Gnosis and Doxas: Personal Mythology and Theological Aggression

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This book accurately sums up my experiences as a teacher. 

Most people, whether they know it or not, have a personal mythology. Usually, it’s pretty pedestrian. We take the randomness that is our life, and we spin it into a cohesive narrative. The actual facts might suffer, but the overall story gives you a really clear picture of how a person sees themselves, and what’s important to them. I find myself falling into this trap when explaining my career, actually. People ask me:  Why did I quit my job as a school teacher? Answer One:

Oh, well, I have always wanted to be a writer, and my husband finally makes enough money now that I don’t have to work.

Answer Two:

I got into education so that I could improve the field by bringing modern teaching methods into our schools. But the truth the matter is that the system is so broken that a teacher literally has to be at  war with both the parents and the school system in order to do what is right for the students. I decided that it just wasn’t worth it to me for the money I was being paid.

Answer Three:

You know, honestly? I had three really shitty teaching jobs in a row. Administration tends to just treat you horribly, because they have an attitude like, in this economy, what with the budget cuts, you should be honored that you even have a teaching job. Which if I needed a job, would be one thing. But I don’t really need the money, so what am I putting up with that crap for?

There are more answers. You’ll notice that in each of them, the truth isn’t quite being fully represented. And there are other narratives, too. What is really interesting to me is the emotional content. The first narrative is one of a person who feels free to do what she wants. The second tells a story of anger and futility. The last one is almost a bit political. I rarely own up, in any narrative, even the ones I often tell myself, how much of the decision was made because my husband does no housework, and that managing my apartment is a full time job that doesn’t leave energy for the full-time battle a teacher has to fight with ignorance. It shouldn’t surprise you to know that which narrative I wind up telling has a lot to do with how I’m feeling at that moment.

And That’s Normal.

The term "personal myth" was first introduced into the psychotherapeutic literature by Ernst Kris in 1956 to describe certain elusive dimensions of the human personality that he felt psychoanalysts need to consider if their attempts to bring about change were to be effective and lasting. In other words, they needed to look at the mundane and mythical stories we tell ourselves and to make changes in those narratives in order to make lasting changes to the self.
The term “personal myth” was first introduced into the psychotherapeutic literature by Ernst Kris in 1956 to describe certain dimensions of the human personality that he felt psychoanalysts needed to consider if their attempts to bring about change were to be effective and lasting. In other words, they needed to look at the stories we tell ourselves, while awake or asleep, to fully understand our inner landscape.

Humans do that. We use events, even other people, as symbols for expressing our feelings, thoughts and motives. The things we tell one another, and ourselves, are rarely the precise truth. We tell ourselves stories full of conjecture about people we know. We project motives onto them which may not be there.

We weave elaborate explanations for why we didn’t get a promotion, or why someone else is more successful than we are. We don’t usually fact check to ascertain that Billy Bob was actually born with a silver spoon in his mouth, or that someone’s Daddy actually got them into whatever school they are in. But you know? As long as these absurd, anti-factual stories we tell ourselves follow the “realistic fiction” genre, and borrow from the narrative tropes that we have been trained to look for when a “sane” person talks, we simply accept these fictions as realities on a daily basis.

If you have engaged in gossip, you have heard, and believed, untrue things. You are willing to accept that the people, while they were mistaken owing to an unwillingness or inability to actually go and ascertain the truth before forming beliefs about reality, are perfectly sane.

If you have read anything on the internet about politics, the same probably holds true. If, for a single instant, you thought that Ebola was a bigger global threat than Climate Change? If you believed that a politician said something or voted a certain way without looking into the records personally? You have heard, and believed, untrue things, owing to a personal inability or unwillingness to actually go and ascertain the truth before forming beliefs about reality. You are not crazy… not unless the stories that you tell about yourself are designed to limit your ability to achieve what you want to achieve, or get in the way of your happiness in some other way. How we tell that story, in point of fact, doesn’t just tell us how we are experiencing ourselves and the world right now. It also lays out a roadmap of our expectations, and can impact how we behave going forward.

Mystics Do The Same Thing With Gnosis… And That’s Ok

From “The Oatmeal.”

Why is it that we drive ourselves crazy trying to verify or disprove other people’s personal gnosis? If we are honest with ourselves, the distinctions we are drawing are not between truth and fiction, but between the genre of myths we are willing to hear, and the genre of myths we are unwilling to hear.

