Gnosticism and Modernity
“It seems to me that ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility. Certainly, the newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism) have often assumed strikingly gnostic forms; and the smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses. Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age—from Blake to Baudelaire, from Hugo to Patrick White, and so on—and all the arts of the modern age, high and low, often express spiritual longing in gnostic terms. (The science fiction film that is really a gnostic allegory, for instance, is in danger of becoming a cliché.) And most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
“I suppose it may all—the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality—have something to do with the constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins. With the loss of all the seemingly stable institutions and tacit accords that once provided the grammar of belief, it is only to be expected that religious yearning should express itself in ever more individualist, transcendentalist, and psychological forms.
“It may also have a great deal to do with that seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity: dark satanic mills, air conditioners, split atoms, industrial waste, biological weapons, the dissolution of any natural sense of space and time in the fluent instantaneity of modern communications, medicines that actually heal, opiates that genuinely obliterate pain, entertainments that relentlessly cretinize, constant technological change, the mutability of the “transparent society,” the shrill fragmentariness of the “society of the spectacle,” ubiquitous advertising, market fetishism, and so on. The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us…
“Our spiritual disenchantment today may in many ways be far more radical than even that of the Gnostics: We have been taught not only to see the physical order as no more than mindless machinery, but also to believe (or to suspect) that this machinery is all there is. Our metaphysical imagination now makes it seem quite reasonable to conclude that the deep disquiet of the restless heart that longs for God is not in fact a rational appetite that can be sated by any real object, but only a mechanical malfunction in need of correction. Rather than subject ourselves to the torment and disappointment of spiritual aspirations, perhaps we need only seek an adjustment of our gears. Perhaps what we require to be free from illusion is not escape to some higher realm, but only reparation of the psyche, reintegration of the unconscious and the ego, reconciliation with ourselves—in a word, therapy.
“That may be, if nothing else, the best palliative for psychological distress that we can produce these days. But if so, there is a cultural cost to be borne. The gnostic expression of spiritual longing is the most extreme and hazardous religious venture of all; it is the final wager that the soul makes, placing the entire universe in the balance in its search for redemption. If it should be subdued by the archons of the age, the only spiritual possibilities left are tragic resignation or banal contentment. Beyond that point, for a culture or an individual, lies only one drearily predictable terminus: the delectable nihilism of Nietzsche’s Last Man, the delirious diversions of consumption and expenditure, the narcotic consolation of not having to think about death until it comes… With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism—which, come to think of it, might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
“At least, that is how I tend to see the spirits of the age. This is no cause for despair, however. Every historical period has its own presiding powers and principalities on high. Ours, for what it is worth, seem to want to make us happy, even if only in an inert sort of way. Every age passes away in time, moreover, and late modernity is only an epoch. This being so, one should never doubt the uncanny force of what Freud called die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten—“the return of the repressed.” Dominant ideologies wither away, metaphysical myths exhaust their power to hold sway over cultural imaginations, material and spiritual conditions change inexorably and irreversibly. The human longing for God, however, persists from age to age. A particular cultural dispensation may succeed for a time in lulling the soul into a forgetful sleep, but the soul will still continue to hear that timeless call that comes at once from within and from beyond all things, even if for now it seems like only a voice heard in a dream. And, sooner or later, the sleeper will awaken.”