impatience and frustration can sometimes be ‘positive expressions of love’; ‘anger is only an expression of our separateness if we are angry instead of being compassionate’. Fear ‘is not just a negative emotion. It can sometimes play a positive role in our life, much like pain’ (p. 144). They also say that we don’t need to become ‘holy ascetics who deny ourselves the pleasures of the flesh’ (p. 141).

There is certainly some truth in what they say. Whenever proponents of the spiritual path tell us to eradicate ‘desire’ and ‘attachment’, it’s up to us to exercize our common sense and decide what types of desire and attachment are being referred to. It is also important, when trying to transform and improve our characters, to set ourselves realistic goals and to recognize that we must progress step by step, over many lifetimes, towards our long-term ideal.

The authors write: ‘We are given the choice of either wholesome love or sordid lust. But from the lucid perspective we can embrace both. ... [L]ucid living is being able to lust whilst also loving. ... Sometimes it’s fun to treat your body like a nightclub!’ (p. 145). We are of course free to do whatever we want. But we can safely say that not everybody will decide to include ‘sordid lust’ in their ‘spiritual’ practices or in their ideal picture of what ‘saintliness’ should entail! A reading of the letters written by the theosophical mahatmas clearly shows that those who have achieved a more ‘saintly’ and selfless state are far from being ‘bland, boring zombies’. And perhaps they have discovered that there are ultimately more rewarding, enriching and fulfilling pursuits than abandoning ourselves to the ‘pleasures of the flesh’.

The need to live together in harmony and love is Freke and Gandy’s overriding theme:

Lucid living is recognising that the way to feel good individually is to be conscious of everyone else’s desire to feel good as well as our own, and to do our best to make them feel good as well, rather than simply grabbing our own enjoyment at the expense of others. ... [B]ecause we are all one, helping others to feel good makes us feel good. (p. 143)

They say that this means being both ‘selfish’ and selfless at the same time. But they are using the word ‘selfish’ here in their own idiosyncratic way: the word usually means acting at the expense of others while they are using it to mean pursuing our own happiness while also helping others to pursue theirs.

The authors advise us to approach our life-dramas as ‘adventures on a journey of discovery’, in which we are continually being offered the opportunities we need to wake up (p. 155). They do not mention the concept of karma – that we reap what we sow, life after life – but it would be impossible to progress over the course of many lives if what happened in one incarnation were completely unconnected with what has happened in the past. They say: ‘Evil is the inevitable price of the polarity which is necessary for there to be conscious experience at all’ (p. 185). We might say instead that genuine evil is something that can only be perpetrated by those with selfconscious minds, but who misuse this ‘divine gift’ because they are still caught up in the delusion of separateness; we are certainly not doomed to commit evil forever. Our deep-seated impulses and character traits – good, bad and indifferent – are a karmic memory of our past incarnations, and in each life we have enough freewill to modify them, for better or for worse.

As Freke and Gandy say, personal transformation requires us to be honest with ourselves about our faults and failings, but without getting bogged down in guilt and self-recrimination. They stress the need to retain a sense of humour in the face of adversity – as symbolized by the laughing Jesus and the laughing Buddha. Our aim should be to ‘send out ripples of kindness wherever we go’.

Once we understand that the game of life is about waking up and that what we really want is to love this moment, we will cease distracting ourselves with the relentless quest for transitory satisfaction, through accumulating material possessions, acquiring social status and attaining personal power. We will stop numbing the pain of separateness with TV and trivia. Instead we will give our precious attention to the process of awakening. (p. 171)

They acknowledge that being in the presence of someone who is experiencing an expanded state of consciousness can help us to expand our own state of consciousness. But they also give a warning about false gurus, saying that many teachers on the spiritual circuit encourage us to see them as infallible authority figures, and some use their charisma to mesmerize their students into becoming obsequious devotees.

The test of a teacher is simple. Look at their students. A teacher can be trusted if they have helped their students wake up and move on. But they should not be trusted if they have made their students into dependent sycophants regurgitating the words of the master, but never thinking for themselves. (p. 190)

Gnostic science

The West is currently experiencing an unparalleled Gnostic Renaissance, in which religion is in decline, but spirituality is thriving. Freke and Gandy say that ‘we need to free Gnosticism from religion altogether and align it with science. After all, the word scientist is just the Latin version of the Greek word “Gnostic”, both of which mean “knower” ’ (p. 174).

Science and Gnosticism are natural allies. They are commonly misunderstood as enemies because science has degenerated into Literalist science, which preaches crass Materialism. Science has become an authoritarian tradition, with its own dogmas, high priests, career structures and vested interests. (p. 178)

The authors criticize the old, dualistic materialist dogma that matter is primary and somehow generates mind. They argue that awareness, rather than matter, is the ground of reality, and that everything exists as an experience within awareness (p. 177). This sounds as if it merely inverts the old dualism. Theosophy posits that consciousness, life, substance, energy, and space are fundamentally one – different names we give to different manifestations of the one ultimate essence, the primal mystery.

