Flight from Experience: Gnosticism

I mean two things by this term gnosticism, which basically refers to a specific idea about knowledge. The idea about knowledge it refers to consists in forgetfulness of experience and of history. To illustrate this let’s look at a commonly debated question: Is it possible to love someone else until I love myself? Some people insist that we cannot love others unless we love ourselves. Others are not so sure. We may ask the parallel question: Can I really know anyone else unless I first know myself? Again there are different opinions. If anything brings knowing and loving together it’s relationship. And, of course, people often wonder how they can be in a healthy relationship without first becoming healthy individuals. If I do not know and love myself, how can I know and love my spouse, partner, family, friends, etc.?

Gnostic ideas in psychology and philosophy offer a clear answer to each of these questions. You can’t! If we need the appreciation or approval of others to feel good about ourselves, we make them responsible for our mental health and well-being. If we look beyond ourselves to role models to learn out how to love and live responsibly, we are being untrue to ourselves. If we hope for someone, anyone, or for the universe or God to save us, we will be waiting along time. No help is coming. Gnostic ideas offer the hope and promise of self-salvation and self-grace. This why we cannot know, love or be in genuine relationship with anyone else unless and until we achieve this first with respect to ourselves.

My first point is that this kind of self-salvation, self-knowledge and -love, rests on a certain forgetfulness of experience. Everything we learn, we learn by first experiencing something. I do not mean that experience is the same as knowing. I have had many experiences of hearing people speak in foreign languages. But I do not know what those speakers are saying. I have also been frightened when coming upon things in the dark that I perceive dimly but do not understand. I once shrieked like a Ring Wraith when I saw a black figure in a dark and unfamiliar room that I took to be a crouching animal and that turned out to be a large throw-pillow. So experiencing is not knowing. But knowing begins there. The sounds coming from foreign speakers and the confused outlines of obscure figures are the stuff about which we ask questions on the road to knowledge. We build up our ideas about things, people, cultures, traditions, the world, God, and even ourselves piece by piece by being attentive and curious about our experiences.

Gnosticism supposes that we know these by knowing the whole picture. That larger meaning might be revealed to us by those “in the know” who reveal to us the giant truths that government, media, teachers or the church don’t want us to know. Or it might be something we discover within ourselves by entering altered states of consciousness or by finding or inventing the meaning of it all for ourselves.* Gnostic wisdom attempts to circumvent the long, slow process of self-discovery by completing an end-around that avoids real contact with everyday experience.

My second point about the kind of knowledge on offer is that it involves a flight from history. The process of knowledge that begins with experience also ends with experience. When I saw the dim and frightening image in the dark room, my instinct was to run. My mind suggested that I turn on a light. Turning on the light provided me with additional experience and information that I used to disconfirm my first guess about the nature of the figure. Knowledge involves a learning cycle that moves from experience through thinking and back to experience. The return to experience supports, corrects or disconfirms what I thought was going on. There is a history to my knowledge of myself, others, my world and God that plays out in this virtuous cycle. This is history in the sense of a personal or intellectual autobiography. It is history as lived. But history means something else. We cannot avoid representing to ourselves this process of knowledge itself. Besides the history that we live, there is the history that we write about and try to explain to ourselves.

Gnosticism belongs to this second type of history. It offers an explanation of knowledge, love and relationships that, as I say, involves a flight from experience. It claims that we do not really know and love ourselves or others until we know and love the whole thing that we are a part of. In reality, knowledge and love are the culmination of a long and cyclical process. But we do not really wait for our lives to be explained to us before we start living them. We live a bit, stop and reflect on what we are doing, get some ideas, go on living, reflect some more and perhaps correct our first ideas, go on living perhaps putting some of the new ideas about the process into action, and gradually progress to a fuller and fuller sense of what it means to love self and others. It’s a beautiful cycle we call human growth.

Certainly, we can become better at loving others as we learn to know and love ourselves and correct our mistakes or the direction of our living. And we do this most effectively and efficiently if we consciously and deliberately commit to the cyclical path. But the commitment is one we make from wherever we happen to find ourselves. The process itself process of living itself is one that we have already begun and we are already well on our way.

*Any of the experiences or ideas advocated by what I am calling gnostic sources may of course be entered into the ongoing cycle of living and learning. The point here is that the process does await them nor we should grant them certainty or automatic authenticity.

Additional blogs in this series include Flight from Experience: Observation Biases and Mindful Self-Presence: Challenge and Promise

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2 Comments

  1. Wow! This is a mind-bending blog. I’m trying to put together a few things, notably the self-salvation of gnosticism and the “forgetfulness of experience” that you talk about. I can see why I need to attend to experience to get things right. But it seems that I’m the one who has to do this. This seems to be the case with history too. I’m the one who has to get historical stuff right. I agree that I need to do these things properly. But it’s still me that’s doing it. So how does this make “self-salvation” a problem?

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  2. Thanks for that great question. Here’s the beginning of my answer. Starting with the idea of getting things or history right , I’d say that to do so I have to acknowledge something that I did not choose for myself. By self-salvation I mean deciding for myself (or ourselves) what knowledge or love or responsibility mean. If knowledge is a cycle and responsibility involves a process of growth, then the things I do not choose for myself are the stages and activities that make up the cycle and process. I am, as you say, the one doing the work. But the work itself has something normative about it: there are things I ought to do. Gnostic solutions impose an artificial limit on those normative activities, a limit i (or we) choose for ourselves. Those limits often exclude questions that make up historical or critical thinking. Some examples of gnostic psychology focus exclusively on mindfulness meditation as the source of true enlightenment or self-love. Others promote self-love by teaching some big idea about the whole of religion without going through the concrete historical studies of particular religions. As I see it, we can learn to love ourselves by learning to love others if we follow the full cycle of knowledge and process of responsible living.

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