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.