[NB] Revelation and Gnosis in Context

Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation (ἀποκαλύψει; apocalypse), or by knowledge (γνώσει; gnosis), or by prophesying (προφητείᾳ), or by doctrine (διδαχῇ; didactic knowledge or instruction)?—I Corinthians 14:6

I have mentioned Revelation a bit, but I came across this more recently and realized it provides a useful model for talking about what is going on in the text and how it might meant to be received and used. I like it, too, because it helps to flesh out what the gnosis of gnosticism is supposed to be and how it relates to other forms of knowledge and communication. There is also something to be taken here about the place of knowledge derived from ecstasies and trance, which is no small thing either.

(Corinthians as a whole pairs well with Revelation. The discussion of the body of the Church and its relationship to individuals and the cosmos is of the same cloth as Revelation which proceeds to carry out the transmission of the individual into the Church and cosmos.)

The differentiation can be comfortably elucidated through its comparison with the lines of a geomantic figure, too, suggesting a shared horizon of meaning. The four forms of understanding can be lined up like steps of a ladder. Understanding can proceed upward or downward, but at each point remains firmly in contact with the ladder itself as it joins heaven and earth.

(A ladder that joins heaven and earth is also a rainbow, in which case the different forms of knowledge are bands in a common spectrum, equally useful for contemplation.)

While I would suggest that the categories of I Corinthians are more fundamental than the elemental ones of the geomantic oracle, let me parallel them for clarity:

Revelation (apocalypse)-Fire
Knowledge (gnosis)-Air
Prophecy-Water
Doctrine (instruction)-Earth

Each form of knowledge can them be understood in part according to what it joins and is joined to. Even the top and bottom rungs, which are joined directly to forms of knowledge on one side only, are joined to other vital elements to understanding. Revelation opens onto the apprehension of the Christ as Godhead while doctrine opens onto the coordination of the body of the Church. (The friction oracle metaphor holds here: Godhead and Church are not identical, but through the understanding arrayed between them become sympathetic and entrained with each other.)

Beginning with revelation as a form of knowledge, what we encounter are wonders. The revealing of Christ directly exposes the wondrous dimension of the world, one that is generally closed to us. Come, see, behold. Gnosis manifests as a growing appreciation of the relationships that exist between the elements of this wondrous world. The structural relationships that hold between the wondrous aspects of the hidden world appear with increasing clarity, sometimes acquiring something akin to hierarchical organization.

Prophecy is an exceptionally rich term in this context. It joins the Greek practices from which the term is derived to a family of Semitic practices to which the term is often applied. Greek prophecy is straightforward enough as it relates to a prediction of what will come to pass. Semitic prophecy is somewhat more complex. Though often appreciated under the auspices of prediction, it also includes a fundamentally ethical, causal, and critical substrate. It explains why some event comes to pass, generally linking it to the moral qualities of those to whom the event befalls.

The coming together of these two meanings around Christian uses of the word makes sense of how prophecy operates in Revelation and how it serves to mediate between gnosis and doctrine. As the heavenly and earthly world are joined, it is necessary that the what is revealed in the heavenly will also find expression in the earthly. What is modeled by Revelation is that this structure of the heavens is first and proceeds to exert an effect in the earthly (what is loosed in heaven…). Prophecy makes clear how the gnostic structures of the godhead will manifest in the earthly world, thus promising knowledge of the future.

Knowing this has both historical and moral dimension and it is prophecy’s task to elucidate both. The historical dimensions are, to a great extent, treated as beyond human interference. However, within that unfolding historical prophecy, the prophet also calls out to individuals to break from the moral failings that animate the historical prophecy. That break mirrors the division inherent in the differentiation of knowledges into the heavenly and the earthly, too. Historical fatalism is understood to condition and reveal a spiritual freedom. Notice in the Book of Revelation how frequently the angel gives the gnostic vision a prophetic meaning.

The fatalism is of a specific character, for it is not hopeless but hopeful. What reveals itself as destructive in the earthly world is shown to be the consumption of the earthly by the heavenly. The world of wonders overturns the earthly and it is in this overturning that prophecy opens the way to doctrine. If the world of wonders is destined to overtake the world without, then it is the task of the one who has seen to prepare others for this. Prophecy reveals the flaws in the earthly while doctrine provides the means for individuals to pass through and beyond them.

