Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reflections: More Gnostic Than Not

Last night I finished my reading of Gnosticism in Modern Literature: A Study of the Selected Works of Camus, Sartre, Hesse, and Kafka by Josephine Donovan. I was led to this book, which was originally a Ph.D. thesis, by my rekindled interest in Gnosticism, about which I have been posting for some time now.

The portion of the selected bibliography of Donovan’s text devoted to readings on “Ancient Gnosticism” included a reference to Primitive Christianity, in its Contemporary Setting by Rudolf Bultmann. This sounded interesting. The title also suggested that it might well have resonance with The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, through which I have been making a laborious, but entertaining, trek for several weeks now. So I borrowed it from the library and have started reading it.

What follows here will not be a rigorous attempt to state and prove any kind of formal thesis. As is often the case when I post on large topics, it will merely point out some ideas of interest to me; ideas that (to me) seem to connect. I will be making no strenuous attempt to convince you, dear reader, to make those same connections. (I expect to be all over the ballpark with it.) But I do hope to interest you in the ideas embedded in what I’ve selected to write about.

Finally, I should point out that what prompted me to post just this, just now, was a piece that I read last night on the blog Vox Nova, with which I (in part) disagreed: i.e., I do not think that a “collective exorcism” is either desirable, or possible. I have expressed that opinion in more detail there; but as of this writing, my comment has yet to be approved and published.

So, to begin with an excerpt from Bultmann:

“The Divine Covenant”

God, according to the traditional view, exercises his power on behalf of Israel: for the prophets he can also exercise his power against Israel, and owing to the people’s wickedness will actually do so. Logically, this means the end of national religion. The more the prophets emphasize ethical obedience as opposed to the performance of the cultus as the sine qua non for the maintenance of the covenant, the more they abandon the old naïve sense of the latter. If the covenant depends primarily on loyalty to history, its maintenance is bound to be always in doubt. Thus, in the last resort, the past poses a question to the nation: the covenant can never be fully realized until the future. It can never have been concluded definitively in the past, nor can its permanence be secured by the performance of the cultus. If, as the naïve view supposed, the security of the individual rests on his membership of the elect nation, then conversely, according to the prophetic view, the election of the people depends on the individual’s obedience to the demands of God. And the less that is the case in the empirical course of history, the more the covenant develops into an eschatological concept. In other words, the covenant is not capable of realization in actual history: its realization is only conceivable in some mythical future of redemption.

Bultmann then goes on to quote Jeremiah. Part of the chosen selection reads:

After those days, saith the Lord,
I will put my law in their inward parts,
and write it in their hearts;
and will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor,
and every man his brother, saying,
Know the Lord:
for they shall all know me…

To my understanding, then, redemption and the possibility of salvation, comes of what the existentialist would call “authenticity” -- living truly according to one’s personal essence, rather than according to the prevailing “herd mentality.” That essence is the “law” that God has written on each man’s heart. If the man cannot read his own heart, he cannot live authentically. The world, the collective -- with all of its temptations and distractions -- blocks the individual from the kind of soul-searching necessary to achieve authenticity (or to be in compliance with God’s will, if looked at theistically.)

It is the thesis of Josephine Donovan that, as depicted in such classics of modern literature as Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre’s Nausea, and Hesse’s Demian and Steppenwolf, this achievement of authenticity comes to the “existential hero” in a flash of enlightenment, and that this sudden influx of reality is equivalent to the arrival of the “gnosis.” The characters of Kafka, by contrast, desperately seek the saving knowledge, but never reach their goal.

Gnosticism recognizes a category of individual known as the hylici. I understand these individuals to be characterized by Donovan as the equivalent of Heidegger’s das man. It occurs to me that this idea could also serve to support the Calvinist idea of the reprobate in the doctrine of predestination. Consider these excepts from the conclusion of Donovan’s text:

By means of the redemptive gnosis…the stranger learns that there is a truth beyond the lie of their world-order. It is a truth intuited within the Self. […]

We also found that in general the protagonists experience a fall into awareness of their alienation…[…]

For oneself then liberation from the propaganda and untruths of the crowd comes in the form of the saving knowledge. … In Existentialist terminology “evil” means that which tends to make a person machine-like; the hylici are the unenlightened robots who function like machines; the archons are the bureaucrats who run the machinery. The “way out” is a knowledge of one’s own authentic identity, one’s own divine self. To know this self is to liberate one’s spirit from the tyranny of objectification. […]

The one sure value in this life is that of the inner truth, the truth of being. Both the Gnostics and the Existentialists hold this as the one precious possession worth defending. To the moderns authenticity has achieved a rank once reserved for saintliness. [emphasis added by me]

As a biographical note, I began my philosophical quest for truth with my discovery of the French existentialists, when I was still in high school. It became immediately clear to me (as a baptized and confirmed Protestant Christian) that, despite the fact that a personal God had no place in Existentialist philosophy, the teachings of Jesus, centered on the individual as they clearly are, are fundamentally existentialist in nature. My subsequent discovery of Kierkegaard (and later other Christian existentialists) convinced me that my initial insight had merit.

