Christ and Gnosis
A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 16–18)
Jesus and Agape
In Episode 16 of Awakening to the Meaning Crisis’, John Vervaeke dares to speak about Jesus of Nazareth. Considering that about one billion people in the world believe that Jesus is the living God, Vervaeke admits that this is a perilous, and perhaps pretentious undertaking. And yet Vervaeke still attempts to help us understand Jesus’s contribution to world history.
He begins with the three Greek kinds of love, since the New Testament was written in Greek, and love is the highest principal within Christianity. When Jesus says, ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you’, obviously he was not talking about erotic love or eros, the desirous form of love—nor was he speaking of philia, which means reciprocal friendship and cooperation. The Christian love refers to the love of creation and existential transformation, the Greek agape.
Agapic love—a kind of cosmic, selfless love—rescues us from the meaning crisis and brings us towards existential fullness. The parent knows what agapic love is all about: by taking care of a child his or her ‘salience landscape’ is transformed from a ‘me-centered’ to a ‘you-centered’ one. Through attention, the parent brings the child to personhood—and this also radically changes the parent. In the same way, Christians come to meaning and fullness through surrender to that higher ‘parent’ principle called God.
The notion of forgiveness in Christianity has been banalized in the contemporary world and thought of as some kind soft benevolence, of letting our enemies off the hook—but real forgiveness is a dimension of agape. Real forgiveness means literally for giving, the impulse towards generosity. Vervaeke, interestingly, describes Christian forgiveness as the ability to give agapic love, or to help others grow into fullness and meaning, through presence and attention.
The transition from an egoic worldview to an agapic one is what Jesus offered, according to Vervaeke. To illustrate this transformation Vervaeke uses a pertinent example from Iris Murdoch: we may be irritated by the rude mannerisms of our mother in law, but we can also see that person as authentic. Our generous point of view transforms that person—a new dimension of the person is revealed through sympathetic resonance. This is knowing by loving, or real for-giveness, according to Vervaeke.
Paul and the dark side of Christianity
Christianity radically humanized God, in the figure of Jesus. If the Jewish messiah was supposed to emancipate the tribe, Jesus would save the poor, the meek, and the lowly sinner. In Christianity, God is cast from the halls of good opinion and murdered as a common criminal. This is a radical inversion of how we normally think of God, as ‘almighty’. The God of Christianity is both the high and the low, the most vulnerable and the most powerful simultaneously.
Christianity also has its dark side, according to Vervaeke, in the tormented dualism of the person of Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul. Saul was on the road to Damascus on his way to arrest the early Christians, when he was literally blinded by a vision of Christ. After being nursed to health by those he would prosecute—the ‘followers of the way’ or the early Christians that is—he recovering his vision. He ended up converting to this new religion and writing thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament.
Paul, according to Vervaeke, represents a division between the old legalistic Yahweh and the new Christian God of agape or forgiveness. Through his writing, and by personalizing God and making Him into an historical being, Paul projected his own inner demons on to God. The sense of conflict and divided projection that haunted Paul has haunted Christianity ever since Paul, and has attracted no shortage of divided and tormented souls. The God described by Paul is strangely brutal and merciful at the same time. And he demands a kind of perfection, which we can only fail to live up to.
Vervaeke doesn’t diminish Paul and recognizes his radical poetry and power. But today, he says, we pay a price for living in the shadow of Pauline Christianity. We have inherited Paul’s sense of sin and self-division, but no longer have the collective means to address our existential anxiety through the rites of the church. We still swim in the grammar of Christianity but will not accept the creed, and therefore live with Paul's intense inner division but without the help of a parent God.
According to Vervaeke, gnosticism is the more radical position of the axial revolution. And it remains a powerful influence on the modern world, especially in pop culture, and in films like The Matrix, The Truman show, Star Wars, and other of the endless pop-culture expressions of gnostic mythology.
Actually, it is very hard to say what Gnosticism actually is, since the term didn’t exist in ancient times and was coined in the 17th-century. But the loose association of people whom we now consider to be the Gnostics, some of whom were Christian, have always been controversial: they were first group to be considered heretical by the orthodox Christians, for instance.
