To gain an immediate sense of what is intended by the word “Gnosticism,” let this sufﬁce for the time being: Gnosticism is a set of experiences, and a belief system, that purports to provide certainty in a world of insecurity and uncertainty. The Gnostic cannot tolerate not knowing, or deal well with his or her own ignorance. (And note: an essential ignorance is in truth at the core of every human being, for human existence is essentially mysterious.) Rather than pursue knowledge or insight through study and research, the Gnostic takes a short-cut to “knowledge” (gnosis) through non-rational means. The Gnostic is not open to reasoning, questioning, self-examination, challenging study—the entire life of the human mind so well explored and lived by Socrates, and through him, by Plato, Aristotle, and other genuine philosophers. Not all religious beliefs are Gnostic by any means, but at least since the Middle Ages in western civilization, Gnosticism has suffused various religious beliefs in the West. All major religious and intellectual movements, with which I am familiar, have some degree of Gnostic inﬂuence. But by no means are all “religions” or intellectual movements Gnostic. From what I have read in 19th and 20th century thought from India and China, the inﬂuence of Gnosticism shows up, possibly imported from the West. Examples as diverse as Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy, and Mao Tse Tung and Chinese Communism, come immediately to mind.
For the present, I wish to draw attention to a few forms of modern Gnosticism prevalent in our contemporary American culture. For purposes of displaying the rich variety of symbolic expressions to which the Gnostic experience is liable, I select for brief consideration intellectual and religious systems perhaps rarely considered together. To display what contemporary Gnosticism is, we brieﬂy consider the following thinkers or movements:
- the German philosopher G W F Hegel, and his student, Karl Marx;
- the American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson;
- the American religious movement founded by Joseph Smith;
- Mary Baker Eddy and her “Christian Science”;
- Hegelian offshoots, such as “Progressivism;”
- Comte’s Positivism and forms of Neo-Positivism;
- forms of religious “traditionalism” in which the “believer” “knows the truth.”
Decisively what these intellectualistic or religious systems have in common is that they provide “certain knowledge” for the thinker, spiritualist, or “prophet” who developed them; and through their writings and inﬂuences, they provide “certainty,” as well as intellectual and emotional security, to their adherents. A human being living in our world today, and surely in the United States of America, is confronted on a daily basis with the certainties and rational absurdities of one or more of these, or similar, intellectual-religious movements. There seems to be no end to the diverse forms Gnosticism takes. Indeed, one of the symbols of the ancient Gnostics was the many-headed hydra, with the claim that this “truth,” this “certain knowledge” (gnosis) lives and thrives in many forms. And it does. How many persons would recognize, or think about, similarities between Hegel, Emerson, and Mormonism; or between Christian Science and contemporary Enlightened intellectuals who believe devoutly in “human progress” assured through “science”? Living so close to these phenomena, many of us overlook them, and fail to consider how much there is in common between them. Note well: the commonality lies not on the level of linguistic terms or “ideas,” but in the engendering spiritual experiences. What the core experience is must be considered.
First, however, a distinction needs to be made between the “knowers” who develop these systems of philosophy or religion, and many of their unquestioning adherents. It is empirically obvious that at least some Marxists, or some Hegelians or Progressives, or some Mormons or Christian Scientists are not essentially Gnostic, because they do not share the fundamental Gnostic experience evident in the original “thinker” or spiritualist. One can be immersed in Gnostic beliefs without being fully Gnostic. It is not the beliefs or words that make a Gnostic, but the state of the person’s soul or mind. For the essence of this phenomenon is not found on the level of beliefs or practices, but in the fundamental experience of reality. The Gnostic is one who has closed himself or herself off to reasoning, to the rational exploration of reality through study and research, because he or she “knows” the truth, making any genuine dialogue or discussion impossible. How would one possibly convince the philosopher Hegel that his “self-consciousness” was a form of self-divinization, in effect making himself identical with God? If one were to suggest to the learned Hegel that he was in effect divinizing himself, making oneself one with God, he would no doubt spew out many words telling me how stupid I am, and it is not his fault that I lack the philosophical acumen to follow his utterly profound mind. Or how would one convince Joseph Smith that his claim to be a “prophet,” and to know about such things as human “pre-existence,” and that “Adam-god” is the “father” of all spirit beings, pretends to know what human beings cannot know? Would Smith listen and consider the truth of the salutary warning, or would he immediately tell me that I “lack faith,” or am “blinded by the devil,” or such? When one is certain, one is certain that he is certain, and rejects any questions that would challenge these experiences and fundamental beliefs. A Gnostic creates an intellectual straight-jacket, a verbal maze, from which one cannot get free unless one chooses to reject the system, stand outside of it, and examine its claims by reason. Then one may ﬁnd that although the overall scheme is deeply ﬂawed (as in Hegelian philosophy, Marxism, Christian Science), there are some genuine insights to be learned from them. Plato’s advice is sound: “Every myth has its truth.” But one must avoid at all costs being drowned in the system with its certainties and pretentious claims to knowledge. Why? Because certain knowledge is the death of the spirit, which lives only by openness to what is ever beyond one’s grasp.
