Friday, July 01, 2005

gnosis 6: Jung in MacGregor

In Gnosis, MacGregor makes four references to Carl Jung as follows:

So gnostic notions that are imported into Christian thought today usually have to be bootlegged under a banner such as Jung's by way of disguising their nature.

Jung expressed the opinion, shared by many hardly less eminent in the history of gnostic ideas, that "the central ideas of Christianity are rooted in gnostic philosophy."

That is why Jung, who makes so much of the emphasis on the psychic realm, on archetypes and the collective unconscious, is properly called neo-gnostic.

The insights of Jungian psychology, for example, and other forms of psychoanalytical therapy, have been already welcomed by many into the everyday pastoral work of the Church, and no twentieth-century writer can be more aptly described as gnostic.

- pages 7, 12, 56, and 158 respectively - my emphasis

When I was first reading MacGregor I was also participating on a religious forum (Interfaith Dialogue at The others on the forum were either strongly identified with their religion (mostly Islam or Christianity) or rejected all religion (mainly as atheists or agnostics). I neither rejected religion in its totality nor accepted to identify with one particular one (such as the Roman Catholic Christianity that nurtured me). I had had a strong interest in Jung for thirty years but didn't see this as constituting a religion of any sort. It was MacGregor who persuaded me to adopt the identity of "gnostic" or "neo-gnostic". It felt right but it also left me somewhat puzzled for I came out of reading MacGregor with no clear idea of just what constitutes gnosis and gnosticism.

Actually, that is not strictly correct. I felt convinced that, somehow, I did know what gnosis is. It felt familiar, it felt like it was in my bones and I'd known about it for longer even than I'd known of Jung. I had a problem communicating this knowledge to others, I had a problem with definition. However, there was no doubt in my mind that I did know gnosis. I knew it in the sense that one recognises a thing or a person, that one has a sense of déjà vu or a feeling of old familiarity. There is no doubt that the knowing that is peculiar to gnosis is not the same knowing as referred to in the philosophical enterprise of epistemology. I like associating gnosis with love because I believe it closely resembles the Biblical knowing as found in passages like these:

Genesis 24:16 (King James Version)
And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.

Numbers 31:17-18
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Judges 21:12
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead four hundred young virgins, that had known no man by lying with any male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.

I'm not aware of instances in which this use of know refers to a man's experience. It seems always to be used of women, and especially of virgins. It is an apt image for gnosis because, just as a maid becomes a woman after thus knowing a man, so also a person becomes a gnostic after the first encounter with deity. That encounter has been described, again and again, by those that have experienced it as being more like a meeting of lovers than anything else we might experience in the common sense world of science and the everyday. The madness that arises from the encounter with deity is even almost identical with the madness that we call "being in love". Indeed, it could be said that the two are the same thing except that in the latter the lover is missing the main point. That, to my mind, is too cynical. Beatrice, in and of herself, was important to Dante and Shams was important to Rumi. They were doorways to deity, yes, but not merely that.

So, in a similar way and for a long time, I have been "in love with" Jung. For me, he became an old man, withered away. I've needed the new devotion to Rumi. I've needed the more direct poetic language that he uses. Jung did not completely shake off a scientific persona but he did make gnosis respectable for long enough to bring it back into the modern cultural equation. For me, he was a bridge between scientific episteme and religious gnosis. I'm not yet sure what Rumi is bridging, I'm too dizzy with love.


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