It is satisfying to see academics begin to acknowledge the apparent integrity of the early so-called gnostics, and consider the possibility that the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber calls for some type of desire-free union of man and woman.1 I’d like to share an insight about the possible nature of this mysterious union, in case it may have merit.
I am not an academic, but rather a layman who has done a lot of thinking about some of the ideas in the Nag Hammadi codices. I believe there is evidence that the Gospel of Philip is speaking of actual intercourse, and not a ritual kiss that 'passes the peace,' as Dean Attridge of the Yale Divinity School proposed in a short piece2 prepared in response to The Da Vinci Code. More than that, I believe it is speaking of a practice that does indeed overcome the separation between the sexes, as Philip promises, and, intriguingly, one that other traditions also claim leads to a mystery of transcendence.
Before I get to my evidence, I should explain that I came upon the Gospel of Philip from an unusual angle. For some years I have been intrigued by ancient Taoist prescriptions for overcoming disharmony between the sexes. After two divorces, I guess I was willing to try anything that might support a lasting, harmonious marriage. The Taoists advise another approach to intimate union, during which orgasm is avoided. In today's media-driven, thrill-seeking culture, this is a laughable concept (often condemned by those who haven't tried it as "body-hating"). Yet in the personal experience of my husband and myself it does promote harmony between the sexes, and, surprisingly, works quite well for those of us who are sex-positive.
The Taoists are not the only ones to record the benefits from this type of lovemaking. Echoes of the same insight have turned up in other cultures (Tantric left-hand path of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths) and even in the writing of a somewhat infamous 19th century graduate of the Yale Divinity School, John Humphrey Noyes (Male Continence). Subsequently, Quaker Alice Bunker Stockham, MD (Karezza: Ethics of Marriage) and J. William Lloyd (The Karezza Method) refined Noyes' ideas in their inspiring little books on the same concept.
You're probably wondering how making love without giving way to our innate desire programming can affect perception of the opposite sex for the better or heighten spiritual awareness. To answer that I have to detour into a bit of recent neuroscience. Sex is governed by a primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. A good name for that circuitry would be the 'temptation center,' as its biological function is to drive us to act impulsively when confronted with activities or substances that once furthered our ancestors' survival or the passing on of their genes. (Sadly for modern man, this same center of the brain is very susceptible to temptations with which our ancestors never had to cope: fast food, internet porn, recreational drugs, and readily available alcohol, to name a few.) Put in Philip's terms, it is the center that drives us to keep recycling ourselves through matter, the key element of the 'demiurge’s design.'
The reward circuitry is dominated by a neurochemical known as dopamine. It's associated with all addictions. It shoots up at orgasm (or, for example, with the use of cocaine), plummets afterward…and changes our perceptions of the world dramatically. We're likely to feel like we're 'in love' when it's high. When it drops, we 'fall out of love.' Subconsciously, we begin to associate our lover with this post-passion, neurochemically-induced sensation of lack and uneasiness. In other words, perfect love may cast out fear, but fertilization-driven love potentially engenders it.
The upshot is that when we attempt a long-term, monogamous relationship, we're confronted with a very powerful evolutionary program that works against us. It is present not just in humans but in mammals and birds; apparently none are sexually monogamous. This program serves to increase the genetic variety of our offspring, and so their survival rate, hence its success - even though it often makes our lives miserable whether or not we manage to stay married. Yet statistics show that intimate relationships with trusted companions both increase longevity and protect health, which suggests that overcoming our biological imperative may indeed be wise.
In any case, over time, or even very rapidly in some people, sexual satiation thus tends to drive an emotional wedge between mates. And, if the Gospel of Philip is to be believed, this built-in separation between the sexes contributes to our dualistic perception of the world, blinding us to gnosis. The Gospel of Philip says that overcoming the alienation between the sexes was a key part of Christ's mission, which he accomplished in the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber:
Christ comes again to heal this wound [which, as Adam, he began when he engaged in procreative sex], to rediscover the lost unity, to enliven those who kill themselves in separation, reviving them in union. Man and woman unite in the bridal chamber, and those who have known this sacred embrace will never be separated.
I believe that the Gospel of Philip is referring to this same practice of controlled intercourse when it says, "seek the experience of the pure embrace [which could be translated as 'undefiled intercourse'] for it has great power." Nor do I think that the following phrase from the Gospel of Philip is merely referring to a kiss of peace:
The embrace that incarnates the hidden union [is] not only a reality of the flesh, for there is silence in this embrace. It does not arise from impulse or desire; it is an act of will.
