Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reflections: More Gnostic Than Not

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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?
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Update: I can now report that the comment on Vox Nova referred to above has been published.
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25 comments:

Ron King said...

I am happy that you do all of this reading which I haven't touched yet and you give us these jewels of ideas to penetrate. The idea of evil being mechanistic resonates with Gurdjieff and in the writings of Ouspensky, The Fourth Way and In Search of the Miraculous.

Rodak said...

Yes. It does. I chose that particular quote with exactly that in mind.

Ron King said...

I just left a comment at the vn post you mentioned. I do not know if it is published yet. The way I view it, it is both individual and collective.

Rodak said...

Ron --
I see that V-N finally brought your interesting and insightful comment into the light.
I'm going to lay back and see if any of the in-house Catholics respond to it. I think that you are exactly correct. But I also think that my saying so first will only be the cause of more friction.

Rodak said...

Ron--
About 3/4 of the way down, in the "Rodak's Writings" sidebar, there is a link to a poem entitled "Head of the Class". This poem expresses my opinion of the "corporate" model of Christianity--particularly (but perhaps not exclusively) the Catholic model.

Rodak said...

NB: see also, near the top, "The Graduate".

Ron King said...

I wish I could view both poems while I write this comment. "Head of The Class" is what happened in parochial school for 8 years of indoctrination. "Safe at last..." is a perfect statement to describe the neurotic response of fear to the existential crises of death, freedom, isolation and meaning. "The Graduate" is taking me a while to figure out, slow thinker that I am and nowhere near as well-read as you. However, I get the sense from this piece that you describe existing in innocent isolation within the depths of the unknown feeling the emptiness of that existence and needing nourishment. From my experience the nourishment I received after leaving catholicism for 40 years were lessons in learning about how we suffer and then appeared God's Love which guided my return to catholicism and thinking that they knew what I had been given about suffering and God's Love. When I would express what I had been privileged and blessed to learn I would be ignored, until one day you and digby acknowledged my thoughts and validated what I was attempting to say. "Plastic", is that the structure of the church which will not validate those who do not form themselves to fit into that mold?

Rodak said...

"Plastic" is taken directly from the early Dustin Hoffman movie after which the poem is titled.
In the movie, Dustin Hoffmans' character is a young man, just having graduated, who is trying to figure out what to do with his life. A fat, middle-aged, bourgeois type of character says to him, with regard to this question, "One word. Plastics." A fat bourgeois and a fat camel (which doesn't yet realize that it's stuck in the needle's eye), become equivalents here.
"Head of the Class" is my way of saying that it seems to me that converts (and reverts) to Catholicism, as well as those cradle Catholics who stay, are souls in search of a "sure thing." The priest choreograph their lives for them and tell them if they just get all the steps right, they will "graduate" to the next level, automatically. To me, this is precisely the kind of robotic existence that Gurdjieff taught about.

Rodak said...

Ron--
I noticed, btw, that your insightful comment on the V-N "Gospel Reading" post completely killed the discussion on that thread. It mysteriously didn't show up until long after mine (which was submitted later than yours)and when it did finally appear, it was ignored. Not surprising, really. But disheartening, nonetheless.

Ron King said...

I am a revert and yet not a revert. That term disturbs me because I am not reverting to what I was taught in childhood. I am returning with something new about God's Love which I never had known before and the knowledge gained through education and experience which has taught me how human beings are hurt without the love we were created to receive.
I saw the Graduate and I had the thought of plastic being used as shallow way back when. I told you I was slow.
I think I am going to directly ask Mark G. if he would comment on what I had written.
Thanks for you.

Rodak said...

Don't get me wrong. I think it is completely possible to be Catholic and also authentic. I just think that the whole structure of Catholicism makes that possibility considerably less likely of being realized than does Protestantism. The latter throws one back on one's own resources to a much greater extent.

Ron King said...

I agree about the possibility of authenticity. Here is a quote from Fr. James Martin's(Colbert's priest) book, My Life With The Saints, "There is a long list of saints and holy persons who have felt duty-bound to speak out...concerning the good of their church, even at risk to themselves...in the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Siena, the renowned mystic, wrote to a group of cardinals in Rome saying 'You are flowers that shed no perfume, but a stench that makes the whole world reek.' When asked how she could possibly know so much about Rome from her faraway post, she replied that the stench reached all the way to Siena. In 1374,in a letter to pope Gregory IX, exiled in France, she instructed him to return to Rome. 'Be a man! Father, arise' she worte. 'I am telling you!'". There seems to be a level of interpersonal immaturity within the population of the clergy. The dominant theology and dogma appears in my superficial assessment to be absent of the knowledge of human development.

