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 …have often assumed strikingly gnostic forms; and the smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins …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.From “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
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.
Moreover, the metaphysical picture of reality that the West has embraced ever more unreflectively since the rise of a mechanistic philosophy of nature is one that forcibly expels the transcendent from the immanent. At one time, it seemed enough simply to open one’s eyes to see the light of the divine reflected in the mirror of creation: The cosmos was everywhere the work of formal and final causes and of a pervasive divine wisdom, an endlessly diverse but harmonious scala naturae rising up from the earth to heaven. The whole universe was a kind of theophany, and all of reality participated in those transcendental perfections that had their infinite consummation in God. Now, however, we have learned, generation after generation, to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic ‘Intelligent Designer.’ And, with the rise of Darwinism, even this latter hypothesis has come to seem largely otiose. In the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
In such a cosmos, nothing of the ‘here below’ shows us the way to the ‘there above,’ and it is hardly surprising that many of us should come to imagine transcendence solely as an absolute absence of God from the world, a beyond ever further beyond, of which we become aware not through the beauty or order of the world, but precisely through our estrangement from the world—through our distrust of its seductive illusoriness, and through an insistently dissonant voice within each of us announcing that this is not our true home.
Yet even so, there remains an essential disparity between that voice as we hear it now and as it was heard by the ancient Gnostics. For them, the inner ‘call of the stranger God’ remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. Our spiritual situation may be very different indeed.
The deep human longing for transcendence is ultimately inextinguishable, and can always be stirred and provoked and compelled anew by moments of beauty, love, creative exultation, spiritual ecstasy, and so forth. For the Platonist, it is a longing that can be satisfied only when one sees that the world of ordinary experience is a cave filled with flickering shadows and so learns to seek the true sun of the Good. For the Christian, this is a fallen and wounded world, but also one groaning in expectation of the glory that one day will be revealed in it. For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world.
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.
This, at least, is the troubling prospect that The Red Book poses to my imagination. It may truly be possible for an essentially gnostic contempt for the world to be inverted into a vacuous contentment with the world’s ultimate triviality. Jung quaintly imagined he was working towards some sort of spiritual renewal for ‘modern man’; in fact, he was engaged in the manufacture of spiritual soporifics: therapeutic sedatives for a therapeutic age. For us, as could never have been the case in late antiquity, even distinctly gnostic spiritual tendencies are likely to prove to be not so much stirrings of rebellion against materialist orthodoxies as convulsions of dying resistance. The distinctly modern metaphysical picture of reality is one that makes it possible to regard this world as a cave filled only with flickering shadows and yet also to cherish those shadows for their very insubstantiality, and even to be grateful for the shelter that the cave provides against the great emptiness outside, where no Sun of the Good ever shines. 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.”