Friday, August 12, 2005

Gnosticism Revived?

Pontifications carries a fascinating archive on gnosticism in contemporary Christianity; Al Kimel's efforts at diagnosing the current unpleasantness in ECUSA led him to consolidate a rather rich series of ruminations that frighteningly come close to being right, in my opinion.

Summarizing Kimel's point with crude, reductive brevity, he claims we Americans are raised in a culture that celebrates self-actualization as ultimate (my category). For we are pulled by the prevailing cultural stew of modern America to presume an identification between God or Being and our individual selves. Thus, we seek above all to get in touch with ourselves, to purify ourselves in the sense of turning away from the messy concrete world to attend to the inner me, which for all its frustrations in the outer, material world is, taken in itself, clean, clear, and divine or at least spiritual (see this post of his, for example).

While he has most definitely identified a real phenomenon here, I have to take issue with his diagnosis. Gnosticism is predated by nondualist Hinduism, for example, which sounds very much like what he describes, with (for our purposes) irrelevant differences: that is, again crudely, deeper than the merely apparent phenomenal self is a single real Self, immutable and immaterial, and our salvation comes with the mystical realization of this great Truth. And gnosticism is followed by, for instance, Hegelian Absolute Idealism, in which the attainment of absolute knowledge functions like the Hindu mystic's realization, though in a weaker sense. In other words, gnosticism is one among many instances of "something" that manifests itself variously but repeatedly among us--I presume, an error of moral consequence we cannot seem to avoid, something incompatible with Christian belief and practice.

What is the something for which gnosticism, nondualism, and idealism are masks? A disposition to displace God as the center and put ourselves in His place--the kind of thing traditionally referred to by "the Fall" and "original sin", described in different terms (but still described) in the '79 BCP Catechism under "Human Nature". We are "naturally" (nature in a deranged sense) self-centered in this way, and our psychological egoism is the "true" Face of the selves we hold dear and desire to preserve. Gnosticism is just a mask worn by the Face.

We do not realize how dangerous this mask-seeking, debased Face really is; CF Allison has a good pamphlet from Forward Movement addressing the danger. The Face seeks closure, separation from the reforming power of God (aka God's love) that would begin the death or burial of the Face in its debased form (which it takes as true) with the sacrament of Baptism. Kierkegaard, in a brilliant move, identifies the successfully closed-off self with the Demonic: in our natural state we strive to emulate those vicious Powers for all we know possibly already beyond redemption--one death not being enough for us. Of course most of us do not know that destination under quite that description--but this sort of destabilizing ignorance is precisely what follows on separation from faith.

In contemporary Anglican Modernism, I tentatively believe the Face wears a form of Idealism as its mask, going in its latest iteration by the name "panentheism"; I'm influenced by a recent reading of "The Panther and the Hind" in that judgement; caveat emptor. Backing that up will take some work, which I do not claim to have finished yet--hopefully soon.


At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am simply confused, but my understanding of panentheism is that " God is immanent within all Creation or that God is the animating force behind the universe. Unlike pantheism, panentheism does not mean that the universe is all God or that God contains the universe inside himself. In panentheism, God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as both the creator and the original source of universal morality."

I basically find myself attracted to this as a refreshing counterpoint to the "stage magician" or "magic sky genie" God of the anti-intellectual, evangelical Christian Right.

I'm also a bit troubled that I've heard so much backlash against this in what I normally perceive as thoughtful, mainstream-to-progressive venues lately.

What do you think ? Am I just off in the weeds here or what ? (yes, I realize that many "conservative" commentors will think I'm off my nut, but that's to be expected ;)

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Caelius said...

There was some interesting commentary by conservatives about Gnosticism among the liberals during the Terri Schiavo case.

As for the body/soul/spirit dichotomy, I've always appreciated the idea that is apparently well formulated by the Eastern Church that we do not strive against the body but the corruptibility to which the body is naturally a heritor. But in a world where cloning is an immanent phenomenon, we must be clear what true immortality is.

I suppose I'm one of those panentheistic fellows, but here, too, I hold to the Eastern doctrine.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your comment, david huff.