According to gnostic mythology, we are all trapped in a matrix of sorts, imprisoned by various evil gods, powers, and principalities. Our job is to fight our way out of the matrix and to free ourselves from ‘the demiurg’, who is like the tyrannical God of the old testament or the robot overlord in the matrix. Each of us has a ‘divine spark’ inside, or the keys to our existential prison. The Christian Gnostics thought that spark was Christ, even if they were less interested in Jesus the person than the archetypal Jesus.
The gnostic hero's journey is endlessly compelling and taps into our sense of imprisonment and desire for liberation—gnosticism appeals to our inner social justice warrior, so to speak. Furthermore, gnosticism is also accessible to people who no longer want to serve traditional Gods or institutions. Even the new atheists, who believe that the gods of religion are by nature evil, have been touched by gnostic mythology to a certain extent. Gnosticism aims to free us from all the ancient gods and customs.
As in Christianity there is a potential dark side of Gnosticism however. As Vervaeke points out, Nazism was a kind of twisted Gnostic ideology. Gnosticism at its worst is the ultimate conspiracy theory, which encourages ideological possession and victimology. In extreme gnosticism, the entire material world is a conspiracy: our very body is a matrix of evil entrapment controlled by the demiurge. In radical gnosticism the divide between the material and the physical world is total: the material world is sinful and fallen and the spiritual world is all sweetness and light.
Gnosticism reveals something sinister in us, our fear of nature and the body. It also necessitates a scapegoat. If we are victims of some invisible force which seeks to imprison us and reduce our humanity, we can always project that evil demiurge onto an innocent person or group. Gnosticism therefore allows us to justify a violent revolution against some invisible enemy. The Jews of Europe or the kulac farmers of Ukraine, for instance, have all been used as substitutes for the demiurge in the mass killings of the twentieth century. (See Réne Girard’s theory of The Scapegoat)
And yet Vervaeke tells us that, despite the ambivalent attitude we should have towards gnosticism, we should ‘liberate the gnosis within gnosticism’. Gnosticism, in some respects, resembles Buddhism, another non- theistic approach to spirituality. In Buddhism, the divine principle is not an uber creator or any historical person but the enlightened potential within every sentient being. Real gnosis is beyond personification or gender—it has no ideology or cult—it cannot be described but is closer to us than our very breath. Real gnonsis reveals a spark of a non-theistic spirituality — a direct knowing of the divine.
Plotinus and Existentialism
Vervaeke seems to define Gnosis as kind of elevated ‘participatory knowing’, rather than any kind of supernatural state. We experience gnosis when we ‘become one’ with a higher reality. For instance, when we hear sublime music, we feel one with the composer of that music. When John Vervaeke is reading Spinoza, he has moments beyond mere intellectual understanding, where he starts to ‘know’ the being and mind of Spinoza from the inside.
One of our difficulties in being able to experience gnosis is being stuck in our framing (see Vervaeke’s analogy to the 9 dot problem). What is outside the Matrix—our world of habit and mechanical reaction—is literally unthinkable to us. We are existentially stuck. Should we change our job? Should we have a child? Should we date this or that person? The problem is that we won’t know until we do it. And not to do it requires some kind of sacrifice, the loss of our current situation, and all the other potentialities. Like Hamlet we are constantly stuck with the question ‘To be or not to be’.
One of the functions of religion, Vervaeke points out, is to help us with this indecision, to teach us how to play with reality and come up with something new. And by play, he doesn’t mean fun necessarily, but the very serious play of orientating our lives. When we play music, we touch the liminal edge of reality, coming in and out of a conscious frame, creating novelty through repetition and error. The same thing happens in theater or religious ritual: we put on various costumes, dissolve our present reality, and try to creatively enact a new one.
One of the causes of the meaning crisis is a loss of this serious ritual play, which orients us in the world. Human beings are hungry for new ways to play, to participate in creation, to experience gnosis. Rituals of all kinds help us overcome our existential stuckness, to become more whole, and know ourselves to a greater degree. That is the positive sense of the experience of gnosis, or participatory knowing: to heal our divided, fragmented, and fractured selves.
How do we make our lives more real, more unified, more meaningful? Plotinus had a philosophy he called ‘ the one’. He thought that the more ‘one’ something is, the more real it becomes—this is the move from Aristotle’s ‘potential’ to‘ actual’. From the desert to the real.
The search for oneness, for a unified vision, continues.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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