Gnosticism and Nature


How should the spiritual person look upon nature? Is it a manifestation of the divine, full of numinous energy, in which everything is a marvelous, harmonious whole? Or is it nature red of tooth and sharp of claw, where life is painful, brutish and short, and where death and entropy eventually destroy everything?

In general, Gnosticism has been accused of having the second approach. After all, most Gnostics believe the world was created by a “demiurge” – an evil or incompetent creator whose domain must be transcended by the children of light. In seeming contrast to this are the pagans, who find the highest divinity in the natural world and the forces that animate it.

One of my initial objections to Gnosticism was this reputation of animosity for the material world. After all, most of us have had experiences of “nature mysticism”. We have felt numinous, almost religious awe at a starry sky, or the perfection of a flower, or the miracle of the human body. Small wonder the pagans find their connection to the divine in nature.

On the other hand, there are parts of nature that aren’t quite so “nice”, at least when judged from a human perspective. Are parasites and viruses really part of the greater good? What about bizarre genetic mutations or terminal cancer? What about the tremendous amount of death that is fundamental to natural selection – the thousands who must die so that the “fit” can survive to improve the species? Perhaps we can rationalize and come to terms with this on an intellectual level. But try to feel that way when watching a pack of predators tear apart a baby animal screaming for its mother. Try it when looking at an infant born with harlequin baby syndrome – a grotesque and fatal genetic defect that will slowly strangle the baby to death in its own hardening skin. And try to reconcile an uplifting view of nature with the overriding cosmic principle of entropy – which tells us that the entire universe is doomed to slowly wind down into a lifeless darkness of absolute cold.

So there we have the facts. Nature is cruel and depressing, yet nature seems to have divinity peeking through it. William Blake sensed this dichotomy in a pair of his poems. In the Songs of Innocence he praises the lamb, who is a picture of the peaceful kingdom of God, and seems to echo the goodness of his Creator:

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee life, & bid thee feed

By the stream & o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight;

Softest clothing, wooly, bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

 

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, & he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, & thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

(From the Songs of Innocence – William Blake)

But then he seems to re-think the situation in a later poem:

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

In the forest of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And, when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And water’d heaven with their tears,

Did He smile His work to see?

Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

There are certainly plenty of forms of life abounding on the planet that strain our belief that any sense of beauty resembling our own had anything to do with their creation. (Have a loot at some of the candidates at http://listverse.com/nature/top-10-ugliest-creatures/ )

So which is it? Is this, as the pagans would prefer, a wonderful and harmonious world of natural beauty and balance? A place of infinite natural wisdom through which we can reconnect to a golden age of enlightenment? Or is it a black-iron prison of pain and fear and death from which our only hope is a quick escape?

Perhaps it is both.

Woven into some of the Gnostic myths, particularly the Valentinian, is the idea that the purpose of the higher God is not simply to redeem the divine sparks that are trapped in evil matter – but to transform the world of matter and make it a place where the spirit is supreme.

Paul seems to allude to this in one of his more Gnostic verses:

For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body.

(Rom 8:19-23 WEB)

The Gospel of Thomas, a document with early gnosic elements, seems to say the same thing in verse 113:

His Disciples say to him: When will the Sovereignty come? || (Yeshúa says:) It shall not come by expectation. They will not say: Behold here! or: Behold there! But the Sovereignty of the Father is spread upon the earth, and humans do not perceive it.

Perhaps, then, the beauty and numinous energy that we seem to feel from nature isn’t something native to it. Perhaps what we feel is the kingdom of heaven which is the higher God’s power beginning to infiltrate and transform the earth in a tremendous act of transubstantiation. Perhaps, when we feel the harmony of nature, what we are sensing is not the material world AS IT IS, but rather how Spirit INTENDS it to be.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is, in effect, the Bodhisattva version of Gnosticism. We may recognize the corrupt elements of the material world as evil. But we are committed to raising the vibration of the material world and all the divine sparks in it.

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