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Monday, April 23, 2007

Gnosis

















Here are a few interesting posts from a scholarly pro-Gnostic blog:
http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2007/03/what-is-gnosticism.html
http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2007/03/more-about-gnosticism.html

The study of Gnosis and Gnosticism is a fascinating one. As the above links point out there was no such thing as "Gnosticism". We use the term "Gnosticism" to label a general set of similar beliefs that developed a radical dualism (recall Plato, but with a unique, anti-cosmic twist!), and focussed on the personal connection and participation in the divine through gnosis (knowledge, secret knowledge) available to only the elect few, typically the elite. However, there was no tangible "Gnostic" religious group, per se. At least, no major religious movement that defined themselves as such. It was primarily a diverse set of groups that were involved with various segments of Judaism and Christianity.

Gnosticism seems to have had mixed reactions from the church fathers. Irenaeus condemned it to hell, while others like Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr seem more sympathetic to Gnostic theology due perhaps to Clement/Justin's Platonic sympathies. Ultimately, though, it was thoroughly rejected by the church and their writings were largely lost - lost, that is, until they were found by two Egyptian brothers in the deserts of Nag Hammadi. Their mother burned a few of the documents in her stove, but an extensive number of manuscripts survived giving us some fascinating looks into the various forms of Gnostic philosophy.

Gnostic theology raises many interesting questions relevant to contemporary discussion:

  • How do we interpret texts? Do we go for the strictly literal meaning, or is there "deeper" meaning hidden in the symbols and metaphors that give us insight into the "deeper" things of the divine?
  • What is the role of religious experience? And what if our religious experience is at odds with established religious circles? Does my experience trump the community?
  • Was Gnosticism heresy? And for that matter, what is heresy? Is it simply those who do not agree with me and my church, thank you very much, or can we establish criteria to evaluate the legitimacy of the religious experience of others?
  • And what about canonicity? How do we decide whose religious writings are the "right" ones and whose are the wrong ones?
Obviously, there are many hot-button topics in the Gnostic discussion related to contemporary philosophy of religion and postmodern culture.

6 comments:

Melody said...

I find it highly amusing that the Egyptian brothers' found those documents only to have their mum use them as a fire starter.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, the my-mom-threw-out-all-my-baseball-cards syndrom is universal to all ethnic groups across all time.....

ktismatics said...

The label might be a bit off-putting, but if the shoe fits... If to understand the true meaning of a text you need special enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, it seems to me you're in gnostic territory. Even if that meaning is revealed to all Christians, if it's inaccessible to the non-Christians it's Gnostic in spirit if not in name. If, on the other hand, the meaning is clear to everyone but only Christians are inspired to believe it, then that's something else again.

Say you find a meaning in a text that hadn't previously been perceived by anyone else. Can you explain it in a way that others understand? Can you justify it by the text itself? If so, then you should be able to avoid Gnostic accusations. If, on the other hand, you say that the meaning you've discovered can't be explained, that you either get it intuitively or you don't, then you're in Gnosticville.

Melody said...

I would be seriously concerned about someone reaching a conclusion that could not be justified by the text and surrounding context.

If it's apparent only to that one person...that's sketchy at best.

Jonathan Erdman said...

If to understand the true meaning of a text you need special enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, it seems to me you're in gnostic territory.

I would be seriously concerned about someone reaching a conclusion that could not be justified by the text and surrounding context.

Fair enough. However, what about the early church fathers? Or Midieval interpretations? I'm not an expert in the hermeneutics pre-Reformation/Enlightenment, however it is clear that there was much allegorizing that went on. This seems to have evolved into the need for a stable, literal interpretation, but still for many there were several layers of interpretation. There were literal meanings and spiritual/allegorical meanings to be found in each text.

Was this "Gnostic"?

ktismatics said...

I think Calvin probably would have labeled the medieval hermeneutic as Gnostic if he'd known about it. (As I recall, Gnosticism was lost for 1500 years or so until it got rediscovered in the 19th century.) Certainly Calvin explicitly rejected the so-called exegesis of the Schoolmen, as well as the idea that only the spiritually elite were allowed to interpret the Bible, which was another Gnostic influence.

...for many there were several layers of interpretation. There were literal meanings and spiritual/allegorical meanings to be found in each text. Right. I presume the Gnostics would have said the same thing, but that only those "in the gnow" could have managed the spiritual exegesis. Same situation in the medieval church. I refer you to about what the medievalists meant by a "literal" reading.