Freke and Gandy write:

Religion has always championed irrational ‘faith’. ... Rationality is our bullshit detector, which enables us to discriminate unsubstantiated prejudice from genuine insight. ... It is important ... that we distinguish genuine intuitions from groundless assumptions, cultural conditioning and wishful thinking. (pp. 182-3)

It seems, however, that in some of their pronouncements about science the authors must have had their ‘bullshit detector’ turned off. Here is an example:

Gnostics say that time and space are a sort of illusion. Science has found this to be true, because if we could move at the speed of light, these fundamental dimensions would cease to exist. Just as Gnostics teach that from the I-perspective of awareness there is oneness and eternity, science has found that from light’s point of view there is no space and no time. (p. 176)

In actual fact, scientists have not ‘found’ that space and time disappear at the speed of light – they have simply made a series of speculative, unwarranted and irrational assumptions: that the speed of light in a vacuum is absolutely constant throughout the infinite universe; that nothing anywhere in boundless space can move faster than light; that if an object were to reach light speed it would become infinitely thin in its direction of motion yet its mass would become infinitely large; that an object travelling faster than light would reach its destination before it had set off; and that light takes ‘no time’ to travel from one point to another, even though it travels at 300,000 km/s! There is no proof for any of this; it is not so much ‘mysticism’ as mystification. In fact, there are already signs that the light barrier is just as breakable as the sound barrier.* So to buy into the current dogmas about light speed because of some vague, superficial resemblance to a mystical teaching about ‘oneness and eternity’ is the wrong way to do science!

*See Space, time and relativity, section 3.

Freke and Gandy also write:

Physics has wrestled with the paradox that light sometimes appears to be made up of particles and sometimes to be a wave. This is comparable to the Gnostic observation that from the it-perspective each individual is a discrete ‘particle’ of consciousness, but from the I-perspective individuals are like waves on one ocean of awareness. (pp. 177-8)

Light is indeed widely considered to behave sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves, but there is no mainstream theory that provides a coherent understanding of what lies behind ‘wave-particle duality’. Should we be satisfied with this just because humans can be considered both ‘particles’ of consciousness and ‘waves’ on an ‘ocean of awareness’? Obviously not! Alternative approaches to light are being developed, and contending scientific theories should be judged on their ability to explain observational evidence – and not on the basis of superficial and contrived analogies.

The authors rightly say that ‘we need to adopt the basic premise of authentic science, that all our theories about life are hypotheses, not facts’.

There is no absolute conceptual knowledge. There are just stories we tell to make sense of our experience and no story is expansive enough to capture the limitless grandeur of existence. ...

Just because all descriptions of reality are inadequate doesn’t make them all equally inadequate. Some stories are clearly better than others. (pp. 179-80)

They say that whereas the literalist God wants us to shut up and do as we are told, what are really needed are more inquisitive, free-thinking individuals.

The essence of the scientific method is making deductions based on experimentation and observation. The mahatmas, too, practise this method, but extend it – thanks to their occult powers – beyond our physical world to the inner, more ethereal realms. They say that for countless generations adepts have verified one another’s observations, giving their knowledge a high degree of certainty. They search for the natural, subtler but still substantial causes behind events, and do not deceive themselves by attributing causal power to pure abstractions – whether it be ‘laws of nature’, curled-up ‘dimensions’ entirely devoid of energy and ‘beyond’ space and time, or a ‘supernatural supreme being’ who creates worlds and beings out of nothing.

On the subject of belief in God, Freke and Gandy say:

[W]e don’t believe in anything but God! In reality, what else is there but the one life-dreamer dreaming the life-dream and experiencing it from infinitely various perspectives? (p. 131)

God, they say, is ‘the oneness of awareness within which the life dream is arising’, ‘the mysterious source of all’, the intelligence behind the ordered universe. Similarly, theosophy adopts the pantheistic view that all nature, in all its infinite diversity, is essentially divine; it also teaches that there are kingdoms beyond the human kingdom, and that we can grow towards a state of relative divinity for the world-system in which we are currently evolving, but there is no state of divinity so high that there is none higher.

Freke and Gandy leave us with the following thoughts:

Life is a dream we are co-creating together as we become more conscious. We can choose a future of hate and division or of love and oneness. (p. 196)

[T]he time has come to really live what we know and be ambassadors for oneness. ... [W]e won’t awaken others by thrusting the Gnostic big idea into people’s faces, but only by embodying big love in our own lives. (p. 202)

by David Pratt. July 2007.

The origins of Christianity

Who was the real Jesus?

Changing the world