Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Towards modern gnosticism - transcendence and immanence

When considering gnosticism in a modern sense, it is important not to get bogged down in the arcana of its early manifestations. As society has changed and man has become more rational, the role of religion has undergone a profound change. Karen Anderson suggests:

the West developed an economy that seemed, potentially, to be indefinitely renewable. Instead of looking back to the past and conserving what had been achieved, as had been the habit of premodern civilisations, Western people began to look forward. The long process of modernisation, which took Europe some three centuries, involved a series of profound changes: industrialisation, the transformation of agriculture, political and social revolutions to reorganise society to meet the new conditions, and an intellectual ‘enlightenment’ that denigrated myth as useless, false and outmoded.

Her view is that, since the enlightenment, man has focused on science and rational thought rather than the traditional element of mythologisation – that is, a focus on logos rather than mythos. Erich Heller also relates the enlightenment to a loss of religiosity, noting:

the characteristic spiritual quality of that long period of history of which we are the bewildered heirs was not only the dissociation of faith from knowledge; this was a comparatively harmless episode, lasting from the seventeenth century to the age of Victoria, a mere surface repercussion of that mightier earthquake which severed faith from sensibility. It is this rift which has made it impossible for most Christians not to feel, or at least not to feel also, as true many 'truths' which are incompatible with the truth of their faith.

Referring to the above quote from Heller, Thomas Altizer concludes:

everything that modern man knows to be true or real has been created either by means of an abandonment or a dissolution of faith. Only a Gnostic spirit could lead to a joyous acceptance of the chasm that lies between modern science and modern faith.

Added to the diminution of importance of mythos, twentieth-century modernism heralded an increased sense of alienation. Jacob Taubes notes:

With the first World War a "world" broke into pieces. Man experienced himself as estranged in his social and cosmic setting and did not feel at home in a world he had so painstakingly cultivated to make his own. When the facades of culture and civilization crumbled under the impact of the First World War man was confronted with the realities of life: hunger, destitution, and death.

Eric Voegelin, in particular, notes the rise of gnosticism in the twentieth century:

Gnostic experiences, in the amplitude of their variety, are the core of the redivination of society, for the men who fall into these experiences divinize themselves by substituting more massive modes of participation in divinity for faith in the Christian sense.

Voegelin has been pre-eminent in identifying in twentieth century political systems an element of modern gnosticism which he finds troubling. Writing in Germany in 1938, he identified a malaise in society borne, he believed, of the loss of influence of religion:

the world finds itself in a severe crisis, in a process of decay that has its origin in the secularization of the spirit and the separation of a therefore merely worldly spirit from its roots in religious experience; and who does not know that the remedy can only be arrived at through religious renewal, be it within the framework of traditional churches or outside of this framework.

He identifies Nazism and communism as essentially gnostic movements which sought to transform humanity. As James Wiser notes:

he argued that National Socialism was, in fact, a peculiarly modern form of an immanent political religion. Like all immanent political religions National Socialism divinized certain features of the profane order. Yet unlike its premodern predecessors it operated according to a worldview and maintained by the authority of modern science.

Voegelin concluded that ‘[t]he gnostic revolution has for its purpose a change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society.’ It is, he believes, seeking salvation for mankind in an alien world, in the context of a loss of religion: the secular political state, instead, has adopted the role once assumed by the Church. Thomas Alitzer, agreeing with Voegelin’s thesis, asks: ‘May we then define twentieth-century Gnosticism as a search for an authentic redemption from an alien cosmos in the context of the death of God?’ Nonetheless, Alitzer expresses some unease at Voegelin’s stance, noting: ‘Voegelin fails to grasp the deep hostility to the world which is invariably present in true Gnosticism.’ Part of Alitzer’s unease is the way that Voegelin suggests that the rise of communism and Nazism as gnostic political religions was a natural consequence of the drift of history from the enlightenment onwards, with the resulting, slow death of God. There is some validity in this argument. Voegelin contended that ‘the essence of modernity [is] the growth of gnosticism’ and initially he did see this as part of a historical process. However, as James Wiser notes, he later changed his mind:

By 1952 Voegelin had reformulated his own position. Rejecting any scheme which posited a successive periodization to history, Voegelin argued that modernity is best understood as a particular moment within a continuous evolution within Western culture.

