Tuesday, August 25, 2009

21st Century Gnosticism

Historically, gnosticism is any mystical movement in which knowledge (< Gr. gnôsis) is essential to salvation, and this knowledge is to be had only by those to whom it is granted. This special knowledge typically had to do with the deep structure of the cosmos and our place within that structure. In this connection the definition on offer from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, while clearly rather dated, is nevertheless perfectly serviceable:
A collective name for a large number of greatly-varying and pantheistic-idealistic sects, which flourished from some time before the Christian Era down to the fifth century, and which, while borrowing the phraseology and some of the tenets of the chief religions of the day, and especially of Christianity, held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour.
The role of special knowledge in these systems was often responsible for such cults taking on secretive attributes, with clandestine meetings, secret rituals, and restrictive membership requirements. In antiquity it was a pretty big deal to be a member of such a cult, and this continues to the present day in a more benign form in such institutions as Masonry or "secret brotherhoods" like Skull and Bones.

Recently I was put in mind of this sort of gnosticism after reading through some of the comments on a post at a blog I happen to like very much, Prof. Peter Gilbert's De unione ecclesiarum. Dr. Gilbert is Orthodox, but writes with an ecumenical spirit, and his posts are always intelligent and illuminating. Fr. Al Kimel brought my attention to a post at this blog a couple of months ago regarding some statements by St. Cyril of Alexandria on the principle of divine simplicity. It is well worth reading for the documentation it supplies, but the gist of it is contained in its introductory paragraph:
In the discussion to a recent post (The debate on Bekkos’s Epigraphs), some skepticism has been expressed concerning an identification, made by theologians like Thomas Aquinas and Bessarion of Nicaea, between God’s will and God’s being. For this reason, I thought I would present here a couple of passages which show St. Cyril of Alexandria asserting this very identification; i.e., he explicitly states that God is whatever he has, and that will and being in God are the same. A strong view of divine simplicity is traditional Christian theology, not a medieval, Latin invention or a Platonizing corruption.
In the comments to this post there are some remarks that are clearly gnostic in their orientation. For example:
They do NOT get it and won’t.
The author of the comment does not explicitly identify the referent of his pronomial "they", but it becomes clear from further comments posted later that he means (a) Western Christians and (b) any and all self-styled Eastern or Orthodox Christians who have any interest in some kind of meaningful ecumenical dialogue with the West. I say "self-styled" here because the author of the comment also makes it quite clear, in a later comment, that anyone who disagrees with him (that is, with the author of the comment) is not really a Christian at all:
“Fr.” [sic] Kimel,
I do not consider Peter [Gilbert], You, Michael Liccione, or any other person engaged in the pan-heresy of ecumenism as a “brother in Christ.”...If your [sic] expecting a dialogue where I view your RC views as equally valid or that I respect Dr. Gilbert [sic] views AS ‘Orthodox,’ you will be gravely disappointed. I do not believe the SCOBAdox agenda to be an Orthodox one, but rather a disease and infected with folks like Dr. Gilbert serving as one, among many, exemplars.
More interesting, however, is the claim that "they do NOT get it and won't". Get what? Well, The Truth, obviously--and they "won't" get it, because for whatever reason they are incapable of seeing the compelling nature of his (the author of the comment) views. This is gnosticism plain and simple: a claim to possess an important truth that is literally unknowable by certain persons, either because of their willful blindness in the face of "evidence" or because of some ideology to which they have sold their souls.

Who does know The Truth? Well, listen again to Our Author:
You’re not going to convince me of anything that you are giving because I had the privilege of learning these things at the feet of someone far greater than any one here arguing these points. In fact, as far as debate is concerned I think people are more impressed by my presentation of the data. I can solve questions that have plaqued [sic] western christianity, like the Problem of Evil, Predestination/Free-Will, and a Free Creation.
There are some interesting claims here, but first among them is the claim to have learned at the feet of a Master--someone whose arguments are literally irrefutable, even by compelling evidence. (I'm not altogether certain that Our Author is not also a Young Earther--it would not surprise me to learn that he is, since his appeal to "evidence" and "authority" is rather similar.) So no matter what anybody says, Our Author is not going to be convinced, since he has learned from The Master who has no equals. Thanks to this secret learning, he can solve any and all of the classic "problems" associated with Christian belief.

