This ancient idea is something I have been thinking about for a long time. But, as I tried to write about it, its ways of infiltrating various schools of thought, and its apparent power to shape our outlooks even today, the text kept spiralling out of control. This is at least the fifth attempt after letting it all sit for a few months.
Gnosticism, an ancient idea
Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “having knowledge”; γνῶσις gnōsis, “knowledge”. Gnosticism is an ancient and secretive selection of teachings about reality with a specific way of looking at life and people, and probably describes the way you think (at least a little).
In a Gnostic version of creation, our flawed material world was created by accident. The pure “spark” of the divine was trapped within it, and is trying to escape. Most people are just “sacks of meat, sleepwalking through life”, while a select few have a connection to that original spark, and the potential to realise their true nature, but they must find a teacher with the keys to unlock the “secret” knowledge required.
In Gnosticism things like good and evil are not just in opposition, but equal in power. As a result, the “good” spiritual (spirit, soul, essence) and “evil” material (the flesh, the physical world) can never be reconciled; they are pitted against one another in battle – so we must choose our side carefully.
This view of reality resonates with people, so Gnosticism easily found its way into religion and philosophy. In a Gnostic interpretation of Christianity Judas was the hero, responsible for “freeing Christ’s spirit from his bodily prison”.
A more common example is interpreting “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as proof of a battle between the spiritual and physical, which many consider to be a fundamental part of religion: all physical things are bad and shameful, while only spiritual endeavours are pure.
This can a captivating narrative, especially when coming from a charismatic source. It plays on insecurities, and makes big promises. It is a call to battle in a hidden war, and tells you that you have the power to do something about it, because you might have something others lack.
The other way
But, there is another, competing idea. It is a more universal, or holistic way of thinking, and interprets things like “God created the world and saw that it was good” as meaning that the physical aspect of reality is fundamentally good, and that together with the spiritual aspect they both form integral parts of reality, or of a person. When there is harmony between the two, things are good. Evil is not as powerful, but it is sneaky, and can seduce us – leading to a perversion of our gifts.
The Gnostic way of “thinking”:
- things are divided into opposing sides (good/evil, spirit/flesh, elite/common)
- horrific conflict is inevitable, and either side can win
- “advancing” in life requires access to hidden knowledge
- only the elite (“high priests”) hold the key to this knowledge
- only the truly special among us can unlock “the secret”
The “universal” way of thinking:
- everything forms part of a bigger picture, which is basically good
- harmony is possible, conflict comes from our weakness
- advancing in life requires humility and hard work
- knowledge and truth are all around us
- we are all equal in value; becoming more than you start out with is up to you
The universal idea can be found everywhere. In Zen Buddhism, zazen (a simple meditative practice) tells its practitioners that “they are not doing anything special,” and that feelings of progress actually mean one has taken a step backwards. In Judaism a person is not a soul trapped in a body, but a body and a soul, which is why the theology envisions an end time where people once again have bodies (either their old ones or new ones). In Christianity “salvation is for everyone” (not just chosen ones); you must simply “carry your cross”, and there are no shortcuts.
As for the yin and yang of the east, it is true that they are equal and opposed, but they are not in a conflict that will lead to a victor; they are complementary, with each containing part of the other (the small circle within each colour). Both form part of the whole, and the natural state of things is harmony.
The small distinction between a Gnostic way of thinking and a more universal perspective has massive consequences for the way we think about everything: life, work, success, spirituality, religion, and practically anything connected with the human condition (even politics).
Gnostic “thinking” today
It is hard to say if the ancient idea of Gnosticism influences how we think today, or if it is just an accurate description of how we already think. Also, the Gnostic story of conflict, secrets, power, and being special really sells.
In advertising we are consistently tempted by the “secret to happiness”, “the thing the health industry doesn’t want you to know about”, and “the X number of things successful people do everyday”. In the news we get reports that the world is on fire, and are constantly provoked to outrage at what the “other side” is doing, allowing ourselves to be convinced that people who probably agree with 90% of what we think are in fact horrible monsters.
In entertainment it is present in The Da Vinci Code (everything is a conspiracy locked in a riddle), Harry Potter (a special few in the world of the mundane, non-magical “muggles”), and, years ago, in Jonathan Livingston Seagull (the bird who sensed life was more than just eating, and went on to discover great power from his esoteric teachers).
In revolutionary academics it appears in the never-ending battle of class, sex, or race (presented by some “high priests” of education to the “select” students enlightened enough to understand it), with no hope of resolution other than tearing everything down.
All of this makes sense in Gnosticism, which sees a treacherous balance between opposing sides, and no middle ground (“if you’re not for us, you’re against us”). It focuses on differences, rather than commonalities, and sees reality as something “problematic”.
For those who don’t reflect on this, it can seem obvious that there are two “teams” at war, and that the trick in life is to pick the right side. Putting things into dualistic Gnostic terms may be something we do intuitively, and I admit I can feel the excitement of it, especially when I think about being one of the “chosen” ones who will someday discover his “true powers”.
But, then I think about how we see what we want to see: a Gnostic thinker sees conflict everywhere, a first year psychology student spots neurotics at every turn, and a liar suspects everyone of deceit. A universal perspective, when thought all the way through, can seem a little dull, with ego-bruising ideas like “your insecurities might be a bigger obstacle than your so-called enemies”, and the painful fact that improving yourself can be quite uncomfortable on a physical and personal level. However, if this means living in a world where things and people are basically good, and where we have ownership over our own lives, regardless of what we or others think we are capable of doing, is this not more positive and empowering?
Do you see religion and culture solely as systems of power and shaming, or (also) as a part of our history, psychology, and evolution? Do you see politics as a way of fighting against the morons on the other side, or as a way of building bridges? Do you see a nuanced position as a way for someone to hide their true opinion and manipulate (instead of just getting to the point), or an attempt at looking at a difficult concept honestly?
If you gravitate to the former in all the previous examples, you might think that most people just don’t get it; they are just zombies and slaves to the mediocre, and it is OK if some of them are sacrificed. Today we can sacrifice someone’s reputation at the altar of our cause, using on-line means to take away someone’s dignity, rob them of their humanity, and threaten their livelihood. Innocents may be caught in the middle, but such is the price we must pay…
Gnosticism is a fascinating collection of ideas with a rich history, and convincingly creates and inspires modern myths. However, in everyday life it can take us in a dark direction. It doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt when we disagree with them, and too often it looks for external blame when we feel like something is missing in our own lives. When I hear of “echo chambers”, I think about Gnosticism and its power to inspire someone to dig their heels in and defend a position, as if the conflict itself is proof of their righteousness. This provides a kind of meaning (which we humans thirst for), but where does it take us in the long run?
The universal way may take longer, and require us to remain vigilant with regard to our own hearts and minds, but it is not racked with guilt. When considering a general “truth of the world”, a simple question to ask is, which one truly sets you free?
If the world is basically good, the truth should not always feel like a heavy burden and a call to war. If the “truth” you discover just weighs you down more and more, you should wonder whether it is the real truth. Truly breaking out of the cage is hard; the ego cries out, but ultimately the person is liberated from bondage. Truly opening your eyes can be a shock, and waking up is not pleasant, but if you open your eyes only to see the walls of a new prison (of rules, guilt, shame, and pain) you are probably still dreaming – or perhaps having a Gnostic nightmare.