Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"What Is It I Know?": Notes toward an Embodied Gnosis

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"What Is It I Know?": Notes toward an Embodied Gnosis

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Gnostics of the first and second centuries were persecuted even more thoroughly and successfully for their heretical views than the Anabaptists of the Reformation. The rediscovery of lost Gnostic texts and their popularizing by scholars such as Elaine Pagels and Harold Bloom provides a chance to reexamine what these seekers of divine knowledge have to offer contemporary spiritual seekers, especially artists and poets. Attention to the diverse Gnostic texts and approaches, both ancient and contemporary, can offer useful examples and inspiration for those who seek an embodied knowledge of the divine presence of God in and through the world.


That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilized form of autobiography, as it deals not with the events, but with the thoughts of one's life; not with life's physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind....

---Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

Jesus said, "It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all. From me did the all come forth, and unto me did the all extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

--The Gospel of Thomas

Public events are subjective experiences, shaped by the cohesion or tension between what is ceremoniously prescribed and enacted and what goes on within those who take part. (1) This essay intends to explore the interplay between tradition and experience, doctrine and intuition, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the many parts of our beings; I mean to speak for a way of knowing that is very old but ever renewed--something captured in Andrew Hudgins's poem "Sit Still":

   The preacher said, "We know God's word is true."
   Amen, somebody called. "How do we know?
   We know because the Bible says it's true."
   He waved the fraying book. "God says it's true.
   And, brother, that's good enough for me." Amen!
   My father's eyes were calm, my mother's face
   composed. I craned around, but everyone
   seemed rapt as Brother Vernon spun
   tight circles of illogic. A change
   that I could not resist swept through,
   and I resisted it. I tried again
   to sing the word behind the word we sang.
   I prayed. Then I gave up and picked a scab
   till Daddy popped my thigh and hissed, "Sit still."
   Up front, the preacher waved his thick black book.
   He fanned the pages, smacked it with his palm,
   And I sincerely wished that I were stupid. (2)

The scene of this poem is a low-church ritual--the script may not be written out, but both Brother Vernon's "tight circles of illogic" and the congregation's response are clearly codified and familiar to all, even the young Hudgins, who tries desperately to feel the appropriate response but cannot quite manage it. The last line offers a marvelous sting of recognition, surely, but perhaps even more intriguing are the mysterious little interior events in the middle of the poem: the "change" the boy feels sweeping through him, and his effort "to sing the word behind the word we sang." Clearly he is changed by this experience, for all his resistance--but how? His wish to be stupid is not granted, nor does he forget; years later, he is still reenacting the scene in the space of the poem.

Some readers may resonate as I do with young Andrew's discomfort. Whatever the particulars, we restless children, too smart for our own good, seem doomed to struggle with our local Brother Vernons, and with other authority figures who, like Andrew's father, demand that we shut up and sit still. When young we have only a few choices--sullen interior opposition, feigned enthusiasm, flights of fantasy, effortful compliance. …

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