29 December 2006

Gnosticism, neognosticism and Orthodoxy

A couple of days ago I caught glimpses of a TV programme on Leonardo da Vinci. It had to do with a picture of two babies kissing, and whether it was by him, and if so, whether it showed that he was influenced by Gnosticism. I didn't follow the arguments closely as I was doing something else at the time, but it reminded me that there seems to be a growing interest in gnosticism in the media, and I got the impression that the people who made that TV programme thought that gnosticism was cool, and wouldn't it be cool if it could be shown that Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by gnosticism.

Now I'm no fundi on gnosticism, and I'm not particularly interested in it, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a social tendency, at least in the West, towards a greater interest in gnosticism.

Some 45 years ago I wrote to my cousin and quoted something from the Nag Hammadi documents, which recorded as a saying of Jesus, "Lift the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there." My cousin, who was going through a rather puritanical Baptist phase, wrote back asking if those were gnostic documents, and implying that if they were, there could be nothing good about the saying. There seemed to be a great prejudice against anything that might possibly be tainted by gnosticism.

Now the prejudice seems to be the other way. If it's gnostic, it must be good. Leonardo da Vinci was a great genius, but if he was a gnostic, his genius must be greater still.

As I said, I make no claim to be a fundi on gnosticism, so I defer to the opinion of one who is an acknowledged expert, Elaine Pagels. And I think she got it right in her description of the difference between gnosticism and Orthodox Christianity, and why Orthodox Christianity rejected gnosticism:
Orthodox Christians were concerned - far more than gnostics - with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity's original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially "good." The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others - murder, stealing, adultery - in terms of Jesus' prohibitions against even mental and emotional violence - anger, lust, hatred.

Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth's plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that "good" creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as "fullness of God" come down into human experience - into bodily experience - to sacralize it (Pagels 1981:174).
Now, on the fifth day of Christmas, one tends to think of the relationship between God and the material world, and that God so loved the material world as to take human flesh and enter it as a man. This is a stumbling block to Jews, folly to the Greeks and blasphemy to Muslims. But it's what Christians believe.

Pagels did not get everything right in her book. She had some strange ideas about some of the details, such as Orthodox Christian views of St Mary Magdalene (one of the Myrrh-bearing women and Equal-to-the-Apostles, according to the Orthodox). But she got the big picture right on the difference between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism.

Orthodox Christianity, unlike gnosticism, is characterised by ubuntu, humanity.

Christ is born -- glorify Him!
Christ is in our midst -- He is and always shall be.


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

There's a good reason for perceiving a positive influence of gnosticism on people such as DaVinci. The discipline of gnosticism has a profound effect on art. Some of the most creative artists have been influenced in one way or another by the craft. The fruits of gnosticism are more wholesome than you can imagine.

Steve Hayes said...

"Craft" seems a strange way to refer to gnosticism. I understand it more as a belief or philosophy. What are the fruits of gnosticism and in what way are they "wholesome"?

Anonymous said...

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Sophia Sadek said...

The term "craft" applies to philosophy when it has a practical aspect. Art is an example of the physical manifestation of philosophy. It is an application of bringing forward that which is within. When philosophy is pursued for its own sake, without a practical application, it is a barren endeavor.

As for the fruits of gnosticism, they are wholesome in that they are spiritually nourishing. They slake the thirst of the spiritually dehydrated. They satisfy the hunger of the spiritually famished.

Steve Hayes said...

Well, since gnosticism is supposed to deal with secret knowledge, I suppose I should not be surprised to learn that its fruits are secret, and not to be revealed to the profane vulgar like me.

It seems to me, however, that one of its fruits is elitism. Whether that is wholesome is probably a moot point.

Sophia Sadek said...

The fruits of gnosticism are available to all seekers. There are no elitist restrictions. The only restrictions are on the other side of the frontier. The elitists within your own order may not like it if you decided to stray off of the reservation.

Steve Hayes said...

Hmmm... around here reservations were called "bantustans" by those who disagreed with them, and "homelands" by those who thought they were a good idea.

And it was the people who cooked up the elitist apartheid policy who endorsed "surplus people" out of the urban areas, and sent them to reservations.

John said...

You hit the nail on the head why I disagree with Classical gnosticism. I don't agree with the elitism and world loathing of the "classic" gnostics, at least those who's writings survived.


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