Wiser continues to suggest that gnosticism is, indeed, a major force in contemporary society, but ‘it is not modernity’s essence. Indeed the modern era is a composite of a number of traditions and to isolate any single element would be an unnecessary simplification. Voegelin also agreed that his earlier thesis was simplistic, noting that it linked, for example, totalitarian regimes such as fascism with ancient Egyptian sun-God worship, the former a clear example of immanentizing existence and the latter a transcendent worship. This points to a further, significant change in the tenor and direction of modern gnostic thought. Increasingly, although man is still trapped in an alien world, there is less focus on God as a means of escape or of transcendence in anything other than a sense of acquiring gnosis and consciousness. Voegelin explains:

In the ontology of ancient gnosticism [deliverance from the world] is accomplished through faith in the “alien,” “hidden” God who comes to man’s aid, sends him messengers, and shows him the way out of the prison of the evil God of this world (be he Zeus or Yahweh or one of the other ancient father gods). In modern gnosticism it is accomplished through the assumption of an absolute spirit which in the dialectical unfolding of consciousness proceeds from alienation to consciousness of itself.

As previously discussed, Voegelin identified in modern gnostic movements an increasing focus on immanence, a state which Altizer also notes when he says:

modern Gnosticism - inheriting the Faustian transformation of absolute transcendence into absolute immanence, a transformation symbolically portrayed in Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God - attempts to escape a cosmos and a history in which man has lost his human reality by searching for a non-transcendent and non-sacred state of subjective purity and existential authenticity. When Martin Buber says that the modern manifestation of gnosis is the "psychological doctrine which deals with mysteries without knowing the attitude of faith towards mystery," he is referring to a form of Gnosticism which has abandoned the sacred reality of the traditional forms of faith. Precisely at this point lies the revolution effected by modern Gnosticism - a revolution which is manifest in literature, philosophy, theology, and, indeed, throughout the whole gamut of modern life.

It is this approach to spirituality in a post-Nietzschean, godless world, that, for people like Voegelin and Altizer, has fuelled the rise in gnostic thinking. With God dead, the transcendent becomes meaningless, and in its place we see the immanentisation of beliefs. Galbreath, in his article on ‘problematic gnosis, comments:

Commentators on modern gnosticism, whatever their other differences, largely agree that in the post-Nietzschean world the radical dualism of traditional Gnosticism - the radical separation in origin and essence of humanity and the world, the world and God - has been displaced from the metaphysical to the immanent. In this view the death of God signifies that the dualistic opposition between humanity and an "indifferent" universe cannot originate in intrinsically opposed metaphysical principles of spirit and matter, good and evil, light and darkness. Instead, the polarization is said to be immanent within the historical process (Voegelin), the psyche (Jung, Quispel), or the human condition (Jonas). The Gnostic prison house is no longer the cosmos, the handiwork of an inimical demiurge; it is now our own minds, where the polar opposites function as categories for states of consciousness and degrees of knowledge: ignorance/knowledge, sleep/awakening, forgetting/remembering, alienation/enlightenment (gnosis).

