TechGnosis by Erik Davis is quite a read. It’s the kind of book that seems like the product of a lifetime of reading and research, extremely thought provoking if only because it’s so crammed full of thought and opinion. As I read it several people asked me what it was about and with great difficulty I finally formulated a short answer – it’s about how spirituality has affected technology and how technology has affected spirituality. Since TechGnosis was written in the late nineties it focuses on the astonishing emergence of computers and the internet, reflecting, as we can now see in retrospect, that era’s sometimes shameless optimism and vitality – but Bill Clinton is looking pretty good around now, isn’t he?
Anyway, with the book’s close examination of the many varieties of religion, one of the thoughts it provoked in me was what exactly do I believe? Or even what do I want to believe? As Davis took his tour through world religion I followed, trying to nail down the elements that appealed to me the most.
First of all, let me say that of all the spiritual possibilities the most dominant at the moment, Christianity, is to me the least credible. One look at the newspaper is enough to thoroughly disprove Christianity’s bedrock assertion that there’s a creator god who is both omnipotent and benevolent. If there is such a god why does he let people suffer so? Why is evil allowed to exist and why did he create it? Why a god of love really be so hell bent on eventually consigning most of the earth’s population to eternal torment? Job asked similar questions in the bible, but today we wouldn’t be satisfied by a special effects extravaganza the way he was.
Of course most contemporary "Christians" don’t really follow orthodox Christianity, anyway, many, like George W. Bush, preferring a sort of self-help Manichaeism that empowers them to be awful and that would have gotten them burnt as heretics in the Middle Ages. I realize that people turn to this stuff because they don’t realize there’s anything else or to handle an overwhelming grief or need, but I’ll pass. Christians can believe whatever they want to but they seem to have an ever increasing need (fueled by fear and uncertainty?) to impose their beliefs on everybody else. There was a time when Christianity ruled the roost and the bible was the only book needed – we call it The Dark Ages.
Like many other contemporary thinkers, Davis makes much of the influence of Gnosticism on modern culture, and I’ve certainly been attracted to it. I like the idea of salvation through knowledge rather than surrender, and to me Simon Magus and Helen make a more attractive couple than Jesus and his Magdalene and/or Mom. The concept that this world is run by an Archon, a crackpot being who thinks he’s god also seems more in line with what’s in front of my face than the usual pieties. And haven’t all of us, particularly those in the modern world, felt like we’re alienated, fallen souls trapped in a prison of matter, only occasionally catching sight of the glittering divine through the bars?
The problem with Gnosticism, as Davis points out, is that it’s essentially a Christian heresy with Platonic overtones. Both the Pentecostal and the Gnostic demand that we reject on scant evidence the phenomenological world in favor of an invisible, higher, more "real" realm, and this kind of rejection leads to a disrespect for this sweet old world and the occasionally sweet inhabitants thereof. I really believe that the Christian conservative right’s heinous attitude toward the environment is informed by fundamentalist delusions about the imminent end time and the sinfulness of the natural world. Similarly if George W. Bush believes that all non-Christians are going to be punished in hell it makes it a lot easier for him to order them sent there.
I could never embrace either the complete hedonism or strict asceticism which are the logical behavioral outcomes of the belief that we live in a fallen, debased realm – the world is all we have and all we can even slightly know, even though I believe there’s far more to it than a strict mechanistic reductionist would allow. As Davis says:
Spiritual reality does not descend from on high; it is something we discover and make for ourselves, through our symbols and rituals and communicative interaction.
Another alternative, Buddhism, which, because it lacks the big daddy god of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, seems to be the most logical and philosophical of the religions, but the problem is that I don’t want to eliminate desire or even pain – they are life and a salvation that leads to nothingness, the end of individuality and a merging with the godhead doesn’t really attract me. Another thing I like about Gnosticism is that the elect don’t dissolve and become one with god but become gods themselves. Sign me up!
To be continued! Stay tuned to this UBU channel for part two of this exciting essay!