The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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Gnosticism
Lee Trepanier - 04/12/12

Like Jung, Gershom Scholem also employs a three-stage process in his historical unfolding of religious consciousness. The first stage is the immediate presence of gods in nature, the second stage is the introduction of religion that isolates man from nature, and the third and final stage is the bridge between God and man in the secret path of spiritual mysticism. For Scholem, the Gnostic paradigm has influenced Jewish mysticism in providing a consoling framework to understand the Jewish condition of exile. Just like the cosmic exile of the human spirit, the Jewish people have been exiled from their land of Israel. Scholem traces the course of these Gnostic impulses from late antiquity’s merkabah mysticism to medieval Kab-balahism to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century messianic Jewish movements to modern-day Hasidism.

Harold Bloom incorporates Gnosticism into his literary theory of the agon. For Bloom, the reading of poetry is a form of gnosis. The reader achieves “a realization of events in the history of your spark or pneuma, and your knowing is the most important movement in that history. However, this realization is more than a transcendental experience: it is an attempt to usurp the foremost place of one’s temporal predecessor in the literary world.” By attempting to supplant his temporal predecessor, the reader will challenge his predecessor’s authority, ultimately reaching back to the most authoritative text in the West, the Bible.

For Hans Jonas’s and Thomas J. J. Altizer’s existential philosophies, Gnosticism is merely a diagnostic tool to understand the modern world. In comparing ancient Gnosticism with the Gnostic character of modernity, they focus on two points: (1) the central experience of exile, homelessness, and alienation from the world; and (2) the experience of the “death” of God in the modern world that is comparable to the ancient Gnostic’s alien god. But whereas the alien and transcendent God of the ancient Gnostics held out the promise of redemption through gnosis, modernity lacks this metaphysical dimension, and that lack establishes its specifically nihilist and immanent character.

Eric Voegelin also utilizes the concept of Gnosticism to diagnose the modern world. For Voegelin, the essence of modernity is “the growth of Gnosticism.” All intellectual and political movements that aim to correct the world’s flaws are Gnostic. The self-deifying modern Gnostic redeemers exploit the passions of the people and resort to violence in their transformation of the wretched world into a utopian dream. Voegelin included progressivism, scientism, positivism, communism, fascism, and psychoanalysis as Gnostic in his exhaustive critique of the modern age. For Voegelin, Gnosticism was primarily a mindset characterized by the beliefs that (1) man was not responsible for the evil he finds in himself, (2) he has a right to blame someone or something else, and (3) his salvation depends upon his own efforts to correct the flaws in reality. Dissatisfied with present reality, the modern Gnostic can confidently hope that with increased knowledge he will be able to transform the world into his own image.

Several other philosophers have used Gnosticism in their understanding of the modern world: Gerald Hanratty emphasizes the Gnostic characteristics of Promethean rebellion, self-deification, and salvation through knowledge in the millenarian movements from the late Middle Ages to postmodernity; Carl Raschke claims that the German Romantics, American religious cultists, and pop psychologists are latter-day Gnostics; and Micha Brumlik traces Gnostic elements of thought in writers from Schopenhauer to Heidegger in their support of political tyranny by self-deified world redeemers. Theologians like Elaine Pagels and Michael Williams point out that Gnosticism reveals the diverse elements in the origins of Christianity, and they claim that the Gnostic emphasis on direct religious experience could have enriched the Christian tradition. Finally, there are those who have employed the Gnostic narrative in their aesthetic theories, a group that includes Norbert Bolz, Kirsten Grimstad, Cyril O’Regan, Michael Pauen, and William Worringer. Gnostic motifs appear in contemporary fiction in the works of Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon.

Although thinkers are divided over whether Gnosticism is positive, there are some problems studying Gnosticism as a modern phenomenon. According to Stephen McKnight, Carl Raschke, and Gerald Hanratty, some features of modern Gnosticism are seemingly incompatible with the fundamental features of ancient Gnosticism, such as the modern Gnostic desire to transform the world, which would have been repudiated by ancient Gnostics, who sought to escape the world. Moreover, the pro-cosmic, monistic, and evolutionary underpinnings of modern intellectual and political movements are difficult to reconcile with the anti-cosmic, dualist, and devolutionary characteristics of ancient Gnosticism. However, thinkers like Cyril O’Regan contend that the Gnostic narrative not only permits room for differences between modern and ancient forms of Gnosticism but can assist thinkers to understand and to diagnose the modern world.

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