Taubes takes the Nietzschean view further and identifies a strand of ‘Dionysiac theology’ in which we see played out a dialectic between the ‘bacchantic dance and the mystery of the cross’, in which ‘Dionysiac theology is an "ecstatic naturalism" that interpets all supernaturalistic symbols in immanent terms. The ecstasy does not lead to a "beyond," in a supernaturalistic sense, but signifies an "intensity" of the immanent.’
According to Altizer, in this analysis Taubes offers a key to understanding both modern theology and modern gnosticism:

Nietzsche's category [Dionysian] refers to an absolute form of life-affirmation and world-affirmation (portrayed conceptually through his category of Eternal Recurrence), as opposed to the radical world-denial which he associates with all forms of religious faith. However, a Dionysian form of existence becomes possible only through the death of God, through the collapse of every vestige of the transcendent. It is now that an affirmation of absolute immanence can be made, liberating man from all dependence upon a transcendent reality and thereby bringing him to an absolutely autonomous state of existence. (This state in its truest form Nietzsche hopefully awaited in the coming Superman, but it is already capable of defining the deepest meaning of human existence - as witness Nietzsche's category of the Will to Power.)

Altizer then concludes that modern gnosticism can only provide salvation through evading or negating this fallen, alien world. ‘Since,’ he suggests, ‘the way of gnosis must be a radically negative way of world-denial, it is in actuality the religious way of Gnosticism which is the real subject of Nietzsche's category of resentment.’ And this is the key point: Nietzsche, in promulgating the will to power and teaching that one must overcome ressentiment, is propounding something life-affirming. This is how we may find enlightenment, through our own endeavours, not through the favours of a God. Zarathustra tells us: ‘Let will to truth mean this to you: that everything be changed into the humanly conceivable, the humanly visible, the humanly sensible.’


artemis said...

I hope you do not loose sleep over these questions

Tom Conoboy said...

I lose sleep because of back pain and because of my partner snoring. That's about all.

Carlos said...

Hi Tom,

An excellent thread- too bad none were up to the task. I think this ties in well to our McCarthy/Voegelin/Gnostic/Nietzsche/Plato discussion. You do a great job laying out the contours of the debate, so I'll not try to expand them here.

I only suggest that these comments explain our divergent views on how McCarthy relates to Voegelin, as we each have differing (but I think reasonable) views on what comprises the Gnosticism, and to what measure that is a 'bad' thing. For example, I believe that Nietzsche is a Gnostic thinker to be questioned, and you believe he represents the best side of the Gnostic impulse. (In this regard, your reference to Voegelin's New Science of Politics in a related thread, as man needing some will to power in order to combat tyranny, is an insightful and valid point.) Juxtapose the above with my belief that Plato is not a Gnostic thinker, while I imagine you probably believe, as others do, that he is. I think that the schools of thought that spun off from Plato’s works are often Gnostic, but that the original insights always believed in the essential ignorance of man, the highest wisdom both personal and societal. In this regard, Nietzsche’s idea that “all” should be conceivable, visible, sensible to man, while a lovely thought, becomes fodder and support for evil deeds in the minds of lesser men. I think that ‘truth’ in the hands of fallible humans… even if it were Truth (with a capital “T”) is likely to be mismanaged.

On the upside, you have made me realize that a re-read of Zarathustra is in order.

Thanks and regards.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks Carlos, great stuff as ever. As regards Nietzsche, yes I see him as essentially positive and I think he sees the beauty in man. And yes, I do see a link from gnosticism through to Christianity through to Plato. I guess, given the evidence of the 20th century, it's hard to argue against the idea that Nietzsche's philosophy can feed the evil of lesser minds. But just as thinking post-Plato may have given a different gloss to his original meanings, the interpretations of those 'lesser minds' shouldn't be confused with Nietzsche's. He does say that '“all” should be conceivable, visible, sensible to man', granted, but I don't think he is starry-eyed about it. I think he was all too aware of the fallibility of mankind, but I also think he was aware of our potential. That's why I like him.

Carlos said...

Well said, with regard to the original intent versus the later perversion of the insight. Again, you've inspired me to revisit Nietzsche (a friend of mine is passionate about him also), so perhaps I will have a different gloss on him in the future.

Also, by the way, your discussion of Magic Mountain is fascinating-- I've always wanted to tackle Thomas Mann, so it's now also on the list. As an aside, Voegelin considered him the best fiction writer of his time... perhaps because of the themes he explored, but I imagine there is more to it than that. I am looking forward to it.