"Conjectures and Refutations"

"Conjectures and Refutations"

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is it gnostic or not?


"Were we to start the race where Adam started, I know of no reason why we should get any further than Adam did" (Karl Popper)


There is isn't a deadlier distinction in life than that between the inner and outer, spirit or flesh. I believe so much of our propensity to accept any religious tradition depends on it and does so because, among other things, of the interesting logical distinctions it is heir to (The devil's in the distinctions!). Perhaps the greatest evil to afflict the religious consciousness is that to which the distinction between traditional Catholic orthodoxy and a latent Gnosticism will always expose it. And that evil is self-contradiction.

To the gnostic wise serpent and sagacious Eve there is the orthodox malignant tempter of the gullible and naive temptress; to the Creator residing in the Monad (state of absolute solitariness) there is God the ipsum esse subsistens who doesn't ever abandon the creation; and to the poet-heretic Valentinus there are, of course, the great early apologists for the Roman church (Irenaeus, Tertullian) who offer their Synoptic and Apocalyptic New Testament authors in place of the spurious Nag Hammadi texts (Gospel of Thomas,The Apocryphon of JohnSecret Book of James, Apocalypse of Paul, Gospel of Philip and others)

I will, however, isolate the one consequence of this unfortunate distinction (after Elaine Pagels) that has had most to do with the contemporary debate and is the most troubling to the postmodern believer: namely, the authoritarian and rigidly hierarchized nature of the Church that has followed from the "one God" tenet of traditional Catholicism and the consequent "one bishop" system of transmission of doctrinal Christianity that vests authority and power in the hands of bishops, priests and deacons, excluding the rest. It does seem to run intuitively counter to the radically 'egalitarian' impetus of the Gospel message. At least, that is the conjecture.

The argument for the view of transmission of doctrinal Christianity along a clearly evolving notion of the church as a graded body of worshipers may run as follows:

If Catholicism is a body of truth sanctioned by history, authority and convention, then a part of that body of worship most consistent with the above will also be consistent with a notion of apostolic succession.

Not to swear by the usual 'genius of the emperor'--usually a condition of escaping certain death at the hands of Roman authorities-- or follow prevailing pagan customs of the polytheistic state would have been considered the grossest sort of impiety to the early Christian, Death is always better than impiety.

Certainly a radically 'egalitarian' view of the early church community, faced with real external threats to their existence, would have considered the usual jealousies and resentments of competing interests a potential weakness in their nascent communities to be exploited (or used as deadly leverage) by the political authorities.

The early church would therefore have instituted a system of doctrinal transmission fortified by a show of doctrinal and communal strength consistent also with its 'upon this rock' justification (and fearful always of daily attacks by civil and religious authorities of the day).An early community of the "simple and weak and inexperienced" (Tertullian) would have had to be reined in by both doctrinal and social controls in precisely this way.
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It makes sense, on historical grounds, to justify this show of strength to very menacing temporal powers. But what is its relevance today? How does a top-heavy church structure satisfy the needs of a congregation hungry for the "bread of life"? Can we justify today the same sort of peaceful transition of power and authority as had taken place between early worshipers anxious about personal salvation and a "one bishop" system? The answer is that we cannot.

The full scope of this line of questioning can't be fully appreciated unless we assume that the 'gnosis' of old is today wearing the mantle of postmodernism. The two are interestingly similar. The search, in other words, for the 'divine within' is tantamount today to the search for the deconstructive meanings lying hidden within the text. We've in a very real sense come full circle: ending with the 'gnosis' bugbear of radical egalitarianism and the discovery (by mostly 'rogue' Nag Hammadi authors) of liberatory meanings to be unearthed in sacred writings.