It is impossible to know for certain what sorts of emotional, intellectual, or inter-personal crises could lead someone to think in this way, but I suspect that the use of the term "infect" is, ironically, rather apt, since the gnostic world-view permeates this persons writing even outside the domain of theology. In other comments he writes such things as:
I was battling this type of modernism as a Traditionalist Roman Catholic, so it is by no mistake or accident that I scratched and sniffed my way into Traditional Orthodoxy...Even without the current theological mess, Rome is a highly compromised body, from Freemasonry run amuck in its butchered liturgy to the compromises it has made with the International Banking Cartel (well attested to by Hans Kung and Malachi Martin; folks who knew the continental figures and internal workings of the Vatican all too well). To be honest with you, and I mean this all sincerely, I could not walk into that place (the Vatican) without some realization that I am in a synagogue of Satan."
I found this particular comment rather revealing, as I have had quite a bit of experience with folks who see International Conspiracies, Trilateral Commisions, Area Fifty-oners, and other Scary Types behind every tree, and their thinking is all remarkably gnostic. It is, indeed, rather ironic that Our Author also avers his interest in The Truth in this way:
And much to Kimel’s ado, I submit myself to an authority: an apostolic bishop. I’m just very careful and perceptive in my selection [sic etiam!] (as we all should be). Confessing right doctrine is very important to me.
One does not know whether to laugh or to cry at such a claim, but it is certainly not surprising that one has to "shop around", so to speak, to find "an apostolic bishop" who endorses views such as these. Knowing who the "bishop" is leads me to suspect that, instead of a Synagogue of Satan, Our Author has joined a Synagogue of Two. This is why Our Author does not realize that he is a gnostic: he believes that it is not just his own opinion that is The Truth--rather, it is the opinion of "Orthodoxy" to which he subscribes. But it is an "Orthodoxy" of his own making, since he has set himself up as the final arbiter of which "apostolic bishop" is the one to hitch one's rig to. How this differs from mainline Protestantism is anyone's guess, but it is typical of the gnostic that he is in a kind of denial about the source of his own beliefs coming from within himself and having no real grounding in the external evidence that he himself cites. Instead, he looks for evidence that is already consonant with his own views, labels that "Orthodox", and then claims to be adhering to "Orthodoxy".

The greatest irony of all, however, is the number of times Our Author accuses the likes of Peter Gilbert, Alvin Kimel, and Michael Liccione of being the gnostics. Indeed, he uses the term in just about all of his several comments to the original post. His love affair with secret knowledge leads him to be jealous of others whom he suspects of believing that they, rather than he, are the ones who have it. So we must tear them down, label them heretics and intellectual hacks, and excoriate anyone who takes them seriously. Talking to them, he says, is a "waste of time". It is always a waste of time to engage in a discussion when you already know everything there is to know, and your interlocutor, for some insane reason, fails to grasp that fact about you. No prophet is welcome in his own land, after all.

The comments on Dr. Gilbert's original post are now closed; the whole episode is extremely sad, not only because of the sad divisions among the Members of Christ's Body that it brings into such high relief, but also--and principally--because it is such a stark and revealing portrait of a troubled soul. Some of the early gnostic sects were clearly intended to bring a kind of ataraxia, or freedom from concern, to their adherents, hence the final irony lies in the clear and disheartening suffering that such a world-view clearly evinces. If Christianity is a way of seeing, a way of experiencing the world, we must all pray for Our Author, and all who see the world and experience it as he does.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Return of Fr. Jeffrey Steel

Fr. Jeffrey Steel, who recently converted to Catholicism with his family, has returned to blogging after a short hiatus. His blog, de cura animarum, has long been a source of intellectual stimulation and faithful reflection. In today's entry, Fr. Jeffrey discusses the difficult issue of approaching Marian piety from a Protestant background. As often happens, Fr. Jeffrey has had to deal with some folks who criticize the Church's reverence for the Mother of God. Also as often happens, Fr. Jeffrey gives an excellent treatment to this thorny matter.

A very good book on Mary's place in the culture at large as well as within the Church is the late Jaroslav Pelikan's Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press, 1996). It's a good place to start reading on the history of the topic.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...