Part of the problem around identifying what panentheism is has to do with what seems to me to be its relative novelty--even if ancient antecedents for it exist in, say, neoplatonic religious thinkers, there does not exist yet a body of work articulating Christian dogma in its terms.

Aidan Nichols made a point in his book of locating Anglican panentheism's roots in the ninetheenth century, in the cultural stew around British idealism, as I recall--I don't know with confidence whether that is accurate.

And I admit to a serious Christian panentheist, what I've written will sound like name-calling--I'm not really refuting anyone here.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article you referenced also defines the term this way:
"Panentheism (Greek words: pan=all, en=in and Theos=God; "God-in-all")" That's very interesting to me: God is in all, but more than all. I am part of the all, so it follows God is in me--although sure, God is more than me. On this view, I worry that I would seek to find God already within myself.

Consider this passage that comes later in the piece:
"Creation is not "part of" God, and God is still distinct from creation; however, God is "within" all creation, thus the Orthodox parsing of the word is "pan-entheism" (God indwells in all things) and not "panen-theism" (All things are within/part of God but God is more than the sum of all things)."
Does that sound radical, even if fascinating, to you? It does to me--strangely attractive yet somehow off-key.

At 5:14 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


As I said in reply to david huff, I don't have a refutation of panentheism, and the movement still seems to be in an early stage within Anglicanism, even if it has been well developed in the Eastern Ortodox Church.

All I have to offer is this admittedly vague worry that a move toward articulating our dogma in panentheist terms in the Anglican Church, and esp. ECUSA, might come with a high cost in terms of our catholicity.

At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll admit that my own feelings about God are more towards "the Orthodox parsing of the word [as] "pan-entheism" (God indwells in all things)" vs. the other example...

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Of course the notion of God being in/around all things yet apart from them leads to interesting questions about Eucharistic Presence. If God is already--to use Luther's formulation--in, with, and under anybody's loaf, what's so special about a concecrated Host?

At 11:07 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Good point.

It is also important to distinguish the presence of God in all things entailed by panentheism from the traditional attribute of omnipresence.
It mau well be that panentheists wish to assert omnipresence should be understood in their, and not the traditional, sense.

At 11:10 AM, Blogger bls said...

"All I have to offer is this admittedly vague worry that a move toward articulating our dogma in panentheist terms in the Anglican Church, and esp. ECUSA, might come with a high cost in terms of our catholicity."

I'm curious what you're referring to here? Who articulates ECUSA dogma this way?

At 5:16 PM, Blogger ruidh said...

This accusation of gnoticisism by the conservatives against the liberals is not new, but in order to make the identification important elements of gnotisticism need to be supressed. Most importantly, gnosticism contains secret, mystery teachings whihc must be learned by the initiates. The Anglican statment that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation is essentially and anti-gnostic statement. Also, gnostics have been strong dualists with the body representing corrupted matter. If anything, the current liberals are not dualists.

The gnostocosm claim is a facile one which is seen to hold little water when examined in detail.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Closed said...

I think it is interest. But I also wish we'd quit throwing around words like gnostic and gnosticism so facily. They're big words with huge historical complexities not easily reduced to one phenomenon.

And we do have a Christian gnosis that focuses on growing the self in G-d...the Eastern Church has been perhaps better at expounding this...but this mysticism is always theological in the sense of being political as well...involving the body and the social body. Any Christian theology that does not do this is, well, less than Christian. Any Christianity that focuses merely on the soul and immortality of the soul instead of resurrection of the body is problematic.

Instead, point out problems such as identifying the soul/self and G-d as not Christian and radically debasive of a whole person approach in orthodox Christianity. Or that our true completion is in G-d, not genetic manipulations. Offer correctives rather than charged name-calling from the start.

After all, Lutherans called Calvinists Nestorians and Calvinists called Lutherans monophysites. Now really guys! Time to stop the circle jerks on the playground and focus on the issues presented, not make such quick leaps from one problem in the past to a present concern and slap on a handy label...Scotist, I think is offering that this is a deeper problem--

As Caelius said, I tend toward the Eastern Church view on things which sees us and Creation as potential icon of the Holy Spirit. To use Chalcedon, without mixing, without separation...that is the Christian mystical formula. But we are not G-d. Some Americans especially forget that and that is a sign of imperial politics.

