Thinking On Your Knees
“Gnosis.” “Esoterism.” “Mysticism.” It seems that each of these words has negative connotations, not just for the secular mentality but often even more so for the religious person. But these are actually at the heart of any spiritual conception of reality, for they simply involve any knowledge that touches, either directly or indirectly, the Divine plane. In other words, gnosis is simply that knowledge of God which “brings the letter to life.” Esoterism is the means to that knowledge. Mysticism is union with it, or the deep realization of its truth.
Humans are unique, in the sense that we inhabit two distinctly different worlds--the outer, objective world of sensible forms, and an interior, subjective world of thought, emotion and reason.
As we discussed yesterday, one of the baleful consequences of religious literalism or “fundamentalism” (which is not actually fundamental, but a very modern deviation) is that it places religious knowledge on the same horizontal plane as empirical or rational scientific knowledge. In so doing, it places itself in competition with an inferior mode of knowledge that nevertheless copes more effectively with a lower plane of being, i.e., matter. At the same time, it willfully cuts itself off from the higher and more interior planes to which it is appropriate. Placed in competition with science in this way, religion quickly devolves into pagan magic, whatever you wish to call it.
Although I sympathize with so-called literalists, in the long run their position is simply untenable. But equally untenable is the position of the secular materialist who clumsily attempts to utilize the coarse tools of science to study the interior world.
Gnosis is not to be confused with debased forms of spirituality such as occultism, channeling, mind reading, “the paranormal,” and the like--the sorts of freaks, sociopaths, and con men you might see on Larry King. One of the central tenets of genuine gnosis is that it involves subjectively objective knowledge, which is the converse of Kant’s realization that all of our supposedly objective, exterior knowledge is actually subjective, i.e., limited by, and filtered through, our ways of knowing it. Science begins its investigation from our mysterious, subjective center and moves toward the periphery, studying the multiplicity and variety of the contingent exterior world. Esoterism operates in the opposite direction, from the periphery back upstream to the center, to the objective metaphysical principles that underlie reality.
Anyone who wishes to pass beyond mere “book knowledge,” beyond the realm of mere “information,” is an esoterist, whatever the field or endeavor. For in the absence of gnosis, the world we encounter is simply a brute fact with no depth or meaning at all. Facts do not speak for themselves, but must be imaginatively synthesized in the mind of a knower. No sensory or perceptual experience can tell you what you are experiencing. In other words, there is no knowledge at all at the level of the senses.
So in order to construct a world, we all engage in an imaginative leap, the secular fundamentalist no less than the religious fundamentalist. But this does not mean that the world is unknowable and that we are hopelessly enclosed in our own subjectivity. For one thing, unlike animals, we are aware of the fact of our subjectivity. But the moment we realize this, we have lifted ourselves beyond the plane of subjectivity in a way no animal can. We have begun to to acquire the state of objectivity. All forms of prayer and meditation, of “silencing the mental substance,” are in fact exercises for elevating ourselves and deepening our objective consciousness.
Gnosis represents the reconciliation of philosophical idealism and scientific naturalism. It has long been recognized that there are two philosophical temperaments, the “Platonic” (or idealist) and the “Aristotelian” (or naturalist). The naturalist, or scientist, would say that laws are derived through observation and induction and that “truth” is simply the correspondence between objects and accurate knowledge of them.
The idealist, on the other hand, believes that consciousness is prior to every “thing,” and that the world is a reflection of the intellect, or “ideas.” Another way of saying it is that for the Aristotelian the particular is antecedent to the general, whereas for the Platonist the general is prior to the particular--for example, the general idea of “dogginess” allows us to identify and categorize particular dogs.
You might think that science is a default Aristotelian enterprise, but this is not so. For example, the majority of great mathematicians are Platonists, in that they believe that mathematical ideas are real, immutable, and prior to our discovering them. 2 + 2 = 4 will be a true statement in any possible cosmos. Likewise, most of the great physicists of the 20th century were led to a Platonic conception or reality because of the a priori truth and beauty of the few equations that undergird all of reality.
But gnosis is neither naturalistic or idealistic. Rather, it is logoistic. That is, the truth of things is found neither in the external world nor in the mind that contemplates it. The esoterist worships neither gaia nor the intellect. Rather, he worships the eternal Word that is the source of each. As expressed by an anonymous Christian friend, reality is founded upon the Word, or Logos, “whose objective manifestation is the world of prototypes underlying the phenomenal world, and whose subjective manifestation is the light or prototype of human intelligence”: “all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”
So therefore, the only truly true and objective knowledge is knowledge of the Word. Objects are only real in the sense that they inhere in the Word--otherwise we could not know them. And our intellectual conceptions--our gnosis--are only true insofar as they reflect the Word. Real truth is not a construct or acquisition of the ego, but something to which we humbly submit.
Ultimately, gnosis represents the reconciliation of the vertical and horizontal. Science represents the quantitative world of the horizontal, whereas religion has to do with the vertical, qualitative world. Gnosis entails nothing less than crucifying ourselves at the innersanction between the vertical and horizontal, where the Word is perpetually dying away and being reborn. It is not a synthesis of science and religion, but a mode of consciousness through which the reality of the living Word shines in its metaphysical transparency. It’s just “there,” waiting for you at the crossroads, where to live the objective truth is to die a little.