Since What We Choose is What We Are, and What We Love We Yet Shall Be: Gnosticism and Agnosticism, part 1


Sermon Text:

There are days in life that change everything, not only for us but for everyone.  We look back on them and the questions are always the same.  Do you remember…? Where were you when….?  On September 11, 2001, I was living in Washington DC I watched the Pentagon burn from the rooftop of my building.  The sky was brilliant, the streets were empty, our breaths were held.  The day turned into weeks and months and history and Washington mourned and worked its way through the aftermath, anxious, grieving, exhausted, a city in trauma.  Police cars drove around with their sirens off but their lights on all the time, reinforcing the feeling that the city was in a perennial state of emergency all the time.  After a couple of months, driving 4 hours to visit loved ones in Pittsburgh was blissful.  Pittsburgh was utterly different. They too had mourned and felt stricken on 9/11 – but it hadn’t happened there, to all of them, the way it did in DC and New York.  The city felt so much less stressful and traumatized.  My loved ones didn’t understand what I meant.  I explained it was everything – the mood, the way people looked and moved and spoke – everything in Pittsburgh felt easier, lighter.  Of course there was no data to support my claim.  But I knew what I knew.  And a year later, those same loved ones told me with great enthusiasm about a study that had come out showing that stress levels in DC and New York attacked on 9/11 remained much higher than those in other parts of the country for a long time  I told them I knew that already. I reminded them I had told them that a year earlier.  And they said ‘yeah, but you couldn’t really know for sure without the data.’  And I said ‘Yes I could.  I knew it.  I was there.’

The Gospel According to John is rooted in early Gnostic Christianity – an ancient and mystical movement that believed Jesus’ unique role was through his teaching, not his death.  The Christian Gnostics believed Jesus was a savior because he taught salvific knowledge, he was a messenger to this flawed realm, bringing enlightenment that could literally elevate – to a beautiful ‘Kingdom of Light’ anyone, everyone who would integrate his teachings into their own living faith.

1 Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.

At first was the Word, and the Word was present to God and God was the Word.

En arxi – this is often translated as “in the beginning” but what it really translates to is “at first” – and the difference is meaningful.  At first implies not just the initial phase of something, but also that it is primary, foundational, it comes first – and this is how the Gnostic Christians meant it – not just narratively or chronologically, but ontologically, within the nature of all things.  In this gospel, they refer to Jesus metaphorically, as Logos or “Word” with a capital W.  Not just any word, THE word.   Logos, which in Greek means not just word but ‘speech,’ ‘doctrine,’ even the mental faculty of thinking –how much the word ‘word’ evokes the Gnostic idea of sacred knowledge?  Logos, is etymologically tied also to ‘logic,’ to the comprehensive ordering of all things;  logos expresses an organizing principle of the world, and in the opening of John, the word itself reminds us of the gnostic belief that words are not just figurative, symbolic, but in the Gnostic world view, words were literal representatives of foundational organizing principles, redemptive in themselves if we accepted them according to the capacity given us by that divine spark, soul, within us all.  In these early lines the Gnostics declare Jesus as foundational to that original, blessed Kingdom of Light, proximate to the true Highest God, blessed by God and sent by that God to redeem this flawed world.

So – that’s a very different take on Jesus this Easter, and lot to take in.  It’s always like that with the Gnostics, they are hard to understand because they speak so mystically and metaphorically.   But while that made studying them tough and a little frustrating back in divinity school, I appreciated it then and I appreciate it now, because that that mystical, metaphorical way they speak feels akin, to me, to the modern mystical, metaphorical, hard-to-nail-down, foundational power moving in all things that I feel, that I perceive rarely, and powerfully… sometimes.

But while I appreciate their ideas about Jesus and about the nature and possibilities of human existence, I call myself an ‘agnostic.’

Joan Richards: Here I need to speak up. Because while we are on the subject of words, agnostic is a word that bothers me. I know it as a word coined by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869. For Huxley, an agnostic was someone who recognized that all legitimate knowledge was scientific, and who therefore insisted that all claims to religious understanding were essentially wrong-headed. And so, I was startled when Liz told me she was an agnostic a couple of months ago, and asked her to tell me what she meant. In this sermon, then, she is explaining her understanding of this word. Next week, I will offer my historian’s understanding of the word and the ways it is tied to developments in the meaning of other key concepts including the centrally important religious word, “belief.”

Rev. Liz:  Some people expect the term agnostic means that (shrug) we don’t know.  And I guess that’s true – I don’t know, in any defined way, how to understand that majestic power I sometimes sense in nature, in the world, in living.  What is the role of mysticism in the age of science – at least sort of the age of science?  Centuries, millenia ago, mysticism used to be a locus of learning – the most educated, those who could read and write, those trained in oration, those who were trained to think, to philosophize – philosophy meaning ‘love of wisdom’ – to hand knowledge on, to engage and remember and transcribe the conversations of Plato and Socrates, of Plutarch and Augustine, of John the Scot and al-Farabi and Omar Khayyam, and Maimonides, all brilliant, sometimes mathematical, all mystical.

But now that relationship between the mystical and the rational is uneasy, illegitimate even.  My naturally skeptical living-in-the-age-of-science mind tends to want to dismiss those moments of revelation, those experiences of transcendence, as moods or biochemical imbalances or just super strong enjoyment of a view or a breeze or a temperature.  But then my poetic, romantic, theologically-trained mind pushes back and says ‘wait a minute!’  What about the ideas you learned about when you were studying religion?  What about The Cloud of Unknowing?!  What about Unitarian theologian Ralph Waldo Emerson’s take on Nature and on Jesus?!