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

I find that folks often use the term gnostic when they mean docetists too...

At 7:26 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Yes--it seems docetism is good name for this tendency, esp. provided we keep the notion of docetism broad, generic and see ancient gnosticism as merely a species.

I recently came across a work by Westerhoff contrasting mysticism with charismatic ecstasy--mysticism involving the labor of a spiritual discipline or rule of life whose fruition might be an experience of the Holy God, while charismatic ecstasy need not involve such a rule: "come as you are." Surely God could operate to give us an experience of Him in either way--He's got the Power. But Westerhoff claimed, and I'd agree, our well being our well being, and the Episcopalian ethos, is better served by the way of mysticism. Would you agree?

At 7:33 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

I'd say--from my untutored perspective--the primary current exponent of panentheism in ECUSA is Marcus Borg.

However, while Nichols finds Anglican panentheists in the 19th century, I believe John Macquarrie published a book, "In Search of Deity", in favor of finding very early historical antecedents for panentheism in the Church's theology, esp. among neoplatonist Christians. So it is by no means a movement limited to our most recent and celebrated contemporaries.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

You are certainly right: "gnostic" is indeed a label used as a club by theological conservatives. But so what? Let them whine.

I wished to raise a few points: (1)Is panentheism for all we know true? Even if we cant decisively prove or refute it,is it a contender? (2)Need it be tied, as I worry, to some sort of moral fault? Am I totally mistaken, or if I am not, is such a fault merely accidental to the metaphysics of panentheism? (3)Suppose it is a contender, and can be stated in a way consistent with our long-standing conviction around original sin et al.; should we then revise the BCP to include a panentheist-friendly eucharistic liturgy?

Panentheism is associated with Anglican Modernism--the movement that grew out of Latitudinarianism and the Broad Church; as such, it is on a par with right and left-wing versions of Anglo-catholicism, and Evangelicalism. If its doctrine can be stated in broadly orthodox terms, then it would seem proper to revise the BCP to reflect its presence in ECUSA, no?

At 12:10 PM, Blogger John Mosby said...


Maybe you can answer this theotrivia question:

How did Sophia go from being a Gnostic deity to another Orthodox name for the Logos? Or was it the other way round?


At 3:29 PM, Blogger bls said...

But is Borg synonymous with "The Episcopal Church"?

This is always the thing that happens, I find. Certain individuals - Spong, Borg, James Pike, etc. - come to be thought of as representing ECUSA. But they don't, do they? They're just independent individuals, and the views expressed therein do not represent the views of management. Do they?

The official doctrines of the Church are the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, and I suppose the very brief ECUSA Catechism. These others are not speaking for the Church in any way - are they? Even Rowan Williams is writing as an individual. Isn't he?

In point of fact, I've never read Borg. Or Williams. I've read a bit of Spong, but that's not where my faith is located in any sense.

This IMO is the genius of Anglicanism: minimal official doctrine, plus a wide latitude in expressing "unoffical" doctrine.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

No, Borg's not synonymous with ECUSA, but he does speak to and for one wing of believers within it, and his accomplishment, though put for the most part in popular terms, is not trivial: giving Anglican modernism a distinct, compelling spirituality and metaphysics.

My personal misgivings about his project are really beside the point; it may very well be that his theological point of view deserves wider liturgical representation.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

In other words what you rightly called the genius of Anglicanism, its comprehensiveness or latitude, may be enough to make ECUSA capable of taking on Borg's brand of modernism. That's not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger bls said...

What I'm saying is this: the beauty of Anglicanism is that it is (and I hate to use this word, abused as it's been) completely orthodox at its core, and, if since need to find a word, heterodox around the circumference.

But as long as the core remains - the Creeds in their original form - and as long as we're consciously keeping this core in place, aren't we pretty much OK, even if some individuals go off on their own tangents? As long as ECUSA is officially defined this way, isn't it sort of interesting to allow people to explore? Isn't this the living out of the "members of the Body" thing in Corinthians? "If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing?"

