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In any case, a good Gnostic sees the world as the province of a bumbling, idiot son who mistakes himself for the real thing, so political affiliation may be a matter of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. These days, the word gnostic is on the wind, and on the sometimes windy breath of pop-culture pundits, so it seems a good time to learn from this learned man about the weirdly beautiful and unsettling worldview that gave him his calling.
I ask Hoeller about the recent revival of interest in Gnostic themes spawned by popular phenomena like the Matrix films and The Da Vinci Code, as well as Hollywood’s continuing dance with literary Gnostics like Philip K. Dick. At 73, Hoeller’s awareness of such things is keen, and he answers, “Well, I think that we need to remind ourselves, as Jung did, that pop culture is still culture, and that it reflects whatever is churning in the collective unconscious. Things got a bit muddy with all the millennium hubbub, but there are authentic expressions of the tradition out there. It’s a matter, as always, of separating the wheat from the chaff. One can only hope . . .” A rabbinical tilt of the head, a lifting of brows and a barely audible sigh follow, suggesting that Hoeller’s heavenly hopes are tempered by a worldly fatalism. If there is a Gnostic among A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters, it is most certainly Eeyore.
But then, beneath the bushy brows, there is a gleam in his eye, and when talk turns to The Matrix, it grows brighter. A scenario in which our everyday reality is a digitized illusion projected by malevolent overlords of AI. Shades of the Demiurge? “Yes,” Hoeller affirms. “The outlines are there. Especially in the first film, where this notion of a counterfeit reality in which we’re trapped, and a dark, manipulative will behind the veil, is clearly expressed. Neo seems to be a classic Gnostic seeker.”
There is something akin to the Hindu concept of maya in all this talk of veiling and illusion, and I ask him if it’s simply a matter, as the gurus say, of our failure to see things “rightly.” “Yes and no,” he answers. “As with Hinduism, the ‘righting’ of our perception comes with a change in consciousness. A jnana, which we call gnosis. But, in general, the Eastern religions don’t acknowledge that there are malign forces whose interests lie in maintaining the illusion — so well that most people never see it.”
We never see it, I think out loud, unless there’s a tear in the fabric of our “reality” that suddenly reveals the Man Behind the Curtain — as when in The Truman Show the spotlight falls from a clear blue sky and lands at Jim Carrey’s feet.
“ ‘There’s a crack in the world,’ ” adds Hoeller, quoting Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.” The bishop smiles a Mona Lisa smile. “Yes,” he adds. “You see, to cite another chapter from the Matrix series, the Architect of this illusion is not all that skillful. There are flaws in the blueprint, fissures in the foundation, through which we can glimpse the supernal reality. But we must be very attentive, because as soon as a crack appears, the enemies of gnosis — enemies of a direct human perception of the true nature of God and man — begin to paper or plaster it over.”
Hoeller is speaking of the Demiurge and his cohorts, the Archons, and I cannot stop myself from asking the agnostic question: Are we talking allegorically here, or should I double-bolt the door tonight? His answer provokes a shiver, and makes me wonder if M. Night Shyamalan should be added to the list of Gnostic filmmakers. Hoeller describes these “enemies of gnosis” as “forms of transpersonal consciousness which have been actualized in some way and have an existence outside the individual psyche.” In other words, they’re not simply “in our heads.”
For the skeptical (and all Gnostics begin as skeptics), it may be worth noting that no less an authority on human psychology than Carl Jung wrote that flying saucers were an actualized projection of both nuclear-age anxiety and the deep longing for wholeness. They were not merely in our heads either.
Unlike Kabbalah, the mystical strain of Judaism whose mythos of divine emanations and scattered sparks of God-stuff closely parallels its own, Gnosticism doesn’t have a celebrity spokesperson like Madonna. That may be partly because its sobering epiphanies don’t lend themselves to a feel-good conclusion, and partly because Gnostics tend to observe the Zen axiom that “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” But the Gnostic tradition is clearly enjoying a revival by way of popular culture and cyberspace, and the Gnostic worldview, while underground for ages, has always been “in vogue” among the intelligentsia. A bold case could be made that gnosis is the ultimate form of hip, in the sense of knowing the score: You couldn’t ask for a headier jolt of inside dope than that the god of this world is a fraud. From William Blake to William S. Burroughs, from Goethe to Henry Miller to P.K. Dick, anyone who’s ever sought his illumination straight from the source, or doubted that the evil in the world was owed to the “Original Sin” of one errant couple, has felt the Gnostic twinge. It may be true, as Hoeller asserts, that “any serious artist is already half a Gnostic.” Certainly, any serious comedian is, comedy being the rearview mask of angst.

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