The Gnostic Stance


Carl Jung was not only interested in Gnosticism; he was a Gnostic. And so am I. But let’s back up a few steps.

The father of demythologizing was not Rudolf Bultmann, but rather that worthy’s student Hans Jonas, who wrote one of the earliest major books on Gnosticism, The Gnostic Religion. In an appendix to the second edition he introduced demythologizing. He wanted to “psych out” the ancient esotericists, including Valentinians, Mandaeans, Manichaeans. Why did they bother giving time, effort, and credence to a system of mythology that seems, if anything, more outlandish than ordinary Catholicism by a good country mile? Lin Carter once commented to me that, if he were to choose a religion (though he wasn’t about to!) it would have to be Gnosticism with its baroque complexity, all of its warring archons and aions, its hidden worlds and cosmic intrigues, and most of all, I suspect, its claims to privileged knowledge. To Lin, after all, it was almost the same being a Theosophist (modern kin of the Gnostics) and simply having read Madame Blavatsky’s opus, The Secret Doctrine.

Anyway, Jonas suspected that there must be some deeper hook to the religion that made the old Gnostics commit themselves to it, especially once you remember how they sometimes got persecuted for their faith. Jonas figured that the Gnostics’ mythological system must embody and express their existential self-understanding. It must have seemed to be a way of articulating their stance and finding a course of symbolic action that would enable them to “act out” existence as they saw fit, even if it were “only” a matter of cathartic self-expression in either ritual or secret libertine behavior (though most Gnostics were sour-pussed ascetics. Lin wouldn’t have liked that!)

From this, Bultmann adapted his program of demythologizing the New Testament. Though many seem to have forgotten it, Bultmann was arguing not so much against orthodox supernaturalism as against Ritschl-style religious Liberalism, which simply rejected biblical supernaturalism and emphasized the abiding moral content of what remains. Bultmann wanted to interpret mythology, not just subtract it. He was, therefore, a Neo-Orthodox theologian, not a Liberal. And his hermeneutic of demythologizing has proven a valuable way of understanding the myths of many cultures. You can see how the Greek self-understanding is expressed in the myths of Prometheus and of Icarus, for instance.

I do not for a nano-second embrace the doctrines of classical Gnosticism. I demythologize. I reject the very aspect of Gnosticism that Lin Carter liked about it. I retain the Gnostic self-understanding of existence in the world. The Gnostic (“knower”) occupies a superior vantage point to that where the common run of mankind dwell. Not just a different one, mind you, but a higher one (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). As John Stuart Mill said, the pig cannot judge Socrates because poor Porky knows only the lot of the pig. But Socrates can judge the pig because his viewpoint includes that of the pig, at least of infantile, sensual pleasure. This is what I believe lends credibility to my books Beyond Born Again and The Reason-Driven Life. I do not approach my critique of born-again fundamentalism as an alien entity, as I should, for instance, should I be writing a book against Nazism. Thank God, I’ve never been a Nazi, but, groan, I have been a fundamentalist. I have seen it from both sides.

How does the Gnostic, ancient or modern, know better than his or her contemporaries? For one thing, he knows himself. This is the psychoanalytic aspect of Gnosticism explored by Jung and expounded by disciples including Ira Progoff, Erich Neumann, and Stephan Hoeller. Let me recommend my book Top Secret, chapter 9, “Know-It-Alls,” for more on this aspect. But here I want to focus briefly on the sociology of knowledge angle. In fact, in this sense, the most “Gnostic” book I know is not the ancient Pistis Sophia or even Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion but The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann. It is written from a true Gnostic standpoint. Like Berger and Luckmann, the ancient Gnostics understood that the “foundations” of society, with its system of values and grid of social morality, are all a kind of consensus fiction, something workable but artificial and imposed upon each person as he haplessly enters the world. The all-embracing catechism, the water in which the young minnow will henceforth be swimming, is what neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan calls “the Law of the Father.” The Gnostic knows what the Sophists of ancient Greece knew once they got back from their travels abroad: the way it’s done at home isn’t necessary the unique and absolute truth, and certainly not the revealed creation of the gods. No, we have received our social order from our ancestors. Ancient Gnostics said we received this education, this molding, from the Demiurge, the inferior deity who made the disastrous material world. The modern Gnostic, the sociologist of knowledge, the psychologist, knows the Demiurge as a mythic mask for the dead hand of the human past, a collective name for the all-too-human founders of our society. They seem like gods in retrospect, the inerrant word of their laws (e.g., the Constitution) ever to be obeyed with numinous awe. But they are the creations of humans like us (James 5:17, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”). Look closely, and you can see the fingerprints. If you are Charles Beard, you see nothing but fingerprints, and bloody ones at that.