In truth it is usually unpleasant to examine Gnostic beliefs and experiences, because they are extremist, self-assured, and in themselves not worthy of close intellectual examination. On the other hand, I will admit that I have often found studying Hegel, young Marx, or especially the brilliant Nietzsche to have some wonderful insights into human existence in history. It is just that the whole system is rotten, and can easily poison one’s mind unless one is very careful. A good reason, however, to study some of these Gnostic systems is to help free oneself from Gnostic webs and deluded thinking, and perhaps in some modest measure, to help free others from the same entrapments. Sadly, many human beings prefer to be deceived, and to think they know what they do not know. Living is ever easier when one refuses to question his or her most basic beliefs and thoughts. It is not only Gnostic intellectuals, but Sophists of old or of contemporary times who puff themselves up on knowledge, and who would rather play intellectual word games than admit that in truth, they really do not know what they are talking about. Clever intellectuals and spiritualists of various ﬂavors not only deceive themselves, but deceive others. They refuse to admit a simple truth: any human being truly seeking knowledge and understanding discovers that the more one learns, the more one must be aware of his ignorance; and that the enquiring mind can never rest in any certainties, or it is certainly dead. How many young people, for example, innocently take courses in “higher education” taught by some conceited, self-inﬂated intellectual “knower,” who seeks to convince the young that their basic beliefs are false, and proceeds to pour into their minds “real knowledge”? A similar phenomenon takes places in churches, when a member of the clergy or an “expert” arrives with “real knowledge” about the religion and its practices, and proceeds to overturn all that one may have previously been taught or understood. It is a kind of game, a sport for the self-inﬂated and cruel: “I know, but you do not know. Let me enlighten you.” The famous words of the Apostle Paul seem apt: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools…”
Consider brieﬂy the fundamental Gnostic experience: the “knower” in effect divinizes himself, makes himself God, by claiming to have certain experiences, revelations, insights. One speaks for God, or History, or Science, with so much certainty, so much self-assuredness, that many are duped. A “knower” such as Karl Marx “knows” that there is no God at all, except human being, “who creates himself by his own labor.” When one would question Marx, he insists: “Do not ask. Do not think. Do not question me.” He then asserts that “Socialist Man” does not ask questions about the ultimate origin of things, because he “knows” that he has created himself by his labor. That comes from young Marx, from the same early writings in which Marx asserts: “Philosophers of old tried to understand the world. The point, however, is to change it.” And how does one “change the world”? By revolution, of course—led by Marxist intellectuals,who “know” the “dialectics of history,” and so on. All of us are stupid fools and ignoramuses,except the enlightened intellectuals. Marx is a Gnostic intellectual who poisoned the minds of millions—including thousands of western intellectuals. When a President of the United States asserted in a speech, “We will transform the world,”he was taking up the Marxist goal of transforming reality through Gnostic action, led by the President himself. That the world is what it is, and has its ultimate cause and structure beyond human wishes and actions, seems to be utterly lost on Gnostic intellectuals, whose desire is to impose their will on others, and force the “change” they want. Such Gnostic dreamers may eventually ﬁnd out that their thinking is illusory; and rather than open up to it, and reject their foolish ideologies, they may sullenly withdraw, or become belligerent and aggressive. Seeking the truth in truth ever requires humility. And humility is one thing Gnostics lack.