While Existentialism posits an evil world into which man is “thrown” as an alienated “stranger,” it makes no attempt to reconcile this condition with a benevolent God. Christianity places the blame for evil on man himself, for having disobeyed that God. Neither of these approaches to the philosophical Problem of Evil is intellectually satisfying. Gnosticism, by relinquishing strict monotheism, does provide an approach to a reconciliation of evil with a good God which at least make sense. It has been gratifying to recently have come across both Josephine Donovan’s interesting thesis and Shlomo Giora Shoham’s indispensable The Bridge to Nothingness, each of which explores these issues and connections in satisfying depth. On the “religion” line of my Facebook profile, I have entered “More Gnostic than not.” I guess you can see why that is?
Update: I can now report that the comment on Vox Nova referred to above has been published.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Readings: Don't You Just Know It?

In my last post, I linked to some comment threads where I had been arguing about, among other things, the nature of Truth, as contrasted to that of “belief.” My basic point was that capital “T” Truth cannot be known through the exercise of reason. Reason can help a thinker eliminate that which logically cannot be true. But reason alone can never provide even a glimpse of the Transcendent. That comes only via direct revelation, through divine providence. It follows from this that belief is as close as most of us can approach the Truth. But, have stalled-out, so to speak, at the level of belief, we have no way to prove to others (or even to ourselves) that what we believe actually partakes of Truth.

That which I have been reading recently, I have been reading with such thoughts on my mind.

One of my primary reads, since shortly before Christmas, has been The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. This book consists of Dick’s attempts to make formal sense of a pair of experiences he had on two separate occasions in 1974, and which he understood to have been direct revelations of the transcendent. In the course of his subsequent intellectual meanderings, Dick refers quite often to several of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. Because of this, I decided that it would be advantageous to my reading of Dick if I undertook a brief review of the pre-Socratics. In a little book entitled, A Presocratics Reader, I came across a citation of this fragment from Xenophanes:

No man has seen nor will anyone know the truth about the gods and all the things I speak of. For even if a person should in fact say what is absolutely the case, nevertheless he himself does not know, but belief is fashioned over all things [or, in the case of all persons].

Thank you, Xenophanes! A couple of pages further into this book, I came across a report that Heraclitus believed, “Of all those whose accounts (logoi) I have heard, no one reaches the point of recognizing that that which is wise is set apart from all.” And then, “Much learning (“polymathy”) does not teach insight.”

Right-on, Heraclitus.

I have also, for several months, been making my way through A Course in Miracles (ACIM)--both the text and the workbook. This teaching--which like The Exegesis purports to be a report of direct revelation--was brought to my attention by my Facebook friend, Janette Tingle. Although I was skeptical at the outset that it would consist of New Age psycho-babble, I have found nothing in it which does not ring true. Just yesterday I noted the following--from Lesson 43: “God is my Source. I cannot see apart from Him.”:

Perception is not an attribute of God. His is the realm of knowledge. Yet He has created the Holy Spirit as the Mediator between perception and knowledge. Without this link with God, perception would have replaced knowledge forever in your mind. With this link with God, perception will become so changed and purified that it will lead to knowledge. That is its function as the Holy Spirit sees it. Therefore, that is its function in truth.

So, there it is again, stated in a slightly different way.

In reading The Exegesis, I have been amazed at the correlations I’ve found there to both the teachings of ACIM, and the philosophical formulations in the book, The Bridge to Nothingness (BTN) by Sholomo Giora Shoham, of which I’ve written before.

The following, [from Folder 14:84] on page 326 of The Exegesis is very much in keeping with BTN. Dick writes:

My system states, “The Godhead is in difficulty. Evil is not the manifestation of an evil deity nor a sign of God’s vengeance, etc., but an analog in the lower or microcosm of the difficulty in the macrocosm or pleroma. The yin aspect has exceeded its proper limits, perhaps as an oscillation of a great supratemporal cycle, and rectification is already in progress.” [emphasis Dick’s]

In Folder 15:44, Dick writes:

Our very mechanisms have been taken advantage of. It was not intended that we discriminate false info from true. There was not supposed to be any false info in the first place. Strange that I, who believe everything I’m told, doubt the entire empirical world and stigmatize it as a product (in the form of spurious data) of evil. It is not an evil world; there is no real world at all! But there is something there, though: a vast bank of lights and sounds and colors flashing at us from all sides, to which we must react. We are enclosed by it -- it is what the ancients called ananke or fate, and it was the power of this that the savior broke.

