Redeeming Gnosis

Can gnosis be redeemed?

Today I began reading Richard Smoley’s Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism. Right away he sets up a tension that I don’t buy into: a conflict between the gnostics — those who have direct mystical experience — and the religionists, those who are the custodians of doctrine and dogma and therefore tend to be suspicious of gnosis. Oh, I suppose it’s a fair assessment of a real tension between those at the center of religious power, and those whose “power” (i.e., personal experience) lurks in the margins. Certainly, the history of world spirituality is littered with mystics, visionaries, buddhas, avatars, and anointed ones who have been attacked, silenced, or otherwise rejected by the religious establishment of their day. Some, like Origen, Meister Eckhart, Jeanne Guyon, and Eriugena, never manage to overcome that smear of heresy that is attached to their name. Others, like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Faustina Kowalska, were for a time condemned by religious authorities, but eventually came to be regarded as saints, exemplars of the spiritual life. And of course, there are the greatest figures of all, those whose radical experience of gnosis or enlightenment not only led to breaking free from old religious forms, but to establishing entirely new ways of faith: Gautama and Jesus are perhaps the most spectacular examples.

But does religion only exist to be a force from which each generation must liberate itself anew? I can’t accept that view, it demonizes religion, thereby creating yet another false duality. Religion stifles gnosis, yes; but perhaps religion also fosters it. And maybe that’s not all the religion stifles, or fosters. Maybe there really is more to all this than the quest for enlightenment.

Christian mysticism has always danced with gnosticism. Great mystics and spiritual theologians from Clement of Alexandria in the second century to Valentin Tomberg in the twentieth have spoken of gnosis — the experiential knowledge of enlightenment — as an essential aspect of the mystical life.


Maybe I’m too “orthodox” for my own good; or maybe I’ve been too influenced by the tradition of negative theology and apophatic mysticism, as exemplified by sages like Pseudo-Dionysius and the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Apophatic mysticism sees gnosis not as the goal of the spiritual, but rather as a potentially tragic distraction. It is the not the experiential knowledge of God, but the pure abandonment into profound not-knowing, that opens us up to the splendours of the Christian mystery.

Am I creating a dualism where none need exist? Out of the poverty of my own inexperience, am I merely projecting some sort of opposition between gnosis and unknowing, when in truth there is no such discontinuity? Is there a profound gnosis deep within the heart of unknowing (and a profound unknowing deep within the heart of gnosis)? My own experience of Divine presence, limited though it was, would suggest that such a Taoist model of mysticism is real. Am I, then, a gnostic who, afraid of the plain truth of my own gnosis, has run to the church, fearfully seeking for approval which will never come?

No, I don’t think I’m that neurotic (at least, not on my good days).  But I do have a keen sense that for every mystic whose gnosis reveals the lavish outpouring of Divine Grace, there are countless other “gnostics” whose experiences are little more than ego-bound projections of their own selves, writ large upon the universe. That is what I do not want to be. And so I continue to greet the quest for knowledge, for enlightenment, for power, for experience, for gnosis, with relentless skepticism and doubt. And so I also take refuge in my sangha — the Catholic faith — recognizing that the blessings of community also carry with them the terrible price of surrendering my own spiritual autonomy.

Hmm. There’s no way out of this Möbius strip. Gnosis and unknowing will perpetually sabotage, deconstruct and undermine one another. Kind of like how submission to a faith community and the incessant, soulful urge for my own spiritual freedom and autonomy continually undo each other, as well. Perhaps the key to mysticism lies not so much in trying to resolve this apparent dualism as in seeking ways to transcend it while including both.

Can gnosis be redeemed? The only answer that matters is this: I don’t know.

What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Seven Books I Hope to Read in 2014
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?


  1. Seeking resolution and/or transcedence to these issues only adds fuel (thought) to the fire. The source of the dilemna can’t solve it. Living the in, up and throughs, (holding the tension of the opposites within) and allowing for what the opposites have in common-wherein the TRUTH lies-will allow the Self (soul) to solve the seemingly unsolvable (to mind) issues you’ve addressed. The only guarantee in the successful conclusion of these challenges is that many of the answers that may be revealed to you could come from any one of several different internal faculties EXCEPT those relating to “reason.”
    Thanks for your hard work and many excellents entries. T-shrk;-)

  2. Carl,

    There has always been a conflict between the gnostics (prophets) and the religionists (priests) in every culture and religion. This is a major historical dynamic that needs to be acknowledged rather than minimized or denied.

