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The Mystery of Mara

  • Oliver Noster

  • March 16, 2020

I don’t think kids are really afraid of the dark. It’s not that you think something could be waiting, just out of sight; it’s what you do see. The way old familiar things twist and bend and stretch to reveal another world that dances on the surface of this one. It’s terrifying because you *know* it is an illusion. I know I can turn the light on at any time, so why does it still look like this to me? Why can’t I see it for what it is when the light is off?

There is a certain kind of snobbish teen who is very eager to tell you that all you see is shadows. He quotes Baudrillard: “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” If he has the confidence, he might try to quote Derrida. He’ll denounce atheists for being dogmatic killjoys, but really he has more in common with them than anyone else. The only difference is that the atheist will offer to turn on the lights, but this kid is still trying to invent the light switch. 

And he’s wrong about Baudrillard and Derrida. He’s wrong because Baudrillard would never ask you to turn on the lights – for him, everything is shadows. And this is nothing to be pessimistic about! And Derrida wasn’t just tearing things down, he was building things with language; it’s just the nature of language to continually unravel itself. His approach to studying writing was a matter of “letting it rather develop its positivity as far as possible…” So don’t expect to find pity in either of these writers when you find out your visions are shadows.

There is another question we have to face when we encounter visions in the dark. We ask, why *this* vision? It may be an illusion, but why *this* illusion? This is where the snobbish ones cannot help us.

Christian Heresey

A rash of gnosticism pops up once in a while, like any other archaic virus. This time perhaps for intrigue. If you’re not familiar, the short version is that gnostics have two basic principles: first, the rejection of the material world, which is a prison constructed by an evil tyrant or *demiurge*; second, that secret knowledge (gnosis) is the path of salvation.

Since this is an ancient and famous Christian heresy, you might be surprised when you realize that both of these tenets are popular with Americans. The rejection of the material world is of course a never-ending anxiety here, where the normal topics of preoccupation (health, race, gender, sexuality, fitness, beauty, intelligence) are taken abnormally. I don’t have to give you examples to convince you that American politics is about rejecting that these things exist at all, at least in a way outside of our control. That is, there is a massive attempt to reject *materiality* itself.

A preoccupation with knowledge (gnosis) over belief is equally popular. This even dominates the entire spectrum of spirituality from atheists who argue with *a-gnostics* and theists over knowledge claims, to secular mystics who claim they aren’t religious but they *are* spiritual (because they think they have some direct knowledge of divinity, probably from an acid trip).

Buddhism isn’t so far removed from these two principles either, which explains why it’s popular among so-called secular Americans. Why doesn’t Buddhism force you to believe anything? Because it is a gnostic religion that relies on direct personal experience. Buddhists are able to carry themselves with a lot more security than others do for this exact reason – they’ll never try to convince you, they’ll just bet that if you try it you’ll find out for yourself. In this sense Buddhism is the ultimate gnosticism – it rests entirely on a tiny kernel of gnosticism, and the rest is auxiliary.

Okay, so Americans are closeted gnostics. But why do both principles apply? Are they connected in some way? It’s really simple; gnosticism is about rejecting illusions to see the truth. And if the knowledge is secret, hidden, or requires some work to arrive at, then it is because the illusion is all around us. It is *material*.

Zizek likes to say (and maybe he plagiarized it) that every advance in philosophy is a redefinition of materialism. This is because material is, more than anything, a measure of your surprise. The materiality of your body surprises you, when you are limited, when you are not who you thought you were, when you are ill, when you are horny, when you are angry. The materiality of evolution surprises you, when what is rewarded differs from your values. Materiality is your own blood, which is you, but will never belong to you, never be your choice.

If gnosticism is a rejection of material, then, that is because it is a rejection of *surprise*. It is the claim that surprise itself is the illusion, which could only be a hall of mirrors to imprison the myopic.

At this point you might be wondering who *isn’t* a gnostic. What would a truly a-gnostic world even look like? For one, the gospel stands in clear opposition to gnosticism. Jesus is the divine made flesh, material. For another, remember what I said about Baudrillard and Derrida earlier: for them, there is no world “with the lights on.” For them, the world itself is the dance of shadows.

Anyone who’s done philosophy for long enough has realized there are two things you can do. You can either build your own story, or tear down someone’s lie. But if you build your own story, this is just another lie to be torn down. A funny way to see this is to tally up philosophy students who identify with Socrates; of course this mythological martyr story draws them in, since it’s this *lie* that brings them to philosophy, and to make things worse it’s a lie about truth. The two impulses define the autistic and the schizophrenic, the Master and the Hysteric. Of course, this is a deeply gnostic viewpoint.

Hume’s Nature of Divinity

Maybe one of the most under-recognized features of Abrahamic religions is that, while they, being religions, claim to hold the key to the abstract and universal being of things, they are deeply concerned with the concrete, political instatiations of them. Of course, if you compare the explicit entry of religion into politics, Abrahamic religions are predominant. We could view this uncharitably, as nothing more than a paradox, but we could also view this as an attempt to resolve an existing philosophical problem; namely, what’s the relationship between what *actually is* and what could be? For instance, if you study the world itself, will that be sufficient to extrapolate the true nature of things in general, or will you only learn more about the way things, maybe by chance, actually happen to be?