In my experience, the practice of lust-free, affectionate, disciplined union does indeed tend to heal the separation between the sexes brought about by fertilization-driven sex, possibly because it keeps lovers off of the neurochemical roller coaster ride described earlier. In effect, it balances the brain chemistry of the reward circuitry. Lovers' perception of each other remains more constant, which preserves their love for each other allowing it to deepen with time. Like any meditation practice, it also heightens spiritual perception and makes it easier to resist all reward-circuitry temptations (cravings for new partners being a prime example). I believe that this temptation-cure is one aspect of the mystery Philip addresses.
The ultimate goal, as various Nag Hammadi texts make clear, is an experience of wholeness that recreates a gnosis of our divine origins as androgynes. Philip suggests that this is the way the Christ is reborn in mankind. Similarly, the ancient Chinese Taoists recorded that the practice of non-orgasmic intercourse could give birth to a non-physical 'holy fetus.' 3 This concept of a controlled union that gives birth to spiritual children, rather than physical children, is also echoed by Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham in her work about the virtues of controlled intercourse,4 although she knew nothing of the other two sources.
I believe that The Gospel of Philip (and various other Nag Hammadi documents) are speaking about this same mystery, and extolling the creation of non-physical children, that is, giving birth to the Christ, two-by-two. This concept is behind all the gnostic references to imperishable seed, divine conception, rebirth, incorruptible body, etc. I also wonder whether it wasn't the original meaning of 'immaculate conception giving birth to the Christ.'
Sex may be the moment when each couple decides whether to be bound by the pull of materiality and enter into the addictive cycle of fertilization-driven sex and procreation - or to overcome that pull and move toward a spiritual experience of wholeness that brings together the opposite poles of male and female. As Philip says, "The union is in this world man and woman, the place of the power and the weakness." The text may be saying that sex is both risky (the cause of the Fall) and yet potentially the key to a great mystery (which reverses the Fall).5 As has been observed repeatedly by those who experiment with this practice, the choice isn't just a matter of procreation versus barrenness. It's the choice between having one's earthly instincts drive one and strengthening oneself from within on many levels.
In my view, the Exegesis on the Soul, although it certainly sounds like allegory, also contains practical information about this practice:
Those who are to have intercourse with one another will be satisfied with the intercourse. And as if it were a burden, they leave behind them the annoyance of physical desire and they do not separate from each other.
Surprisingly, perhaps, this passage accurately describes the experience of those who employ this practice, as you will see if you read the works of Stockham and Lloyd. It protects both the desire for deep union and a profound sense of fulfillment between mates, but soothes the insatiable quality of dopamine-driven sexual desire.
I understand Williams' desire to move toward using "biblical demiurgical" as a descriptor for gnostic material, but I confess that I would choose a different one focused on the union of the sexes for this transcendental end. The demiurgical rhetoric is, for me, an elaborate tapestry developed long ago to help ancient people accept that 'go forth and multiply' was not a command coming from Jesus' God (and perhaps to help them understand that 'subdue the earth' actually meant to subdue the "earthly pull of procreation" in order to return to Christhood). Jesus' God was inviting humankind to move beyond procreation and transcend matter. This is completely the opposite message from that of the Genesis God. In a sense, the New Testament God is pro-Christ; the latter literally anti-Christ. Nowhere does Jesus tout procreation, even in the canonical gospels. This telling fact is generally overlooked.
Not only do I think this mystical union is at the heart of gnostic thinking, I’ll go way out on a limb and suggest that it may also be at the origins of the Christian phenomenon itself. Perhaps the reason no one can agree on where gnostic thinking hatched is because it is at the very foundation of Christ's teachings. We just can't see it because the sapling of Christianity sprouted many branches, one of which happened to convert Constantine, was zealous in its suppression of the true mystery (because it never fathomed it), and was extremely pro-procreation (in search of recruits). Their work was easy. Women do not like to be told that motherhood is a bad idea any more than men like to be told that ejaculation should be avoided. In short, a primitive part of our brain is designed by evolution (modern concept for 'demiurge'?) to discount the validity of these teachings. For this reason, they are always swiftly relegated to esoteric backwaters, and generally harshly condemned.
