The Pagan Experience asks What are Knowledge, Wisdom and Gnosis? What do these words mean to you? How do express these principles in your spiritual work? Is any one more important than the other? Why?
I’ve been saving this wisdom from Neil DeGrasse Tyson for some time and now I get a chance to use it.
I’ll get to why this is relevant in a moment, but let’s first consider the three subjects posed by the Pagan Experience in turn, first from the point of view of their dictionary meaning and then their place within paganism
What is Knowledge?
Knowledge is the accumulation of fact, information and skill either through education or through direct experience. Knowledge can either be practical or theoretical, depending on how it is being acquired, and both have their strengths and weaknesses. For example a theoretical knowledge base lacks the benefit of practical application, the knowledge is never put into active use and whilst nice it is essentially stagnated and unable to grow.
Practical knowledge can equally become stagnated, by repetition and the inability to innovate or seek out alternative opinions. It is when the two are combined that knowledge can really grow. By being open to new learning and ideas and putting them into practice alongside other existing practices and ideas it can be possible to expand on our knowledge.
There are situations where it is only ever possible to work in the realm of theory, for example theoretical physics, but it is possible to create checks and balances to ensure that theory does not become too wacky or closed to new interpretation.
In my Pagan practice knowledge is something that should be actively acquired, both in theory and practice. Witchcraft is, after all, the practical application of occult knowledge and powers so in order to practice it one needs to gather information and knowledge as well the experience of it. As with the example of theoretical physics its sometimes necessary to only work within the realms of theory. This might because of relative isolation or inability to practice for whatever reason but in the same way it is possible to monitor oneself to avoid becoming too opinionated or airy fairy.
On the flip side I feel it should be impossible for practitioners of any Craft to rely solely on practical knowledge and experience in preference over gathering knowledge from other sources such as reading, research and reflection. The pursuit of theoretical knowledge, the kind you get from books, is a part of the pursuit of occult knowledge. In this instance I find total reliance on practical experience in an effort to acquire occult knowledge flawed, it’s all too easy to fall within the realm of fantasy and lose the ability to critically assess your experiences.
Of course it does depend on what you are going to read, if you only seek out information that reinforces your experience or gnosis and not reflect on it from another point of view then you are limiting yourself in many ways. By combining the practical acquisition of knowledge with theoretical we can keep ourselves both grounded and open to new knowledge.
What is Wisdom?
The dictionary tells us that wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement. Wisdom is the quality of being wise. In my understanding it means that as well as having acquired knowledge and experience we must also develop the wisdom to use it.
In a way it comes back to what Uncle Ben said to Spidy “with great power comes great responsibility”. As Pagans we spend our time acquiring knowledge and experience along our Path and there comes a time when we want to put it all into practice we need to consider the wisdom of a course of action. As well as deciding if we are using the right methods and approach we need to assess the wisdom of taking magical action at all, or more importantly in isolation. Is there wisdom in relying on magic to resolve all things or should we look to things that we can do ourselves in real life? In my opinion the answer is always that we should look to mundane actions in conjunction with magical but that is a separate discussion.
Also within Pagan circles I’ve found that it takes wisdom to recognise when it is possible to talk to someone about Paganism, either on the level of knowledge or gnosis, and when it’s time to just give up and go home. There are many … lets say schools of thought out there in the Pagan world that really raise my eyebrow, especially when they start to explain how they arrived at these gems of knowledge and wisdom. The response of “it came to me in meditation therefor it is true” or “I am the inheritor of generations of occult wisdom from an ancient ancestor, I know all and don’t need to read a thing”, or anything of the type for that matter, to the question of “how did you arrive at this understanding” tends not to sit well with me … at all. The wisdom is knowing when you are able to have a useful discourse with someone or when they are so far out there that no matter how loud you should you aren’t going to reach them.
What is Gnosis
Gnosis is a knowing, usually a spiritual knowledge or understanding of a spiritual mystery. Gnosis often refers to a knowledge that cannot be explained through empirical means or a knowledge that cannot it by wholly gained or understood through more traditional methods of knowledge gathering alone.
A good example of a gnosis from recent news is the Massachussetts priest, Father O’Neal who, after being declared clinically dead for 48 mins was returned to life through medical intervention and relayed that in his trip to heaven (aka Near Death Experience) he met God and God was a *woman*! So many have jumped on the back of this, particularly within the Pagan community ignoring the rumblings of hoax and the subjective nature of the few NED’s that have been recorded. There are many people who hold the gnosis that the Divine is female and this example, if we take it as a given true event for a moment, is a prime example of Father O’Neal reaching a Shared Personal Gnosis (SPG) or a spiritual vision or understanding shared by a number of unrelated people who have arrived at this understanding independently of each other. Another form of gnosis is Confirmed Gnosis or Confirmed Personal Gnosis (CG/CPG). In this case it is possible to confirm the validity of a gnosis, be it personal or shared, within lore or mythology.
The most common form of gnosis that we experience as pagans is Unverified (or Unsubstantiated) Personal Gnosis, aka UPG. This describes an individual’s spiritual understanding or experience which is valid for them without being evincible or the shared experience of the wider community.
It’s fair to say that all myths and legends at some point grew out of someone’s UPG, or a SPG, so it’s important not to dismiss UPG out of hand. On the other hand it’s important to be able to be constantly reviewing ones UPG thorough talking about them in terms of the ‘big’ questions we encounter in life. It’s by talking about a UPG with the ability to either defend the flaws and gaps and/or acknowledge them and seek to fill them that we can grow and in the process maybe reach the point of arriving at a CG or SPG.
Not everyone is able to do this, and this comes back to my comments about the wisdom of knowing when to engage with someone on reflecting of their UPG and when its best to leave them to come to that point on their own.
DeGrasse Tyson and UPG
This brings me back around to my opening quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson;
“It’s okay not to know all the answers; it’s better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything closes the door to finding out what’s really there.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson
He is talking about how we understand the Cosmos, the macro level of existence, however I find it has its place when discussing UPG and spiritual knowledge.
It’s okay for us to admit to not knowing all the answers, in fact I feel it should be positively encouraged in this context. We don’t have all the answers and It is important for us to acknowledge this fact and keep the doors to experience and growth open. By being open to discussing our own UPG we are able to view it through the eyes of others and review it to our own benefit. Sometimes when we discuss these things we find that our UPG doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in some way and that is a golden opportunity to look at it in detail with the input of others and work out what they hole are, why they are there, does something need to be done about them, and what?
It’s probably very clear by now that I see the pagan path, even one defined by a tradition, as being an ever evolving path which requires an open and enquiring mind. We are the eternal students because we are finding our way anew in so many senses. The moment we close our minds to the thoughts of others, or allow discourse to descend into petty squabbeling we loose something, the ability to gather knowledge and the wisdom of how to use is but most importantly our connection to the spiritual vision that is our gnosis, our Knowledge.
Words – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Composition – Me.