Gnosis- Beyond Belief?

(This post follows on from “No Gnosis” and covers some of the same ground, hopefully not too repetitively)

I bought Elaine Pagels’ “Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas” primarily because I wanted to see her arguments for the Fourth Gospel being to a considerable extent a reaction to the Gospel of Thomas; there is some interesting insight there; a convincing argument was made for John being a reaction to Thomas, which brings up the probability that Thomas is actually earlier than John, promoting its status to something far more in line with Jesus Seminar thinking than with more conservative views. It also included a spotlight on the idea that the experiential basis of the two authors is very similar, but John is very strong on the concept that all experience of God is through Christ, while Thomas considers direct experience of God to be the aiming point; John then uses typical gospel-writers’ licence to cast Thomas in a bad light wherever possible.  Using my own terminology, this is the typical conflict between the Christ-mystic (John) and the God-mystic (Thomas).  

It does sadden me that there has been so much historical conflict, but I can well understand it; I spent quite some time being antipathetic towards the Christ-mystic governed theology of the mainstream Christianity I was brought up in, and to Paul, who I fixed on at an early stage as being primarily responsible (along with John). I didn’t much like Trinitarian theology either; as a God-mystic, my sense of a fully immanent and entirely unitary God was so strong that I did not want to support what I considered a dilution of monotheism.

However, it is just that Trinitarian theology which allows for meeting of mind between the God-mystic and the Christ-mystic (and I assume for this purpose that what both are experiencing is in fact the same root experience, modified in its description through the thinking and particularly the belief-structures of the individual mystic).

There is to my eye little functional difference between mainstream Christian theology’s view of the nature and activity of Christ from that of the nature and activity of God, save perhaps for the insistence that such of God’s nature and activity as we are able to experience or witness is to a nearly exclusive extent Christ, insofar as it is not the Holy Spirit (and possibly the ascribing of events of natural evil {i.e. evil events which do not flow from man’s doing} to God rather than to Jesus).  Conservative theology is, perhaps, identical to mainstream on this point, but the results in practice in conservative evangelical churches seem to be a focus completely on Jesus/Christ where more mainstream churches would insist on focus on God. It thus follows that mainstream-to-conservative theology and practice would see the God-mystic’s actual experience as being experience of Jesus, were the God-mystic not to insist on using God-terminology rather than Jesus-terminology.

I cannot see that a mere difference of descriptive language where it is clear that the essence of what is being talked about is the same should be sufficient to fuel an 18 century long antipathy, dating this from the time of Irenaeus, and frequently attended by cries of “heresy” and more dangerous actions based on that charge.

It is, in fact, Irenaeus who is the hero or anti-hero of Pagel’s book, rather than Thomas. I found her picture of him and his stuggles with a very early Christian community under persecution, a community fractured and still with no really clear single identity, to be surprisingly endearing, and certainly conveying an understanding of the motivations behind his Five Volume “Against Heresies”. To understand all is to forgive all, or so it is said, and I may have moved some little way towards forgiveness of a man I see as the first main mover in the heresy-persecuting strain of Christianity which resulted in the destruction of so many ancient texts which would have been invaluable to historians and the lack of which moved the centre of the developing Christianity away from the experiential to the doctrinal, a trend which is perhaps now beginning to be corrected. Most seriously this antipathy towards supposed heretics caused many millions of deaths of “heretics” over the ensuing 18 centuries.

I’m moved a little way only; it is still difficult for me to feel empathy for someone who will advocate killing people for having what he considers an erroneous intellectual definition of a technical theological term.

The thing which most strikes me from Pagels’ account of Irenaeus is the difficulties he faced bringing together a coherent group where various elements seemed bent on going in widely different directions. Of course, what resulted was his condemnation of two things which have since become very major threads of Christianity; firstly the reinterpreting of scripture by individuals or small groups to produce views divergent from his orthodoxy (or rather proto-orthodoxy, as orthodoxy had not yet been defined), thus undermining any sense of coherence of the movement; secondly an insistence among the “Gnostics” of the importance of personal experience and it’s primacy.

Of course, the first has since the 16th century been the result of the principle of “sola scriptura” which is the watchword of the Protestant Churches, and which has contributed to their fragmentation into thousands of different denominations; the second results in the charismatic movement which to some extent crosses the other bounds of denomination and theological complexion, and not infrequently leads to variant theological concepts.

There was another thread which Irenaeus disliked intensely, that being the very Gnostic idea that (to put it trivially) spirit was good, the world was bad. His arch-enemy in this was probably Valentinus; for Valentinus the world of matter was a mistake, and to be escaped from, initially via Gnosis giving consciousness of the spirit within and then on death to be fully freed from the taint of the material. For Irenaeus, as for most proto-orthodox Christians, the world was created by God and was good; the problem was with mankind, not with the entire creation.

Again here, the more conservative churches seem to me to be preaching that the one important thing is salvation, that what matters is the state of one’s immortal soul, to the effective exclusion of what is done here and now. This is a position focussed on what happens after death, not on what we do in this life; in other words the Gnostic’s “escape from this world” theology.