Instruction provides a means of comportment which will make them ready and welcome in the world of wonders. To be comported, they must submit to instructions they do not entirely understand as the first step toward that understanding.

(The way in which Job probes and criticizes prophetic logic helps make sense of how it comes to be a sorcerous text in at least one of the hoodoo traditions explored by Zora Neale Hurston. It is a secret unto itself, one that is properly shrouded with mystery but through which an alternative to doctrine manifests. All things permitted, but all things edify not.)

The ladder of knowledge, with its linear ascent and descent, forms just one form of interaction, though. Joined, the knowledges possess relationships of affinity as well as those of proximity. Divided by proximity to heaven and to earth, they form two structural homonyms. Apocalypse is to gnosis as prophecy is to instruction:

Apocalypse : Gnosis :: Prophecy : Instruction

This suggests an affinity between apocalypse and prophecy on the one hand and gnosis and instruction on the other. Apocalypse and prophecy are both forms of apprehension, whereas gnosis and instruction are forms of explication. There is a moral dimension and epistemological challenge to both gnosis and instruction; whereas both revelation and prophecy are self-evident, their meaning is not, and it is in that engagement with meaning that spiritual development becomes possible.

Remember the ring structure of the Sefer Yetzirah?

“first there is an introductory section, a prologue that presents the theme and context. The story then proceeds toward its crucial center: the turning point and climax. Once there, the beginning is invoked again, and the tale reverses direction. The second half of the story echoes the first, as if the writer is walking backward through the plot. The ending is a return to the beginning.”–Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah (43)

There is something similar going on in the Book of Revelation, though it may not qualify as a true ring. The first portion is occupied with instructions to the seven churches, instructions that contain within them an implicit prophecy should the instructions not be followed. The book concludes with instructions regarding its transmission, as well as a prophecy of what will befall those who fail to adhere to it. That beginning and ending in the earthy anchors its heavenly components. The care for its earthly anchorage suggests that the aims of Revelation were always longer term, that its second coming was more of a perpetual and enduring world alongside ours, a death-in-life to ready the Christian for the death-out-of-life.

Paul elaborates this tightly packed system in response to how speaking in tongues ought to be treated within the churches. In drawing these distinctions, he clearly intends that the speaking in tongues falls beneath all of these forms of knowledge, that it operates at another level. In acknowledging its virtues, he gives it a place, but in constraining its cultivation he also identifies its limitations. As an exemplary case, it is instructive.

Wonders like speaking in tongues are lower iterations of the wonders of revelation and they are valued and treated in the same fashion. What is key to their utility is that there be an interpreter of tongues, one who can translate what is spoken into the common tongue. When they can be disciplined accordingly and reveal in miniature the divine ordering of knowledges they serve an edifying function. That they occur at all is wondrous in a minor chord sort of way. When they can be given meaning, interpreted, and shared with the community they become a microcosm of higher knowledge, but not a replacement for it.

I suspect more than a little of what gets called ‘gnosis’ these days is nothing like what is called gnosis here. Rather, much contemporary gnosis seems to be the visionary equivalent of speaking in tongues, a minor and worthy wonder so long as it is subjected to (thoughtful) interpretation and points our attention toward greater wonders. When it becomes central to spiritual work, when it distracts our attention from the greater wonders, then it turns inimical, then it becomes precisely the sort of earthly distraction that it is prophecy’s task to criticize and instruction’s task to provide a better vehicle.

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3 thoughts on “[NB] Revelation and Gnosis in Context

    1. Io

      This may be an Anglophone thing, but I am thinking of the habit of using “gnosis” to refer to any information received through spiritual means. e.g., when a person working with a spirit guide receives guidance for how to see faeries, compose a magical oil, or how to interpret a specific tarot card arrangement, they might talk about this as a bit of ‘personal gnosis.’

  1. I think I hear you pretty clearly here, Io. It’s an elegant construction you’ve worked out here, tying various forms of information to elemental forces…. fire being the most active and vibrant, the most subtle and unpredictable; earth being the least subtle and most solid. Water and Air, those middle children forever squabbling, occupy that space and time where storm, flood, lightning, whirlwind and fog occurs. I’m reminded of Father Bill’s comment in seminary, “ah, mysticism… it begins in mist, and ends in schism.”

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