Monday, June 04, 2007

Questions: Seeking Certainty, Finding Gnosis

What does it mean to "achieve Gnosis"? I gave up all things on the basis of a series of very powerful spiritual conversion experiences. Are you suggesting that Gnosis is a permanent state of this spiritual state? I don't know If I could survive such a level for a long period. ... There is a God, or there is not. There is a hierarchy of Gods or there is One. If all beliefs are in some way "true", even when contradictory, ideas must in some way be reconciled.

If you are seeking certainty, you will not find it at the level of doxa, of opinions, beliefs, or assertions. Although there is a long tradition of clinging to such things and acting as if they were certain as means to convince ourselves that they are. This is the strategy of "faith" as it is generally understood. Even while it seems to close the question and give that desired certainty, it never really does. It requires the construction of a system of constantly reinforcing beliefs, or an unconsciousness of the process. Once we are aware of, conscious of, the process involved, it usually cannot satisfy. The exception seems to be the construction of the elaborate and rigid systems of modern fundamentalist movements. We all seek certainty, and this is not to denigrate those who try this strategy, who are many, just to point out its fundamental limitations. It has its price and its remaining elements of uncertainty. But that is a struggle and path that most have been on to some degree and so know. It is like the line from the Matrix, you've been down that road, you know exactly where it goes.

Rather than tying to find certainty, it seems more possible to find trustworthiness. And that requires a different type of approach. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "do not cease seeking until you find. When you find you will be troubled. When you are troubled you will marvel and will reign over all."

Gnosis is not a mental state, or any set of mental states. Such things change. If we feel happy today, we may feel sad tomorrow. If we feel an epiphany today, we may feel half-asleep tomorrow. That is the medieval wheel of fortune. It goes round and round. There is a tendency to use the term "Gnosis" as an "acceptable alternative" for terms like mystic or spiritual, for example; but, that isn't the proper use of the term.

At a recent conference I was at dinner with a group of people who where mainly of an Eastern spiritual orientation. One of the individuals was Buddhist clergy as well as a psychologist. He was trying to describe the process of enlightenment, saying that the focus wasn't on the enlightenment experiences, the higher states of consciousness that are experienced, but was rather on the time in-between of day-to-day life. I told them that this was the difference of emphasis in the Gnostic tradition, that Gnosis is the knowledge that is psycho-spiritual development in that day-to-day life. When people compare the two traditions, they want to equate Gnosis with these higher states, when it is focused upon the overall growth that is seen in-between these spiritual experiences. These states and transformative experiences are a part of the journey, but Gnosis is knowledge that is knowledge that we are, that we have gained by being on the journey. Often when we go on journeys in the world, what we bring back is a greater knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world. That is the type of knowledge that is gnosis.

When you find, you will be troubled. It is a part of the process. When we truly seek, we find the limitations and failings of the answers we have been given, the strategies we have tried. External authority claims to offer certainty, but it is a certainty that requires belief, that is, it requires certainty. It is supposed to work, yet it doesn't. And this same strategy is to be found in many places once one recognizes the pattern, has gnosis of it. It feels like the foundations have been pulled out from under you. It is disturbing and troubling. There is a hope that, maybe, if there were a different source of authority, the same strategy could be tried again. A hope that, maybe, it would work this time. Probably (almost certainly) not.

Yet we do not stay in such a state. All states are transitory. There is another strategy, and this one is very different. It involves a big shift in perspective. We can find trustworthiness in something other than doxa with the backing of authority. Rather than base the trustworthiness on something external, or upon something internal but changeable, we can base it upon our Gnosis. In that way we might say that we know God because we have experienced God, our spiritual growth is towards God, and we have been transformed by God. But this "God" is not an idea, not an abstract entity that we can logically construct, but rather is what we know from our own limited Gnosis.

While one can create a long list of positive attributes for the God of theology, the God of Gnosis is generally a negative list, a list of things you can't say about God. Yet there is no doubt of existence, anymore than you doubt the existence of anyone else you know in the world. The interpretation, the understanding is provisional and incomplete. It is not an idea we can hold in our minds, but a reality we know from our deepest experience of being.

While this may not be intellectually satisfying, it is not subject to doubt. We can doubt the expressions of Gnosis, and recognize that all expressions are preliminary rather than final. But Gnosis is a part of who we are, not something we need to be convinced about. And in that way we reign over all, our Gnosis is the ordering principle of our approach to everything.

By its nature, Gnosis is difficult to communicate. We can only tell stories and use symbols even about Gnosis itself. Yet we all have Gnosis to some degree, and we may recognize it in these stories. I would suggest that you are passing through a state of being troubled, as in the passage from Thomas. If you refrain from seeking certainty among the opposites, you will find the trustworthy and the truth that frees—because they are within you. It requires a metanoia, a turning about of the mind. Be patient with yourself, and trust in your own process when things seem unclear. No state is permanent, yet one can cycle through states without apparent end. Seek the center.


Mark said...

How is it you always have the right thing to say just when I'm looking to hear it.
I treasure these blog entries. They often speak the words I can't seem to form on my own or give me just the right bit of clarity or understanding I need right when I'm seeking it.


Angel said...

A priceless post! Thank you so very much!!