In any case, if this mystery were at the heart of Jesus' teachings, it is no wonder that traditional Christianity won out over them. For me, the Nag Hammadi codices are a snap shot of the final debates before the Church fathers wiped out the opposition, forcing the texts into seclusion.
Whatever Jesus actually taught, Professor Dennis R. MacDonald 6 has persuasively argued that there was a widespread, very early (i.e., pre-Galatians) oral tradition to the effect that Jesus said, "you enter the Kingdom of Heaven when male and female become one." I suspect that the Gospel of Thomas term 'solitaries' was code for those consorts who attained this state of mystical oneness, and not a reference to monastic practices. 'Virgins' are also perhaps those who attain this pure, lust-free state, although engaging in sacred union.
If this mystical union for transcendental ends were the central mystery of Christianity it would certainly help to explain a lot of things: the agapetae practice, the gnostics' androgynous Creator, the remarkable improvement in the status of women among early Christians, the Marcosian sect of the Rhone valley who purportedly observed the ritual of the "sacrament of the bridal chamber" many years after the time of Jesus, the meaning of the passage "Whoever is in the world and does not love a woman":
Whoever is in the world and does not love a woman so that he is joined to her is not of the truth and will not proceed to truth; but he who is of the world and is united with a woman will not proceed to truth, because he has been united with a woman by desire. (Adv. haer. 1.6.4)
As well as Galatians 4:22.7,
and the slanderous attacks on the sexual practices of the gnostics, in addition to the tendency of the earliest Christians to keep the nature of the core mystery hidden.
Sadly, this mystery always tends to produce false variants because of the pull of the procreation programming of our primitive brains. Although Lao Tzu alluded to the fact that this practice made monogamy effortless,8
the Taoist tradition itself sank into sexual vampirism (of prepubescent girls at its nadir) and concubinage. Some Tantrics got lost in rituals that involved liaisons as short as one night, and modern-day Tantrics also tend to change partners a lot, because they have concluded that this practice is about 'better orgasms' rather than self-discipline for a spiritual end.
Even John Humphrey Noyes failed to realize that the self-discipline piece applied to women as well, and got lost in 'complex marriage.' He went completely off the rails once he began engaging in fertilization-driven sex again after 20 years or so of disciplined continence, a derailment that the gnostics would have no trouble explaining. I'm even willing to entertain the possibility that Epiphanius's licentious sect was up to something unsavory (the Aleister Crowleys of their day, perhaps) - although this is by no means proven by his assertions.
In short, it's far easier to get this mystery wrong than get it right, especially when the actual instruction manual is lost. When passion awakens, so does a phenomenon that scientists call 'The Coolidge Effect' (the tendency to find new mates attractive after sexual satiation with a previous mate, see this article on the 'Coolidge Effect'). This destabilizes society completely. Small wonder that religions prescribing lifestyles for the mainstream resist linking sex with spirituality.
For me, Alice Bunker Stockham, MD came the closest in recent history to stumbling upon the true potential of the idea.
She did, however, attempt to mix it with a justification for procreation. Here's an account of a couple that stumbled upon a non-intercourse version of this mystery even though they didn't know they had…until they shattered it by engaging in procreative sex. (Was this another variation of the Sacrament, proving that the mystery of true union occurs at another level?)
Without exploring the practice oneself, it would be nearly impossible to conceive of intimate contact that is not geared toward physical procreation or lively lust, but rather toward the deeper reunion of male and female for a spiritual end. This lack of first-hand experience could account for why scholars have sought elsewhere for interpretations of key passages in the Nag Hammadi texts.
I would like to add that my spouse and I aren't walking on water yet. However, we've passed some encouraging milestones, also noted by other pioneers, like Stockham and Lao Tzu. I began trying to master this practice in 1991. Two minor chronic ailments fell away at once and I haven't been to a doctor since then (although my body certainly isn't 'incorruptible').
My husband's results were quite impressive as well. When we got together I didn't know he was on meds for chronic depression, which ran in his family, and from which he had suffered severely for decades. Nor did I know he had a long-term closet addiction. Within a year of beginning this practice, his depression was gone and he dropped his medication. The addiction, which he had struggled with for over a decade, was gone in 4 months. Our adventure began 7 years ago, so clearly something in his brain chemistry improved and stabilized. Both of us would also agree that this relationship is far more harmonious and stable than any of our previous ones. Perhaps there’s more to this Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber than mere historical curiosity.
