Something that I keep mulling over is the relationship between gnosticism and agnosticism and how both of these categories relate to contemporary Christian mysticism and Christian spiritual practice.
We know that Gnosticism was the first great Christian “heresy.” But we also know that early mystics like Clement of Alexandria and Origen spoke of a holy gnosis as an essential part of the Christian experience. In our day, Christian wisdom teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and the late Valentin Tomberg advocate for the pursuit of Christian gnosis.
What is the difference between Christian and heretical gnosis? I’m not sure if we can really speak definitively about the spirituality of late antiquity, but for our time, let me hazard a guess. Gnosis is holy insofar as it refers to an experiential encounter with Divine Grace; it becomes heretical when it functions as a wedge that separates the “haves” from the “have nots,” thereby creating a spiritual elite, marked by a strong dualism (rejection of the body = rejection of matter = rejection of the ‘unsaved’).
Put another way, profane gnosis deals in certainties and absolutes, while holy gnosis deals in relationship and experience.
So now: what is the relationship between gnosis and agnosis? To many people, agnosticism is seen as an enemy of faith, closer to atheism than to Christian spirituality. I see it differently. I think true Christian spirituality is deeply agnostic, in the sense that it celebrates both the knowability and the unknowability of God: God is both immanent and transcendent. Anything we say or think about God is, ultimately, not-God. Even our experience of God represents something “other” than the fullness of the Divine plenitude. Granted, Christian agnosticism is profoundly different from secular agnosticism: the Christian agnostic says “I love what I do not know” unlike the secular agnostic who says “I disbelieve what I do not know.” But both of these forms of agnosticism need to be distinguished from atheism and religious dogmatism/fundamentalism, which as I have suggested before, are really each other’s shadow.
So ironically, it seems that for the aspiring mystic, both holy gnosis and holy agnosis are necessary. We seek the knowledge of experience, and in doing so, we remain humbly aware that no knowledge, no experience, can ever capture God in God’s fullness.