The Fool’s Quest for Secret Knowledge

In my present haphazard studies of Gnosticm, mainly through books by Elaine Pagels, Stephan Hoeller and Jean-Yves Leloup, I discover that there is a whole discrepancy of understanding between “true gnosticism” and the various caricatures thrown about by polemicists.

My own intuition tells me not to look for labels and categories, not even to try to work out what is “true Gnosticism” or not. I have had that experience in Christianity between all the various conflicting ideas. Gnosticism is not my war. I am not a Gnostic (though I do not hide my sympathies), and I don’t think many people in our world are, nor for that matter ever were in the ancient world. It seems to me more of a state of mind, a world-view, sometimes based on an allegorical and analogical interpretation of some ancient mythologies given to us as an alternative to the Genesis mythology more familiar to Christians.

Only this morning, I read someone who defined it as salvation by knowledge. The very words betray the person’s prejudice. Outside a strict Christian setting, what is salvation and what is knowledge? Words are awkward things. Leaving the Greek word aside, there are two French words for knowing: savoir and connaître. The word for knowledge is connaissance. It conveys the idea of knowing a person or a town with which one is familiar. Je sais means that I have a certain understanding. For example, I know that 2 and 2 make 4. We are in a certain degree of confusion as to what knowledge means.

It can of course mean possession of the object of knowledge: information, facts, the true nature of people, sciences, etc. If I withhold information from others, the information  becomes secret. When those who do not know become jealous, the knowers become an elite. You’ll have to join us in order to be let into our secrets, but on this or that condition. Perhaps some Masonic lodges operate on that basis, but it seems to be something too banal for words, a mere device some people use to manipulate and control others.

This seems to be one of the most misunderstood aspects of Gnosticism, one which causes some polemicists to believe that Gnosticism was some kind of conspiracy that would evolve into totalitarian political ideologies. Reading a few books by Umberto Eco, especially the Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, is something very salutary. We find all sorts of people chasing after secret knowledge, and when they find out, it all turns out to be banal or meaningless. That being said, not all secrets are so banal – like for example what Mr John Doe said to me in Confession last Saturday. All right, he killed his wife four times! Does that make you feel any better? Perhaps the biggest secret is about ourselves. What many people find appealing about Gnosticism is the idea of a spiritual life without “revealed truth” being rammed down their neck in the name of an “infallible” Bible, Pope or magisterium. And here we go again…

We moderns tend to be model consumers, going to the supermarket with its bewildering choice of products, and trying to do our shopping wisely, trying to get the best value for money. We are used to choice, and – frankly – we have too much of it. Our expectations go up, and our empathy for those who have no choice evaporates. We tend to see gnosis as liberation and new-found freedom. The idea seems great, but becomes our downfall if we are not mature persons with a sufficiently deep understanding. Imagine a fundamentalist “converting” to Gnosticism and preaching his new biblical mythology in a literalist way like he did with his Bible! There has to be something to know…

The knowledge in question is not book learning. It isn’t information. It is to know ourselves and therefore the image (“spark”) of God in ourselves. You get a lot of nonsense in the world of many alternative religions. Watching a Youtube video of a Wicca ceremony made me want or weep or laugh – I’m not sure which. It was literally a load of mumbo-jumbo, people just being silly and playing games. The same thing happens when people start using “esoteric” words, often in other languages than plain English, to sow confusion and make people believe that they had secrets. Have you ever read advertisements for products for re-growing hair on bald heads? We get secrets expressed in riddles and cryptic words. This is why I try to relate things to the discoveries of modern science and terms that appeal to our minds today. Yes I am a Modernist and proud to be one! That doesn’t mean going along with fashionable agendas. It just means being credible.

It is interesting to see Elaine Pagels labelled as a feminist, with the idea of giving her a vested interest in promoting Gnosticism. I haven’t yet read enough of her to discern such an undercurrent. Would a world of hyper-macho men and their wives chained to their kitchen sinks pumping out babies be more conducive to mankind and our spiritual health than an idea of just getting on together in a complementary way with empathy and feeling for each other? Sometimes it is good for a man to become aware of the “feminine” traits he has within himself without ceasing to be what he is. What’s all the fuss about the idea of a “feminine god”? Divinity is androgynous, the archetype of ourselves. That can be one aspect of our self discovery and healing.

