Saturday, July 25, 2009

Towards modern gnosticism - 2- Beliefs

Turning to gnostic thought specifically, it is summarised by Arthur Nock as: ‘a preoccupation with the problem of evil, a sense of alienation and recoil from man's environment, and a desire for special and intimate knowledge of the secrets of the universe.’ It is premised in the notion that the world is a material realm into which man has fallen, and from which his soul can only escape through the acquisition of gnosis, or knowledge. This ‘knowledge’ is defined thus in the Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria and quoted by Jonas:

What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we sped, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.

This element of rebirth is important. Henri-Charles Puech notes that man is ‘condemned to be reborn, to pass from prison to prison in the course of the long cycle of reincarnations.’ Thus, he concludes, the gnostic’s response to the passing of time is one of ‘panic terror.’ Existence, then, is not a happy state. Eric Voegelin describes the gnostic belief thus: ‘Man experiences his existence as a creature and therefore as doubtful. Somewhere in the depths, at the umbilicus of the soul, there where it touches the cosmos, it strains.’ The world is ‘an alien place into which man has strayed and from which he must find his way back home to the other world of his origin.’ Voegelin explains further, quoting Gnostic texts:

“This world was not made according to the desire of the Life.” “Not by the will of the Great Life art thou come hither.” Therefore the question, “Who conveyed me into evil darkness?” and the entreaty, “Deliver us from the darkness of this world into which we are flung.” The world is no longer the well-ordered, the cosmos, in which Hellenic man felt at home; nor is it the Judaeo-Christian world that God created and found good. Gnostic man no longer wishes to perceive in admiration the intrinsic order of the cosmos. For him the world has become a prison from which he wants to escape: “The wretched sould has stayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders around without a way out. .. It seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out.”

Thus, there emerges in Gnostic thought a mythology of passage, described by Gilhus thus:

The primary function of the gnostic myths is to invoke and sustain a process of change and transformation in the listeners, a process which occurs on the psychological level. The divergences and elaborations are reflec- tions of meditation and thought, and express the process of transformation. The "initiand" is set apart from his society and culture, and his transformation is fulfilled on the cosmological level when the soul transcends the spheres after death. Thus, gnostic mythology is a liminal phenomenon, because of its transformative function. It is a mythology of passage.

And, as Voegelin points out, this passage is essential to gnostic thought, and to the prospect of salvation:

the aim always is destruction of the old world and passage to the new. The instrument of salvation is gnosis itself – knowledge. Since according to the gnostic ontology entanglement with the world is brought about by agnoia, ignorance, the soul will be able to disentangle itself through knowledge of its true life and its condition of alienness in this world.

In Voegelin’s view, the gnostic attitude is one of dissatisfaction with one’s situation because the world is poorly organised. However, he contends, salvation from the evil of the world is possible, and thus it is possible for a historical process to change the world from wretched to good. This view is not universally shared, however. Robert Galbreath, for example, takes issue with Voegelin’s contention, arguing that it fails to take account of the binary nature of its radical dualism: ‘[Voegelin’s] belief that the wretched condition of the world will evolve historically through human action into a better condition, [is] a thesis which misconstrues or ignores the antihistorical, atemporal, nonmeliorative character of Gnosticism.’

Salvation, then, in this traditional form of gnosticism, is a transcendent event, only achievable by the attainment of gnosis and escape from the material world. The soul must escape the living body in which it is entombed in order to effect its passage. Gilhus identifies the key gnostic rituals which help it on this journey:

The gnostic rituals are the sacraments of baptism, anointing, eucharist, chrism and bridal-chamber, which separate the believer from the world, ensure him a safe passage through the different stations on the journey, and finally transform his soul into a state of salvation.

She further describes the cosmos through which the soul thus passes as tripartite:

The world above which is the source of pneumatic being, the world below which is material, and between these worlds, the intermediate realm of the archons, the rulers of the seven spheres of the planets. The world above is the home of pneuma (the spiritual soul) from which it once descended and sank into the material world below, from which it must begin its ascent. At both the descent and the ascent of the soul, it must pass through the archontic realm of the middle stage.

This material world in which man is trapped is the creation of a Demiurge, who is responsible for carnality and the evil that infests the world. Because this Demiurge is both evil and inferior to God, and because his world is evil, gnostic theory believes that those who are trapped within it must also be evil and inferior. A further consequence, identified by Jorge Ayora, is that ‘God cannot be known through a world that cannot reflect Him; He may only be known through revelation.’ The Demiurge is leader of the seven Archons, or rulers, and whose influence the gnostics sought to escape. Since they, collectively, rule over the world, the concomitant of this for the gnostic is a will to escape their laws. As Gilhus notes, quoting Irenaeus:

The gnostics aimed at freedom from the power of the archons who had made the body, and at freedom from the Law: "Therefore those who know these things have been set free from the rulers who made the world ... Thus if anyone confess the crucified, he is still a slave, and under the power of those who made the bodies; he who denies (him) has been set free from them, and knows the (saving) dispensation made by the unorginate Father. Salvation is for the soul alone; the body is by nature corruptible. He (Basilides) says that even the prophecies themselves came from the rulers who made the world, and that the law in particular came from their chief, him who led the people out of the land of Egypt".

Thus, Gilhus concludes, there was a contempt for the law and the lawmaker, to either of which the gnostics felt no obligation. She quotes from Hippolytus in evidence: ‘All the prophets and the law spoke from the Demiurge, a silly god (in his view), and they were foolish and knew nothing.’ The natural consequence of outright rejection of earthly law, of course, is antinomianism, and Gilhus concludes that, indeed, some gnostics ‘expressed their antinomianism by the desire to do everything forbidden by the Law: The archons made the Law to make man slave, therefore complete freedom consisted of a systematic violation of the precepts of the Law.’

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