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The Agnostic a Gnostic


One can only attain what one can apprehend of the knowledge of truth, that is, the knowledge of the Unity of God Who embraces in an undivided all-inclusive unity the whole existence beyond which nothing else exists... This degree is determined by the individual’s preparedness and capacity, and by what the conditions of time and society will allow. By acquisition of the individual’s degree of knowledge, which differs from one person to the other and from one time to the other, each individual then attains an ever-lasting happiness “which no eye has ever seen and no ear has ever heard, and which has never occurred to the mind of a human being.” (Sami Nasib Makarem, The Doctrine of the Ismailis, quoting Imam Prince Karim Aga Khan)

We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the archons of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. But, as it is   written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” God has revealed to us through the spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

We know what the word “agnostic” means and probably also what the word “Gnostic” means. The one denotes a claim not to know what most people think they know, the other a claim to know what most people do not dream of knowing. They might sound far distant from one another, even polar opposites. But this morning I mean to suggest that they are one and the same.

For consider what it is the common person imagines himself to know. First, he “knows” that there is a creator God whose will alone supplies the grounds for moral behavior, and that this God has revealed his laws to their custodians, the accredited princes of institutional religion. This faith seems to the believer as sure as the likelihood of the sun’s rising on the morrow, for does not everyone know it is true? Everyone he knows, or cares about anyway. Others are troublemakers who ought to know better, and indeed do secretly know better, which is why they are going to hell.

Do you want proof that the Babbitt believers believe in salvation by works notwithstanding their claims to believe, Catholics and Protestants alike, in salvation by faith? Simply that if you say your cannot believe their gospel, they think you must be putting up a smoke screen--that you  would believe it, or better, admit you do deep down believe it if you weren’t so determined not to repent of your favorite sins. And that is why you are going to hell-your refusal to stop sinning, not strictly speaking a mere refusal to believe a proposition offered to you.

This creed is the ostensible “knowledge” that the agnostic rejects. The agnostic I am thinking of is not the sophomoric agnostic, but rather the one who has won his way to relativism by taking what Cupitt calls the Leap of Reason, by attaining the cognitive escape velocity needed to rise high enough above the fray to be able to see the surface of the vast ocean in which his fellow human beings ever swim without knowing there is an ocean at all. This the agnostic did not know either until an encounter with philosophy or psychology or the sociology of knowledge yanked him out like a fish flapping on the wooden boards of the boat. But now he knows, she knows.

The agnostic knows, though perhaps he wishes he did not, that the creator God was himself created as a stop-gap measure by human inquisitiveness that had no way of ascertaining the facts, and is held onto by those too lazy to learn the facts of science once they are available. Now he knows that this God was a reification of human society, a scare-figment to get people to internalize the all-seeing eye of peer approval and disapproval so as not to dare to break the laws, and to fear eternal hell even if he should commit the crime and evade human scrutiny. Now she knows that this fairy tale seems true to the mass of humanity for poor psychological reasons, the mass mentality of the herd to which we delight to belong because we dread thinking for ourselves and the alienation we know it would bring.

The seasoned and well-informed agnostic knows that this whole system of beliefs, trumped up and pumped out long ago like an artificial atmosphere on an airless moon, is the artful creation of vast socio-political-commercial interests that dwarf human proportions. Once upon a hypothetical time mere humans like ourselves created these corporate entities (these religions, multinational corporations, media conglomerates, military-industrial complicities). But over time they have come to assume a life and a leaden weight of their own, rendering them invulnerable to the reforming impulses of individuals and concerned coalitions alike.

Of course, one and one’s fellow soccer moms may form a committee and win the right to temporarily rearrange some sticks of furniture on the deck of the Titanic, but even that illusion is part of the trick. It is a pathetic sop cast one by the unsuspected masters. And this maya-muzak is perpetuated by means of entertainment, bread and circuses hyped up into equal importance with world events and eternal meanings. The result is a public that knows quite well who Regis Philbin is, but has never heard of Hegel. Who knows and worships Oprah but has already forgotten the name of Albert Schweitzer. All this the agnostic knows precisely because he does not  “know” what the mass knows, what the herd believes. He is an elitist, perhaps proud of it, but no doubt sad at the thought.

