Yesterday I made the following off-the-cuff remark in a comment to my post Theosis and Kenosis:
It’s less about knowing who we are (that’s the error of gnosticism) and more about simply a way of being, a way of doing life.
And in reply, a reader named Tomasis left a simple frowning (sad) emoticon: To this, I replied,
I don’t know if it’s ever possible to affirm what one believes without sooner or later saying something that will elicit a “frowning face” from those who walk a different path… I struggle with the limitations of human language, and am continually challenged by the problem of how to express the teaching I’ve received from my own tradition in a way that refrains from attacking or dismissing other traditions. Clearly, my own lack of charity and wisdom works against me here.
And now, his lengthier (somewhat edited here) response, with further thoughts from me interspersed.
You seemed to be in contradiction of yourself in a couple of ways… your explanation for your statement after my disheartened response seems to suggest a man who is becoming something far right of the mystic and contemplative and accepts the Church’s dogma as fact, without personal investigation or even getting to know us Mystic, Gnostic and Hermetic Christians.
Ouch! Hit me below the belt, why don’t you? Okay, fair is fair, and I’ll admit that my off-the-cuff comment was poorly worded, primarily in that it appears that I attacked gnosis which I then labeled “the error of gnosticism.” Gnosis cannot be a heresy, since it refers to an experience or a degree of consciousness, and not a chosen belief or opinion (heresy basically means “chosen” and refers to those who choose beliefs which place them at odds with the teachings of the Body of Christ). However, I think we need to be careful in our reading of history: there is a difference between gnosis (as a category of mystical truth) and gnosticism (a religious movement which led to distortions of that truth).
If the end all in your journey in regards to Gnosticism is reading and believing with blind faith in the heresiologists, then I may have mistook you for a man of different character, humility aside.
Lay off, man! My legs are getting bruised. Actually, I suppose I should thank Tomasis for questioning my character; everyone in the Christian mystical tradition from Christ himself down at least to John of the Cross suggest that this is a good thing.
Seriously, though, the key here lies in understanding the difference between gnosis and gnosticism. Gnosis is the experiential knowledge of God, and of course the contemplative tradition is concerned with it (it is also concerned with the mystery which transcends all categories and forms of knowledge, conscious or unconscious, but that’s not the point here). Gnosticism, meanwhile, represents a cluster of religious movements in the early centuries of the common era that, despite what the revisionists may claim, were elitist, dualistic, and subtly anti-semitic. This is not just church propaganda, but the understanding of history (look at the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism, for example). If accepting the verdict of history that such groups represented distortions of the gospel (which is not elitist, but radically inclusive; not dualistic, but deeply affirming of the material world) makes me a rightist or a patsy of orthodoxy, well, then, so be it. I reject gnosticism precisely because gnosis is too important to be left in the hands of those who would make it the province of only a privileged, anti-immanent few.
Granted, the catholic/orthodox church itself has often failed to live up to the gospel, and has suffered from its own problems of elitism and dualism. But the fact that the church has erred does not mean that gnosticism is therefore blameless.
I know that it has been fashionable for those who reject the church to see in gnosticism some sort of “pure” mysticism that the church itself abandoned when it got in bed with the empire. I have no problem with criticizing the church’s failings here, but I remain unpersuaded that gnosticism is the key to recovering authentic mysticism. Before jumping to the conclusion that gnosticism comprises some sort of noble mystic fraternity that was cruelly marginalized by those mean orthodox/catholic Christians, it’s helpful to remember that the Pagan philosopher Plotinus, founder of Neoplatonism and arguably a mystic of the same caliber as Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross, wrote a treatise against the gnostics (which Ken Wilber quotes extensively in A Brief History of Everything). Gnosticism (the heresy), in its dualism and elitism, represents a distortion of true gnosis, not some sort of preservation of it in the midst of the church’s inevitable failing (if you want to find the preservation of gnosis in the Christian tradition, look to my reading list).
So, back to my original comment that started all this: the reason why I dismissed “knowing who we are” as the error of the gnostics is simply because, as best I can tell from my reading of history, gnosticism, not gnosis, but gnosticism, privileged elite self-knowledge above loving relationships as the key to entering the mysteries. This is what I reject. If that makes me a man of questionable character or poor judgment, then I guess that’s what I am.
From Pseudo-Dionysius to the Cloud of Unknowing to John of the Cross down to Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton, the Christian tradition has spoken consistently that love, rather than knowledge, is the final key to the mysteries. This is the faith I follow. A loving person without gnosis is far, far closer to the kingdom than a gnostic psychonaut with a narcissistic heart. And I’ve known people who fit both of these descriptions, and they can be found both inside and outside of the church.
Ironically, I believe I haven’t mistook you not only because of the few months I have been following your blog, but also because of acquaintances of some of your blog followers who do you know you personally as well and in this I am inclined to take their word, tho with an open end as I watch you to continue to peer into unknowing.
I appreciate this vote of confidence, although I fear that this morning’s post, with further evidence of my anal-retentive submission to Christian orthodoxy, may cause Tomasis to rescind these kind words!
There will always be differences between faiths, the whole being as much about diversity as it is unity, but as mystics and contemplatives we know the intimate and personal relationship God extends to each of us. God being the one common and ancient deep pool that branches out infinitely to touch each seeker (creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel) who humbly empties himself. This mystic touch leading to listening which doesn’t always immediately hear what it hears.
No argument here.
Yet “…Mysticism which has not given birth to gnosis, magic and Hermetic philosophy — such a mysticism must, sooner or later, necessarily degenerate into “spiritual enjoyment” or “intoxication”.” — Meditations on the Tarot, pg. 43 Tarcher/Putnam Unknown (Roman Catholic) Author
I have great respect for Valentin Tomberg, the “unknown author” of Meditations on the Tarot, but here I disagree with him. I think the gold standard is not gnosis, but agape. Mysticism which has not given birth to self-giving love must, sooner or later, necessarily degenerate into a form of spiritual narcissism, which, I should think, is what “spiritual enjoyment” or “spiritual intoxication” points to. Julian of Norwich pointed out that her visions (her gnosis) meant nothing if they did not lead to an increase in love within her. “I myself am not a good person merely because I received these showings; they will only make me a better Christian if I come to love God more. And inasmuch as you come to a greater love of God through them, then you will profit more than I… I am certain there be many who have had neither sight nor showing save that of the common teaching of Holy Church, yet they love God better than I.” (Revelation of Love, tr. Skinner, chapter 9)
Back to Tomasis:
Possibly, emptying ourselves is the path to knowing ourselves and that we are the children of God? Possibly, knowing ourselves isn’t as awful as the heresiologists would have us believe? It only being a manner of does it create humility, awe and love or does it blow us up with false pride and false humility?
Well, yeah. Again, a point of agreement. Knowledge in service of love is what true gnosis is all about. And to the extent that anyone who identifies as a “Hermetic” or “Gnostic” Christian is seeking such a gnosis-for-agape, I’ll be your loudest cheerleader. But my (and Plotinus’, and Ken Wilber’s) concern that gnosticism-as-a-movement has a tendency toward spiritual pride, elitism, and dualism must also be considered. Knowledge that leads to love is a sign of the kingdom. Knowledge as an end to itself is simply a cul-de-sac.