This is certainly no less true of conventional religion than it is of government. The ancient Sethians, Valentinians, Basilideans, et. al., understood that Judaism and Catholicism were not revelations from God Most High as their deluded adherents were taught to believe (by catechists fully as deluded as themselves). No, they came from a lower source. For Gnostics, these religions were founded by the Demiurge as a scheme for bringing the fledgling, hapless humans into the orbit of his vainglorious worship. The Gnostic knew of a higher way. The Unknown Father had sent the Christ-Aion into the world to awaken all those with a sentient spark within them as to their true origin and destiny.  The modern “Gnostic,” the critical intellectual, understands that there is no Demiurge except as the figurehead human priesthoods have carved out and installed on the prow of the social ship. And of course the priests have not done so merely to fatten themselves off it (though his has happened often enough). Conventional religions have been a crucial social structure, a bulwark against the flood of otherwise ungoverned human passions, instincts, and desires.

But, you may ask, do we, does society, really require religion for that purpose? Why not just set forth the needs of people in society and make a rational appeal for all persons to respect the rights of all other people? Ah, now you’re talking Gnosticism! True, pure knowledge ought to be enough. But it isn’t. As Aristotle lamented, it seems to be beyond the capability of most people to make distinctions. The truth doesn’t always work because many or most will never grasp it. And they may not appreciate hearing it either. Hence those of us who are convinced we know better must be circumspect.

One cannot finally escape, I fear, the Gnostic analysis of humankind into three groups. First there are the two-legged animals “whose god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19) and have no horizons. To oversimplify, they behave “correctly” (as defined by social consensus and catechism), but they do so mainly in order not to get caught and jailed. These are they, as Kant said, who are merely “acting in conformity with their duty,” that is, when they do behave. And too many never will. No education, no remediation or rehabilitation will change them. The second group are those who “act for the sake of duty” simply because it is their duty. These are the conventionally pious. But the third group, the elite Gnostic aristocracy, have, in Nietzschean terms, embraced their own case as that of the Superman, responsible for creating his own values, no matter what the mob may say. And the Gnostic Superman’s obligation is not to seek to replace the Demiurge, not to become a new Demiurge, because God is dead, even the god whom the Superman is. God is the same as Truth. Neither exists. Both alike are empty drawers. And they must remain empty. We dare not allow our collection of ideas and beliefs from the next drawers (the ones labeled “fiction” and “theory”) to creep over and refill the empty “God” and “Truth” drawers. If we do allow that, we will not be long in mistakenly opening that drawer to find something in it and to proclaim that something “True” or “God” simply because that’s what the label on the drawers said. We have to keep them empty to avoid that error. We cannot come to believe in our own infallibility and inerrancy. “I said it! God believes it! That settles it!”

That is to say that the true Gnostic is responsible for only his own beliefs. Who assigned him the task of setting everyone else straight? Who appointed him Philosopher King? His task is not to order everyone else around, even if he does know better. They will have, one day, to come to see “it” for themselves, and the Gnostic must be around to help them do it. “Funny you should raise that question! Have you ever considered this point?” The Gnostic is patient. He is Socratic, not Draconian. An imperialistic zealot out to convert everyone else to his view, or worse, to try to rule others who do not share his enlightened opinions, is only going to bring those opinions into disgrace and expel them ever farther from realization. This is the meaning of the saying “Do not throw your pearls before swine, or your holy things before dogs, lest they crush them underfoot, turn on you, and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). The Gnostic has to act slowly and subtly, like leaven working its way through the dough. In other words, if people do not (or cannot be brought Socratically to) see it for themselves, our “truth,” our “gnosis,” our perspective will do them no good.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
August 2009


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