Holy Agnosis

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.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    In my experience the Christian agnostic says. “I am Loved by Whom I don’t know.” In seminary we used to talk about faith being a “reverent agnosticism.” I like the good distinction you make about gnosis (knowledge in the sense of wisdom) being relational and experiential. We could add “inclusive,” “encompassing,” and/or “embracing” to those.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Yes, Phil, your depiction of what the Christian agnostic says is much more on the mark, thanks for posting it.

  • Peter

    I speculate that there may even be a divine order for this, a discernible process: we start at agnosis (literally translated into Latin as ignorance) and are relationally, experientially, existentially, sovereignly “zapped” with gnosis, knowledge, union, as Paul on the Damascus Road or Carl in the Lutheran summer camp at 16. We respond or “rebound” by taking in all that is offered in the epiphany, submitting to the profound changes it creates in our inner being, bracing ourselves for the next wave of gnosis.

    I submit that this is an unending process, not merely Hegelian but even heavenly, as we grow endlessly in the knowledge of (and union with) the divine througout the endless ages. In one sense we are forever agnostics because the infinite divine will never be fully knowable by finite “knowers” like us. In another sense this process continues indefinitely as the fruit of the ministry of the eternal Melchizedek high priest, and the eternal give-and-take or “dance” between agnosis and gnosis follows the strains of heavenly worship music forever–the beatific vision, the eternal revelation of God.

    Sounds like fun to me! Count me in.


  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com Yvonne

    All very interesting, and resonates very well with the poem I dropped in to share with you: http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/G/GascoigneDam/Onethingalon.htm

    Also reminds me of stuff about the darkness of God and apophatic theology. There’s a good sermon from an Episcopalian about it here: http://www.kingofpeace.org/sermons/sermon-021002.htm

    I think it would be well for many Pagans to remember that even individual gods and goddesses have an unknowable aspect.

    I’m glad you make a distinction between elitist gnosis and inclusive gnosis, but I don’t think that that is the same thing at all as the difference between heretical and “Christian” gnosis. Christianity (rightly imho) eschewed Gnosticism’s rejection of the physical plane, but it didn’t go far enough (imho) in the celebration of nature and sexuality – indeed it seems to reject sexuality to a great extent.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thanks, Yvonne. As I suggested in my post, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the politics of early Christian heresies. I’m not enough of a scholar to be able to chart the distinctions between heretical and orthodox forms of gnosis in the early church. My inclusive/elitist distinction, I think, is more useful for navigating today’s spiritual topography.

    Having said that, I certainly agree with you – it seems that at least some of the heterodox gnosticisms of late antiquity were horrifically dualistic, and yes, the church has not done enough to fight dualism within its own purview.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle (Grateful Bear)

    God is both knowable and unknowable…
    God is both immanent and transcendent…

    You’re a panentheist, dude (not pantheist – the additional “en” makes a big difference). “All things are in God and God is in all things.” You’re in good company: Marcus Borg, Matthew Fox, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Sufi mystics Ibn Arabi and Grateful Bear…

  • Peter

    Go Bear!

    I like your little “en”–it kind of puts everything “en” perspective!

    Another reason I like the idea of being caught up in the continual back-and-forth flow between agnosis and gnosis is that I see it as not inherently dualistic. As panentheists, we see the unitive God alive and well in all things, playing a kind of divine (and benevolent) “hide-and-seek” game with us, revealing himself and then hiding only to say “boo” and reveal even more of himself. This can be seen as an endless process or a holy love affair; the goal here (if a goal is needed) is for more and more of his glory and beauty to be revealed in and through us, in an endless spiral of out-going expression of Spirit…

    If one had Ken Wilber’s gift for poetic prose, this could be a good place to use it…


  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    Quick, Carl – a blog entry on the relationship of Christianity, agnosis and sexuality. Begin with Song of Songs. Or, to paraphrase Genesis, male and female – and God saw that it was good.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat Chapin-Bishop

    “Agnosis”–I like this term! A little humility goes a long way in the world of mysticism, Christian or not. The idea of the heresy being, at least in part, confusing the experience of gnosis with being a spiritual “have” (implying everyone without such experience is a “have not”) is incredibly valuable to see articulated.

    Thank you!

  • Sandra

    There is nothing christian about Gnosticism.
    The Gnostic Phenomenon: The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [80:71-82]
    “Gnosticism emerged in 2nd cent but independently of Christianity, however the Heresiologists may not be completely wrong to suggest that Gnostic sects found their strongest base in Christian circles. There the revolt against Jewish construction of the world and quest for a higher, esoteric knowledge of God found a sympathetic ear.”

    Though Gnosticism refers to a group of religious movements – it is not Christian.

  • http://irritablereaching.blogspot.com/ Ira

    It’s funny, but I couldn’t have read this two weeks ago without sneering. Today I can’t read it without tears. Thank you.