Rodak said...

More than I was worried about the sins of the clergy, I was worried about how easy it is for the individual parishoner to just turn it all over to the Church and its rituals and its feast days et cetera--to just do as prescribed, as he's told, and never face the need to make a radical decision, on this own, for God. The clergy, I would imagine, promote this to a greater or lesser to degree. But that is no excuse. And it's not like Protestants can't do something similar. But the system that would support it, is so much more scanty that it really wouldn't "work" nearly as efficiently to mask personal responsibility in a hive-like existence.

Ron King said...

There is a neural network specifically designed for social learning and located within various regions of the brain so as to incorporate all of the senses to condition the individual to respond according to social convention. This is called the mirror neuron system. In essence, it records and then influences us to mirror what is experienced beginning in the womb and afterwards. This is the mechanical nature of human development. I theorize that those who are more sensitive will have a more conscious aversion to a lack of love than those who are less sensitive. However, the sensitive individual will still be subject to that early conditioning and will have tremendous internal conflicts with, in this case the church, due to the instinctive awareness that the structure of the church is less than loving and the conditioning which insists that the individual must do as the church says or parish. An existentialist once stated that anyone who is self-aware will live in a constant state of anxiety.
So, what we have operating within faith are those who are still under the powerful influence of the conditioning of mirror neurons and we also have those who have begun to awaken with much internal conflict.
A Buddhist monk once stated that those who are on the Way will experience suffering but they will not turn to someone who will help their old self to survive, rather, they will seek someone who encourages them to risk themselves. He goes on to say that the more we risk our annihilation the more chance we have of discovering within us that which is indestructible. He ends with, that is the spirit of true awakening.

Rodak said...

That's interesting. This morning I read an interview with Leonard Cohen. He told of how as a young poet in Canada, he had an older poet who served as a kind of mentor. Cohen related how he had one time been expressing his plans for the future. The older poet asked him, "Leonard -- are you sure you're doing the wrong thing?"

Ron King said...

I like that. Got an appt. Thanks fo the discussion

Ron King said...

Rodak, I got a response from Mark. If I am not imposing on you tell me what you think of his remark. I just wrote a remark to his remark. Thanks

Rodak said...

"It is my opinion that our Faith is dominated by left-brain dominated individuals who have pushed the mystics into the background and thus have cost us the mystics holistic view of how we are all connected in the Body of Christ."

This is at the center of what I believe to be the case. This is essentially what I was saying in the thread about language at V-N, and what I have been blogging about. The extraverts run the world, and they have included the Church in the world. The institutional Church is not "the body of Christ" for the simple reason that that teaching originated long before there was any "church" in the institutional sense by which the word is meant by partisan Catholics today. The "church" is universe of all Believers, who are connected by Christ's Love, not by worldly corporate entities.

Ron King said...

Thanks for your statement. I am in agreement with you.

Ron King said...

Rodak, You are much better than I expressing your thoughts on these blogs. You speak their language and have read much more theology and philosophy than I. So, I am asking if you would be interested in asking them why they disagree with our concept of the Body of Christ. Why is it easy for us to see and understand their concept and why is so difficult to see and understand our concept.

Rodak said...

Ron -- I think the comment I sent to V-N, if it provokes a response, should bring those questions up. (see your email.)

brian martin said...

well gents, despite what some official bureaucrat says...you look like fellow body parts to me.

my main problem being, i may be part of the body of Christ, but the part i most often I most resemble is an ass.

Rodak said...

Ha! Well, we all suffer frequently from that problem, Brian. Don't feel alone there either.

Lord William Huber said...

Rodak you're good, I mean really a good writer. This is the best blog I have seen yet. I am just starting out and see that I have much to learn. After reading this page, I read your short story, "The Kid." It was excellent. I will favorite this page and come back to it often. All too often, most of the blogs I look at regarding gnostic thought are pure garbage or derivative of someone elses work. Your work is truly original and gives me hope that someday I can think and write as good as you. Thanks for the inspiration. Bill Huber

Rodak said...

Thank you, Bill, and welcome. This blog is not as active as it once was, mostly due to activities with writers' groups on FB. But it does get updated occasionally.