I did consider the idea of contacting a group with “gnostic” in its name, in order to learn and study. Wouldn’t be be nice to have the warmth of human company, which one finds increasingly rare in a church? There are some study groups, but one that calls itself a mystery school looks too much like a money-making sect for my liking. The Rosicrucians come in various versions, some with the typical “initiation into secrets” image, and others with disproportionate signs of wealth and “powerful” people in charge. That’s not for me, either as a private person or an Anglican Catholic priest. There is a little Martinist order founded by a man they called “Papus” in France. The website gives the impression of something modest and honest, but it does seem to me that ideas are strongly filtered through a particular interpretation. It really does seem best to stick with reading and getting on with life – without frills!

The biggest mistake for anyone is to believe himself to be better than οἱ πολλοί, the ordinary folk. There is the notion of the “spiritual aristocracy”, the “pneumatics”, the “psychics” and the general run of materialist and spiritually dead folk. This notion is extremely dangerous in the wrong mind. I do believe the “spiritual aristocracy” exists: the philosophers, composers, artists, creative people. True nobility is not whether you live in a palace, have lots of money, talk with a posh accent – but whether you are a gentleman, a person with social and empathic virtues. If one does stand out in some way, it is for the service of all. To me that is how I see the gift of the priesthood I received from a bishop. Those who climb higher have further to fall. Most religious people are attached to routines and doctrines, to authorities and rules. That can be a source of pride – or of holiness through perseverance and fidelity throughout life. I can’t say I am any exception, but I feel called to creativeness in different ways – and then go and dry up. We tend to look at the “masses of the unwashed” – but if you take them individually, great beauty can be found – and they are not as crass and materialistic as we believed. We can be elite through our talents and gifts – but not elit-ist. This is the reason why we still need churches and “ordinary” religion, and identify with the “psychics” – and let God do the rest.

I have been writing a few quite “provocative” articles, because some people need to be helped to think and get out of the box for once. Very often, only a serious challenge will do that. We are constantly faced with challenges to faith, the possibility that what we believe in might not be true. What is truth? – the sceptics asked, as did Pontius Pilate. Truth is not mere information. Many baulk at gnosis, whilst they spend their lives defending truth. In the deeper meaning of those two words, there is little or no difference. They do not designate mere information, but life at a depth and height that is greater than ordinary sensual experience.

I mentioned Umberto Eco a little earlier in this article. We do tend to hype things up in this life, and the imagination runs riot. Like foodstuffs at the supermarket, there are hundreds of New Age books, videos and trinkets, just like the bondieuserie shops in Lourdes selling rosaries, statues and John Paul II screwdrivers. Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum is a great send-up of the Illuminati conspiracies and all the other dead ends. Some called this book the “thinking man’s Da Vinci Code“, except that it all ends with a banal anticlimax. Life grinds on, seemingly without meaning, because that avenue of excitement is exhausted. There was no substance to it. This is what we have to watch out for with anything.

There seems to be no concern that Fr Chadwick might be becoming a Gnostic heretic! I am intellectually curious about it, where the mythology came from, which bits find a collusion with modern science and things to which we can relate. “Ordinary” Christianity can seem very poor at times, because it is drained of its spiritual content like in the eighteenth century. Some people go on and on about homosexuality, transsexualism, feminism and threats to the nuclear family. They get steamed up, so worried that the world might end if the message doesn’t get out. Such moralising cant revolts me and pushes me to seek for a deeper underpinning of the Christian message, something that makes of Jesus Christ something other than a tyrannical archon or a simpering idiot.

I’m not interested in secrecy or the kind of hype that is used to manipulate people in religion, politics and business. I’m not interested in being better than anyone else or having a right to consider them as unworthy. What interests me is to discover, set my sails and go forth on the journey of life. We have to be sober and vigilant lest we get gobbled up!

Being brought back to earth is a sobering and sometimes disappointing experience. We are faced with the fact that we cannot experience what is outside our “frequency”. Most of us are deprived of knowledge in the meaning of personal experience, and have to rely on faith and hope. Our world is one of nihilism, materialism and New Age irrationalism. Rationality and science have offered themselves to us to confer meaning, and is often safer – but duller.

Perhaps, quantum physics and other more recent disciplines are our consolation, bringing aspects unknown to Newtonian materialism. The mythology modern science brings fires the imagination and brings excitement, as much as the Nag Hammadi scriptures. Hope springs eternal, and it is for us to go fishing and delve into the mysteries – one step at a time.