Knowing my fascination with the gnostic material, a friend pointed me to a metaphysical book of recent vintage called A Course in Miracles.10 On point after point it lines up with gnostic thinking. It skips all the intricate demiurgical myths in favor of explaining that we are held prisoners of physical experience by the collective projection of our desire to experience ourselves as separate from our Creator (by sustaining the fiction that we are self-creating). However, it, too, says this physical state "is not our Home," and that we will never achieve our native state of grace here, and mentions the 'holy relationship' as God's plan for our return to our non-dual state. I was so intrigued by this material that some years ago I prepared a comparison chart of its key concepts and selected gnostic ideas, and contrasted them with the version of Christianity modern Christians have inherited.
In short, I believe scholars would perhaps benefit from broadening their search for the meaning of the Nag Hammadi documents. I believe that if they consider Sections 65-70 of the Hua Hu Ching by Chinese Taoist master Lao Tzu, and then study the more recent American works cited earlier, they will see clear parallels with the confusing allusions to sexual union in the Nag Hammadi texts. For me, this disciplined-union interpretation does less violence to the text of Philip than the pure-allegory interpretation, the ritual-kissing interpretation, or Jean-Yves Leloup’s creation-of-superior-physical-children interpretation.11 (Dan Brown’s portrayal of the Sacrament as a fertility rite shows a complete misunderstanding of gnostic thought.)
Even independent thinkers are obliged to view these early works through two thousand years of dark glass furnished by the Church fathers and their successors. Perhaps it is noteworthy that the Church's counsel on the subject of human sexuality has been one of its most injurious legacies. Its message "procreate, yet see yourselves as a sinners" is the antithesis of Philip's "avoid begetting physical offspring, but nurture each other in sacred oneness with a view to awakening spiritually." This second prescription is easy to dismiss as absurd, thanks to the programming of our mammalian brains. Yet, as a neurochemical matter, it may be quite a valid approach to promoting harmony between the sexes, even apart from any deeper mystery. In any event, the concept of non-procreative sex is entirely consistent with Philip's eschatology.
I realize this is a ticklish subject, and one that is particularly unpopular with orthodox theologians. However, I thank you for the opportunity to express my views and welcome your thoughts on these points.
- 1. Rethinking "Gnosticism", Michael A. Williams, Princeton University Press, 1999
- 2. Link to scan of Attridge piece - 676k file
- 3. The Art of the Bedchamber: Chinese Sexual Yoga, Douglas Wile, PhD., Redwing Book Co., 1992
- 4. Karezza: Ethics of Marriage
- 5. By way of comparison, the Taoists taught that sex is like fire or water, "Both fire and water can kill, yet both may also bestow life."
- 6. There Is No Male or Female, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1987
- 7. "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the true wife. The child of the slave woman was a child of the flesh and the son of the true wife was the son of the promise. This is said by way of allegory. These women are two covenants. One woman in fact is Hagar from Mount Sinai 'bearing children for slavery' [into matter, via desire?]. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free and she is our mother. For it is written 'rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married' [in the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber?]. Now you my friends are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also..."
- 8. The first integration of yin and yang is the union of seed and egg within the womb. The second integration of yin and yang is the sexual union of the mature male and female. Both of these are concerned with flesh and blood, and all that is conceived in this realm must one day disintegrate and pass away. It is only the third integration which gives birth to something immortal. In this integration, a highly evolved individual joins the subtle inner energies of yin and yang under the light of spiritual understanding…. Because higher and higher unions of yin and yang are necessary for the conception of higher life, some students may be instructed in the art of dual cultivation, in which yin and yang are directly integrated in the tai chi of sexual intercourse…. The result of this is improved health, harmonized emotions, the cessation of desires and impulses, and, at the highest level, the transcendent integration of the entire energy body…. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration [or, "not in separation, but in oneness"?], it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness." (From the Hua Hu Ching by Lao Tzu, trans. Brian Walker, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995)
- 9. In the physical union of male and female there may be a soul communion giving not only supreme happiness, but in turn [leading] to soul growth and development.... These powers are given through the act of copulation when it is the outgrowth of the expressions of love, and is at the same time completely under the control of the will. By contrast, the ordinary hasty spasmodic method of cohabitation…is deleterious both physically and spiritually, and is frequently a cause of estrangement and separation. From Karezza: Ethics of Marriage
- 10. Foundation for Inner Peace, 2nd edition, 1996
- 11. The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union, Inner Traditions, 2004, trans. Joseph Rowe.