Silent Letters

Our English word, “knowledge” has its root in the Greek word, “gnosis.” (The “g” in Greek becomes a “k” in early English, both of which are silent letters.) The Greek word literally means, “to know,” or “knowledge.” In the first centuries of the Christian era an eastern tradition had emerged called Gnosticism. One cannot really call it a religion, because it was more like a cosmology that influenced many different religious expressions, including the emerging Christian one. In the end it was rejected by Christians (for good reason) but for several hundred years it influenced the Church’s thinking in some pretty profound ways. Gnosticism held that the world was a tension between good and evil. Good was spiritual and evil was material. The “gnosis” in Gnosticism consisted of a secret insider knowledge that allowed the practitioner to transcend the evil, heavy and earthy material realm and reach to the ethereal, non-material world of spirit, almost like the silent letter that you have to know not to pronounce. Coupled with Neoplatonism, which taught that the “real” world was the world of ideals (heaven,) and on earth all we live in is shadows of the ideal, its influence is hard to underestimate. Several volumes from the early church exist that are called gnostic gospels in that they tell the story of Jesus from a gnostic point of view. One of the most commonly known is the Gospel of Thomas.

Last night we watched Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” (1986.) It is a long, graphic story (the R rating is fully warranted) extremely loosely based on the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. In some places it is anything but gnostic, as when Jesus picks up a handful of dirt and says, “God is here.” However, the treatment of Judas in the film is right out of the Gospel of Thomas. Judas is the hero who betrays Jesus at Jesus’ own behest and against his desire because he has come to know the “insider knowledge” that Jesus’ death and resurrection would make him the savior of the world.

Insider knowledge is still really seductive. We see it today in conspiracy theories, most of which (to reveal insider knowledge) are a means of income for their perpetrators and not much more. Politics always seems to play out its power games behind a thin veneer of good will toward the American People and ill will toward the opposing party. High-powered sales will get you to focus on what you want to see and not the price or the imperfections of the product, all the while offering you “insider knowledge” like special deals only for you, quirky qualities of the product that no one else knows, etc. The News Media are always coming out with “the real story.” We are fascinated with silent letters.

Each of us carries silent letters. I do not mean information that is not appropriate for a given situation, which is just good manners. I mean the silent letters that escape our own knowledge, and, buried deep within us, taunt us with images of the unreal. These are the untold stories that really do determine our behavior, often against the conscious will. They inspire scapegoating, blaming and addictions, oppression and violence against the innocent and a hundred other social ills. We see St. Paul unmask these silent letters when he writes “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Get the whole insider story at Romans 7:14-25a; the above quote is from the NRSV.)

“In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses the maxim ‘know thyself’ as his explanation to Phaedrus to explain why he has no time for the attempts to rationally explain mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, ‘But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things.'” (Wikipedia) Gnosticism is seductive because it feeds the ego, not the spirit that it claims to serve. Naming the silent letters is the first step toward wisdom and compassion.


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