It struck me this morning that at bottom major religious movements rest on the contrast between ignorance and knowledge. In the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, the human problem is produced by Ignorance, our mistaking the insubstantial mirage produced in this dimension by matter and all that is connected to it. Ignorance is bliss? No. In these faiths ignorance is suffering. The Gnostic faiths, which left a footprint in the century before and in the century after our current calendar changed from BC to AD, emphasize Knowledge as that which helps us to escape from this dimension of Ignorance. In Gnosticism this world of ours is the false creation of the Demiurge, spreading confusion and thus capturing the free beings that we are. The same “knowing” is rendered as Enlightenment by the Hindus and the Buddhists.
The Western religions (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) are based on the actions that center on The Fall. That story is incoherent unless taken as a parable of how human consciousness arose. In effect it says, When Consciousness arose among humans, the world fell. Incoherent? Yes. Eve took the forbidden fruit. But to disobey God in any meaningful sense, she had to have had “knowledge of good and evil” before she ate of the fruit. To emphasize this, to understand what “forbidden” means, one has to understand good and evil already. Yet that knowledge only came, supposedly, after eating the fruit.
East and West, therefore, it seems to me, take their religious insights at different points in human development. The Eastern view already assumes the presence of a conscious humanity, but one that still lacks a crucial insight—unlikely to be acquired except by suffering. The Biblical account records, and labels as disobedience, a point in time when the knowledge of good and evil actually arose. The higher insight, in the West, comes when consciousness is expanded by Revelation—and Revelation is unlikely to motivate humanity in the absence of—suffering.
Another way to see this is to say that the East emphasizes the power of cognition, the West the powers of the will. Both are powers of the human soul—alongside feeling, intuition, and imagination. All of these powers, however, are one. They cannot be teased apart in actual living. They are all present in all decisions—to act or not to act in certain ways. But religious faiths can, and have, laid their emphasis on one or the other of humanity’s supposedly different powers. In truth they are the same single power. And it works—if we work.