Update from 5th March 2020.
I have received various bits of new information and I am concerned not to be an obstacle in the developing relationship between our churches. Bishop Flemestad has a remarkably lucid philosophical view of the fundamental incompatibilities between orthodox Christianity and the modern world. We all need to evolve in our study and understanding of these issues, and I am far from possessing all the answers. These discussions are intended to help this process of understanding.
I am waiting for delivery of a book by Eric Vögelin to try to understand what his comprehension of ancient Gnosticism was, and whether he made the distinctions we make today in view of extensive studies of the Nag Hammadi texts and other recently discovered sources. We have then to look at modern or post-modern culture and discern whether its influences are indeed some modern form of Gnosticism or some other phenomenon to be called by a different label. A physician has to make a careful and profound diagnosis in order to prescribe the most effective treatment for his patient’s illness.
I will respect the anonymity of my correspondent, and merely summarise some of his notions, whilst adding my own thoughts.
Gnosticism was an extremely diverse and complex phenomenon in the late Jewish, early Christian and ancient pagan world. Some tendencies were quite wild, and others would be refined in time into the spiritual and mystical dimension of orthodox Christianity. The issue, which we must not forget, is to try to trace the origins of the kind of nihilism and individualism (as opposed to personalism and nobility of spirit) that were bewailed by Nietzsche and other philosophers over the past couple of centuries.
I think Bishop Flemestad’s first concern was not Gnosticism but the question of whether Christianity has any relevance for people of our time. It has for some and not for others. Some aspects of our society are homogenous, but others are extremely fragmented. Which people does a Church try to reach? Myself, I would have had a better understanding of the conference in Germany had I been present to hear the talks, ask questions (or listen to other questions and answers) and talk with people I would have met. I am concerned that some of my criticisms below may well be unjust. I am told that all the Churches of the Union of Scranton are concerned for the development of relations with the G4 Anglican Churches and the movement towards unity.
I ask my readers to read the earlier article in this light of all of us who are trying to understand issues as best as we can and showing the best possible sincerity of will to achieve unity between ourselves.
It might also be reassuring for you and your readers to learn that Bishop Flemestad (…) did in fact emphasise the priority of seeking dialogue with Continuing Anglicans with the goal of welcoming them into the Union of Scranton.
Without usurping the position of our Bishops in such matters, I think it will remain to be seen how the Union of Scranton and the G4 of Continuing Anglican Churches would be united – in the present Union of Scranton or some other entity. That will depend on those at much higher “pay grade” than I.
I am certain that our vision of Church unity will continue to show our common esteem for diversity in things like philosophical and theological speculation and study as well as pastoral methods and liturgical rites. None of us seeks to impose uniformity over the other or the fruits of our own experience. This is the wonderful thing about the kind of ecumenism that seeks unity in essentials, diversity in what is not set in stone and mutual love in all things (expression of St Augustine).
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Something very interesting has come up on the side of the Nordic Catholic Church, the European member Church of the Union of Scranton with the PNCC in America.
The talk by Bishop Roald Nikolai Flemestad (NCC): The Loss of Transcendence and the Collapse of Faith is particularly fascinating.
I have two main observations. The first is their concern for sacramental unity with Orthodoxy. There is no mention of any dialogue with Continuing Anglicanism either side of the Atlantic. The second is the tendency to blame everything on Gnosticism in the same way as Pope Pius X grouped every scrap of non-scholastic theology he could find and call it all Modernism.
They call the present challenge to Christianity institutionalised individualism. It seems rather simplistic to me, since the secular world is returning to collectivism – but an anti-Christian form of it. Individualism or personalism are not necessarily nihilist or Gnostic. In history, there were several types or degrees of Gnosticism. Some were totally unacceptable to Christianity, especially the dualist types. Fathers of the Church like St Clement of Alexandria and Origen accepted some aspects of Gnosticism but not all. The distinction has to be made. Without any esoteric dimension, Christianity will become like salt that has lost its savour, to be rejected as something illusory and false. Their epistemology is also too simplistic, because some truths are foundational and others are transcendent. Their approach is quite dialectic, all-or-nothing, black and white in their opposition between the individual person and the community, or between personalism and individualism. Would they too like to find a kind of garrotte-wielding Caudillo who could be “used” for the enforcement of “true religion and virtue”?
I frankly do not find the influence of Gnosticism (Valentinian or not) in the modern world.
(…) this reorientation “back to basics” cannot be done as a nostalgic effort to “restore” an idealised past.
What does this mean? If the past is no longer relevant in any way, they have no option other than sucking up the “future”, even if it is not their future. Perhaps they are having a go at what I keep writing! Perhaps I flatter myself…
We have heard a lot about the “faithful remnant” over the years, and the novelty of it is wearing off. Instead of ironically seeing themselves as the pure ones, the meaning of the word Cathar, perhaps we can see ourselves as sowing seeds that others will harvest after we are gone. We cannot go into quarantine against this world, because we live in it. However, there is nothing wrong in our getting into little groups to try to do some good in whatever way we can.
I have always had a lot of esteem for Bishop Flemestad, but I do think they need to give more thought to things. I resorted to Romanticism, in spite of the fact that some Romantics were not Christians, atheists in some cases, because there is a general mindset that can work above the dialectics of ultra-rationalism and irrational conservatism. They don’t seem to realise that Nietzsche has also to be read and understood before he is accused of being an insane nihilist. I am not a fan of Nietzsche, but I appreciate what is germane and cogent in his work.
They are not wrong, but too narrow in their criticism. They need to go much deeper in their knowledge of historical Gnosticism and questions of personalism / individual freedom as we again may face new forms of collectivism and totalitarianism. I wish them the best in their continued research and a more balanced evaluation of things.
In some cordial correspondence with one of the French NCC priests, the elephant in the room between them and the “G4” Continuing Anglican Churches is their denial or doubt of our Orders and Sacraments. The PNCC was once in communion with the American Episcopal Church.
So the question is whether their dialogue with the Orthodox will go anywhere…