    But the way we handle this reality makes all the difference: we can let this become an extremely destructive dynamic or we can do our best to “transcend and include” in order to turn this same dynamic into a creative, productive, peace-making source. I like what Philip Edwin Moore says, that “the source of the dilemma can’t solve it” (brilliant!), and that “holding the tension of opposites within” is the beginning of the search for the answer from a non-rational, non-scholastic, perhaps even non-dual source. [Disclaimer: I went past what Mr Moore said here to add my own terms!] This approach to peacemaking can work even in practical, political terms, as evidenced by the choice Jesus made (currently high on the list of his practices that are most fascinating to my wife) to include a zealot and a tax-collector (a revolutionary and a neo-conservative) among the 12 he appointed to carry his message to the world. Clearly he was not counting on a resolution of their political conflict before giving them their commission! The resolution is on a deeper level, “peace…not as the world gives,” the blessing on the Good Samaritan because of the content of his heart and his willingness to live it out.

    On the deeper level of your topic on the redemption of gnosis, there is a deeper dualism than Gnostic-vs-religionist (or prophet-vs-priest) that you have brought up here: that is, gnosis vs un-knowing (or possibly a-gnosis?). My limited experience confirms your limited experience that “such a Taoist model of mysticism is real.” I see the experience of “ego-bound projections of our own selves” [or as in the Matrix, “the virtual projection of our digital selves” :)] as a common stage in mystical growth, not something to be avoided or denied but something to grow through as quickly as possible as we seek a higher center than our ego (or our group, or our club, or our common tradition) to focus our energies on and receive our nourishment from. My reaction to this impasse, this brick wall, may be different from yours: rather than greeting the quest for gnosis and enlightenment and all the other spiritual “gifts” on your list with skepticism and doubt, I tend to accept these (along with the negative experiences of trials and challenges and distress) as valid and worthy by-products of the apophatic search, while strenuously trying to avoid the natural tendency to idolize these gifts, to stop short in my search and “worship the creature rather than the Creator.” I wholeheartedly agree with and affirm your distinction that “it is the not the experiential knowledge of God, but the pure abandonment into profound not-knowing, that opens us up to the splendours of the Christian mystery.” Amen! In fact, I interpret this as a healthy movement of discernment by the Holy Spirit—a spiritual gift in itself—designed to help protect you (and those you influence) from the devastating consequences of idolatry in our spiritual search.

    In summary, I believe that the great virtue of the apophatic path and Centering Prayer is in its practice of holding loosely to (or letting go completely of) both the treasures and the terrors that we find on our path to theosis or divine union. There is nothing created or even experiential that is worth getting caught up in at the cost of the real ultimate goal. I believe that there IS a profound gnosis at the heart of the un-knowing path, and that if we stop to “know” (=enjoy full communion with) each form that presents itself on the path, we may be in danger of grasping on to shadows and trying to force them to have substance for us, rather than simply enjoy them for what they are given for, that is, evidences of divine love, shadows showing us the shape of the Real, gifts attracting us to abandon ourselves to the Giver, Who Alone is worthy of our ultimate Gnosis.

    Yes, Carl, I believe gnosis can be redeemed: apophatically, that is, enjoying what comes our way as the gnosis of the fragments, but not allowing ourselves to be satisfied with the particles when our destiny (that we are somehow aware of, seeing it in a glass darkly) is no less than perfect union with the Whole.

    [By the way, I hope the literal irony of your final statement that “I don’t know if gnosis can be redeemed” is conscious and not Freudian! :) ]

    In Jesus’ love,

  3. I was having similar thoughts (about the paths of knowledge, devotion and action) on my way to work this morning, and wondered if what we actually need to do is not to choose one of the paths, but to practice all of them simultaneously – and perhaps this is the difference between mysticism (which is all-embracing and includes aspects of all three paths) and the separate paths of works/action, faith/love, and gnosis/magic. I am referring, of course, to the three possible paths up the Tree of Life described by Kabbalists.

    When one contemplates the beauty of the earth and its inhabitants, one is filled with compassion for their suffering, joy in their love, and desire for their fulfillment – and these feelings are expressed in a desire for understanding, and a desire to act to alleviate their suffering.


  4. Carl, when I read many of your postings, I am so moved and so eager to give a response, but, I find myself speechless. It sounds naive for me to admit this, but, in what seems to me my great understanding of what you are writing, I cannot comment, I can only sit with what you have wrote and contemplate it. So, thank you, again for another wonderful and deeply important, enriching posting to contemplate. I wish I could say something really astounding here. Take that as a compliment, please.

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