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gnostics then & now

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 13, 2006

I've linked to this article before, but increased interest in the Gospel of Judas and DVC business gives it a new currency, and moreover it's one of the clearest expositions of the topic yet written: have a good look at Prof. James Hitchcock on Gnosticism. Some key paragraphs:

"Gnosis" is a Greek word for knowledge, and the Gnostics claimed to possess secret knowledge which their followers used to free themselves from the world of darkness. Whereas orthodox Christianity preaches salvation as available to all who accept it, the Gnostics thought that only an elite could know the hidden truth.

There are things in Gnosticism that the modern mind finds repellent -- elitism, weird stories, peculiar rituals, above all its rejection of the flesh. If orthodox Christianity is criticized for not cherishing the body, Gnosticism rejected it entirely.

Gnosticism is now enjoying a vogue, however, partly because it was a religion in which women held leadership roles. This was consistent with its rejection of the flesh, which made sexual identity unimportant. The Gnostics did not accept the Incarnation of Jesus and treated doctrinal orthodoxy as being too literal-minded. The gospels were not to be taken at face value but as stories with hidden symbolic meanings.

Thus it was possible to write new "gospels", since the Gnostics were not bound by what may or may not have happened while Jesus was on earth. Mary Magdalen could become Jesus' intimate, and the New Testament could be dismissed as essentially false. (Modern people like Dan Brown, who treat the Gnostic gospels as history, miss the point -- to the Gnostics themselves it was irrelevant what actually happened when Jesus was on earth, if He ever was.)

The last point is essential. Gnosticism kept itself aloof from facticity, and would be as contemptuous of moderns who, e.g., try to prove that the Gospel of Judas is authentic, as those who demonstrate that it's bogus. Imagine a couple of 12-year-olds who come upon a chess set for the first time in their lives and who believe that the pieces were primarily intended to portray two real armies in combat array. "That doesn't look anything like a real knight!" says one. "Yes it does." "No it doesn't." A bystander would simply shake his head at their misapprehension. The Gnostic viewed himself as a kind of bystander to a misunderstanding -- one who, with a comfortable and superior smile, looked upon the early controversies between Christians and Jews about the Resurrection of Jesus as pitiably beside the point. Within the confines of his own religious world, he felt no more scruples about re-writing the real Gospels than a chess-player who turns a bit of wood on a lathe and says, "There! That's a queen."

Unlike the chess-player, however, the Gnostic bound himself by no rules, not even of logic. Evelyn Waugh, in his historical novel Helena, brilliantly spoofs their penchant for building verbal castles of grand-sounding nonsense; this in the scene in which he lets us hear an early fourth century Gnostic lecturing his disciples:

"Sophia," Marcias was saying, "who, as Astarte, abandoned her flesh in Tyre, and as Helen was the partner of Simon, the Standing One; she, of the many forms, who is the last and darkest of the thirty Aeons of light and by her presumptuous love became mother of the seven material rulers ..."

The few who sought to follow the Gnostic's meaning, we're told, looked somewhat ill at ease ...

Happier those who surrendered without resistance to the flood of buoyant speech and floated supine and agape; they were getting what they had come for.

"And floated supine and agape ..." -- that's the key to the attraction. Eric Voegelin caught this curiously cerebral sensualism at work more recently -- in Heidegger and his neo-Gnostic disciples -- remarking that after prolonged exposure to their writing we can "whip ourselves up into a reality-withdrawing state of linguistic delirium."

We will all have the feeling [says Voegelin] as we read such texts that as far as linguistic expression is concerned, something is not in order, even if we can't immediately put our finger on what is wrong. ...The text transposes factual relationships of our everyday world into a linguistic medium that begins to take on an alliterative life of its own, and thus loses contact with the thing itself. Language and fact have somehow separated from one another, and thought has correspondingly become estranged from reality.

My point is not to take on Heideggerism but to stress that even today some people continue to find the Gnostic condition of "linguistic delirium" a highly pleasurable one -- so pleasurable, indeed, that its truth or falsehood ceases to matter to them.

So what can an ordinary Christian point to in refutation of those glib, professorial, subversive neo-Gnostics who contend that The Da Vinci Code somehow overthrows the orthodox faith?

It's simple: martyrdom.

From the very beginnings of the Church the faithful were tortured and put to death because they believed the Gospel was true and because they refused to deny this truth, and the same witness has been given throughout the history of the Church up to and including the present day. Gnosticism, by contrast, never produced martyrs, and was somewhat embarrassed by its collaborationist tendency already in the time of Valerian. Today's Gnostics are no different. When someone assures you he thinks the The Da Vinci Code tells the real story of Jesus, ask him: "Would you go to your death for the belief that Dan Brown has it right?" If he says no, the conclusion is obvious: "Ah, I see. You weren't talking about truth. You meant to say that life would be easier for you if the Catholic Church were wrong."

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church -- and a sign that she is what she says she is. No man ever offered his life in witness to a chess set; no academic will stake a missed lunch on the truth of the Gospel of Judas.

The Martyrdom of Saint Alban

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - May. 15, 2006 10:01 AM ET USA

    God bless you, Winky. We can indeed "do all things through Christ who strengthens [us]".

  • Posted by: - May. 13, 2006 11:49 PM ET USA

    Welcome, Winky--you may offer an informative point of view.

  • Posted by: - May. 13, 2006 3:19 PM ET USA

    Thanks Di. This piece on Gnosticism is so good it got me to sign up as a subscriber. So you all may be hearing a lot from me. I'm a revert--back in the Church for about six years after fifty years as an active homosexual. I used Gnostic rationalizations to justify my many affairs with men, and the same kind of thinking prevails among "gay and lesbian Catholics." And in the pulpit. No reason to talk about chastity if the flesh doesn't really matter. Winky

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - May. 13, 2006 12:15 PM ET USA

    Two thoughts come to mind, Di. One is that your description of "linquistic delirium" is eerily similar to Josef Pieper's "Divine Madness" thesis but weirdly inverted. Its as if in the Divine Madness, certain thinkers embrace the pre-Socratics and the Gnostics simultaneously. The second is that Newman defended grammar, whilst Nietzsche disparaged it. They don't teach sentence diagramming anymore. Now, I can see why not.

  • Posted by: Pseudodionysius - May. 13, 2006 10:41 AM ET USA

    Checkmate. Looks like the neo-Gnostics just lost their Queen.

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