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Love and Lyte,
You know how you had that one teacher in school who frustrated you to no end? He or she would act as though they had all the answers, to find themselves without fault, and they had the annoying ability to pick apart every last detail of your essay or your test scores or your daily wardrobe. Then, one day, they made some snarky comment - perhaps during science class - about how one thing or another could not be proven, and therefore you were wrong and a moron and should feel all the shame. Then...you said it. The funniest, most original joke you’ve ever heard in your life.
Well, Mr. So-and-so, you tell me you have a brain, but I’ve never seen it so how can I know it’s real.
And the class laughed. And you laughed. And Mr. So-and-so laughed (as he was writing out your permanent detention slip). And, it was at that time that you discovered the new-to-you concept of Unverified or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (or UPG).
Yeah for big words.
UPG is a concept that has been making the rounds in the religious blogosphere as of late. In July, an article was posted on WitchesAndPagans.com regarding this issue titled UPG: an ugly, misguided notion. The article then went on to describe Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis - with no mention of Unverified Personal Gnosis - and how it is being used in the religious community to slander a given person or group’s relayed experience, that is UPG is being used to say your experiences are not valid because they are not like the previously experienced experiences of more experienced experts.
The writer suggested that Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis in this setting refers to a group of people pointing to a text or set of mythological tales or prior experiences held as liturgy - think Bible - by said group. If your experience with deity falls outside of what is predetermined to be true, then it must be bull honkey. (You say those kinds of things when you’re from Texas.)
Now, I was curious. I’d never heard about UPG being used in a negative context. So, I wanted to brush up on the term. Doing a bit of poking around in my old college religious textbooks, I found that personal gnosis is not a new term, but I could not find either Unverified or Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis as a term. When I went to research it, the only thing I could find - both on Google Scholar and Google itself were articles written from a pagan perspective.
I found a great definition for UPG from About.com’s article, which was written by a professor of religion, Catherine Beyer. She says:
Unverifiable personal gnosis, or UPG, concerns knowledge that holds importance to an individual, usually in a spiritual or metaphysical sense, even if no objective, corroborating evidence can be produced to support it.
Now, already there is a disparity in terms. We are not talking about the same thing. The WitchesAndPagans article said that UPG stood for Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, while About.com’s Beyer is stating that it means Unverified Personal Gnosis. I have heard it both ways several times over the years. Perusing articles on the topic, I saw people using these terms interchangeably, in fact stating that they mean the same thing. But, they don’t, which led to my further confusion.
So, let’s do one of my favorite things and turn to the dictionary!
The first article discussed the term unverified, which means unable to confirm or establish the truth, accuracy, or reality of. When we talk about the term ‘verify’, we’re speaking of checking our work. We’re saying ‘There is a terrible smell coming from my kitchen. I think it’s bad cheese.’ And then verifying, or confirming, that indeed we have cheese in our refrigerator so old that it has now given birth to baby cheeselets that are staging a revolt against your bagged spinach.
Am I the only one who has neglected to clean their refrigerator?
The second article discussed the notion of unsubstantiated, which means unable to establish by proof or competent evidence. When you hear the word substantiate, it simply means proving on paper that something exists or happened or is real. The scientific definition and process for photosynthesis is a substantiated fact. We know how, why, and that it works.
There is a subtle difference here that I think is quite important to note, and why I wanted to take it on as a topic. Because, if we’re going to call each other out on our gnosis, maybe we should look at our own noses first...that made no sense, but I felt like a good pun was in order.
Let me demonstrate with a story.
National Public Radio reported this past week that a doctor Jimo Borjigin (why do research doctors never have easy names?) of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor might have some insight into what is happening when people have near-death experiences. Their research team studied the brains of nine lab rats as they were being euthanized. Researchers discovered what appears to be a momentary increase in electrical activity in the brain associated with consciousness. Although the experiment relied on animals, the results could apply to humans, too, the researchers say.
Borjigin wanted to understand these experiences, believing that if people can remember them, that there must be some kind of evidence for them in the brain. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on your view - you can’t kill a bunch of people and watch their brains die on computer monitors. Killing rats to watch how their brains blip across a screen, though, that’s totally fine. Science.
Now, when it comes to people and near-death experiences, Borjigin says:
Many of them have out-of-body experiences. It includes feelings of peace and quiet, always seem to have a dark tunnel and bright light. And they also seem to meet their deceased relatives. Many of them think it's a - it's evidence they actually went to heaven, perhaps even spoke with God.
Patients often report that what they experienced felt more real than reality, so real that they're often life-altering. But Borjigin thinks that what they're experiencing are sort of like super intense dreams. When we dream, there's a lot of activity in one part of your brain and the other part is trying to figure out what's going on. Borjigin thinks something similar is happening with near-death experiences. One part of the brain is trying to make sense of what's happening as another part kicks into a super active state to try to survive.
