Thursday, July 23, 2009

Towards modern gnosticism -1 - early period

‘Human beings have always been mythmakers.’ So begins Karen Armstrong in her Short History of Myth. Going back to the Neanderthals and our earliest forebears, there are clear signs of a mythological framework shaping their existence. Such mythology, Armstrong argues, ‘was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience… There was initially no ontological gulf between the world of the gods and the world of men and women.’ There was, then, a strong spiritual element to their lives, but the separation of sacred and profane which we understand today, when thinking of religion, was not so distinct. Taking the example of Australian aboriginals, Armstrong explains:

It is natural for these indigenous peoples to think in terms of myth and symbol because, ethnologists tell us, they are highly conscious of a spiritual dimension in their daily lives. The experience of what we call the sacred or divine has become at best a distant reality to men and women in industrialized, urban societies, but to the Australians, for example, it is not only self-evident but more real than the material world. ‘Dreamtime’ – which Australians experience in sleep and in moments of vision – is timeless and ‘everywhen’. It forms a stable backdrop to ordinary life, which is dominated by death, flux, the endless succession of events, and the cycle of the seasons. Dreamtime is inhabited by the Ancestors – powerful, archetypal beings who taught humans the skills that are essential to their lives, such as hunting, war, sex, weaving and basket-making. These are, therefore, not profane but sacred activities, which bring mortal men and women into contact with Dreamtime.

In this way, myth has become the vehicle by which religious truths are articulated and interpreted. As Ingvild Saelid Gilhus explains: ‘In religion, the consciousness of the believer is expressed through myths, and the original experience is locked therein.’ Myths described not simply an event or occurrence, but a common truth. This is the root of Armstrong’s ‘everywhen’, which she explains further:

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.

Organised religion can be traced back to around 11,000 years ago, in the Neolithic period in the Near East, when the transformation from hunter-gatherer to farmer presaged a profound change in society, but the key period of development was from 800 BC to 200 BC, a period described by Karl Jaspers as the ‘Axial Age’, when the religious and philosophical systems we know today – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Greek rationalism – began to emerge. Christianity followed two hundred years later, greatly influenced by Platonism, and Islam emerged a further six hundred years later. The origins of the various sects and groups which have become known as Gnosticism remains the subject of debate, with arguments that it comes from Hellenic or oriental traditions, and that it was contemporaneous and even antecedent to Christianity. Birger Pearson summarises some of the debate:

In our own times scholars have referred to Gnosticism as a kind of Platonism. Willy Theiler calls the Gnosticism of the Imperial period, both Christian and pagan (Chaldean Oracles, Hermetica), "Proletarier- platonismus." Simone Petrement portrays Gnosticism as "un platonisme romantique"; A. D. Nock prefers the designation "Platonism run wild." John M. Dillon refers to the Gnostic and Hermetic writings and the Chaldean Oracles as "the 'underworld' of Platonism."

Gilles Quispel maintains that, although sharing traits with other religions and philosophies, gnosticism is essentially separate:

Gnosticism is not a late chapter of the history of Greek philosophy and therefore a Christian heresy, an acute Hellenization of the Christian religion. Nor is it a fossilized survival of old Iranian or even Indian religious concepts, and certainly it is not derived from a presupposed consistent Iranian myth of the Saved Saviour. It is rather a religion of its own, with its own phenomenological structure, characterized by the mythical expression of Self-experience through the revelation of the Word, or, in other words, by an awareness of a tragic split within the Deity itself. And as such it owes not a little to Judaism.

It is clear that there was considerable cross-pollenation of thought in this turbulent period. Hans Jonas, in his important textbook on the gnostic religion, characterises the two centuries following the start of the Christian era as being a time of ‘profound spiritual ferment’, in which a number of sects – gnostic and otherwise – speculated on the human condition. Jonas identifies a number of characteristics of thinking at that time: firstly, movements were essentially religious; secondly, a core belief was one of salvation; thirdly, their conception of god was transcendent, which also meant that those notions of salvation were also other-worldly; fourthly, they demonstrated a ‘radical dualism of realms of being – God an the world, spirit and matter, soul and body, light and darkness, good and evil, life and death.’ He summed this up by suggesting that ‘the general religion of the period is a dualistic transcendent religion of salvation.’ [his italics]

No comments: