Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pagan Gnosticism and Christian Revelation

Augustine in his early and wayward years was a Gnostic. He allied to the common dualism between the enslaved material corpus and the liberated spirit. Later he would rightly turn to a God who made the heavens and the earth and saw both as good and a God who would make Himself truly man, scourging the docetic Christology of others, like Marcionites.

However, more than the penchant anti-materialism that defined the early Gnostics, there name sake also helped to define them: they believed themselves the bearer of gnosis – the bearers of secret knowledge.

And who doesn’t enjoy being the keeper of a secret?

However, this gnosis is what separates Christians from pagans. The knowledge Christians hold – that Christ is Lord – was never meant to be a secret. While paganism is gnostic, Christianity is revelational. The Great Commission is essentially to continue the revelation: preach, baptize and teach to the nations (Mt. 28.19-20).

There are then two sides to this Christian currency. On one hand being Christian is to share the gospel (to be revelatory), and on the other hand being Christian is to know that Christ revealed all (to reject gnosis).

Though Christianity is to be revelational it does not always succeed: sometimes not being honest about the knowledge it has and sometimes coveting the knowledge.

In a secularized society it is often not fashionable to share the knowledge of Christianity. Instead the knowledge is unduly (and heretically) bifurcated. Often Christians talk of ‘Jesus’ as a wise and worldly teacher in public, but stop at proclaiming his radical and salvific message. Personally, I muse at the number of times I have shared that I am an atheist to a Christian and their response is something resembling affirmation. To be Christian is to witness, not in partial, but in total.

Other times Christians seem to covet their knowledge, seeing the gospel more as secret than as revelation. My beloved friend wrote a sermon recently that feared as much: “I love the parable of the prodigal son, but it also scares me. It troubles me because it ends with the older son outside the party, refusing to come in. Sometimes I worry the church is like the older son, wanting to keep God all to themselves, wishing that God would not be so forgiving to those who don’t deserve it, questioning whether they really want to follow a God who throws such outrageous parties.” Perhaps the message is just too radical; we can’t fathom such audacious mercy. So, instead we covet the Father, believing the younger son gone for good.

However, it is not enough to simply share the revelational message – it is to rebuke those other teaching that believe in a secret knowledge that extends outside of the Word.

Paganism ultimately tries to give meaning to history – in a word, Astrology. Slavoj Zizek rejects this cosmic – if not still somewhat inscrutable – ordering. Thus, part of his resonance with Christianity is that both reject the secret ordering of the world that can only be gleamed (or, if you prefer decoded) by understandings of planetary alignments and seasonal happenings. Christians thus are called to render history intelligible as if a Janus Bifrons (note the irony of using pagan Gods as an example): always looking back to the incarnation as the beginning of history, but also looking toward the future and the promised Parousia, which will mark the end of history. Reinhold Niebuhr also makes this distinction warning that Christianity (and humanity at large) often tries to rationalize history as some slow march to a culmination that humanity itself wills. For the secular world this is embodied in the belief in technological progressivism, and for Christianity (as Niebuhr saw it) the Social gospel’s post-millennialism. Of course, both are to be rejected. As Mark reads, “But about the day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do no know when the time will come” (Mark 13.32-33).

Moreover, there is a current trend in popular fiction that emulates Gnosticism, and which should be repudiated. Three books that exemplify this are: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Even the titles of these books suggest a gnosis, and promise that the secret can unlock some fulfillment that can come from outside the Church. The Secret and The Alchemist both uphold a dualism between the mind and body, as if purposing a peculiar anthropological ‘big-headed’ Apollinarianism – in that the body becomes only some vessel for the Mind, which need only take cue from the fanciful flight of Peter Pan and, “Think happy thoughts.” Yet this is at the same time to reject the materialism of the world in-and-of-itself while also rejecting the limits of materialism. Certainly, this is not a Christian message.

