Asked at one time if he believed in God, the controversial but influential depth psychologist Carl Gustav Jung gave a famous reply: "I do not believe. I know ." And he may fairly be called a twentieth-century gnostic, with differences from the ancient Gnostic. He found in Gnosticism aspects of religion that were lacking in mainstream Christianity, especially recognition of the feminine element in the godhead, the reality of evil, and the emphasis on finding truth through the interaction of opposing qualities -- light and dark , good and evil. Jung, however, never really tackled the Gospel of Thomas or other texts in the Nag Hammadi collection, which appeared in his old age (although one major codex was temporarily in his Institute).
Jung uses the term "consciousness" in a special sense. For him it is identified with the rational, intellectual Ego. The unconscious manifests itself in myths and dreams, archetypes of which are to be found everywhere and at all times in what he called the collective unconscious. The Self consists in the union of the conscious ego with the unconscious layers of one's psyche. The rational element in the ego tends to repress the intensely disturbing forces churning up from the lower unconscious depths and to consider itself master of the Self. In a healthy Self, the conscious and unconscious are brought into harmony.
We can observe that certain symbols are used by many peoples to help give glimpses of the numinous, the divine, the unknowable powers beyond conscious human experience and control. And among the symbols through which they express themselves in religious systems are the patriarchal Father, the Mother Goddess, and the androgynous primal human.
In the Middle Way of certain Buddhists, we will recall, the way to truth lies beyond dogmas and rational earth-bound theoretical constructions, seeking a point of view higher than that of reason. For everyday life in samsara , the language of logic and discursive reasoning is indispensable and more or less adequate. For the realization of Suchness, however, it must be surpassed. Jung seems to echo the thought: "If a union is to take place between opposites like spirit and matter, conscious and unconscious, bright and dark, and so on, it will happen in a third thing, which represents not a compromise but something new," which can only be described in paradoxes. "For the psychologist," he wrote, "it is the self."
Jung considered the cross to be an archetypal symbol of order. functioning as an organizing center of psychological processes. The four limbs, pairs of opposites, join at a focal point, that is a third thing, the "something new." A point is an important universal symbol. It is a paradox: it is a thing but it is nothing; it has no dimensions. It is the tittle of the jot. It is the grain of mustard seed. It is what existed before the Big Bang. It is the fine point of awareness to which exercises of the meditative mind try to reduce all mental activity before release from the world is finally found.
Jung, as an analytical psychologist and therapist, was fascinated by the India-born systems with their emphasis on inwardness. He could not, however, accept that a state of pure enlightened awareness and overcoming of self could be attained, releasing the individual from the suffering of this world. Rather, by opening up awareness of the unconscious, the Self could attain an improved state of equilibrium, of wholeness. We may, he thought, be better and more balanced selves, but not, in this life, wholly cease to be suffering selves. As a scholar who studied Jung's somewhat ambivalent reactions to the East has observed, the unity he sought "is not that of undifferentiated oneness, but rather a harmony, a balance sought through the interplay of opposing but complementary forces."
In the second century the heresiologist Irenaeus quoted the Egyptian Christian Gnostic Basilides as saying that "few people can know these things"--the gnosis that will lead to reunion: "only one in a thousand, and two in ten thousand." Almost the same saying is attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (No. 23) "I shall choose you, one out of a thousand, and two out of ten thousand." (He adds, "and they shall stand as a monachos "--a single one--apparently referring, as other Sayings indicate, to one of the Elect., the self-reliant one who is capable of gnosis.) The words are also found in the Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia , in which Thomas is one of the interlocutors of Christ.
Gnosticism, it was said, and is said today, was elitist. As we have noted, a sect was usually hierarchical, with a few Elect at the top who could expect reunion with the Father in the All, and a general mass below, some of whom might hope to ascend to some intermediate place of rest, or at least part of the way toward release, within this incarnation. Augustine, it will be recalled, belonged to the lower group of Hearers, not the Elect, as a Manichean.
The notion that the highest thought was available only to a few philosopher-sages was familiar in both Greek and Indian thinking and practice; philosophers were a privileged lot. Hierarchy would become a central institution in much of Christian orthodoxy, but the lowliest among the faithful could hope for salvation -- by proper submission to authority in faith and repentance. Among mystics, it seems, the success of only a few in reaching the highest state of enlightenment has more to do with the rigors of the quest or unexpected epiphanies than exclusion of the many by a privileged elite.
Seekers after an ultimate unitive experience always attest to its rareness. It comes, they say, to some without effort on their part, and eludes others who have assiduously sought it. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he (calling himself "this man") had been "caught up to the third heaven. In the body or out of the body? That I do not know: God knows."
