The Breath of the All-Merciful

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Gnosis: Language of the Self

~Frithjof Schuon

There are various ways of expressing or defining the difference between gnosis and love—or between jnâna and bhakti—but here we wish to consider only one criterion, and it is this: for the “volitive” or “affective” man (the bhakta) God is “He” and the ego is “I”, whereas for the “gnostic” or “intellective” man (the jnânin) God is “I”—or “Self”—and the ego is “he” or “the other”. And one sees immediately why it is the first and not the second perspective that determines all religious dogmatism: it is because the majority of men start out with certitude about the ego and not the Absolute; most are individualists and are therefore but little suited to make a “concrete abstraction” of their empirical “I”, which is an intellectual and not a moral problem: in other words few have the gift of impersonal contemplativity—for it is of this we are speaking—that allows us to “let God think” within us.

The nature of pure intellection will be better understood if one takes account of this fact: the Intellect, which is One, appears in three fundamental aspects—at least to the extent we are situated in “separative illusion”, which is the case for every creature as such: first, the divine Intellect, which is Light and pure Act; second, the cosmic Intellect, which is receptacle or mirror in relation to God and light in relation to man; and third, the human Intellect, which is mirror in relation to both of the foregoing and light in relation to the individual soul; one must therefore be careful to distinguish within the Intellect—the divine Intellect excepted—an “uncreated” aspect, which is essential, and a “created” aspect, which is “accidental” or rather “contingent”. This synthetic view of things “results”, one might say, from the principle of non-alterity: that which is not “other” in any respect is “identical” under the relationship here being considered, so much so that intelligence as such—whether that of a man conforming to the truth or that of a plant causing it irresistibly to turn toward the light—“is” the intelligence of God; intelligence is “human” or “vegetal” only in relation to its specific limitations, and similar considerations apply to every positive quality, hence to all the virtues, which are always those of God, not of course in their diminishing accidentality, but in their content or essence.


These considerations allow us to see that the great Gospel virtues— charity, humility, poverty, childlikeness—have their final end in the “Self ”: they represent so many negations of that ontological tumescence which is the ego, negations that are not individualistic and thereby contradictory, but intellective, that is, taking their point of departure within the Self as such in conformity with the profound nature of things. In a similar way, if a sage cannot be satisfied in a definitive way with any created bliss—“the (created) Paradise is a prison for the Sufi”—this is not because of any pretension or ingratitude, far from it, but because the Intellect tends toward its Source or because the Self in us “wishes to be delivered”. If Christ “is God”, this is because the Intellect—“come down from Heaven”—“is the Self ”; and in this sense every religion is “Christian”: on the one hand each postulates the uncreated Intellect—or the Logos, the “uncreated Word” of God, which amounts to the same thing in regard to the “radiance” of the Intellect—and on the other hand it postulates the earthly manifestation of this Word and the deliverance brought about through it; every complete tradition postulates in the final analysis the “extinction” of the ego for the sake of the divine “I”, an extinction for which the sacred Law provides an elementary framework, though the Law must remain “dualistic” in its common letter owing to the needs of the majority and consequently for reasons of social psychology. “Inwardly” every religion is the doctrine of the unique Self and its earthly manifestation, as well as the way leading to the abolition of the false self or the way of the mysterious reintegration of our “personality” in the celestial Prototype; “outwardly” the religions are “mythologies” or, more precisely, symbolisms designed for different human receptacles and displaying by their limitations, not a contradiction in divinis, but on the contrary a mercy. A doctrine or way is exoteric insofar as it is obliged to take account of individualism—the fruit not so much of passion itself as of the influence of passion on thought—and to veil the equation Intellect- Self under a mythological or moral “imagery”, whether there is an element of historicity or not; and a doctrine is esoteric insofar as it communicates the very essence of our universal position, our situation between nothingness and Infinity. Esoterism looks to the nature of things and not merely to our human eschatology; it does not view the Universe starting from man, but “starting from God”.

The exoteric mentality, with its unilateral logic and a “rationalism” that is somewhat “passional”, scarcely conceives that there are questions to which the answer is at once “yes” and “no”; it is always afraid of falling into “dualism”, “pantheism”, “quietism”, or something of the kind. In metaphysics as in psychology it is sometimes necessary to resort to ambiguous answers; for example, to the question: the world, “is it” God? we reply: “no”, if by the “world” is understood ontological manifestation as such, that is, in its connection with existential or demiurgic separativity; “yes”, if by the “world” is understood manifestation insofar as it is causally or substantially divine, there being nothing outside of God; in the first case God is exclusive and transcendent Principle, and in the second, total Reality or universal and inclusive Substance. God alone “is”; the world is a limited “divine aspect”, for it cannot—on pain of absurdity—be a nothingness on its own level. To affirm on the one hand that the world has no “divine quality” and on the other that it is real apart from God and that it never ceases to be so amounts to admitting two Divinities, two Realities, two Absolutes.

What is “incarnation” for Christianity is “revelation” or “descent” for the other two monotheistic religions. The truth that only divine manifestation “is the Self ”, to the exclusion of every human counterfeit, becomes exoterically: only a particular divine manifestation—to the exclusion of all others—is the Self. It could also be said on the level of the microcosm that the Intellect alone, and no other human faculty, is the Self—not reason nor imagination nor memory nor feeling nor the faculties of sensory perception—even though, in connection with existential structures, everything reflects or “is” the Self in some way or another. This exclusive value of “incarnation”, besides its spiritual significance, clearly possesses a historically literal meaning as well, which is legitimate when one considers the particular human cosmos where this divine manifestation has taken place, this being in the case of Christ the world of the Roman Empire and in a larger sense the world of those whom the particular grace of Christ “has chosen”, whatever their country of origin; but the literalist interpretation becomes unacceptable whenever an attempt is made to add some fact or other, even a sacred fact, to metaphysical truth, as if the latter were incomplete without it—whereas all possible facts are already included in this truth—and as if metaphysical truth were subject to time. Let us take another example: the Koranic affirmation that “God alone is God” means that there is no Self but the Self, but exoterically it implies that God could not manifest Himself as such “outside Himself ”, which amounts to denying the phenomenon of “incarnation”; but in every case of this kind esoterism “restores” the total truth on the plane of principles. All things considered the difference between Christian and Muslim gnosis is essentially this: whereas Christian gnosis projects the mystery of the God-Man, and thereby the mystery of the Trinity, into the soul of the gnostic, as is shown for example by certain Eckhartian texts, Sufism for its part sees “unification” (tawhîd) or the “unity of Existence”—or rather of “universal Reality”, wahdat al-Wujûd, sometimes translated as the “Supreme Identity”—as rising from the very nature of the divine Unity.

The exoteric distinction between “true religion” and “false religions” is replaced for the gnostic by the distinction between gnosis and beliefs or between essence and forms.10 The sapiential perspective alone is an esoterism in the absolute sense; in other words it alone is necessarily and integrally esoteric because it alone reaches beyond all relativities.

From: Gnosis: Divine Wisdom 
A New Translation with Selected Letters