I’ve always disliked Jesus’ three-part statement in Matthew 7:7 containing the phrase, “Seek and ye shall find.” This strikes my literal-minded self as such a blatant untruth I don’t know how anyone can read it without cynicism or outrage.
Sure, many people seek and DO find some specific, definable, solid Truth (in religion or outside it). More power to them. More power to YOU if you’re such a fortunate soul. Many other seekers (I’m one) search, search, and search some more, and find only falsehood, error, contradiction, endless and extremely colorful fearmongering, and an excess of terrible but extremely enthusiastic argument.
Then, reading The Gnostic Gospels, I came across this key difference between the early church hierarchs’ idea of seeking and finding and the “heretics'” idea.
Hierarchs: Seek until you find our message, then stop. We have everything you’re looking for.
Gnostics: The act of seeking is itself the act of finding. As you continue your search into the light, you’ll discover insight and spiritual growth in the very process of seeking.
The “knock” and “ask” parts of Jesus’ statement remain opaque to me, as they imply an “other” to satisfy their conditions and for some of us no doors to religion are ever opened or requests fulfilled.
But this process-driven, rather than end-goal-driven, concept of seeking and finding .. well, even a hopelessly jaded failed seeker can understand that.
Freedom is a mystical concept. Freedom is also the process of seeking and finding.
Because of this (or at least in part because of this), freedom is the finest way to produce that elusive thing so often used instead to justify tyranny: the greatest good for the greatest number.
The hierarchs of both nation and church say, “Believe in us to avoid error and escape our punishments.” Freedom says, “Screw up and prepare for the consequences until you figure out what works. Remember that what works for you might not work for everybody else — but in aggregate what freedom produces benefits everyone.”
Hierarchs of all persuasions say, “Do everything according to our defined procedures. Change only when we grant permission.” Freedom says, “I give you science, free markets, the printing press, telecommunications, great (and sometimes ‘heretical’) books, free association, release from historic poverty and superstition. I give you the choice of following your own path and discovering your own truths — which may be stupid or wondrous, as only experience can tell.”
Hierarchs say, “Obey us and be safe.” Freedom says, “Explore! You might die trying, but in the end, all humanity will be safer, more prosperous, and more enlightened for being free to go beyond the authoritative and the handed-down.”
Hierarchs say, “Trust us to look out for your best interests better than you yourself can.” Hierarchs don’t add “We hope you never notice that we’re hidebound, corrupt, inept, ignorant, and entirely and always serving our own self-interest.” Freedom says, “Trust yourself. Value your peers. Learn from your errors and go on.”
Functionally, there is very little difference between church and state, other than the things they revere as gods. Some current gods may be (to name only a sampling from the pantheon) “democracy,” “patriotism,” “popular opinion,” the national myth of the moment, lobbyists, money, and the perfect transforming power of technology. All these gods, governments serve, support, and attempt to perpetuate.
If you’re offended by the thought of government acting like a church or vice versa, take modern governance as an example of history rhyming, if not exactly repeating itself. These are outfits that not only aim to rule, but aim to do so by first, and constantly, molding our reality to fit their purposes.
Politically, for any government, the easiest and most desirable course for achieving goals is also precisely the same as it was for early church hierarchs — enforcing sheeplike acceptance by the hoi palloi of central authority. Demanding, or at least promoting, full belief and unquestioning “faith” followed by loyalty, submission, and obedience.
The most desirable course for any freedom-seeking
“gnostic” anarchist/libertarian/free marketeer, on the other hand, is following individual principles, having choices, pursuing chances for discovery, prosperity, community, creativity, and personal growth and achievement. Plus, of course, having sufficient intellectual autonomy to seek after both The Cap-T Truth and smaller personal truths. And possessing the freedom to shout, “BS!” when the powerful are in the wrong.
That’s an obvious clash of incompatibles — especially when you consider that all hierarchies (and, sadly, many individuals) define “different” as “opposite, opposing, enemy.”
Within the universal church, a core belief was always, “You can’t make it on your own. We have the only access to the higher power you desperately need. We are the only earthly spokesmen for that higher power.” Governments may not be so blatant in saying so, but they do attempt to control access to all the current “gods,” to dole out the godly beneficence, to monger the fear that without them we and all we love would be lost, and to determine who is favored and who is cast out.
I don’t like this. You probably don’t like this. But it’s also possible that, as with the survival of the early church, the ruthlessness, the myths, the impositions from above, and even the paranoia of the powers that be are survival traits. After all, could a bunch of “do their own thing” libertarian-anarchists, who famously can’t agree on what to have for dinner, hold together anything more than a small voluntary community against the terrible forces of realpolitik and history?
After Vatican II modestly loosened centuries of old policies, Tom Lehrer satirized the supposed anarchism of the reforms in a song, “The Vatican Rag” (“Everybody say his own kyrie eleison!”) (lyrics video).
It was pretty funny at the time, but it gently pointed at the scary truth that even modest change is both hard and threatening to historically immovable institutions. Small change is trumpeted as huge. Major change tends to come only with a whole bunch of people dying. Institutions of coercive power don’t react well to demands for real change.
Obviously there are dangers on both extremes, hierarchal power and boundless freedom. When you assume that a nation is a fixed concept and that government is also a concept defined by believing institutional dogma and following leaders, you’re open to inevitable tyranny and corruption. OTOH, freedom can equal chaos and impermanance — or so millions of people are taught to perceive.
And it’s true that freedom tends to yield over time to the desire for hierarchy and fixed ideas of order. In all times, even the best of times, free individuals are vulnerable to vast, overpowering forces. The most supposedly stable, secure, powerful, just, and law-bound government will reach out at any time, unpredictably, to crush a single individual who holds a “wrong” opinion and expresses it too vocally.
It was a foregone conclusion, back in the day, that an organized, political, and hierarchical church was going to crush a bunch of proto-hippie, proto-Jungian, Buddhist-influenced, super-ascetic believers in individual interior light.
Still — in a little miracle of resistance and history — one or more insignificant members of that increasingly powerful church, upon being ordered to destroy the “heretical” texts in his or their library, sneaked that clay jar full of books into the desert and defiantly hid it. That person or those people could not have imagined that 1,600 years later those books would emerge to enrich and educate a more receptive world. You never know.
It’s a foregone conclusion that we assorted anarchists, libertarians, and other individual freedom seekers will never move the weight of government off millions of shoulders. Or even off our own. Perhaps one day we’ll be known, as the gnostics were for centuries, mostly through the derision and misrepresentations of those who hate and fear us. But you never know. History is full of surprises. Ideas have power even when the individuals holding the ideas lack it.
Whatever happens in the big political and historic picture, one thing remains true: Seek freedom, and in the mere act of seeking, you find it. That is, you find — and exercise — personal freedom, despite whatever horrible or hopeful thing might be happening to political freedom.
There may even be hope of meaning in the otherwise opaque “ask” and “knock” passages of that dubious bible quote. Pagels quotes Silvanus, a gnostic whose Teachings were found at Nag Hammadi:
Knock on yourself as upon a door and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk on the road, it is impossible for you to go astray …. Open the door for yourself that you may know what is … Whatever you will open for yourself, you will open.