Saturday, March 04, 2006

Gnosticism in First Things

Gnosticism has been treated in First Things many times. Some pull quotes:

Jung's theory of archetypes, when limited to the domain of psychology, provides a brilliant model of the way natural, human personality arises from and organizes its longings around the instincts. It thus helps us to apprehend the different categories according to which people are apt to spiritualize (their own) nature(s), and thus fall into the worship of it. It provides, as it were, a taxonomy of the gods, and hence of human obsession, sin, and idolatry. But unfortunately, the theory itself is all too easily turned into that very spiritualization, becoming in its own right truly a modern Gnosticism. It shares with all Gnosticisms a profound blindness to the true nature of evil, a blindness that could be said to arise from its very brilliance. As Jerome Politzer said about the Gnosticism of the Greek and Roman world, it "was brilliant, extraordinarily spiritual, amoral, and totally false."

The appeal of pantheistic gnosticism was something that [C. S.] Lewis understood and withstood; it lies at the heart of occult "New Age" spirituality, "Deep Ecology," and a good deal of "Eco-feminism" today. Romantic self-absorption and pantheistic gnosticism are targets of Lewis' satire in The Pilgrim's Regress. Much as he criticized radical empiricism and its sterile, truncated rationalism, he was himself too much of a rationalist in the classic, Aristotelian sense to countenance esoteric or occult mysticism and the depreciation of reason. He would not defy science on romantic or gnostic grounds.

To understand what is going on, it is necessary to examine both orthodox and Gnostic attitudes in the second century. Pagels' research was in Gnosticism, and it paved the way for her well-known Gnostic Gospels. There she argued that the diversity of early Christianity was ended when during the second century bishops such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Clement of Rome had obtained enough power to drive the Gnostics out of the Christian community. Their primary reason for doing this was that the Gnostics, with their emphasis on internal illumination, rejected episcopal authority. Pagels' interpretation follows the current tendency to reduce all motives to power, though she does grant that the bishops' actions, however politically motivated, were "based on their beliefs about God." The picture of an established orthodox community driving out dissenters misses the dialectic of belief, as though the early church were somehow "Established" from the beginning instead of having to struggle its way toward a viable theology and organization.

Davis is aware that "gnosticism" has become a cussword, and takes some care to distinguish the capitalized "Gnosis" of late antiquity from the gnostic–like movements of the spirit that have appeared in more recent times. Still, it is hard to find a better term to describe the total rejection, indeed the principled total rejection, of the restraints of society, God, and physics that flourishes online. The term "gnosticism" further commends itself because there are so few other kinds of ideology that occasion the literally cosmic paranoia often found on the Internet.

Lots more here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the posting!

    The comment on ancient gnostics rejecting episcopal authority is a new one to me. Given the corruption and illiteracy endemic in the sees of the day, it makes sense that gnostics would thumb their noses at the bishops.

    A Franciscan candidate in my neighborhood called the gnostics a "rich man's club." The descriptions I've read of the early Church bishops reflect that exact description.


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