Many years ago I founded and incorporated as a non-profit organization my very own church. Many are the roads to atheism and many the side streets. My life has been one long exploration of religion, and I had to experience it so fully that I invented a religion that I called the American Gnostic Church. It is listed in one of the encyclopedias of American religions, and it was mostly active in the late 80s and early 90s. It died about two weeks ago when I received a letter from D.C. saying I had not complied with certain reporting requirements and the I.R.S. was lifting my license.
No sooner had I formed the church, I began to proselytize. At the time, the most popular venue for spreading wacky ideas was a democratic art form known as the Zine. One assumed that this word was the short form of the longer synonym for periodical: magazine. These for the most part were worked up on copying machines, though some with more substantial means employed short run printing and publishing outfits. Mine were xerographically reproduced. All of them. There were, over a decade, at least four or five. The church sponsored them. But because Gnostic theology did particularly appeal to most people, I continually ran in the red. At least I saved on toner and replacement drums, paying no taxes on them.
Eventually, I began to formulate the dogma of my church. I was at the time a devotee of the English occultist, Aleister Crowley, erroneously labeled a “Satanist” mostly by those unfamiliar with his writings or else influenced by the man’s tabloid reputation as being “The Wickedest Man on Earth” and like nonsense. In one of his books, Crowley had written that atheists follow a philosophy as good as any and much less likely to mislead the gullible. He also wrote many volumes exalting paganism and especially the deities most often associated with sexuality. (His “Hymn to Pan” is one of the finest works of lyric poetry ever penned.)
But Crowley also followed Hindu and Buddhist tantrism and the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu, the latter a cognate ethical code to that of the later Stoics; in fact, his encyclopedic knowledge of religious matters was rivaled only by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, whom he undoubtedly viewed with disdain, but who nevertheless became immortal when she uttered the bywords of Theosophy, “No religion is higher than the truth.”
I read much and attempted praxis of all these systems, even a form of Luciferian Satanism, as I was an admirer of the Yezidis, a little-known, little understood sect in Muslim countries, some highly intolerant; others, disinterested if tacitly hostile. The Yezidis followed the same line of thought as certain Christian Gnostic sects from, roughly, 325 C.E., to the present day, including the American Gnostic Church: since, obviously, there was so much evil in the world, this could only mean that “God” is a cruel son of a bitch. To the Yezidis, and to the so-called Ophite and Cainite Gnostic sects, Jehovah [not necessarily Allah] is Satan, and the villains of the Old and New Testaments are heroic. Therefore, they placate the Devil in their praxis, and (presumably) curse the “Lord thy God.”
Some of the early Christian Gnostics thought Cain the epitome of virtue, as he had defied Yahweh – there is a Promethean quality in these beliefs – just as Korah defied Mosheh, just as Judas would betray Jesus. Just as it had to the Cainites, all of this made perfect sense to me: I had not yet read John Leslie Mackie or any philosophers struggling with the problem of evil.
The Ophites worshiped the snake of the Garden of Knowledge and their praxis is believed to involved consecration of the host (bread) by inverting a snake basket onto them so that the beloved reptiles could wind and wander among the loaves.
Immediately after the snack, the “real” Communion took place: everyone disrobed, the lights were doused, and the communicants slithered on the floor in sexual congress elevated most highly by finding a partner of any sex, any partner so long as it is not one’s spouse. This accomplished the illumination of a central mystery in serpent worship and tantrism, the slogan: there is no difference between a piece of chocolate and a piece of shit. (Crowley’s Thelema teaches one should make no distinction between any one thing and another, for “thereby cometh hurt.” This is pure tantrism. It addresses the kleshas – hindrances -- to enlightenment and in particularly the “twin” kleshas of raga – desire – and dvesha –repugnance.
These Gnostic sects had fascinating scenarios for the fate of their hated Jesus Christ, for perhaps the greatest of Ophite-Cainite heroes is none other than Judas. (I saw as completely incongruous the vilification of Judas of Kerioth by latter-day Christians: without him, there would have been no crucifixion and, thus, no salvation in his death.) The most extreme sects had Jesus escaping death on the cross, pointing out that there is a lacuna between the canonical’s introduction of Simon the Cyrenean on the path to Golgotha, the crucifixion occurring at a point suggesting it was he who was actually crucified; Jesus stood on a nearby hill and mocked the centurians as “fools.”
I began to see that what the Church most needed was an “authentic” Ophite-Cainite gospel and, completely unaware that such a gospel was sought by Biblical scholars and, in fact, had turned up, I composed by own Secret Gospel of Jesus of Kerioth and published it as well. I wouldn’t exactly compare myself to Gerd Heidemann, who “discovered” the Hitler diaries much ballyhooed by the German magazine, Der Stern. Or even Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, skipping town with a gargantuan advance.
Nevertheless, I thought my Judas gospel clever, incorporating as it did a homosexual view of the prophet, use of ergot in early Christian rituals, Jesus’ love of John and of Lazarus (the revival of whom was compared to re-erection of a limp phallus). I dipped into Luke here, Morton’s Smith’s brilliant Secret Gospel of Mark there. I cobbled together a manuscript with lacunae, just as the Dead Sea Scrolls had indecipherable passages due to deterioration. In most cases, however, the context of the passage makes the missing words apparent, so I filled in blanks with “[?]” added.
Then, I peddled it. Christianity Today refused a classified ad that was somewhat mischievously designed to bring a rejection notice; I allowed myself to delight in a daydream of their man in classifieds reading my add, then calling Billy Graham or one of his minions to inquire as to exactly what a Gnostic is. “Does that mean they don’t believe in God?” (Why do these people always pronounce God as if his name were two syllables?) I kept the uncanceled check to pay for the one-time placement of the ad as well as the rejection letter as if to put them in a scrapbook. (I never get around to making scrapbooks; they’re another of my fantasies. Perhaps, if the Hindus are right, in the next life. If the Buddhists are right, it hardly makes any difference. Nothing is real.)
A Gnostic scholar contacted me and asked how he could meet a certain Professor Maxwell Selander, translator, and as he lived on the north coast of Washington State himself, perhaps he can drop in on him. I responded: “Dr. Selander wishes to be left alone at the present time.”
My church never at any time had more than a couple of dozen members, a far-flung bunch who kept in touch via magazines with pretentious names, like the Aurea Flamma. (I think that was a shot silk banner carried by the frenzied Dionysus, his Bacchantes following, running through the forests and experiencing “raping and rending” (Crowley).) In any case, mail order ordinations were possible since I made sure to obtain tax-exempt status for the A.G.C., application for which requires documentation. If memory serves I got my ordination from the hipsters’ church of choice, the Universal Life Church, where you paid your money and you got ordained. I could actually marry people if I want, but I won’t marry anybody until everyone can marry, even a farmer and his goat.
The notice from the I.R.S. saying that my tax free status was being revoked went into a file I keep on “Religion.” I had to found a church and write its gospel to see that as silly as my religion was, it no more illogical than that of about 80% of Americans.