So far as eschatology, “end times”, was concerned, Irenaeus held to the view of a thousand year reign on earth, a reign of God on earth over a perfected humanity; the Gnostics on the other hand looked to an end to the tainted earth and its possible eventual reconstruction. They had no proper attachment, in other words, to what was done here and now; no engagement in the church which Irenaeus looked to promote and extend.

It is curious that the conservative-evangelical tendency these days seems to be a focus on “end times” very different from this proto-orthodox (later to become orthodox) position; no kingdom of God on this earth is really looked for (even if there is an advent of the end times, the faithful will be caught up in the “rapture” to heaven) Rather salvation is described which gives an afterlife in heaven (rather than hell), a heaven removed from the earth except when the earth has been destroyed and remade. This is, of course, the position of John Darby and those who have followed him (and the Scofield Reference Bible which was based on his speculations).

Irenaeus would have hated Conservative Christians, particularly Rapture-believing Conservative Christians, and more particularly Charismatic Rapture-believing Conservative Christians. Even more so if they also had the bad grace to be members of any group separate from the Catholic Church.

Which is curious, considering that Conservative Evangelical Premillenial Charismatics commonly allege that they are “fundamentalist” in going back to the principles and beliefs of the early Church, in which Irenaeus is the effective father of orthodox creedal doctrine, the original heresy-hunter.

Somehow, I find the idea of a cage fight between Irenaeus and a modern Fundamentalist a particularly heart-warming concept.

However, Irenaeus would also have hated anyone who espoused the idea that personal experience was vital, so not only my friends the charismatics, the “born again” would be targeted, but also the mystics, and that includes me. Also, in all probability, Saints Athanasius, Gregory of Thessalonica, Maximus the Confessor, Basil, Gregory Palamas, Simeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Isaac the Syrian, John of the Ladder, Augustine, Francis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa de Avila and John of the Cross, just to name a selection of those actually sainted among Christian mystics since Irenaeus’ time.

His reasons for hating those espousing personal experience included, of course, the fact that this gives a new source of inspiration potentially at odds with the organised “one church”. This is true.  All those I mentioned in my catalogue of Saints managed to keep their expressions of their inspirations sufficiently within the bounds of doctrine for the time being not to be declared dangerous heretics – in St. Athanasius’ case not to remain so declared -though in some cases, notably that of St. Francis, I find it difficult to work out how; many others have just about managed the same but have had their works sidelined (for instance the writer of the Theologica Germanica and Meister Eckhart), but others again have been anathematised. I regret all those sidelined or anathematised whose thoughts we have lost. A little more flexibility of doctrine, a little more willingness to contemplate either change or at least a re-examination of past theology, and that need not have been so.

However, there is another aspect of Irenaeus’ criticism which I have to take more seriously, this being that privileging personal peak spiritual experiences produces a division in the church, a two-speed Christianity.

I’ve been very conscious of this for myself, as there frankly aren’t very many contemplative mystics in Christianity, or at least not very many who are prepared to be open about their spiritual vision. For a long time I found it extremely difficult to understand why anyone who had not had a peak spiritual experience would actually bother with or gain much from Christianity, and since reading excerpts from the Oxyrhyncus sayings when I was 15 I’ve been convinced that Jesus was actually pointing at personal experiential (i.e. mystical) faith as the goal of his followers (I’ve since come to think he was pointing at other things as well, but am still confident my 15 year old thinking was right).

It has certainly been difficult learning to talk with Christians who have not had similar experience, particularly as, unlike all the other contemplative mystics I’ve encountered within Christianity, I didn’t have a background as a practising Christian at the time of my experience, so I lacked personal experience of being where others seem to be. I’ve hoped to find similar experiential focus among the “born again”, but been hampered by the fact that until very recently all those who would testify to me of a “born again” peak experience were also wedded to a very conservative theology which I can’t cope with (quite apart from not considering it justified by scripture).  All my efforts in that direction to date have yielded a situation where I have an experience which non-peak-experience Christians haven’t shared; they may wish (and often do) fervently to share it, but I cannot tell them how to achieve that.  There is a gap, and it’s a damaging gap.

Equally, there’s a damaging gap between the “born again” and those long term Christians who haven’t had the same experience, so far as they can tell, and frequently can’t adopt the same route to get there as the “born again” testify to.  I can understand Irenaeus’ concerns here, but his route of denying expression to the mystic or the born again (if different) does not work for me.

This gap of experience is something I am looking to work on. That may, I think, be as simple as learning to find a weaker form of the same root experience in those who don’t think they have it and help fan it into flame, but in that case I am still in need of better techniques. It may just mean strong advocacy of personal spiritual practices alongside any more public devotion, though I have major difficulty in promoting a strong personal spiritual praxis to those who have no “feeling” for what may be gained.

Then again, it may be that the “born again” experience is actually accessible even to those who seem immune, given some adjustments in presentation.

This is something I am praying for a solution to.

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