The perennial tension between belief and knowledge drives the cooperative but sensitive soul to the dichotomy of outward (belief) and inward (knowledge). Conformity to beliefs is conformity to the consensus of authority over the centuries. The sensitive soul is willing to understand the need for doctrine in terms of the efficacy of order and the use of symbols and rituals for the common people lost without them. But such a soul will chafe at the notion that that is all there is, that once one submits to authority or rote tradition, no more exists, neither of inquiry nor answers.
Such is the indirect origin of mysticism. Mysticism in the traditions from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism consists of the exhaustion of belief and the desire and the aspiration to attain knowledge that is not second-hand, not a body of laws or signs or formulas without spirit, without life. Mystic impulses are inevitable phenomena because the confines of the empirical, let alone the nostrums of culture, are too rigid to permit of speculation, contemplation, or identification with mystery.
Yet mysticism is often viewed as aberrant, as defiance of belief. Put in terms of individual responsibility for knowledge rather than mass expectation of conformity to tenets, “mystic” tendencies are present at the beginning, with the very “founders” of religious movements, of what become sweeping vehicles of individual attainment to knowledge of mystery.
Thus Moses is presented as holding mystical converse with God. The earliest Christian thinking was not the Judaic Paul but the mystic Paul, was not the authority of bishops and councils but the insights of gnostics perceiving a deeper resonance to the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus. And the Sufi tradition in Islam predates the fundamentalism that eliminated the individual attainment of God for the structure and hierarchy of clerical authority.
In Hinduism, too, the revolution of the 5th century BC presents the spiritual insights of the Bhagavad Gita triumphing over the rigid caste system — a projection of belief — of the Brahmins. And the saying of Gautama Buddha in the Kalama Sutra rings out across the network of world-wide spiritual sentiment:
Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumor, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.
The test is, as Kierkegaard shows, ultimately subjective, in the sense that the self must be satisfied with the content of knowledge, that the self must be able to conform to the goal that the momentum of thought presents. This is belief that is not believed in but is experienced as authentic and not secondary. Even when an adherent will argue that authority or tradition or revelation accepted is good enough to provide a trajectory in life, that is still not knowledge but a sentiment based on conforming to an outside presentation.
Ultimate subjectivity makes the ideas and words knowledge by transforming the self, not in the direction of closeness to other adherents but in distance from them and identity with a greater universal identity, an identity with every particle of creation, not merely the convenient creation of one’s culture or tradition. And yet we remain such creatures that we need our culture’s symbols, language, social routines. The paradox is only broken by silence, stillness, the adjustment of the self to a reality that must inevitably transcend all of this culture, this social transmission of ideas, this world and its evanescence.
The Christian gnostics, among others in this way of thought, recognized that everyone should think for themselves, much as the Buddha said. This meant a separation from worldliness, from society wherein everyone conforms thoughtlessly, to a concentration on the well-being of the self. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say: “Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the Kingdom.”
Scholar Elaine Pagels puts it:
This solitude derives from the gnostics’ insistence on the primacy of immediate experience. No one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act. The gnostic could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure, until one found one’s own path. …
Those attracted to solitude [orthodox or gnostic] would note that even the New Testament gospel of Luke includes Jesus’ saying that whoever “does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Of course, Jesus also praised loyalty and compassion, but within a firm sense of knowledge and the necessity of coming freely to awareness, not mere belief or conformity to authority. Like the “founders” of all religions, the complex and unique personalities present themselves as ultimate solitary, ultimately able to attain a plane of experience that eludes disciples and adherents, let alone authorities intent on constructing a self-justified edifice of power. Without striving for that level of knowledge, that level of gnosis, no one does justice to the true heart of spirituality.