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The Gnostic and the Atheist



When Tom and I first met, I owned an oversized champagne glass that said "#1 Party Girl." Before I'd entered the working world, I'd been a punk-artist, driving a lavender VW bug with a leopard-skin sunroof. To soften the blow of going corporate, I made shopping my creative outlet. I never wore the same combination of clothes, I bought new dishes every time I had a dinner party, and when I ran out of novel lingerie, it was time to get a new boyfriend or new lingerie. But now, twenty years later, all of my friends are social activists, I wear the same clothes five days in a row, and the kids dress up in the lingerie. Now, my idea of a party is running off to a hermitage to talk theology with some monks. Tom is right to feel that full disclosure might have been lacking...if only I'd known.

How did Tom and I get in so deep, with three daughters and no common ground? I'm not the woman Tom married. I feel as if I've fallen into this life, and never made a conscious choice. Still, I think that Tom is the best choice I never made. Every gnostic should have a skeptic around to say that her theology is just an old Star Trek episode. It keeps us from getting too full of ourselves.

A gnostic is not someone who claims to have the answers, but is someone who's asking the questions. It's like trying to map the geography of the ocean floor from the pattern of ripples on the surface. Gnosticism is a theology of theories, sounding devices that try to discern the soul from the echoes inside your own head. How to tell the difference? It helps to have a good-hearted, open-minded atheist handy. If your ocean-floor soundings come back shallow and self-serving, he's sure to let you know.

As an atheist, Tom believes that mankind has hoisted itself up from chaos by its bootstraps and some monkey genes. This has advantages. Without a God to guarantee survival, Tom takes global warming seriously. No sense of destiny separates him from the poor, only blind luck, which is good for compassion. There's no God to foist responsibility onto, so Tom is willing to do his share.

The downside of being in a self-made species is that it's all up to chance, with a thin blanket of social advantage to keep you warm at night. Woe to the person who loses their place under the covers. Staying under cover of our warm, wooly accounts and investments is the only security possible for Tom. You can't doze off, or someone might take your hard-won scrap of 401K–and Social Security is already threadbare. So Tom the atheist worries.

I feel that it's my duty as a gnostic to give Tom the benefit of my speculation. But it's not the question of whether God exists that occupies me. My first question is whether we exist, or more exactly, how we exist. Are we multiple and separate beings, or do we exist as a single I? We think of our souls being like our bodies, self-contained and solitary. But the mystics of every religious tradition say that we're One-the Christ-mind, the Tao, the atman, the Ruach, or breath of God. We're more than just connected, more than interdependent, but actually one indivisible single entity.

Tom says, "Wait a minute. You're implying that I don't have a will of my own. That I'm just a cog driven by some Big Wheel in the sky. Star Trek already did that episode- you're talking about the Borg. We're just a hive controlled by the Brain of the Queen Bee."

"We do have free will," I reply, "but in our case, the Borg-mind is the benevolent Self. When we use our free will to join with the Borg-mind, we're free. When we use our free will to operate independently, we're trapped."

"Come again?" queries Tom.

Imagine each of our own brain cells having free will–neurons acting in their own self-interest, clustered with a few nuclear loved-ones. From the neuron's point of view, its purpose is to survive and mitosis off a few little neuralings. To do this, it needs to surround itself with all the fat it can get, creating an insulated mass whose only interest is in growing. Doesn't this sound like a brain tumor?1

"So there's a brain tumor in the Borg-mind. How is this a bad thing?"

Well, the purpose isn't the neuron's survival, it's the mind's survival. Brain cells can spontaneously combust in one drinking binge, but the mind exists in the connections between the neurons. If I'm a brain cell, I'm just concerned with my network of neural buddies and my cushy layer of fat. But maybe my survival instinct as a brain cell is keeping me stuck, keeping me from realizing that I'm the Whole Big Brain. Maybe we are the Borg-mind.

"You know, they call them instincts for a reason. It's evolution. Survival of the fittest. It's gotten us through the last several millennium, and now you want to gamble on something different?"

But did it get us where we are? Humanity hasn't survived through individual competition. It's been group against group, country against country, or religion against religion. We cooperate within the group, so that we can better compete against the rest. It's a successful strategy for tumors, but it doesn't help the brain.

Tom flips back, "Well, my neural buddies are hooking up to play some basketball. I'm going to see if I can lose this cushy layer of fat." He's off.

Tom's paycheck as a cog in a corporate wheel gives me my ability to write when I'm not chasing the kids. This fact isn't lost on him when I suggest that he think out of the box. The box that he provides for me to think out of is very comfortable. But it's not idle speculation that makes me persist.

When I look around at those of us in the fat and happy part of the brain, no one seems to be very happy. Adults and children alike are on anti-depressants... asthma's on the rise... cancer is claiming lives like it owns us. On a physical level, something seems to be running amuck. On a social level, we're drowning in debt, working harder, and reading books by those who claim to have it figured out. The state of relationships seems too sad to even inventory.