And the agnostic shares this knowledge with the Gnostic. The main difference, as I hope to show, is one of terminology, and of mythology. The ancient Gnostics, claimers of esoteric knowledge, could not yet escape the mythic form of consciousness, but they did manage to do the next best thing. They escaped the gravity of the dominant myth. They managed to snap out of the collective delusion that I have just described, the supposed knowledge of the masses, of the pew potatoes.

As Valentinus, self-proclaimed disciple of Theodas, disciple of Paul the Apostle, said, there is above and beyond the Creator God, the Law-giving God of the Church and Judaism an Unknown Father. Even the Divine Sophia, Lady Wisdom, could not gaze upon the face of this One from whom all worlds flee away. But this Unknown Father did not create the world. He did emanate from himself like rays from the sun, a whole host of light-beings whom collectively formed the Pleroma. The last of these was Sophia, who wanted not to be last and by a forbidden virgin birth brought forth the bungling Demiurge, the ill-starred Creator who made a dreadful material world and populated it with lifeless husks. All stood thus inert till one day the Creator and his angelic henchmen, the archons, or rulers, kidnapped some of the sparks of divine light from the Pleroma. This they used as a kind of DNA, or, as the ancients said, spermatikoi logi, seeds of reason, to provide self-replicating order for the material world which had hitherto been a stagnant swamp of unmoving matter.

The Demiurge was, of course the God of the Bible. He was just after a fashion. To guide his hapless creatures, from whom he vainly demanded cringing worship, Jehovah provided laws and commandments, appropriate to life in the world he had created. This system was neat and tidy and worked quite well for most of the Demiurge’s unsuspecting subjects. It plied them with easy answers, indoctrinated into each new generation of sheeplike believers who wanted it just that way, as the Grand Inquisitor understood. There was seeming safety in numbers, security in tacit belief, at ease in a Zion of blissful ignorance.

Bentham and Mill, fathers of Utilitarianism, debated whether the more refined pleasures of the intellect were superior to beer and the World Wrestling Federation. Bentham reasoned that one ought not to be a snob, that pleasure was pleasure, equally good if one were Socrates or a swine. Mill thought not. For Socrates is able to see it from either side, and he knows the pleasures of the mind are best, i.e., best added to those of the body.

The ancient Gnostic was like John Stuart Mill. He felt like the Prodigal Son suddenly “coming to himself” and realizing he was where he did not belong: amid a herd of pigs. Instead of envying the pigs for being more easily satisfied than he, as he had done hitherto, he realized he had to return to his proper home. For the Gnostic, that was the Pleroma. He had to throw off the yoke of allegiance to traditional religion and traditional assumptions. And whence his dissatisfaction with what to others was a heaven, if only a hog heaven? It was the terrible suspicion that the conventional God was not the highest truth, that there was higher knowledge, and that knowledge was the gnosis they celebrated. It was, among other things, the knowledge of their own higher identity, and therefore of their higher destiny.

On this point, let me refer you to Huston Smith’s fascinating book Forgotten Truth. He shows how Western religions all seem to consider the goal of immortality a summum bonum of highest bliss, the pleasure dome of Xanadu. Not physical pleasure, granted, but what’s the difference? As Zooey Glass says in Franny and Zooey, it’s hard to see how heavenly treasure is in principle much different from earthly.  By contrast, Eastern religions make the highest goal that of knowledge and being: Sat-Chit-Ananda.

