Seven Sermons to the Dead (Septem Sermones ad Mortuos) is a collection of seven Gnostic texts written and privately published by C. G. Jung in 1916, under the title Seven Sermons to the Dead, written by Basilides of Alexandria, the City Where East and West Meet. They were included in the third part of The Red Book – Scrutinies – enriched with a commentary of Philemon, which was not published in Jung’s lifetime. Initially Jung limited the distribution of the text to a carefully chosen audience but in 1962 the full text of the sermons was added as an appendix to Jung’s memoirs Memories, Dreams, Reflections. There Jung tells about the quite extraordinary genesis of the sermons:
“It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what ‘they’ wanted of me. There was ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away; and that same night my nine-year-old son had an anxiety dream. … Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically. … Everyone immediately looked to see who was there, but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me. Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.’ That is the beginning of the Septem Sermones. Then it began to flow out of me, and in the course of three evenings the thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over.”
In his book The Search for Roots: C. G. Jung and the Tradition of Gnosis, Alfred Ribi states that Jung “traced the historical lineage of his psychology back to the Gnostic communities that had existed two thousand years ago at the beginning of the Christian age.” The dead did not find what they looked for in Jerusalem, that is in the seat of traditional Christianity. The seven sermons contain instruction from a Gnostic teacher Basilides of Alexandria, the city where East and West meet, and where all kinds of non-orthodox, heretic ideas flourished. Only in Alexandria, “the classical urban alchemical vessel of human creativity” (1) where all cultures intertwined and where “gods and goddesses walked with men longer than in any other city in the world” could such a teaching have been born. (2) Interestingly, as Hoeller tells us, well-travelled as he was, Jung never visited Rome, another seat of traditional Christianity, but he did travel to Alexandria, which he perceived as his “spiritual home,” as Hoeller put it. Although Jung’s studies of Gnosticism took place before 1945, when the Nag Hammadi Scriptures were discovered by an Egyptian peasant, his knowledge of Gnosticism was profound and astounding, according to Alfred Ribi and other distinguished Gnostic scholars.
Ribi posits in his book that the Gnostics based their teachings on the assumption that “the alpha and omega of every religion is the subjective experience of the individual.” In this Gnosticism resembled Jung’s psychology of the unconscious, which also emphasised the importance of individual experience, no matter how alien to the collective values. What the Gnostics glorified was the “Promethean and creative spirit which will bow only to the individual soul and to no collective ruling,” says Ribi. Thus Gnosticism may be called the “introverted, mystical undercurrent of occidental Christianity.” The value of individual knowledge and individual revelation is what distinguishes Gnosticism from mainstream Christianity.
Furthermore, what was recorded in the official Gospels was but a fraction of what Jesus revealed to his closest disciples, said the Gnostics. This emphasizes the value of individual initiation delivered by a spiritual teacher. In the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, Elaine Pagels wrote:
“What Muhammad ‘All discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of writings, almost all of them Gnostic. Although they claim to offer secret teaching, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same dramatic personae as the New Testament–Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking. Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the Gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is
knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.
Second, the ‘living Jesus’ of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal–even identical.
Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:
Jesus said, ‘I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out…. He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’ ” (3)
The Seven Sermons to the Dead are constructed in the following way: the Dead ask a question and receive an answer in the form of a sermo. In the commentary to the first sermon Jung asks Philemon why he wants to teach the dead. Philemon says that the dead were seekers who died too early and did not finish their earthly work. They did not find what they were looking for in the traditional Christianity and they had no chance to find an alternative teaching that would fulfill their souls. The dead must be therefore taught about a hidden aspect of Jesus’ teachings.
The first sermon begins with the following words:
“Now hear: I begin with nothingness. Nothingness is the same as the fullness. In infinity full is as good as empty. Nothingness is empty and full. … That which is endless and eternal has no qualities, since it has all qualities.
We call this nothingness or fullness the Pleroma. Therein both thinking and being cease, since the eternal and endless possess no qualities.”