This post is already quite lengthy. I had another fairly large excerpt from The Exegesis noted for inclusion here, but I think I’ll hold that one back for later. I hope that anybody reading this can see the correlations between the ideas expressed in the various works I’ve cited and begin to make the connections that I’m trying to highlight.

Addendum:  Here is a post from the archives which may shed addition light on the above.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Readings: A Cause for Disputation

Sometime later today I will have finished reading the sci-fi novel Deus Irae, a collaboration between Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny. Without going too deep into the plot, the story takes place after a nuclear holocaust and involves the goings-on of characters which are among a small remainder of Christians, and characters who worship the Deus Irae -- the God of Wrath -- who has wrought the rubble-strewn world in which these characters survive.

Just now, I was arrested by the following dialogue between a character named Schuld, who is (perhaps) a follower of the Deus Irae, and a character named Pete Sands, a Christian. Here, Schuld addresses Sands:

xxx“… Aquinas cleaned up the Greeks for you, so Plato is okay. Hell, you even baptized Aristotle’s bones, for that matter, once you found a use for his thoughts. Take away the Greek logicians and the Jewish mystics and you wouldn’t have much left.”
xxx“We count the Passion and the Resurrection for something,” Peter said.
xxx“Okay. I left out the Oriental mystery religions. And for that matter, the Crusades, the holy wars, the Inquisition.”
xxx“You’ve made your point,” Pete said. “I am weary of these things and have trouble enough with the way my own mind works. You want to argue, join a debating team.”

I have chosen to write on this excerpt in part because I loved the Plato/Aristotle/Aquinas observation--particularly the phrase “baptized Aristotle’s bones”. How apt! But I chose it more because I am not of Pete’s party; I want to argue about such things. And I do so often. As a man brought up with exposure to the Protestant traditions of both Luther and Calvin (but who is no longer a member of any congregation), I like to argue with Catholics about what I think should be meant by the word “Christian.”

In the past couple of days I have been arguing here and here with other readers -- almost all Catholic or ex-Catholic -- at the outstanding Catholic blog, Vox Nova. In the second of articles linked above, the argument is about the proper Christian attitude towards war. As a Conscientious Objector, who calls the killing of innocent non-combatants under American bombs on foreign soil, “murder,” I get roughed up pretty badly in the comment thread following that one. Have a look at it.

The first link is to a post about a friend of Kyle Cupp, a member of the Vox Nova stable of writers. Kyle’s friend no longer considers himself to be a Christian. I made the first comment on the article, based on a quoted sentence from Kyle’s text:

1. “Catholicism makes more sense than the alternatives to me, and so here I am.”

You seem to be saying, Kyle, that Catholicism appeals to you *aesthetically* more than do its alternatives. That is similar to the reason I usually give to professed atheists when they question the basis of my belief in the supernatural — that I *choose* to believe in a sentient universe, because the alternative universes all bore me.

If the Catholicism that fires your imagination were not exclusive in the ways that it is; inhospitable to visitors, as it is, I would perhaps be drawn to it for those reasons as well. But, as it is, I can only feel it most often as a condescending and antagonistic critic of that which existence has given me thus far. This makes me sad — another aesthetic reaction.

I call Catholicism “inhospitable to visitors” because non-Catholics are excluded from the communion service in Catholic churches. I argue in the thread that if I am excluded from taking communion with a Catholic congregation, I am on that basis excluded from the Christian religion, so far as the Catholic Church is concerned. I fear that if I am loved at all by Catholicism, then--like Willy Loman--I am loved, but not well-loved. It is my opinion that the sharing of communion is the very basis of Christian worship, which is founded on the shared belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and on obedience to his instruction that His followers share the bread and wine in communal remembrance of the body and blood that He gave in order that we might live. It is my further opinion that true Christians will welcome guests in their churches and encourage them to share communion with them. If a congregation will not do that, then I don’t think that group is “Christian” at all. It seems that a Catholic is a Catholic: full stop. If you will not share communion with me and want to call yourself a “Christian,” very well then, I get the message -- fuck you, too.  (And this goes double for any Protestant sects with closed communion!)

That said, I will continue to argue the case for a universal communion so long as I can get anybody to listen. And when the day comes that all Christians--all disciples of Christ--are united in their worship, perhaps I will again become involved in organized religion.

But you’d better hurry up, you stiff-necked assholes. I’m not getting any younger!