Gnostics hate reality as it is, and so they will to change it, through various ways. Hegel and his descendants dabbled in what Hegel called “magic words” that could speculatively change reality. His entire “philosophical system” replaced the world as we experience it with his air-tight speculative System. Once one buys into its premises, one is trapped in the System. That creating a system of thought is in effect an anti-philosophical enterprise is admitted, even by the master-magician, Hegel. This learned man sought through magic words to transform philosophy as “love of wisdom”into a System of Science, real knowledge.” According to his own claims, Nietzsche had as his intellectual power “the magic of the extreme,” through which he could blind others to the truth of reality, and exercise the “will to power” over them. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in America, claimed that their superior “knowledge” allowed them to dismiss empirical knowledge from consideration—when they so choose—because, in Emerson’s words, “the mind of the Creator shoots through my eyes.” Oh, how wonderful, how divine it must have been to be Emerson, so adored by adoring masses, for the mind of the Creator was shooting through him. In his lecturing around the country, Emerson reached thousands of minds with his Gnostic ramblings. Rousseau and Emerson claimed that they would write the same books they did even on a desert island, because they dredged out of their own “depths” the truths they propagated. So much for
historical research. “Don’t bother me with the facts,” they in effect maintain. Mary Baker Eddy propagated her “Christian Science,”which in fact was neither Christian nor Science, but Gnostic certainty, eschewing genuine science, asserting that evil and sickness are merely “illusions,” and would have no power if one did not allow them to. In everyday words we could say, “Believe it is not true, and it is not.” So much for rational science, or common sense. As for Joseph Smith, how could one rationally argue with his so-called “revelations?” That god exists in three separate beings, including father and son with physical bodies, living in the universe, sounds as though it was a small child’s conception of God, but it was passed off as “revelation,” as unquestionable truth because, in effect, “I know, because God told me.” Is not such a claim arrogant, lacking in humility before the Almighty?
One may ask: Does questioning of assertive truth claims undermine all religions and ideological belief systems? Is my argument in effect undermining faith? If “faith” is interpreted as a dogmatically held set of beliefs, then, I suggest, it needs to be challenged. In fact, such dogmatic “faith” is not genuine faith at all, but a substitute for it, much as saccharine may substitute for sugar. Genuine faith is not certain knowing at all, although “believers” would often have others think that is is. Faith in the spiritual sense is a loving response and openness to that which by tradition is called “God.” Genuine faith examines, questions, and above all, loves reality as a work of the unknown Creator. Faith is unknowing, trusting love, and ever demands an open spirit, an open mind, to respond to the truth beyond all understanding. Dogmatic beliefs, however “traditional” or “revealed,” are no substitute for faith as loving trust.
A danger in religious traditionalisms—Christian or otherwise—is that they accustom the “believer” to refrain from asking relevant questions. Traditionalists of all stripes would do well to keep in mind the Socratic watch-word: “The unexamined life is not worthy of a human being.” Many can hide their heads in the sand, or bury their minds in “traditional beliefs.” My father recounted how his religion professor at Villanova told him not to come to class because he “asked too many questions.” Obviously the priest-professor confused his beliefs about Catholicism with genuine faith. It seems that this priest was far more trusting in his own beliefs than in the God beyond all beliefs and formulations. Creeds and doctrinal beliefs have their place as a kind of training wheels for the mind, but when they become escapes from genuine seeking, they defeat their ultimate purpose: to bring one into contact, not with a creed, but with the God beyond all creeds and formulations. As “faith without works is dead,” so faith without reasoning is dead, or at least, decaying. What believer—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic—cannot beneﬁt from asking, with his heart and mind, “Who are You, Lord?” And a good way to question is to wonder, to examine, to listen, to be open to having one’s deepest convictions changed. In asking the question, “Who are you, Lord?” it should be evident that the question always transcends any answer. If one seeks God, no answer should ever end the search, but encourage one to “forgot what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead,” borrowing a formulation from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Whatever insight, truth, or “revelation” is received, it pales before the blinding light of the unseen God. “Now we know through a glass darkly, but then [after death], face to face; now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” For the Apostle Paul’s great chapter on love, I Corinthians 13. Or as he writes elsewhere in that letter, “Knowledge [gnosis] puffs up; love builds up.” The desiring heart, the loving question, transcends any answer. When one stops wondering, one stops exercising faith. Without exercising living faith, one becomes spiritually stale. It is similar with love: When one thinks that he has his beloved all ﬁgured out, does he not cease to love? Does not love ever say, “Behold, my beloved, how fair you are, and how mysterious to my gazing eyes.” Love knows in a way transcending all knowing.