Of Gnosis and Seagulls
The first time I read Richard Bach’s beloved novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I was charmed. This slim volume tells the tale of a young seagull, Jonathan, and his quest to master both the art of flying and the depths of self. On the surface, there’s much to enjoy. The story has a forthright, fable-like quality. The themes of youthful idealism, self-discovery, and growing wise are compelling and relatable. Even the grainy, black-and-white photos of seagulls scattered liberally throughout the text manage to evoke a sense of artistic dignity and contemplative depth (a considerable feat for pictures of a bird that steals your Doritos at the beach). Since 1970, Jonathan Livingston Seagull has sold over thirty million copies and been translated into nearly forty languages. It’s easy to see why.
Recently though, I returned to the book and discovered much of its initial charm had worn off. Not only does Jonathan’s journey now seem overly simplistic to me, but the spiritual insights he gathers up along the way have clearly passed their expiration date, sounding less like timeless wisdom and more like bad life-coaching from a seagull who lives in a van down by the river. Flipping through the pages, I feel renewed admiration for Roger Ebert, who once remarked (quite against the tide of popular opinion) that Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a book “so banal it had to be sold to adults; kids would see through it.”
And banal it is. Dip a mere half inch or so below the surface and you will see that Richard Bach’s best-seller is little more than a tired sermonette on resisting conformity, discovering your true self and harnessing your Divine potential within. If it were being published this year, the cover would be bedizened with blurbs from Richard Rohr and Deepak Chopra. It’s tempting to dismiss the book as a particularly profitable example of American self-help religion and be done with it.
Such a dismissal, I think, would be imprudent. The novella may lack profundity, but its enduring popularity suggests there are ideas within its pages that are relevant for Christian apologetics and mission. Take the central theme, for instance: Jonathan’s single-minded pursuit of transformative gnosis or wisdom. This is a notion that many thoughtful Christians might instinctively resist and criticize. But should we? After all, Christian faith is no enemy of gnosis per se. Christians have long affirmed that there are deeper, more expansive ways of knowing – ways of knowing that penetrate to the very heart of reality. At the same time, Christians are also rightly aware that there is “much profane chatter” that is “falsely called gnosis.” (1 Timothy 6:20).
True and False Gnosis
Christian faith holds out the real possibility of gnosis. The Greek word is used twenty-nine times in the New Testament, and only once is the term used in a directly negative sense (1 Corinthians 8:1). Elsewhere, false gnosis and true gnosis are compared and contrasted, and true gnosis is treated as both an essential spiritual capacity and as a gift of Christ to the Church. In the first volume of The Glory of the Lord, Hans urs von Balthazar suggests that this tradition of Christian gnosis can be likened to “the interior understanding of faith, the insight into the mystery of faith itself.” This fits well with the perspective of Jesus in Luke 11:52, where he confronts the scribes and the Pharisees with this stern warning: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of gnosis; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
There are moments when Jonathan Livingston Seagull flickers briefly with gnostic insight approaching that of the New Testament. When the flock casts young Jonathan out for refusing to accept the status quo, they speak much as Christ’s “lawyers” who have no wisdom, yet hinder those who are trying to attain it: “Life is the unknown and the unknowable,” the flock intones, “except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we possibly can.” This crude and unimaginative vision of the world is the antithesis of Christian gnosis, and Jonathan is right to reject it.
But this is as far as a Christian may follow. Jonathan’s journey is first and foremost an individual journey. His pursuit of gnosis sends him off on a solitary quest to push himself towards greater discipline and self-effort. In order to know more, he must relate less to the friends and family he has left behind. In fact, Jonathan’s gnostic vision is quite close to that of a seminary professor I once knew, who proudly declared that her intelligent and talented children had all grown up and “graduated from church” because the institution no longer met their spiritual needs.
For many contemporary spiritual seekers, this seems like a natural and even necessary progression. Yet, this is false gnosis, a mere simulacrum of Divine wisdom. Christian gnosis calls us not to solitary striving, but into deeper communion. Christian knowing is intimate knowing. It is a wisdom impregnated with the love of God and of neighbor. Such gnosis does not outgrow the life and teaching of the Church (nor would it want to); rather, its insight penetrates the truth, beauty and goodness contained within the Church in order to celebrate and share Her riches more fully. The true gnostic is simultaneously more intimate with Christ and more available to those gathered around Him. He is like the Beloved Disciple, reclining on the breast of Jesus yet sharing in the concerns and conversations of all those seated at the table.
