Insights, Gnostic and Otherwise: I Don’t Wanna Live in This Place (or do I?)

In my “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy” series I’ve been exploring similarities and commonalities between Gnostic and orthodox Christianity.  Here I want to talk about a major difference–a difference that in my view is actually more fundamental than the various differences of Scripture, practice, doctrine, and so on.  This difference is a difference in outlook; or, to put it better, a difference of experience or perception of the world.

The first experience is the experience of being at home.  Sometimes we appreciate the beauty of nature; we perceive the miracle of being an intelligent being on a planet full of intelligent beings; we enjoy good food and good friends.  The sun shines, we love others, things seem to be going well, all is right with the world.  Sure, life isn’t perfect; but how wonderful it is to be alive.  In short, we sometimes feel very  much at home in the universe.  For all its flaws and faults, there’s nowhere else we’d rather be.  This is what I will call the experience or intuition of belonging.  This is the fundamental orthodox insight.

On the other hand, sometimes things don’t seem so rosy.  Things are screwed up; we get ill; the stock market dives; wars erupt in distant lands; our finances bottom out.  We look around and it seems that everything is timed to have the greatest possible bad effects.  We see the faults and failings of even those closest to us, and even the things we take greatest pleasure in seem to loose their savor.  We feel, to quote an old Sting song, that “roses have thorns, and shining waters mud, and cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud”.  To put it as David Byrne did, we look around and think “This is not my beautiful house!  This is not my beautiful wife!”  In short we feel like refugees washed up on the shore of some foreign land, adrift, far from home, not even sure where home is.    This is what I’ll call the intuition of alienation.  This is the fundamental Gnostic insight.   This is what the video above expresses, albeit in an 80’s, Euro-pop kind of way. 

This, I submit, is the true heart of the differences between the Gnostic and orthodox views.  The orthodox feels at home in the cosmos and that God arranged it that way.  The Gnostic feels like an alien, and worships an Alien God who is above and beyond this world.  All other differences flow from this difference of insight.  Now I think that all sensitive people who have ever thought about life have had both insights at various times in their lives.  Different individuals will find one or the other more compelling, more in tune with their gut instincts, if you will.  A single individual may be more prone to one insight or other at different times of  his life.  In any case, a person will tend to be drawn towards religions or philosophies that are most in tune with his dominant insight.  Thus, Gnosticism is based on the deep insight of alienation, and orthodoxy on the insight of belonging; and one who feels predominantly the perception of alienation will gravitate to Gnosticism–and vice versa.

It’s likely that the insight of belonging tends to be commoner than that of alienation, which is why Gnosticism will tend in most circumstances to be a minority view.  On the other hand, the two insights probably predominate in society at large to different extents during different historical and sociocultural circumstances.  The bulk of the last century, and the current century thus far seem to have been very much characterized by pervasive feelings of alienation and anomie.  Given this, what might be called the Gnostic revival–the increased interest in Gnosticism and the pervasive use of Gnostic themes in pop culture–is hardly surprising.

Even here, though, there are actually commonalities.  Christian orthodoxy has never had a simple relationship with the world.  Ascetics and saints in various denominations have long been suspicious of the world; and the Salve Regina speaks of our “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”.  The world may be our provisional home, but it’s still just a temporary stop on the journey of the “pilgrim Church on Earth”.  On the other hand, Gnostic groups did not completely disparage the material world or our interaction with it.  Some Gnostic scriptures have striking imagery based on the beauty of the natural world; and not all Gnostics were the stereotypical world-denying ascetics.

Thus, I think to some extent it’s not that either tradition lacks both insights; it’s a matter of which gets emphasized.  Excessive emphasis on any one aspect of human existence is generally unhealthy; and this is perhaps another factor in the drop-off of formal church affiliation over the last decades.  Traditional mainline Christian denominations have actually been rather schizoid, paying lip service to the goodness of creation while simultaneously putting forth some rather unbalanced and un-nuanced teachings on sexuality and having relatively little regard for the environment in actual practice.  In short, it was the worst of both worlds, the Gnostic and orthodox.  For a variety of reasons, I’ve come to a part of my life in which I experience the insight of alienation much more than in the past.  This is what has been instrumental in my developing a greater sympathy for Gnostic thought, in studying it more carefully, and in the project I’m pursuing here.  Neither system has ever been perfect in the actual world we live in, and both have had periods of imbalance.  What I’m interested in is trying to get the best–not the worst–of both worlds.

Posted on 14/10/2012, in 80's, Christianity, Gnosticism, meaning of life, music, music videos, philosophy, pop, religion, theology, videos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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