It is a fact that too many authors — we would almost say: general opinion — attribute to gnosis what is proper to Gnosticism and to other counterfeits of the sophia perennis, and moreover make no distinction between the latter and the most freakish movements, such as spiritualism, theosophism and the pseudo-esoterisms that saw the light of day in the twentieth century. It is particularly regrettable that these confusions are taken seriously by most theologians, who obviously have an interest in entertaining the worst opinion possible concerning gnosis; now the fact that an imposture necessarily imitates a good, since otherwise it could not even exist, does not authorize charging this good with all the sins of the imitation.
In reality, gnosis is essentially the path of the intellect and hence of intellection; the driving force of this path is above all intelligence, and not will and sentiment as is the case in the Semitic monotheistic mysticisms, including average Sufism. Gnosis is characterized by its recourse to pure metaphysics: the distinction between Atma and Maya and the consciousness of the potential identity between the human subject, jivatma, and the Divine Subject, Paramatma. The path comprises on the one hand "comprehension," and on the other "concentration"; hence doctrine and method. The modalities of the latter are quite diverse: in particular, there is on the one hand the mantra, the evocative and transforming formula, and on the other hand, the yantra, the visual symbol. The path is the passage from potentiality to virtuality, and from virtuality to actuality, its summit being the state of the one "delivered in this life," the jivan-mukta.
As for Gnosticism, whether it arises in a Christian, Moslem or other climate, it is a fabric of more or less disordered speculations, often of Manichean origin; and it is a mythomania characterizd by a dangerous mixture of exoteric and esoteric concepts. Doubtless it contains symbolisms that are not without interest — the contrary would be astonishing — but it is said that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"; it could just as well be said that it is paved with symbolisms.
It may be remarked, perhaps, that in gnosis as well as in Gnosticism, "illumination" plays a preponderant role; but this is to confuse "illumination" with intellection, or the latter with the former; whereas in reality intellection is active, and illumination, passive, whatever the level of experiences involved. This is not to say that the phenomenon of illumination does not arise in the climate of gnosis; it does so necessarily, but not by way of method or as a point of reference. An analogous remark could be made regarding hermeneutics, that is, the interpretation of sacred scriptures; no doubt commentary on the scriptures is practiced in the climate of gnosis — for example, it goes without saying that the Upanishads have been explicated — but this is quite different from the far-removed and unverifiable interpretation of scriptural formulas whose literal meanings do not at all indicate what the mystical exegetes try to draw from them — with the aid of "illumination," precisely.(1)
It is true that the word "illumination" can have a superior meaning, in which case it no longer designates a passive phenomenon; unitive and liberating illumination is beyond the distinction between passivity and activity. Or more exactly, illumination is the Divine Activity in us, but for that very reason it also possesses an aspect of supreme Passivity in the sense that it coincides with the "extinction" of the passional and dark elements separating man from his immanent Divine Essence; this extinction constitutes receptivity to the Influx of Heaven — without losing sight of the fact that the Divine Order comprises a "Passive Perfection" as well as an "Active Perfection," and that the human spirit must in the final analysis participate in both mysteries.
In gnosis, there is first of all the intellective knowledge of the Absolute — not merely of the "personal God" — and then self-knowledge; for one cannot know the Divine Order without knowing oneself. "Know thyself," says the inscription over the portal of the initiatory temple at Delphi; and "the Kingdom of God is within you."
Just as the ether is present in each of the sensible elements, such as fire and water, and just as intelligence is present in each of the mental faculties, such as imagination and memory, so gnosis is necessarily present in each of the great religions, whether we grasp its traces or not.
We have said that the driving force of the path of gnosis is intelligence; now it is far from being the case that this principle is applicable in a spiritual society — unless it is not very numerous — for in general, intelligence is largely inoperative once it is called upon to hold a collectivity in balance; in all justice, one cannot deny in sentimental and humilitarian moralism a certain realism and hence a corresponding efficacy. It follows from all this, not that gnosis has to repudiate socially its principle of the primacy of intelligence, but that it must put each thing in its place and take men as they are; that is precisely why the perspective of gnosis will be the first to insist, not upon a simplifying moralism, but upon intrinsic virtue, which — like beauty — is "the splendor of the true." Intelligence must be not only objective and conceptual, but also subjective and existential; the unicity of the object demands the totality of the subject.
When one has experienced the usual pious sophistries of voluntaristic and moralistic doctrines, it becomes quite clear that gnosis is not a luxury, and that it alone can extricate us from the impasses of the alternativism that is part and parcel of the confessional spirit. There is, for instance, the stupefying thesis of the Asharites, according to which there are no natural causes: fire burns, not because it is in its nature to burn, but because, each time something burns, it is God who intervenes directly and who "creates" the burning.(2) Ibn Rushd pertinently objects — against Ghazali, who made this holy absurdity his own — that "if something did not have its specific nature, it would have no name proper to it . . . Intelligence is nothing else than the perception of causes . . . and whoever denies causes must also deny the intellect."
What the Asharites have not understood — and this is characteristic of the alternativism of exoteric thought — is that natural causes, such as the function of fire to burn, in no way exclude immanent supernatural causality,(3) any more than the limited subjectivity of the creature excludes the immanence of the absolute Subject. Immanent divine causality is "vertical" and supernatural, whereas cosmic causality is "horizontal" and natural, or in other words: the first is comparable to centrifugal radii, and the second to concentric circles. It is this combination of two relationships or of two perspectives that characterizes integrally metaphysical thought, hence gnosis.(4)
There is intelligence and there is intelligence; there is knowledge and there is knowledge; there is on the one hand a fallible mind that registers and elaborates, and on the other hand a heart-intellect that perceives and projects its infallible vision onto thought. Here lies the entire difference between a logical certitude that can replace another logical certitude, and a quasi-ontological certitude that nothing can replace because it is what we are, or because we are what it is.
1. We do not contest that a word or an image in a sacred text may have a meaning that cannot be divined at a first reading; but in such cases this meaning cannot be contrary to the literal meaning nor incompatible with the context.
2. Equally antimetaphysical is the Christian opinion that the hypostases are neither substances nor modes, that they are merely "relations" and yet that they are persons. It is appropriate to distinguish between the Trinity and Trinitarian theology, and no less so between Unity and unitarian theology.
3. According to the Koran, God ordered the fire that was to burn Abraham: "Be coolness ..!" which would be meaningless if the nature of fire were not to burn, and which therefore refutes a priori and divinely the Asharite opinion.
4. Let it be noted that, just as there is a "relatively absolute" — the logical absurdity of this formulation does not preclude its ontologically plausible meaning — so too is there a "naturally supernatural," and this is precisely the permanent divine intervention, in virtue of immanence, in cosmic causality.
First published in: To Have a Center, 1990, p. 67