There is an important argument Hume made on this topic, where he notes that if you infer a cause from some effect (e.g. inferring the nature of divinity from the actual state of humanity as it is now), you can’t possibly be able to infer future effects from that cause. That’s because the effect itself only gives you enough information to infer a cause sufficient to generate that effect. Any ability to predict new effects requires outside information about the causes themselves. This is related to the problem of induction: essentially, the scientific method relies on the assumption that causes repeat. Otherwise there would be no reason to assume that what was observed in an experiment yesterday would continue to hold true today or tomorrow. Another way to view this is as a supposition of *time-invariance*. That is, that the fundamental causes of the universe remain unchanged with respect to time. This preoccupation of Abrahamic religions with concreteness extends so far that it actually violates this law of time-invariance. Whereas other religions may have some notion of eternal repetition, reincarnation, and harmony, the Abrahamic universe is inherently finite and disharmonic. 

There is a second implication of this religious concreteness, which is that the truth of concrete reality is not something that can simply be inferred through armchair extrapolation from abstract principles, it is something that requires divine intervention to access. The significance of this is clear: instead of brushing off the concrete reality of things as a blemish on their abstract potentiality as gnostics do, for followers of Abrahamic religions, the problem is recognized to be bidirectional. In other words, for them there is a push and pull between the concrete and the abstract. 


Generally speaking, there are two important gaps in gnosticism. The first is that it doesn’t adequately resolve the tension between seeing and knowing – seeing becomes both the chains and the key. But which vision should be trusted? If you see the world as an illusion, who is to say that that too is not just another illusion? And of course, if the hidden truth, whatever it may be is something that you will be able to see when the time comes, doesn’t this say something significant about your vision? That you have been primed from the beginning to be able to receive the message when it comes?

We encounter the same problem in science. In order to make progress, we have to take the results of our experiments and deduce the pattern. But there are an infinite number of mathematical functions that can generate any finite set of data, so you should expect your own pattern recognition to have a 0% chance of success. Any vision, be it truth or illusion, rests on your pattern recognition. Why place a divine trust in this pattern recognition?

The second gap is an ignorance of what belief really is. Belief is not a vision, it is something that has bound you. And most importantly, even illusions that you know are illusions can bind you. Or if there’s anything to be said about the experience of a child hiding under the covers, it’s that it is *especially* the illusions that you know are illusions that bind you. Gnostics always miss this point, which is why you will find them naming things as if that will help. They will tell you your biases, try to discover your childhood trauma, maybe even proclaim that “we need to have a conversation about mental illness.” And never will they understand what it means to say that “blessed are those that believe but have not seen.” Unwittingly, these humorless hags spin myths of gods swallowing titans, ensuring the immortality of the self-sublating procession of illusions.

Just like the two principles of gnosticism are connected, so are the two gaps of gnosticism connected. Despite the risk of being accused of being non sequitur, I ask you to consider what is perhaps the most gnostic archetype of all – the blind seer. The obvious implication behind the necessity of this archetype is that freedom from seeing the concrete, illusory reality of things as they are is a necessary prerequisite to being able to see the abstract, general truth of things. But think more generally of instatiations of the seer archetype in stories and myth – they aren’t always blind, but they are at the peripheries of society, often deformed, live their lives in different or ungodly ways.

I mentioned earlier that knowledge arises from perception and pattern-recognition, and that the pattern-recognition is a correspondence between the subject and the world itself. Therefore, the only way for knowledge to be acquired is through some correspondence between the subject and the world. This is why the archetype of the seer does not have to be blind, but merely *out-of-sync* with the material, concrete world; for gnostics, the world as-it-is is the realm of illusions, in constant conflict with truth. So for beautiful, able-bodied athlete to be a seer would be to disprove this very notion outright – it would be to show that the concrete world as-it-is *can* correspond with truth in general, and this would refute gnosticism outright. This is even represented in characters like Sherlock and House, who have to be disabled as a matter of principle.

The connection this forms between the two gaps of gnosticism is simple; belief-as-belief is the realm of the bodily and material, since it is what has bound you whether you are conscious of it or not, whereas belief-as-knowledge is the realm of the purely conscious and abstract. For gnostics, the first is what must be sacrificed for the second to ascend.

I can only think of two good examples of a-gnostic seers; Telemachus, who sees Athena, and BAP, who sees… whatever it is that he sees. In both cases we see the glorious triumph of youth, efficacy, and substance in establishing a correspondence between the political, material concrete and the abstract universal, approaching for once the answer to the eternal question:  why *this* illusion?

The Birth of Mara

That is your date, across from you at the dinner theater, both hands in her lap, letting a tab dissolve on her tongue. This is the birth of Mara. This is the posture of the setting sun.

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