Borjigin says that she and her team found a massive, measurable burst in conscious activity after the heart stops for at least 30 seconds. NPR’s reporting was quick to point out a problem with qualifying it as ‘conscious activity’, saying that scientists aren’t even really sure what that is. The question of ‘what is consciousness’ or the conscious mind is something that has sort of stumped philosophers and doctors alike for centuries.
But, we’re talking about religion and UPG and bitchy heathens that say you couldn’t possibly have met Thor, because Thor only talks to people at 3:24pm every second Thursday and you said you spoke to him on Tuesday.
I tell you the story of the rat research, because it speaks to the notions of both concepts - Unverified and Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis.
In this instance, the researcher is looking for evidence that near-death experiences are caused by biological processes. It’s not a spiritual act, but merely neurons firing at hyper speed in an attempt to keep the brain alive.
Let's all suspend our visceral spiritual reaction. You know...the one that goes something like SILLY MUGGLE! Spirituality exists outside the scientific! No soup for you! Side note: I may have just committed 2 acts of copyright infringement with that last bit.
It is a natural component of the human experience to ask 'why' things happen. Our spiritual ancestors asked a lot of 'why' questions. They just got different answers. Instead of surmising that lightning was a process by which electrostatic discharge is released to equalize electrically charged regions within clouds. Not only did they not have the means to find that out, that answer is boring. Instead, they found out that Thor sometimes gets pissed at guys named Phil and magically strikes them dead with his thunder hammer.
We seek the answers to why and how our experiences happen. When we have a communion with the divine, with the spirit world, or even with the lawn gnomes tending your rose bushes, we ask ourselves - even if quietly so not to sound crazy - Did I really talk to fairies? Did I really go to heaven after that car crash?
Getting specific for a minute, Unverified Personal Gnosis is slightly different than Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis. Not all UPGs are equal. Unverified means that, when you check out whether something happened, you find sources that tell you it did. Historical texts, encyclopedias, first hand accounts, these are all ways that something become verified. Unsubstantiated requires proof. Proof on paper. Facts and figures that state not only that something happened, but, typically, how.
To go back to the near-death experiences, it strikes me as interesting in that we are in a situation where it can be both verified, substantiated, either, or neither. If you take a look at the first hand accounts of people that have experienced near-death events (the kind where there's the bright light, the meetings with deceased loved ones, etc.), there are a lot of people that claim to have these experiences. One Gallup poll gave the startling number of 13 million people that said they went to the great beyond and lived to tell the tale. That's a lot of people that can 'verify' that such a thing happens. That's a lot of experiences that can be compared and contrasted, weighed, measured.
Having a substantiated claim is a bit more difficult. A substantiated near-death experience might be proven by showing that you were, indeed, clinically dead for a period of time...and then you weren't. It might be proven by speaking to its verifiability. However, because we are not total monsters, we don't hook people up to electrodes and then watch their brain activity on a monitor while they die. And, even if we did, we can't really know what that activity tells us at this point.
The same is true for spiritual experiences generally speaking. You say you spoke to Thor on Thursday at noon, and people will hear that and judge your level of crazy depending on how real they think that experience might be. Realness might be weighed and measured by looking at their own experience. Is something in their spiritual past akin to communing with deity? Can they verify that experience? Have they heard of that experience, or something similar happening to others?
There are lots of combinations of something being able to be verified but not substantiated. There are also cases of scientific data being gathered, but nobody really knowing what it does or what to do with it. So we're substantiating things that we can't verify. Yet. The key is the word yet.
And now we're back to the beginning. How in the world can we say one spiritual experience or another is not valid, because it is in the realm of UPG - either unverified or unsubstantiated? From what I've seen of myth, legend, first-hand modern accounts, and second hand journals, all spiritual experience is in either the Unverified or Unsubstantiated realm. It might be verified by the other members of your coven that the Demon of Fear is attacking your three best friends (Charmed reference, for the win). But, it's not substantiated. There's no pictures or facts or figures attesting that what indeed happened, was possible on paper.
You might be able to substantiate that brain activity increases in lab rats after they're given lethal injection, but that doesn't accomplish the inverse. It doesn't tell you the what or the why. It tells you that something happened. Are these rats seeing Rat Jesus amidst white light and Rat Ghost Buddies?
It is patently false to accuse someone of UPG and state that, because of UPG their experience is wrong or did not happen. Categorically and definitively, Unverified and Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis should not be seen as a term of derision, but a term of challenge. A gauntlet that is dropped. A test to see who is willing to go further, to deepen their spiritual understanding. To ask, ok...I experienced this, what next? How can this lead to better research, to a deeper understanding of self and the divine.
An interesting coda is that people who experience Near-Death Experiences overwhelmingly say they no longer fear death. I think we could learn a lesson from them. Let your meeting with the divine give you that kind of peace and deeper understanding.