Sunday, March 29, 2009

Readings: What Comes Down Must Go Up

In this installment on the speculations of Hans Jonas on Gnosticism, we see him again contrasting the prevailing Greek philosophical orthodoxy with the upstart Gnostic conception of man’s place and rôle in existence:

Virtue in the Greek sense (arête) is the actualization in the mode of excellence of the several faculties of the soul for dealing with the world. …In other words, it is up to man to transform his inchoately given nature into his true nature, for in his case alone nature does not automatically realize itself.
It is obvious that Gnosticism had no room for this conception of human virtue. “Looking towards God” has for it an entirely different meaning from the one it had for the Greek philosophers. There it meant granting the rights of all things as graded expressions of the divine within the encompassing divinity of the unverse. The self-elevation in the scale of being through wisdom and virtue implies no denial of the levels surpassed. To the Gnostics, “looking towards God” means just such a denial: it is a jumping across all intervening realities, which for this direct relationship are nothing but fetters and obstacles, or distracting temptations, or at best irrelevant. The sum of these intervening realities is the world, including the social world.

It is apparent that the “self-elevation” of which Jonas writes posits the possibility for Gnostic transcendence as both immediately available and vertical in orientation. Compare this to these excerpts from Paula Fredriksen’s discussion of the canonical Gospel of John which have been sitting for weeks on my desktop, awaiting an apt moment for their presentation:

John’s Jesus is not the wandering charismatic Galilean who appears in the synoptics, but an enigmatic visitor from the cosmos above this cosmos, the preexistent, supremely divine Son (e.g. 1:1-4; 8:23, 42, 58; 17:5; 20:28). As he travels repeatedly between Jerusalem and the Galilee, this Jesus encounters, not fellow Jews, but sons of darkness, denizens of the lower cosmos who can never receive the word of God (8:23, 43-47; 10:25;12:34; cf. 15:19-22). To those divinely chosen to receive it, Jesus brings the message of eternal life, of the glory of the Son and the Father, pronounced in the elliptical idiom of this gospel as much by Jesus’ wondrous signs as by his own mysterious speech (e.g., 3:15, 36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:35-53; 11:1-4). The topic of his address is, most frequently, himself. An image of Jesus thus does not emerge from John’s gospel: it dominates his entire presentation.
Thus, through his Christology, John rotates the axis of Christian tradition ninety degrees, away from the historical, horizontal poles of Past/Future to the spiritualizing, vertical poles of Below/Above.

It would seem that despite their outsider status in the ancient world, and the suppression by the soi-disant orthodox establishment of both their sects and their texts, the Gnostics could lay claim to a legitimate spiritual connection to at least some of the extra-synoptic traditions that can be traced back all the way to the Christ himself.

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