A UPG (or I guess some people use the term Doxa, though I think the Sophists and Rhetoricians in ancient Greek society understood the word to mean a commonly held belief, or communal understanding) is a personal myth. It is no different than the boring myths we tell ourselves about why we didn’t get a job, or why the object of our affections did not want to date us. It’s not pretending to be a scientific fact any more than the gossip you heard and believed about someone you did not like and barely knew.

We take the chaos that is our metaphysical nature, and we spin it into a cohesive narrative. Because we aren’t telling stories about jobs or boyfriends or girlfriends, but rather, about the ineffable soul which walks the world of the gods, the narrative we spin is going to sound a lot less like an episode of Friends, and a lot more like the mythologies we read.

A personal myth, whether mundane or mystical, does not need to be factually or literally true, does not need to compete with or corroborate anyone else’s personal mythology, and does not, inherently, need to be fact-checked. It isn’t there to express what other people should believe. It does not, should not, be a statement of how much respect anyone else owes that person.

What it does do, actually, is give a window into that person’s soul. It tells you what stories or narrative patterns they are working through. It tells you what themes and what symbols are important to them. Like a communal myth, a personal myth takes time to unravel. It is deep and contains many meanings. It must be interpreted like a dream, and its depth must be plumbed. If you have a personal mythology of your soul full of past lives, gods, mystical beings, epic treasures or whatever else, and you have been trying to interpret it literally, you have been cheating yourself. There is so much more to it than being “true.”

When a person tells you their UPG, they probably aren’t trying to test you to see if you are an idiot, take advantage of you, or whatever thing you think they are trying to do. If you make up a story about why they said that and you don’t verify those beliefs as facts, then the story is your own personal mythology, and stands on equal footing with the UPG they just told you. It is, actually, completely unsubstantiated, and says more about who you are than who they are.

These are the words of a Hermes-person, so consider the filter, but if you ask me, whether a gnosis or doxa is substantiated or unsubstantiated, or true, or untrue doesn’t matter. What matters is how useful that particular idea or belief is to us, spiritually, and what it represents. Does this make Paganism a religion of wacky beliefs? All religions are religions of wacky beliefs. Christianity is all deific zombies, and Judaism is all flying Rabbis and metaphysical beings that look like your worst-ever acid-trip.  And seriously. If there was a religion that didn’t have shit like that? It would be the most boring, least inspiring religion ever. And sane people are religious all the time.

Nut-jobs and Theological Aggression: Really, sometimes a Theology Sucks

What separates sane people from nut jobs is that nut-jobs don’t understand that beliefs are not more important than the welfare of living people. They paint those whom they define, arbitrarily, as, “other,” into corners with theological aggression, and limit the options of these people because their (personal) religion said so.

Theological aggression usually happens when a person develops a belief that another person (who is conveniently different than themselves), is doing something that their deity does not like. That person is therefore a “bad guy,” and deserves less rights than people who act and believe exactly like the theological aggressor. Of course, the person does not see themselves as being an aggressor. It isn’t their fault that their deity hates that person. They are just obeying their god, who is not to be questioned. We easily recognize this when we see Fundie Christians protesting funerals because “God” hates someone’s sexual orientation or when somebody starts a “Patriarchy” movement that mysteriously “obeys God” by forcing women to be subservient to men. “God is not to be questioned,” when people raise their voices to speak out against being treated unfairly.

Theological aggression is used to prevent the aggressor from hearing another person’s viewpoint. It is used to exclude or minimize people based on an interpretation of mythology.  Nut jobs oppress people with their religion. It really doesn’t matter if the people are oppressed because of gender issues, or race, or economics, or because of how they relate to mythological reality. If you have refused to hear someone’s idea because they are a “fluffy” Pagan, particularly if you decided that the person was “fluffy” because of their lineage, or because they followed a different trad than you, you have used theological aggression to exclude someone from the Pagan dialogue. If you have ever told someone that they did not have the right to believe something different than you because you, in your infinite wisdom, decided for the gods that they were offended, you have used theological aggression to exclude someone from the Pagan dialogue.

If a person isn’t oppressing you with their religion, they are probably not a nut job. And if they are a nut job and they’re not oppressing you? Well, it’s none of your business. But if you are getting on their case because you don’t like their beliefs? If you are calling out “hubris,” because they don’t agree with you? That’s theological aggression, and it’s edging into nut-job territory.

And seriously. If you have ever, in recent memory, said anything like, “the gods will punish you for not believing in them?” Not only is that theological aggression, it is fairly close to the top of my list of stupidest crap ever said by religious people.

