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.