Richard Bach attempts to add a communal element to Jonathan’s quest, but he never quite succeeds. While flying alone, Jonathan is approached by mysterious seagulls who disclose that they too have been ousted by the flock and are on a similar journey of self-discovery. These “brothers” take young Jonathan under their wing and guide him to a heavenly realm where he advances to higher stages of understanding, all of which turn out to be little more than tiresome, pseudo-gnostic platitudes: the body is nothing more than thought, by nature we are free and unlimited, every enlightened gull is the Son of the Great Gull, and so on and so forth.
All the while, Jonathan’s fellow seekers take pains to repeatedly stroke his ego and insist upon his special, hyper-spiritual nature. He is a one-in-a-million bird, they say, completely unlike all the others. As one of his gnostic pedagogues, Sullivan, rhapsodically expounds:
Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find perfection and show it forth.
If this is spiritual fellowship, it is a far cry from the koinonia of the Church. And if this is gnosis, it is gnosis of the most shallow and superficial kind, a knowing built upon the shifting sands of the self-realization rather than the firm foundation of Divine love.
Agape and Gnosis
More than anything else, Jonathan’s failure to understand the connection between love and knowledge, agape and gnosis, encapsulates the spiritual mediocrity of the book. This is not to say that Richard Bach doesn’t attempt to make the connection. As if sensing a lack within Jonathan’s world, the author makes a single, feeble gesture towards love near the end of the tale, but sadly, it fails to affect either the direction of the story or the heart of the reader. The moment in question comes when yet another gnostic master, a seagull named Chiang, sagely advises the young Jonathan to “keep working on love” before (wait for it) disappearing into thin air never to be seen again. Jonathan later concludes that showing others the truth is his way of showing love.
It’s hard to imagine a less alluring call to love’s delights. The truth is that real love—the love which moves the sun and other stars—is precisely what is absent from the pages of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There’s not a glimmer of Divine agape in either the action or the dialogue, and to be honest, I am hard-pressed to point even to some garden-variety philia among the seagulls of Jonathan’s brotherhood. As for eros, it doesn’t even rise to the level of possibility. The only female in the story is Jonathan’s fretting mother, who appears only once in order to scold him for not being more like everybody else.
Nowhere is this absence of love more apparent than when Jonathan and his small group of elite disciples decide to return to the flock and share their so-called knowledge. This missionary homecoming amounts to little more than a display of advanced flying skills and a harangue about how the other gulls need to awaken to their true nature. Most of the seagulls (quite sensibly) ignore Jonathan and go back to daily life, but a few of the young and impressionable seagulls decide to leave the flock and become his students. To my mind, this scene offers a tragically inverted vision of Christian mission. Jonathan’s condescension and lack of compassion show why the New Testament’s single negative reference to gnosis is apposite: false gnosis merely puffs up; Divine love builds up.
Perhaps Jonathan could learn from Luke 1:77, where Zechariah exclaims that the Christ child will “give the gnosis of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Jonathan admits of no sin and has no room for forgiveness, so it is hardly surprising his message to awaken goes unheeded. His gnostic vision makes no room for vulnerability, or empathy or suffering, let alone works of mercy done on behalf of others, and so Jonathan fails to understand the central truth of Christian gnosis: the wisdom that comes from God does not single us out, but brings us closer in. It brings us closer to the pain and sorrow of the world; it brings us nearer to the needs of our brothers and sisters for whom Christ, the very gnosis of God incarnate, died.
Paul illumines yet another of Jonathan’s shortcomings in Ephesians 3:19, wherein the apostle prays that we “might know the love that surpasses gnosis, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Here again, Paul understands what Jonathan doesn’t. Gnosis is an authentic part of the spiritual life, but until it is transfigured by agape it is only a part. As Hans urs von Balthazar insists, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ reveals love as the deepest and most mysterious power at work in the world, and so the Christian gnostic must read both the signs of Creation and the life of his neighbors in the light of this Divine love. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:2 “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” In the end, gnosis must be transformed by agape and unlearn its own certainties, for love alone reigns in both the light of knowing and the darkness of unknowing, and love alone ushers the gnostic into the presence of the God who is “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull may be a beloved book, but it asks spiritual seekers to settle for far less than they ought. The one who desires gnosis should desire more than mere conformity with his or her own “true self” or even with the “Divine potential within.” Christians affirm a deeper, more expansive way of knowing—one that penetrates to the very heart of reality. There is a gnosis that empties us, opens us and humbles us so that we might be filled with the life of Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God and the power of God, the true form of Love itself.