Clearing the way

As I was discussing gnosticism on Boxing Day, I mentioned the usual criticisms coming from conservative Christianity. I will certainly make a distinction between problems caused by theological incompatibilities and objections from a more political point of view.

As I saw an attempted political definition of gnosticism, I came across the name of the philosopher Eric Vögelin. Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin was German and born in the first year of the twentieth century. He spent his childhood in Austria and studied law and political science. He fled Austria shortly after the Anschluß of 1938 and ended up like so many others in the USA. His experience of Nazism would bring him to seek the root causes of the problems in western civilisation. He removed the o mit Umlaut from his name and replaced it with o and e, making Voegelin. Without becoming an expert on this fellow’s philosophy, one might imagine that he found America’s conservative Christianity to be less unpleasant than what he had left in Europe. From 1951, he was writing books on a notion of “classic and Christian tradition” which he opposed to gnosticism.

For Vögelin, according to a brief introductory article by Dr Stephan Hoeller, a Hungarian expatriate living in Los Angeles, gnosticism would have been the background philosophy behind Nazism and other forms of totalitarian tyranny. All the bad guys had to be gnostics as opposed to the good guys who were conservative American Christians. In that way, Marxism would also be roped into the same category as Hitler. In his view, gnostics were involved with making society into a kind of revolutionary “heaven on earth” for the simple reason that the historical gnostics refused the conventional Christian heaven and hell. The problem with this view is that gnostics saw this earthly life as “hopeless and unredeemable”. How could such be made into a utopia? Hitler and Stalin were interested in all kinds of crank philosophies, but neither made any reference to historical Gnosticism.

Other thinkers like the Catholic traditionalist and admirer of Charles Maurras, Thomas Molnar, went along with this view that the modern great conspiracy all boiled down to Gnosticism. The deviations of science, industry and technology would be blamed on Gnosticism, as would the Industrial Revolution that treated human beings as machines. Gnosticism would from now on be represented as Satanism, Freemasonry and the Reds under the bed, in short, a bogeyman for adults.

Frankly, I am not very interested in pursuing this point of view further. I have read points of view in some French sedevacantist sources affirming that the divines of the Oxford Movement like Newman and Pusey were gnostics! Therefore they were part of the great conspiracy of Cardinal Rampolla (allegedly a Freemason who narrowly missed being elected Pope instead of Pius X in 1903) to destroy the Catholic priesthood by making ordinations invalid. Associations are at best fanciful and actually quite entertaining to read if we like that sort of thing.

Likewise, I will not associate Vögelin with the later and more extreme developments of this theory. All I can say at present is that gnosticism is not this kind of thing, but is rather an attitude in the minds of individual persons.

The real problem is our use of words. Words can simply mean what we want them to mean. In my knowledge of church history and personal experience, division and discord are always caused by differences in understanding the meanings of words, labels and categories. This is another difficulty that has to be clarified before we can go any further.

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3 Responses to Clearing the way

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, one of the mis-uses of the term “gnostic” is to be found in conservative critique to the effect that the gnostics were people who cultivated a kind of elitism of secret knowledge, and thus did not have regard for or confidence in the ordinary person (unlike, of course, the conservative critics).

    In my view this criticism is not only a sweeping one, but based on an incomplete understanding of the diverse expressions that are often labelled Gnostic. In his introduction to The Gospel of Thomas, Jean Yves Leloup distinguishes between nondualistic and dualistic/Manichaean Gnosticism. He writes:

    “There exists a relative consciousness formed and acquired through readings, encounters and the thoughts of others. But there is also a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the “Living One” within us. It is towards this consciousness, this gnosis, that Yeshua invites us in the Gospel of Thomas, not in order to become “good Christians”, but to become christs – in other words, gnostics or awakened human beings. Gnosis is not some state of mental expansion or ego-inflation. On the contrary, it means putting an end to the ego. It is a transparency with regard to “the One who Is” in total innocence and simplicity…”

    When you think about it, this message can be discerned in other, patristic spiritual writings and treatises. I have personally found this and other writings to have helped clear the path to the Gospels of the undergrowth and thickets of conventional imagery and exegesis, so that the Light might shine in the darkness of incomprehension.

    • I have forgotten to mention Jean-Yves Leloup in my recent postings, but he is one of the leading lights on Christian Gnosticism. I would love to go to one or more of his talks, but they are nearly all in the south of France. I have a number of his books. I also think it is important to pick out non-dualistic gnosticism from the confused mass. This is what Berdyaev seemed also to do as a believing Russian Orthodox.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If one can not inaccurately speak of “Manichaean Gnosticism”, then presumably the mis-use “of the term ‘gnostic’ […] to the effect that the gnostics were people who cultivated a kind of elitism of secret knowledge, and thus did not have regard for or confidence in the ordinary person” would be largely mis-use by illiciit generalization. I’m not sure what varieties of ‘Manichaeanism’ there were, but, for example, the glimpses of his earlier Manichaean experience I’ve run into in St. Augustine seem pretty much in keeping with an elitism with scant “regard for or confidence in the ordinary person”.

    An important matter would seem to be attempting the taxonomy of ‘Gnosticism(s)’, the descriptive attempt to distinguish what is the same or similar or in continuity, and what is not.

    I think this is something Hans Jonas is doing in The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), and Kurt Rudolph in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism and (analogously) Gershom Scholem in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941) – and other works – and (also analogously) R.C. Zaehner in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Clarendon Press, Oxford University, 1957), impressively, in my experience – and in any case interestingly and readably, whatever your final response or evaluation. So, I would heartily recommend having those four books somewhere on your reading list. (The German originals of Jonas and Rudolph might be as approachable for you as the later English versions: I don’t know in how far the English versions may revise and update the German works, though.)

    I have only browsed around in St. Irenaeus despite having a paper copy as well as the conveniences of New Advent and even (read aloud in some 25-and-a-half hours!), but I have the impression that he is also attempting taxonomy as well as polemic/apologetic.

    As you say in your other recent post, there is also an Alexandrian tradition of what might be called ‘orthodox Gnosticism’ including St. Clement and Origen and going on to all sorts of writers and thinkers notably including St. Maximus the Confessor. (I heard a very interesting lecture in Oxford by Lars Thunberg on the logikoi in the theological anthropology of St. Maximus – I don’t remember whether Ray Winch attended that one as well, or not! – but have not yet caught up with any of Thunberg’s books…)

    I’m not sure of the easiest way to get a rounded impression of Eric Voegelin’s thought and work – the introduction to vol. I of Order and History is well worth reading in any case, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (or its German original: Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis (München, 1959) – though I think the English has additional material) will give you an idea of how he arrived at his (academically controversial) characterization of modern (political) ideologies in terms of ‘activist Gnosticism’.

    I have not caught up with Stefan Rossbach’s Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality, but I very much enjoyed a related conference paper.

    Also interesting in the scholarly fictional sphere is Zoé Oldenbourg’s work on the Cathars (only some of which I have read, so far, and that in English translation).

    With all good wishes for reading, thinking, writing, and celebrating (and sailing) in the New Year!

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