Review of RETHINKING "GNOSTICISM"

Date: Tue, 18 Aug 1998 01:01:32 -0400
From: y.kuchinsky@utoronto.ca
To: Didymus5@aol.com
Cc: crosstalk@info.harpercollins.com
Subject: Re: Roots of Gnosticism


On Fri, 14 Aug 1998 Didymus5@aol.com wrote:

> I agree that the Williams book is worth reading by anyone exploring
> gnosticism.  He is among those who note the difficulty of defining the
> category as applied to cults and movements in the early Christian
> centuries. 

Didymus,

I'm glad you agree.

> His own suggestion of a substitute of a category covering much the
> phenomena often called "gnostic" is, however, hardly satisfactory.

You think so?

> "Biblical demiurgical", he suggest would cover the basic myths of many
> movements, distinguishing the creator(s) and controller(s) of the
> material world apart from the transcendent divine being, and doing so
> through variations on the Jewish and Christian scriptural traditions.

Yes, this is his suggestion.

> Such a designation would not take into account what many see as the
> distinctive element of many so-called gnostic systems:  a "knowing" of
> self that is of a different order from the rationality with which we
> deal with the workaday world.

But I think this was not unique to "gnostic" movements. Why should this
category be seen as a distinguishing mark of "gnostic" movements? "A
knowing of self" was taught by Greek philosophers, a highly influential
tradition. It was taught by just about all esoteric movements, at least
from Pythagoras on. And it was also an important school of thought within
"orthodox Christianity". Certainly Clement and Origen spring to mind. In
fact, for them, the term "gnostic" had many positive connotations. So I
think such a category may lack in precision. 

> 	Some years ago I copied a paragraph from Paul Tillich that, for
> me, points to what the gnostics were "about", although it is his
> personal profession of faith when he was about fifty years old.  It
> might sound familiar to a Valentinian.  His religion, Tillich said,
> was Lutheran, but included "a consciousness of the "corruption of
> existence", a repudiation of every kind of social Utopia .  .  , an
> awareness of the irrational and demonic nature of existence, an
> appreciation of the mystical element in religion, and a rejection of
> Puritanical legalism in private and corporate life." (I have lost the
> citation, and hope someone can supply it.)

Yes, this is an interesting (semi)quotation. Indeed, I think this may have
appealed to a Valentinian. 

> 	One of the reasons Williams doubts the usefulness of the
> category "gnosticism" in current thinking Is that it carries so much
> baggage from the early heresiologists, especially Irenaeus.  Certain
> cliches fostered by them for polemical reasons linger on in modern
> discussions.

Exactly.

> "Gnosticism" has long been, and remains for many, a pejorative word.  
> The label remains a convenient way of dismissing any departures from
> approved mainstream scriptures and doctrines.

Yes.

> 	Williams points out, for example, that some modern students of
> Valentinianism (Irenaeus' main target) still refer to his school as
> elitists and determinists.  They say people were born into one of the
> three categories -- spiritual, psychic, sarkic -- and must remain
> fixed there, with no possibility of change.  Williams develops
> evidence from the Gospel of Truth and other gnostic texts, even the
> Apocryphon of John, that Valentinians taught individuals could advance
> to, or lapse from, the state of enlightenment.  Williams deals with
> other long accepted false cliches such as gnostic libertinism, and
> gnostic rejection of the world.  In short, the reader, while learning
> why Williams thinks the category "gnosticism" is not longer useful
> will also learn a good deal about the movements now called by that
> term.

Thanks for your thoughtful review.

Best,

Yuri.

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