Friday, October 27, 2006

Gnosticism Revisited

Yesterday I called attention to Bruce Chilton's remarks about gnosticism, particularly the way neo-gnostics cherry-pick ancient sources, with which I am largely in agreement. A gnostic pastor named Father Jordan feels very differently. Meanwhile, Jim Davila writes as follows:
"Many, perhaps most, religions can be accused of misconstruing and selectively reading their own scriptures to suit later agendas. Some go as far as falsifying history (for example, Christian fundamentalist creationists and Muslims who deny that a Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). If people today want to be Gnostics (and it's not for me to tell them whether they should be or shouldn't), I would rather they be Gnostics who support women's rights and the prudent use of the earth's resources and who aren't anti-Semitic. If any of that is untrue to ancient Gnostic scriptures or doctrines, so be it. (But if they want to claim that these are the actual values of ancient Gnostics, I will, as usual, call them on any historical inaccuracies.)"
I agree with what Jim says here, but I do think neo-gnostics tend to cherry-pick with more abandon than most, without realizing they're doing so. This is how I responded to Father Jordan in comments on his blog:
Father Jordan
Contemporary Christianity too must cherry-pick in order to be a coherent functioning religion... Are not "neo-Christians" unlike their ancient counterparts? Doesn't ancient Christianity have a history of anti-Semitism, misogyny, elitism, and dualism?

Yes, but this isn't exactly news. Neo-gnosticism often comes as an antidote to a traditional Christianity weighed down precisely by the above baggage. It's a mystery to many that the sources of that antidote have just as much (if not more) baggage. There's more ignorance and misperceptions about gnosticism than about traditional Christianity, and reports like this don't exactly reinforce one's faith in any discerning ability of the laity.

Father Jordan
What really bothers Chilton (a scholar for whom I have a great deal of respect) is that "Neo-Gnostics" (us, presumably) accept The Secret Mark as a genuine text. The thrust of his article here isn't really about how dishonest "Neo-Gnostics" are, but how Secret Mark is an obvious forgery. So we're really guilty by association.

I hate to break the nightly news, but scholars who like the gnostic gospels tend to be the same ones who defend the authenticity of Secret Mark.

Father Jordan
Here's the thing: I don't know of a single Gnostic who identifies with Secret Mark, or considers it to be a legitimate or authentic Gnostic text. Not one. At best it's a peripheral curiosity. Gnostics are not standing up in churches or the PTG saying "this proves Jesus was gay!". Gnosticdom (!) as a general rule is just not interested in Secret Mark, and every Gnostic I know familiar with the text rejects it as a total forgery.

Neo-gnostics I know either (a) prefer to give Secret Mark the benefit of the doubt without knowing quite what to make of it, (b) accept and identify with it as gnostic, or (c) have never heard of it before. I haven't run into a single neo-gnostic who rejects it as a forgery/hoax. We mix with different breeds, obviously.

Father Jordan
What scholars like Chilton so often fail to grasp is that the role of history is simply not as important to us as it is to Christians... Most Christians keep trying to wring "what really happened" out of their Gospels, whereas we've never been about that. We're more interested in what is happening, our own alchemical reaction to these catalytic texts.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with that, so long as one is upfront about it. But as I'm sure you know, many people who read (say) Elaine Pagels walk away convinced that gnosticism is really what Jesus was about, and claim accordingly.
As a secular-minded Unitarian, I have nothing against gnosticism per se. People should believe as they want, though with Jim Davila, I prefer that those beliefs not conflict with basic human decency (i.e. respect for Jews, women, gays, the earth and its natural resources, etc.). But history matters too -- especially to those of us who love it -- and it irks when adherents like the neo-gnostics believe their sources to be purer than those against which they are often reacting.


Blogger Jordan Stratford+ said...

Gnosticism (and please, the "neo" is just plain rude – I used "neo-Christian" to illustrate how absurd a tag it is) is not an "antidote" to Christianity any more than Judaism is an antidote to Hinduism.

Many themes within classical Gnosticism appeal to contemporary Christians, particularly in the egalitarianism which is pervasive throughout Gn texts. This is not to deny there are some troubling passages that seem to reinforce the gender roles and power structures of the time in which they were written, but it is a mistake to state that these intermittent phrases characterize either the texts or Gn as a whole.

Indeed one would have to "cherry pick" in order to cast Gnosticism in such a light.

Two factors bear consideration: one is that esoteric material cannot be read as exoteric. Gn text are reliant upon metaphor and simile and analogy and parable; they are as fluid as dream journals, and can be taken just as literally. The idea is not to impart dogma but to inspire and invite participation on a mythic level.

In this way we can see the last phrase of Thomas - which is a very peachy spin on the indwelling Divine, but ends on a thud about how women have to become men. This is taken by Gnostics as a metaphor referring to 1st century gender roles: women are passive and obedient, men are the "masters of their own house". So "male" is a symbol meaning "responsible" or "mature". It's not a particularly good symbol, but there you are. It's certainly not Paul telling women to be silent in church, where he means exactly what he says.

The second factor is theological, and the impact of this theology is why some find Gnosticism more palatable than *what has been mainstream* Christianity: the theology of the pre-existence of the soul.

Christianity teaches that your soul is created at the same time as your body: your body IS your identity, which is why it shall rise from the grave intact on judgment day and live physically forever.

Gnosticism teaches that the soul is infinite and eternal, and pre-exists the body. The body is a car your soul drives around but it's NOT YOU. So physical things such as gender are not fundamental to identity, and this can lead in some cases to a more accepting culture if you're feminist or gay or transgendered. It's a different perspective with an upside for compassion, but it's not an "antidote".

And I would agree that the overwhelming majority of Gnostics are not familiar with Secret Mark, the exception being clergy who consider it a hoax. SM does raise some interesting points about Clement, a straight-up-orthodox Father of the Church, who wrote about gnosis extensively and beautifully and who basically says that it's the entire point of the Catholic enterprise.


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