Really? REALLY?? If gods punish non-believers, then you must conclude that nothing good ever happens to Atheists. Or, you have to conclude that while you need the blessing of the gods in order to have your very modest and unexciting life, that some Atheists simply outperform all of your gods in tandem. Bill Gates? Warren Buffet? Doing pretty well for themselves, actually, and pretty sure neither one of them is into deity-worshipping.

And Sometimes, It Catches On

Did you become Pagan because you believed that Loki literally lived under the Earth and caused Earthquakes and that all people who ascribed this to any other cause were simply mistaken? Probably not, though you might think of him when the Earth shakes.

Mythologies don’t catch on because they are literally true. They catch on because they capture our imaginations, or because they are personally affirming to the person hearing them. Just like we choose to believe gossip because it is sensational, or makes our personal narrative a little more cohesive in some way, we choose to believe myths for the same reason. The new mythologies that catch on aren’t always the ones with textual precedent. Instead, they catch on because their time has come.

Case in point: a growing number of Christians believe that people are probably born gay, that it isn’t a choice, and that God — the Abrahamic God — probably made them that way. I want to be really clear that there is no textual precedent for that. Nonetheless, it’s an idea whose time has come, and I think we can all agree that it would be a Good Thing if that particular Doxa caught on.

Let me articulate why. It would stop people from feeling guilty about who they are. It would stop people from being discriminated against and from being bullied. It would be a Good Thing because it would be good for the people who follow that deity. We have all of this talk about “process theology” and “progressive interpretation,” but both of these overlook an obvious truth: sometimes, people just start believing different stuff. When that happens, all the textual evidence in the world can’t stop it. Beliefs that are better for the people gain traction. If that isn’t the first thing that matters to the Christian god — what is good for his followers — then he is a shitty deity, and deserves to have people leave his religion in droves. That isn’t less true when we’re talking about Pagan deities.

If we look at our mythologies and don’t see anything socially problematic, then we’re kidding ourselves. We can skate around it. People in other religions certainly do. They weave new interpretations on top of the old myths. But when we’re talking about, say, the myth of Metis, where a deity legitimately raped and ate someone, we’ve got to concede that, some things, at least, can’t be skated around. In some cases, we need to defy the text to get at who a god really is, right now. We need to embrace new mythology that portrays gods we can respect and look up to, and discard old mythology that is pro-rape, pro-misogyny, anti-consent, blames victims, or, in general, promotes bad values. Our modern experiences of a deity, when taken in aggregate, can start to shape things for the better.

And that is why we can’t afford to just stay silent about UPGs and Doxas. We need to talk about them, but that conversation needs to be framed with questions like, “what does this teach us about the deity on a symbolic level?” or, “What themes and commonalities can we notice when we look at all these UPGS together,” rather than, “Is this legitimate?” 

It’s all legitimate. None of it is A) literally true or B) mutually exclusive. Just like regional mythologies hint at different aspects of a deity by telling contradictory stories, so, too, our personal gnostic experiences, while they might be corroborated by neither traditional mythology, nor the personal mythologies of one another, still give us additional data points. Of course, some data points are outliers.


  1. I’ve only gotten to the end of number 2, and it’s exciting to see agreement about the educational system – at least in the US. I love teaching, especially adolescents, but one semester of graduate school made it clear that they are not interested in creative learning or teaching, and that makes me feel bad for the students, since their thirst is unquenchable for a stimulating learning environment. I discovered that while subbing at the secondary level.

    Nope. We’re strictly about producing ideological zombies.

    Heaven forbid we teach students how to think, to learn through exploration. All that crap about the individualization of learning is nothing more than empty rhetoric

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your piece!

    1. Sigh. Yes. Yes on all levels. My most recent job was teaching 7th grade History. I tried to integrate “living history” into my curriculum. So much nope. Everyone is so anxious about testing, I think, that they ferverishly push rote learning to the detriment of developing skills and understandings which support critical thinking, or even inclusion of students who might not learn best with their nose in a book. Infuriating.

      1. Absolutely. They think testing is THE measure of learning. But it’s not. Enthusiasm, curiosity is the measure of learning – insofar as learning something that is relevant to the student in some immeasurable way. I have seen many teachers pushed out of the system because they dared to engage their students. Pathetic.

  2. [Alexandria: It’s taken some time for us (as we exist as different persons within the same body) to realise that personal stories/mythologies aren’t empirical matters, especially the person that calls herself by the title of Mathematician-Hansard (how’s that for a story role? Irony of irony :)).]
    [Mathematician-Hansard: Thanks for the post–it was thought-provoking.]

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