Tom wakes up every other night worried about his job, regretting our choices in the stock market, and agonizing over college costs for three kids. On his off-nights, he wakes up wondering who he meant to be when he grew up, and asking if this is all there is. All in all, we're as secure and happy as anyone, which makes it worse. How do other people do it, if we can't sleep at night with all our advantages? I know that Tom's angst isn't uncommon. Sometimes I wonder if it's even a sign of health to be buckling under the pressure. Is it better than being a smug and thriving tumor cell?

Suppose for a moment that we're subconsciously aware of the effect of our actions, many times removed, on any person in the world. I buy a chocolate bar, and my dollar pays the bounty hunter who kidnaps a child into slavery on a cocoa plantation. Our belief is that this doesn't affect us as long as we're not conscious of it. But if I tell you about this chain of events, I'm the one making you feel guilty and depressed. If we're One Mind, however, everything we do to or for someone else affects us, whether we know about it or not. Blame is beside the point - the only way to escape is to change the reality.

If we're One Mind instead of multiple mind-bodies, it changes the purpose of our lives down to the most minute day-to-day decisions. They say that you can't buy happiness, but perhaps we're just shopping at the wrong mall. Less than $100 can provide a means of ongoing income to a family with no choice. If you could change your own life from despair to hope for this little, wouldn't you? Some methods, such as livestock and microloans, continue to pass on the gift. Doesn't this buy happiness?

If we are joined as One Mind, the suffering of all people is experienced as a headache, a constant throbbing that we've learned to ignore. Those who live with chronic pain say that it becomes the backdrop to their lives, coloring their every experience. But if the pain lessens for a moment, they feel only the relief of it. When one person gives $100 to make a family less vulnerable, maybe we all feel a little bit lighter. Maybe we breathe a little deeper, relax our guard for a second, without knowing why.

To paraphrase the New Testament: Your sins will bear children to seven times seven generations, but your kindness will bear children to seventy times seven. It's easy to see how a dollar that unwittingly finances a child's enslavement would cause 49 times more pain than the chocolate bar gave pleasure. This is an absurdly lenient estimate. But perhaps each dollar given to charity causes us all 490 times its amount of joy. Wouldn't this be good news, that our acts of kindness would be more effective than all our mistakes put together?

Tom's back, cocky from whupping the trash-talking boys at the HS gym, the 20-year-olds with their pagers and gold chains. For the moment, competition is working in his favor. Although the only advantage the "old guys" have is cooperation. The black kids with springs in their legs are all ego–vying against their own teammates to get the ball and take it all the way to the hoop. Tom uses strategy, passes the ball and is unfazed by insults and failure. Sometimes it works.

I love Tom when he's in his glory: poking belly-laughs out of the six-year-old, imitating the hip-hop moves of the ten-year-old, and telling embarrassing stories on himself to humanize boys for the newly teen-aged. I love Tom on the window seat of the thirty-second floor, when he throws up his arms and proclaims, "San Francisco, I am married to this!" And I love him too when he wakes up at 3 a.m., panicked. I just don't know how to help him without bringing up God. Not a na´ve view of God that won't hold up under scrutiny. The God of tsunamis and cancer isn't much of a comfort if you're looking to religion as spiritual life insurance. But instead, the God who's more than the sum of our parts, but incomplete without the least of us. The God who exists in this world only in the spaces between us. The God who's still arriving, by invitation only.

Tom and I are straddling two realities. In Tom's view, our lives are a brief time between the parentheses of birth and death. There's much about this view that I treasure. For one, the enjoyment of family now. I love humanity in the abstract, but Tom actually likes people - from his crazy polka-dancing aunt Kitty to the Rastafarian living in the trailer behind our fence. For another, Tom doesn't take himself seriously. I recommend that our daughters require a self-deprecating sense of humor before they agree to a first date.

I respect Tom's view, but increasingly, I can't "see" it. The evidence that we're connected comes back like a boomerang every time I throw the question out there. With the realization that I'm no better than anyone comes a surprising conclusion – world peace is inevitable. It can only be hopeless if I think that other people would never do what I'm doing. But if I'm no different than anyone else, then it's only a matter of time.

I know that Tom is lonely. His fears are a burden that he wants to share. In an uncertain future, there are many possible outcomes that need to be thought through and planned against, and I'm not pulling my weight. He also wants a social partner - maybe not a #1 party girl, but someone who can enjoy small talk and Sunday barbeques. He deserves to be happy.

But Tom isn't alone in his dilemma. In fact, Tom seems like EveryGuy from a modern Pilgrim's Progress. Behind the public face, everyone I know is struggling with the same feeling of being trapped and the same emptiness. Midlife crisis is too glib for this real sense that something has gone terribly wrong. We all seem to be facing the abyss.

And so, I can't pull Tom back from these dark nights of the soul – demons that manifest as statistics on longevity vs. retirement funds. All I can do is keep him company and try to take the edge off. Like hypothermia, getting naked helps. Listening helps. And sometimes, just sometimes, my gnostic speculations are taken with enough grains of salt to make spiritual jerky. That's okay. I'm packing light for the long haul.


Tereza Coraggio lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, Tom, and three daughters. She is currently working on the manuscript of "Revolutionary Mystics and How to Become One," which applies the Tao te Ching, A Course in Miracles, and the poetry of East/West mystics to the first-century Gospel of Philip, for the purpose of changing the world.