See what I mean? The Gnostic knows that the world system the average believer takes for granted is a sham, a scheme, a show, and like the agnostic, he no longer wants to be grist for the mill of the Powers that rule this age, who count on his loyal allegiance to keep the scam going. What the Gnostic knows and what the agnostic knows is identical. Only the agnostic has managed to get beyond mythic consciousness. He can only honor his Gnostic predecessor and be amazed that he got so far. The agnostic views the Gnostic as Derrida views Heidegger. He was still an onto-theologian, but even his blindness relative to what we can see enabled him to see far beyond what was seen before, and it enabled us to see farther than he himself could.

Beyond his x-ray vision scrutiny of the false-world system, what did the Gnostic really know? The depths of God? The Unity of God with all things? And what knowledge is that? It is, I think a grand tautology. A microscope magnification magnified to so great a degree that we can no longer recognize anything. Place a slide with an amoeba on it beneath the microscope and you see what you couldn’t see before, the amoeba being too small for the naked eye. But magnify it that much more and your vantage point is too good, too close! You are smaller than the amoeba! Like on that Star Trek episode, where the Enterprise is caught in they know not what, until they can get a distant enough perspective to see it is a huge unicellular organism that has them mired. As it was at the start--you can see nothing! The Gnostic, when we get to his claims of knowledge beyond this world, knows nothing. And he will admit it-- no thing! Neti neti. His theology is apophatic. It is a knowledge of a cloud of unknowing.

Tillich said that the atheist is right to reject the God of theism, for this God is an idol unless, as Tillich said, we know that the God of theism, the one the five proofs point to, is a symbol for God. And what is that God? Eckhardt said, it is “the desert of the Godhead where no one man is at home.” The agnostic suspects that no one is at home there period, and that the supposed post-theistic God is simply a name for dissociative experience.

But however that may be, my point is that even here the agnostic and the Gnostic are one, for the Gnostic claims to know not only the unknown but the unknowable. Tillich says the revelation to the Gnostic is not a solution of the mystery, but the revelation of that mystery  as a mystery. One does not decode it; rather, one basks in it. That is something some people experience. Ontological or not, it is ontic. But at any rate it is not discursive knowledge. It is of such knowledge that the Te Tao Ching warns, “Those who know don’t say. Those who say don’t know.”

When we get to this point, I think we are only saying that an esthetic appreciation separates the agnostic from the Gnostic. Go whichever way you want from that crossroads. What I think is so important this morning is what unites the agnostic and the Gnostic, what makes the agnostic a Gnostic. The Gnostic’s privileged knowledge is really the same as the agnostic’s: it is that, vis-a-vis the beliefs of the mass, the Gnostic knows better, and so does the agnostic. The Gnostic has no more information about a higher realm than the agnostic does. Nor does he claim to! No, the claim to superior knowledge means one understands this world all too well.

Gnostic and agnostic alike, we know that the “knowledge” of the mass society is all a sham. And because we know this, we know too that meliorism is a sham. That is, the solution to which our energies may profitably be put is not to make things a wee bit better here on the Titanic. To redecorate the strange land in which we are strangers. It is rather, first, to know keep mindful, as unpleasant as it is, of the fact that we are aliens. It would be nice to be at ease in Zion, but we are in a sick society, as Kierkegaard saw, and it is to be sick to be well-adjusted to a sick society.

 Then we may emulate our predecessors, the ancient Gnostics. They knew that to broadcast their message indescriminantly would be to cast pearls before swine, and that if they tried it, they might wind up being trodden underfoot, persecuted. The goal was not to change the world, an impossible task, as the endless disappointments of electoral politics and peoples’ revolutions alike make clear: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” No, the goal is to spread the word, to be there to assure others, just awakening to their alienage, that they are right. There is a truth higher than God, that there is another world of truth they may attain to. It may sound elitist, but then who says who is and is not among the elite? Only each individual. The mass may scoff or get mad, but through argument and paradox and essay and comedy we must raise our questions and it will be reward enough to see another Prodigal come to himself and snap out of the illusion that he belongs among the pigs.


Robert M. Price

April 29, 2000




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