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2 Responses to The Fool’s Quest for Secret Knowledge

  1. Stephen K says:

    Dear Father, I feel you hit so many nails on their heads I am reeling with a kind of exuberant joy! I am so conscious of the pitfalls into which our arrogance and credulity can lead us: whatever it is that we might espouse so passionately can be seen by others as delusion or idolatry. I was profoundly influenced by a chance watching of the Dalai Lama many years ago who was saying to ‘us Westerners’ (and presumably to everyone) not to jump out of our own native culture but to work or journey into spiritual wisdom in our own. At that stage I had already begun to feel the stirrings of disenchantment, disillusionment, restlessness, and the very undeniable attraction – to anyone with even a scintilla of ascetism in their psyche – of Buddhism. I was stopped short: it made me realise that there is no grass that is greener ‘on the other side’ – no ‘purer’ culture or context. Things are whatever people make them and of them.

    However his impressing me so also made me realise fully that great spiritual power could come from anywhere literally. The idea that a single mainstream self-proclaiming ‘orthodox’ tradition could or would constitute any kind of “ultimate revelation” just no longer held water. In fact, it began to seem to me to be preposterous. It all depends on one’s starting premises, and the absolutism with which one invests them. In my life I have met various people from various backgrounds who have impressed me or led me to think something differently, or something more deeply. Some have been priests or religious, others something else, often writers, philosophical, poetical or romantic (e.g. novels). The idea of a ‘New Age’ has attractive power because it appeals to the utopian desire within us, the hope and aspiration for a fresh, re-envigorated way of being or thinking. The idea of “gnostic wisdom” has interest because of the awareness of our own ignorance and staleness and fallibility, but also because of our deep yearning to be free.

    Free from what? Free for what? From everything that is oppressive and humiliating and cruel. For the accomplishment of good and great things only possible when one is confident and strong. Why have the great masses within the West particularly (but I suspect, in other religious contexts, all over the world) abandoned outward conforming religious participation? Are they less credulous than before? Probably not. Are they more sinful? I’d say not. Are they more stupid, less wise?

    No, I think people, though subtlely evolving brain-pathwise, are fundamentally the same as our forebears. So long as the ‘leaders’ have things in control, so long as life trundles along okay or manageably, so long as things kinda make sense, you don’t have revolutions. The disintegration of the Christian tradition – to me – means nothing less than that people are no longer convinced by the premises that sustained it – that there was such a thing as a path to goodness or truth that could be monopolised by a single institution – that wisdom was the preserve of a sacred elite (the so-called ‘Apostolic Succession’) – that there could be single ‘true’ Church –and, God help us, that there could be a single Saviour!

    The growing consciousness is that God – if God is what that term fully implies – can never be so confined. Whether in the ideas of the Incarnation or Trinity etc according to the Christian formulation there is to be found helpful spiritual truth is not the point: the point is that the Christian orthodox tradition has lost its savour for millions. At this point, it is incumbent on a person to keep searching for the spring of renewal, because there is no doubt we all need it.

    So, we come to a contemplation of Gnostic works. As you rightly point out, Father, there is a bewildering divergence of what it was and what it might mean today. I think that what we have to ask ourselves is what was it that brought, historically, some communities to a gnostic emphasis and others to the established one? What are the ideas within the Gnostic tradition that can help us to love God and others and lead the good life, Socrates’ eudaimonia?

    Life is short. It may be only when one reaches 60 that one realises that there are more things to learn and discover to get a glimpse of the ultimate Loveable – God. But what if there is no God? By golly! That’s a consideration too!

    Quite frankly, Father, and dear co-readers, I have to say that though I am doing some reading in the Gnostics at the moment (and also Marina Warner’s “Alone of All Her Sex” – The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary – (1976) – Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London) – as a spiritual counterpoise to whatever the best might be of the mainstream Christian tradition, my instinct is that I should spend whatever remaining years I have left in exploring Buddhism. But that’s a purely personal perception, not one I would maintain is appropriate for everyone else. Wisdom and virtue – God or no God – is not a product that can be bought in a neat package off anyone’s shelf, in my view. The bottom line is that no tradition is perfect and we should be wary of all gurus.

    Thank you again for a very stimulating and thought-provoking post, Father.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “It is to know ourselves and therefore the image (“spark”) of God in ourselves.”

    I find R.C. Zaehner, in Mysticism Sacred and Profane very interesting and helpful on ‘experiential knowledge’ and its various possible interpretations – by the ‘experiencer’/’knower’ (and others).

    I don’t remember if he attends specifically, and comparatively, to what (with a nod to William James) might be called ‘varieties of (late) antique “gnosis” or “gnostic experience” and interpretation’, but if not, what he does attend to could be applied to, say, Valentinian and Alexandrian traditions of ‘Gnosis’ comparatively .

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