This is what allows ECUSA to change when other sects can't: womens' ordination, same-sex issues, etc. And I really don't think this approach is going to change. I think the Creeds will remain as core doctrine; I hope they do, anyway, even as we can find new ways to talk and think about them. The Creeds seem like anchors to me - a way of maintaining contact with the essence of the early church and with the faith itself.

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Closed said...

Scotist, given as I am to the Rule of Benedict, of course I would concur with Westerhoff. Now I've had ecstatic experiences, but if they don't lead to the building up of the Body or if they don't lead to the taking on of discipline, they are for nought. I'm about ascesis.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bls: Spong at least certainly can be taken as representing the Episcopal Church. He is a bishop in good standing, and representing the church is his job.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Closed said...

+Spong is emeritus, and he does not represent the entirety of ECUSA. Unless we want to say the same for every other bishop?

At 11:27 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Neither Bp. Spong nor any other mere individual in this state "represents" and speaks for the teaching and doctrine of ECUSA.

What counts as the core of our doctrine, from the Creeds and Scripture is (a)minimal and (b)can't be reduced to propositional dogma anyway--to "understand" the Creeds and Scripture you have to live with them in the liturgy of the Church. That is their proper, effective place--effective NOT in the sense of producing an intellectual "Aha!" moment where you can finally exhaust the meaning of the Creeds et al in propositional dogma after N-years of living the liturgy, but effective in the sense of making you a different kind of person, the kind of person who in habitual obedience to God is practiced at and perhaps even good at loving God and neighbor.

Spong is responding to the fact the core, even as lived in liturgy, is minimal: living it requires that we "fill it out", i.e. live it concretely by adopting a definite style of worship. Many styles are compatible with the minimal core, and so comprehensiveness is called for: we of course should permit Spong his speculations, provided he is living out our liturgy.

That is not to say all styles of worship are equally good--it may be that Spong's style is largely self-defeating: by undermining the traditional propositional content of the Creeds, for instance, he MIGHT well be working against the liturgy's power in the grace of God to make him a person anew--but the "might" is mighty significant.

It is not at all for us to decide on that matter--perhaps to the contrary he is doing exactly what God wishes in saying what he says, and he can do no other. He continues to worship with us; he does not disrupt services; he is breaking no laws and is not a notorious sinner--he speaks in his doubts for many good Anglicans, giving them a voice in the Church: their concerns should not be mute.

It may well be that Spong's pronouncements are our occasion to do theology: let us persuade him and answer his concerns if we think he is wrong rather than drive him and those he speaks for from our fellowship. Anglican comprehensiveness is a virtue, an expression of love.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger bls said...

"bls: Spong at least certainly can be taken as representing the Episcopal Church. He is a bishop in good standing, and representing the church is his job."

Well, I think this is what we're questioning here. I don't think Episcopalians agree with this; various people think Spong is either an idiot or a genius, but they don't think of him as representing the Church as a whole. I can't think of many who want him excommunicated, for instance.

I think we're saying that Anglicanism is different in this respect - that we can tolerate a great deal of divergence in interpretation of Scripture, for instance, which I think stems from the original "Via Media" setup. The Anglican Church is eccentric by definition. Obviously this isn't infinitely elastic, but that's exactly what we're saying here: we have a central core, and we don't allow individual people to define the Church.

I personally think this is healthy; we actually get to debate the issues. Empirically, too, Anglicans haven't had many of the problems that more rigid approaches have had.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger bls said...

(Let me put it this way, as I have before: I prefer dancing in the moonlight to Inquisition.

I'd much rather deal with any problems arising from the dotty, eccentric Anglican approach, than with what happens under the Torquemada thing.)

At 12:39 PM, Blogger bls said...

(Oops. Let me correct that last sentence, to say what I actually mean.

The Anglican approach itself istn't "dotty," although it can and does give rise to dottiness at times. Somebody once mentioned a C of E Vicar who believed that Christ was an "astral traveller," for example.

But this is charming, not harmful, and of course it's just one person. What's so terrible? I prefer eccentricity to rigidity any day, and of course there's plenty of really interesting mainstream-yet-advernturous thinking going on right now, too. Good.)

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