Ok – taking those in order, what about The Cloud of UnknowingThe Cloud of Unknowing was a work of Christian mysticism written in the late 1300’s, in what we now call Middle English.  Like Gnosticism, the Cloud of Unknowing proposed that there was special knowledge available to true followers of Jesus, knowledge that came not from facts and examination, but reflection grounded in love and pure emotional engagement.  Basically, the mentor who wrote The Cloud… advised the reader to seek God through perception rather than study, through emotion rather than intellect.  The mentor wrote that there is always a darkness and a cloud of unknowing between us and the divine, that God can be loved but never conceived of, that only love can win us an experience of communion with the divine.

All this takes my mind right to our more direct spiritual ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the renowned Unitarian who set the stage for our faith – and for American Trancendentalism and philosophy – in the early 1800’s. I don’t always agree with Emerson.  But I have such gratitude for his ideas about human relationship to the divine, about honoring our experiences of spirituality and revelation, and most revolutionarily, about Jesus.  Now Emerson never encountered the Gnostic Gospels, they were discovered a hundred years after he lived.  But even without their testimony, he came to a similar perspective, as he laid out in his famous 1838 Divinity School Address – in admittedly, the sexist language of his day, but still, how striking is this similar vision, with Jesus unique not for the power of his martyrdom but for his representation of insight and knowledge, potential inherent in a divine spark in all people:

Emerson declared:

“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’”

Emerson amplifies on this in his essay on The Last Supper:

“… [I]s not Jesus called in Scripture the Mediator? He is the mediator in that only sense in which possibly any being can mediate between God and man — that is an Instructor of man. He teaches us how to become like God. And a true disciple of Jesus will receive the light he gives most thankfully; but the thanks he offers, and which an exalted being will accept, are not compliments — commemorations, — but the use of that instruction.”

This was why Emerson quit parish ministry; he could not in good conscience continue to offer communion, as was then required, when he believed it was the teaching and examples for blessed living Jesus gave us that mattered – the symbolism, not the forms, of his living and teaching.

So having gathered today for Easter, for this holiday that celebrates the miraculous rebirth of a teacher we revere and a deity we doubt, what does this idea, Emerson’s idea, of Jesus, offer us?  What might it meant to us to consider Emerson’s belief that what set Jesus apart was not a sacrificial identity that was uniquely his, but that, as the Gnostics taught, he was charged with understanding and illumination meant to inspire everyone, to make everyone alive to and aware of, truths about compassion, about the sacredness of all people, truths that any of us could learn or perceive or participate in, a Kingdom of Light we could all ascend to, could lift each other to, if we only would?

Here is the thing – that’s more than a pretty thought.  Its truth is self-evident.  On a tangible, quantifiable, humanist level, if in fact all of us, all of ‘them’ – all of everyone, believed we could all lift each other to a shared, beautiful, equality, we would.  Our failure is its own unarguable indictment – clearly everyone does not all believe it, and until, unless we all do, we never will create that just, beautiful, possible world.

But it is also more than that.  Consider it beyond all that is quantifiable.   Consider it as belief in all that is intangible, in a power that always pushes me to those words the English poet William Wordsworth laid out way back on the 13th of July, 1798 when this building did not exist and none of my ancestors spoke English and I was at most a distant and unlikely prospect: “a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things.  (from Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798).

Yet here I am, recognizing Wordsworth’s words, more than that, recognizing Wordsworth’s experience, there in a place I have never been, then at a time I could never inhabit.  And still my soul, which never requires data to affirm its deep knowing, says:  ‘Yes, I have been there.”

And Emerson has been there, in his own time, in his own space, documented in his essay Nature, in his own, distinctive terms:

“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

For Emerson, this was not a finite experience, nor simply his own – it was an experience not just of perception but relationship, not just relationship but communion.  As he went on to describe, there within nature, suffused with a sense of the divine pervading even the trees and plants around him,

“I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.”

This is the communion Emerson believes in, the one he believes Jesus taught, the one that depends on nothing but the integration of Jesus’ teaching into our living.  And Emerson’s teaching is crucial, because we may know what we know, we may recognize what we experience and still, and when the world says ‘But how do you know?’  ‘How can you be sure?’- the question remains whether we have a way to answer, and whether we can stand behind our own answer.

So I am grateful for Wordsworth’s expression, for Emerson’s, for the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, for those unknown knowers, the Gnostics,  because of my own agnosticism, still, ever-dueling with my own skepticism, to affirm every encounter with the divine: still leafing through words: ineffable, transcendent, rare, strange, some perception of power beyond speech, of a great order or unfolding that is perceptible, suffusing the environment around me – how to credit it, to believe in the feelings and perceptions though they were direct and undeniable in the moment – so I am wrestling to believe in my own experience! Still, I doubt it;  still, I am even almost embarrassed by it.  This makes Emerson’s declaration more than pretty to me.   Two centuries after his Transcendentalism swept American philosophy, his mysticism is not what New England Unitarian Universalism raised me to affirm and promote.  Therefore agnosticism for me, personally, includes the struggle to get past my own disbelief of transcendence to… whatever is on the other side, majestic, momentous, momentary, impossible to compass.  I’m a word person who cannot name it, therefore who cannot understand it, therefore who cannot trust it – and who cannot let it go.  So I dwell in my own cloud of unknowing.  Let me affirm it.  Let me declare I am agnostic, unknowing, uncertain, in the deepest, most theologically engaged way I can be.  I don’t have the data.  I will never have the data.  I don’t need the data.  I know something.  I was there.

Then let me ask you, in honor of Easter – what mysteries do you know, do you struggle to name?

And is it possible that there is a spark within you, not only precious but sacred, not only sacred but divine?

And what would it mean for you to nourish your divine spark into a flame?