This astounding fragment echoes the Buddhist Heart Sutra with its famous words “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” This ineffable ground of being, like the Neoplatonic One, or like the To, is beyond consciousness or logic. The word pleroma was used in the New Testament by Paul to denote the fullness of God. In a letter to Kurt Plachte Jung explained what he understood under the symbolic function of the Pleroma:
“You are right— the symbol belongs to a different sphere from the sphere of instinct. The latter sphere is the mother, the former the son (or God). For my private use I call the sphere of paradoxical existence, i.e., the instinctive unconscious, the Pleroma, a term borrowed from Gnosticism . The reflection and formation of the Pleroma in the individual consciousness produce an image of it (of like nature in a certain sense), and that is the symbol. In it all paradoxes are abolished. In the Pleroma, Above and Below lie together in a strange way and produce nothing; but when it is disturbed by the mistakes and needs of the individual a waterfall arises between Above and Below, a dynamic something that is the symbol. Like the Pleroma, the symbol is greater than man. It overpowers him, shapes him, as though he had opened a sluice that pours a mighty stream over him and sweeps him away.” (4)
Pleroma is “the consciousness transcending background of the entire world,” writes Ribi. For the Gnostics Pleroma is the realm of true being, from which the whole world emanated.
Further on the sermon reads:
“In the Pleroma there is nothing and everything. It is fruitless to think about the Pleroma, for this would mean self-dissolution. Creation is not in the Pleroma, but in itself. The Pleroma is the beginning and end of creation.”
One cannot access the eternal fullness of the Pleroma with thought or logic. We do, however, participate in it unconsciously – through the unconscious we are linked to the divine in us:
“We are, however, the Pleroma itself or we are a part of the eternal and the endless. But we have no share therein, as we are infinitely removed from the Pleroma; not spatially or temporally; but essentially, since we are distinguished from the Pleroma in our essence as creation, which is confined within time and space.”
This is a similar idea to the Indian tradition of Atman-atmân: the world-soul and the soul of the individual, points out Ribi. The divinity is mirrored in the individual.
However, Jung’s psychology is not entirely congruent with the eastern thought. First Jung/Basilides says that to differentiate oneself from the pleroma is a creative endeavour:
“Differentiation is creation. It is differentiated. Differentiation is its essence, and therefore it differentiates.”
“If we do not differentiate, we move beyond our essence, beyond creation, and we fall into nondifferentiation, which is the other quality of the Pleroma. We fall into the Pleroma itself and cease to be created beings.”
The unique idea of Jung and the Western thought which he represents, says Hoeller, is for the individual psyche “not to give up its light of consciousness and fall back into the internal abyss of primordial nothingness.” (5) “A permanent dissolution of human individuality in Divinity,” continues Hoeller, is something that Jungian psychology does not see as desirable.
Now we have approached the last part of the first sermon, which to me seems the most enigmatic:
“When we strive for the good or the beautiful, we forget our essence, which is differentiation, and we fall subject to the spell of the qualities of the Pleroma, which are the pairs of opposites. We endeavor to attain the good and the beautiful, yet at the same time we also seize the evil and the ugly; since in the Pleroma these are one with the good and the beautiful. But if we remain true to our essence, which is differentiation, we differentiate ourselves from the good and the beautiful, and hence from the evil and ugly. And thus we do not fall under the spell of the Pleroma, namely into nothingness and dissolution.”
“Therefore you must not strive for what you conceive as distinctiveness, but for your own essence. At bottom, therefore, there is only one striving, namely the striving for one’s own essence.”
We have already read in The Red Book Jung’s admonition that it is wrong to identify with just one element from a pair of opposites. Such clinging will inevitably trigger the enantiodromia, where the polar opposite will hit us hard and demand its due. If we for example identify with the beautiful, says Jung here, we must also seize the ugly or it will seize us. One-sidedness is a disease. The cure is self-knowledge, which leads to finding one’s true nature, says Hoeller. (6)
At the end of this part of The Red Book Jung asks Philemon if he really believes what he teaches. Philemon admonishes Jung and tells him that he does not believe what he teaches but he teaches what he knows. Once again the primacy of gnosis based on inner experience over faith based on acceptance of external authority is emphasised.
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(1) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, p. 91
(2) Ibid., p. 93
(3) James M. Robinson, general editor, The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures complete in one volume, p. 4
(4) Carl Jung, Letters, vol. I, p. 61
(5) Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Quest Books, p. 102
(6) Ibid., p. 107