The Da Vinci Code can be differentiated. The other two books offer a gnosis extra ecclesiam Brown offers a gnosis intra ecclesiam. Thus nominal Christians don’t really have the knowledge of Christ and God, but rather a politically and patriarchal version. Only a few carefully selected persons – most who aren’t particularly religious – become the bearers of the secret. In the end however, Brown’s Christianity falls into worshipping the symbols and signs themselves, rather than Christianity that use the symbols and signs only as mediation that points to God. And most importantly the meaning of these symbols – such as the cross – is not masked to hide the importance behind it, but prominently displayed and proclaimed to all, so that all might know the knowledge.

Christian revelation that comes from Christ and continued by the Holy Spirit is not to be coveted, but to be shared. That Christ is Lord was never meant to be a secret. The implication of that gospel is that there is no other secrets to be found out. We are all equally welcome to know the good news and share it with others.


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

Your opening remark on Augustine piqued my interest. I found Augustine's writings to be at their peak at the time of his conversion. Once he became part of the Church power structure, his work degenerated into corrupt, orthodox despotism.

Anyone who doubts the validity of dualism only needs to do a careful study of the dual nature of his craftsmanship. He clearly walked out of the light and into the darkness.

The Catholic Atheist said...


After a little research it seems you are a relentless apologist for Gnoisticism (I would urge you to relfect on this possible contradiction in terms).

Your fallacious and self-authoritative argument that claims Augstine's dualism is justified by his dualims only points to why he himself found that that the Christian tension between the two cities and the world and Kingdom as 'already, but not yet' was a better metaphor than the simple and insipid reckonings of lighteness and darkness or ontological evil v. ontological good.

Further, your profile claims you a teacher of metaphyics, but where are you teaching? What books have you published? I am just curious as you seem to be one that has knowledge of the "gnosis" - obviously something much more valuable than a Ph.D?

Freder1ck said...

sophia: a Greek word for wisdom, and the name of a main character in gnostic mythologies...

Sophia Sadek said...

Many apologies. I did not mean to be self-authoritarian. I hoped that Augustine's works could speak for themselves. Of course, my tongue was in my cheek because I knew that the orthodox position on Augustine is that his writings from his official career are considered to be more "mature" than those of his earlier years.

As for my personal profession, publishing is not a requirement in our field.

While we're on the topic of this blog, you write, "it is to rebuke those other teaching that believe in a secret knowledge that extends outside of the Word."

Even Augustine recognized that the official Church Latin translation of "verbum" for the Greek "logos" was not complete. He justified the inadequate translation, rather than prescribe a borrowing of the word from the Greek.

As far as I know, the ancient Gnostics did not profess to gnosis that was outside of the divine Logos. It may have been outside of the Latin verbum, but not outside of the divine Logos. In fact, I don't think that would be possible. That is, I doubt that anything could be considered to be outside of the divine Logos.

Also, a careful reading of the Gospels shows that there were things that the apostles were taught as esoteric knowledge. The example of the seed sower parable demonstrates a definite esoteric discipline in practice.

I suspect that there were things that the apostles were instructed to shout from the rooftops other than "Jesus is Lord." I also suspect that anyone who did so today would be branded by the Church as a heretic and a blasphemer.

Freder1ck said...

Even Augustine recognized that the official Church Latin translation of "verbum" for the Greek "logos" was not complete.

Here's a more complete translation...
"Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist" (Benedict XVI).

Anonymous said...

I too have many deep secrets but if I told you I'm afraid it would bore you no end!

Andy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy said...

I posted a comment, but it broke my hyper link.

A couple of years ago Luke Johnson of Emory gave a fascinating lecture on The Davinci Code and Neo Gnosticism. I summarize

Gnosticism does seem to be the heresy du jour.

Sophia Sadek said...

Freder1kc, thanks for the papal quote. It's interesting that he makes an assertion about John being final with respect to the "biblical" concept of the divine. Evidently, the pope doesn't take John to heart when he says that he is only a witness to the light. That's an obvious disclaimer to being any kind of final spokesman.

The pope's remark has a quality of shadow craft. It is an attempt to try to circumscribe divinity with an officious interpretation of sacred literature.

Freder1ck said...


I'm not well-versed in shadow craft. Perhaps you could enlighten me...

Sophia Sadek said...

To understand shadow craft, imagine an individual casting a shadow with a three dimensional object. The shadow is a silhouette of the original figure. It only resembles the object in outline, not in full.