Gnostic Discontent

Discussions about gnosticism often spring too quickly into theology for my tastes. Those theological discussions are valuable and necessary for spiritual work, but when we begin with theology we lose touch with our reason for engaging with theology. Those reasons have their basis in more immediate experiences that give our words a meaningful referent and provide a foundation for spiritual work in and on our life.

This can be tough to talk about because these sorts of experiences often fall just outside the scope of our concepts. They define a hazier world that we feel rather than think. The feelings, though, define our point of connection to the things in the world and it is within the domain of feeling that thought develops and matures. What I want to do here is grope at that world of feeling in which gnosticism becomes a living and vital response to our experience.

Gnosticism begins with a sense of mismatch, of error, of the world being out of sorts. This sense may begin in regards to a mundane event, a routine disappointment, but when it acquires gnostic dimensions, that sense spirals outward to encompass every level with which we have direct experience. The whole world manifests as out of joint with itself, like a drunk whose body lurches out of proportion to the will’s direction of it.

What is troubling to the gnostic is that they find themselves entangled in this lurching, unable to find the rhythm that would allow them to join their volition to its results in the world. Guilt, fantasy, embarrassment, and nostalgia provide the foundation for gnosticism. A properly gnostic theology must unfurl itself within this world of feeling, without shirking the discomfort appropriate to it.

It’s easy to recoil from that and deny the value in these feelings. It’s easy to switch tactics, to affirm in its place a theology rooted in some other kind of feeling, say the feeling of joy or ecstasy. The gnostic can’t do that, in part because an honest relationship to the world doesn’t allow them to. Attending to the trajectories of joy and ecstasy, the gnostic discovers, again and again, how joy and ecstasy inevitably lurch.

Gnosticism develops within the fissure between what should happen and what actually happens. In its strongest forms, gnostic practices provide the gnostic with a clearer and more vivid sense of a spiritual order that the material world is unable to manifest fully.

What needs to be emphasized here is that there are a number of different ways to respond to this gnostic sensibility at the practical and theological level. Having a common sense of complicity in the lurching world does not equate to having a common response to it. The gnostic can experience a call to narrow the fissure between the worlds or a call to abandon one side of divide in favor of the other, for example. Both have a concern with the fissure.

The fissure isn’t imaginary, though it is often through the imagination that the gnostic deepens their awareness. Feeling prepares the way that thought follows; it is quite literally a presentiment, a feeling before conscious awareness. That presentiment of the fissure prepares us for a revelation (i.e., a gnosis) that joins (and rejoins) knowledge and feeling, sentiment and understanding.

Gnosis develops our feelings and sentiments and reveals their richness. Gnostic practices vary, in part, according to the way they cultivate this rejoinder of knowledge to feeling.

I’ll stop here, because I want to let that emphasis stand: the revelation, the gnosis, of gnosticism lies precisely in the illumination of the world of feeling by thought. It is not the end of the gnostic work but its beginning. What follows is the intensification of it, a process of turn and return.

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