Whether in or out of the body, "this man was caught up to paradise and heard sacred secrets which no human lips can repeat." Narada, a Buddhist saint, once observed with disappointed candor that he understood the truth, and knew all about the goal of nirvana but had never reached it. He was, he said, like a thirsty traveler in the desert who looks into a deep well. He sees water there, but cannot reach down to taste it.
Experiences less intense than the "peak event" are widespread, perhaps universal. A modern mathematician suggests a simple example of enlightenment: the moment of waking in the morning when one may be aware, but aware of nothing, and enjoy this blissful state for a few moments before thoughts of the day ahead begin to pour in. Most people have had moments of clarity, in which they seem to stand outside themselves, or to be inwardly withdrawn, apart from the usual concerns. At such times the world seems unreal, ordinary hopes and fears trivial, ambitions and disappointments petty. A brief moment of intense awareness, of "truth," may be brought on in a myriad ways.
Tillich speaks of encounters with "true reality" rather than unitive moments or mystical experiences: "Suddenly, true reality appears like the brightness of lightning in a formerly dark place." Or, he continues, it may slowly appear "like a landscape when the fog becomes thinner and thinner and finally disappears. New darknesses, new fogs will fall upon you, but you have experienced, at least once, the truth and the freedom given by the truth."
Valentinian teaching refers to the illumination that comes suddenly, in a flash, as in this passage from the Gospel of Truth, found at Nag Hammadi:
For the place where there is envy and strife is deficient, but the place where there is Unity is perfect. . . [W]hen they come to know the Father, from that moment on the deficiency will no longer exist . . .[A]s the darkness vanishes when light appears, so also the deficiency vanishes in the perfection . . . It is within Unity that each one will attain himself; within knowledge he will purify himself from multiplicity into Unity. . .
At the other side of Persia, in the land where Gundaphorus reigned, the Buddhist sage Nagasena was reported to be saying (possibly a century or so before the Valentinian, possibly about the same time): "From the moment when knowledge arises, delusion passes away. As when the light comes, darkness disappears " (Emphasis supplied)
Some mystics say that their illuminations are experiences of a kind wholly different from any other, having nothing to do with the life of this world. And yet every mystical system assumes that, from the first clouded glimpses of "truth," the seekers may progress toward higher and higher states until, if they are fortunate, they will have the ultimate flash of enlightenment. If only a few can scale Mount Everest, all presumably can explore with benefit the Himalayan foothills.
For most men and women mysticism embraces much more than the rapturous ecstasies of a few "perfected ones" and the associated speculations of mystical thinkers. The Buddha, it is said, pointed out that rain from the heavens waters alike all kinds of flora, growing in the same soil, but grass and bushes and trees grow to different heights according to their natures. In the same way, he said, the Enlightened One's teaching is of one essence, but each seeker will respond according to his or her capacity.
A leading Quaker writer notes that "all our human knowledge happens to us in world and time, and what seems to go beyond them, in moments of great spiritual experience, we do not know clearly but see as in a glass darkly. We have merely a feeling of something that transcends our grasp, that is, at the other side of "'knowledge'" in the more common sense of the word."
At the age of 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that he once had a moment of "perfect exhilaration" while crossing a common (apparently Boston Common) at twilight:
Almost I fear to think how glad I am . . . Standing on bare ground,--my head in the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing, I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
Had Emerson arrived at the ultimate mystical experience, or did he write from some way station? Or was he echoing a piece of wisdom from India, a body of lore that long fascinated him, or a thought from Neoplatonism, which he was studying at the time?
[Compare the following passage from Plotinus. "Many times it has happened. Lifted out of the body into myself, becoming external to all other things and self-centered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine . . ." ]
A Gnostic's achieving knowledge of self, a Buddhist's experience of enlightenment, Thomas's finding of the Kingdom, Tillich's moments of true reality, a Quaker's Inward Presence -- all may be regarded as different ways of referring to unitive experiences, which reach beyond the ordinary activity of the mind or belief in systems.
In much contemporary thinking "mysticism" has a negative resonance, suggesting something occult, supernatural, magical, intellectually mushy, paranormal. We might well be wary about reporting experiences to our friends as being "mystical." To admit the overwhelming character of a unitive experience goes against our pride in rationality. Scientific rationalism (which dominates our modern mind-set) regards mysticism with suspicion. And so do mainstream monotheisms, which regard Creator and creature as distinct entities and discourage private pursuits of enlightenment not mediated by the church.
Monoimus the Arab recommended an inward search for truth:
Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you makes everything his own and says, "My God, my mind, my soul, my body!" Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. . .
"And if," Monoimos continues, "you carefully seek this out, you will find Him in yourself [as both] one and many things after the likeness of that one tittle. . . .
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.