The intent for last Sunday and for this week is discernment. It is the most weighty task appointed to us, and yet it is so often bypassed. After all, why discern when you already think you know?
Many years ago I had a dream in which I was in a “School for the Blind” at first I understood this as being such in the conventional sense, a school for people whose physical apparatus of vision was not functioning. However, as the dream unfolded it was revealed that the people in the school were capable of visual perception, they simply did not use it—because they already 'knew' where everything was, and so they did not bother to look. This 'knowledge' was obviously faulty and incomplete, yet that did not cause them to open their eyes. And the school existed to teach them how to cope with this willing blindness.
Discernment is the ability to see what is really there. To discern the differences and similarities. To make subtle distinctions, and to see connections. Without it, you have merely your ideas imposed upon all that you see. You are blind, because you already 'know' what you would see—if you looked.
Yet we cannot accomplish much in the actual world around us without discernment. We may want to act in service of a greater good, but without discerning to a very high degree how this might be done, we may actually accomplish the opposite. The “best intentions” and all of that. Without it, things can seem simple indeed. Do good. Achieve Gnosis. Live a Good life. With it, things get much more complex. What is the good? What is good in a given situation? Is what you achieved Gnosis? How much can you determine from an experience of Gnosis? These are the sorts of questions that get the asker handed a cup of hemlock on occasion.
You know someone is merely trying to persuade you when they try to take the discernment process away from you. The point of democracy is to have as many people making discernments as possible, yet in practice the point is to take away the discernment and present a simple choice that isn't a choice at all. Instead of being able to seriously and publicly consider if these means are the best way of reaching an end, or if that end is the best way of achieving a goal—we are given dualistic good vs. evil choices. It comes down to a simple claim repeated endlessly, “you are either for us completely and unreservedly, or you are against us and are simply evil.”
As Gnostics we cannot put our “Faith in someone else's faith,” as famously phrased by William James. Nor can we allow others to do our discerning for us. This is a key difference between Gnostic and Creedal expressions of religion. In the Creedal strategy, the discerning has already been done, or will be done by someone else. Things have been discerned, and will be discerned in distant times and places for you. In the Gnostic perspective, this simply cannot be done.
This need to always be discerning is what ties Gnosticism so closely to Philosophy. A definition of Philosophy that would hold up to scrutiny would be one that focused on discernment. Otherwise, Philosophy is a vast expanse of fields whose connections are easier to perceive than to describe. But the process of discernment brings them together into a set of skills, methods, practices, and conventions.
But as mentioned before with the hemlock reference, discernment is often a very unpopular thing. It frightens many people, especially the powers that be. After all, if you are discerning then you will not be merely subservient to authority, nor will you always side with “your team” against all challenges or considerations. In short, it makes you an individual, and there is something deeply disturbing to many about that.
There is also false discernment, mere labeling for the purpose of saying that it is “for us or against us” or “good or evil.” Or the rhetorical device of trying to re-frame everything so that conclusions are predetermined in that same “good or evil” manner. This is the “black and white” thinking that is given as a hallmark of the abusive and manipulative groups that are often referred to as cults. It is a means of control not a way of discerning. The truly scary part is that this has become the norm in so many areas, including our politics.
This is not to say that we cannot be guided or aided in our discernment—but it must remain our own. Discerning is not a simple thing, and it can depend upon knowledge, skill, and wisdom. Deciding that you 'know' something you don't understand is the path of the willfully blind. Often, a great deal of work is involved to be able to comprehend and begin the process of discernment. And so the difference is whether one is guided through a discernment process or is given the result. This can be seen as the difference between educating and indoctrinating, for example.
We must always be engaged in the process of discernment. A process with many subtleties and refinements. A process with many misapplications and false starts. Yet a process that is intrinsic to following the path of Gnosis.