The Concept of “Reverse Gnosticism”

In the course of teaching on Gnosticism in several different classes, I once had the idea that Scientology was a kind of “reverse Gnosticism” — you have the secret knowledge, etc., but instead of identifying the foreign particles (in the case of classical Gnosticism, truly divine; in the case of Scientology, somehow coming from aliens) within oneself as the true self that must escape from the earth, you identify the foreign particles as a problem to be gotten rid of so that life on earth can procede smoothly. Something roughly parallel seems to be at work in the fringe “mass suicide” school of environmental thought — the transcendent element that distinguishes humanity from the rest of nature is not exalted as the highest and most wonderful thing, but is viewed as a dangerous disturbance that must be gotten rid of or at least minimized for the sake of the earth.

Looking for a more serious and mainstream example, one might also throw in the valorization of “the body” in various humanistic disciplines, reflecting the logic of Foucault’s famous quotation, itself a reversal of the logic that underwrote Gnosticism and so much of Hellenistic and Christian thought: “The soul is the prison of the body.”

Does this seem to be a useful concept? Can you think of other examples? What might be causing the emergence of “reverse Gnosticism”?

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7 Responses to “The Concept of “Reverse Gnosticism””

  1. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    This does seem interesting.

    Perhaps part of it is that people used to be ready to identify themselves as something immaterial (a soul) in their everyday thoughts about their identity, and so the Other Party That Causes My Problems was posited as nature (matter, the flesh); now people are more ready to think of themselves as something material (a body) in their everyday thoughts, and so the Other Party That Causes My Problems gets posited as not-nature (aliens, technology, what have you). In both cases, the thing that I primarily identify myself in terms of is the Good Thing, and there’s Something Else that needs to be escaped/destroyed/negated. (In the environmental case, I think this still holds true; the mass suicide folks take themselves to be acting on behalf of the Earth — they get serious dissonance when thinking of their own humanly lives.)

    I suspect that this shift on the part of crazy cults is part of a broader trend of hating on the idea that the “I” is an immaterial soul of some sort (which the “valorization of ‘the body’” is certainly part of, but which also includes earlier things like Kant’s attack on rationalist psychology). It’s now become implausible to the man on the street that he’s actually a disembodied God-knows-what, so the cults have to grant him that he’s a natural body and find some other way to sell the old gnostic story to him.

  2. Scu Says:

    I’d have to think more about this, but Schelling on the animal seems to be a similar sort of view.

  3. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    This isn’t something I can really offer as a fully developed thought, and I want to be clear that I think this notion of reversed Gnosticism is interesting, if not useful.

    It seems to me that the same kind of specialized theological and scholarly gloves with which one might approach something like Freemasonry need to also be similarly employed with Scientology, though I think Scientology as an esoteric “movement” seems to have passed through the cruicible of Ordo Templi Orientis and similar secret societal traditions. Recall that Schelling was a Freemason, so was Hegel.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Interesting points on Freemasonry.

    It occurs to me that one could view Agamben’s “messianic nihilism” as a kind of reverse Gnosticism — the messiah comes not to make us holy, but to relieve us of holiness and make us irrevokably profane, etc.

  5. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “We have no record of Hegel ever having become a mason.”

    And if Magee isn’t willing to say it, that says something. His book’s pretty much a hymn to hermeticism.

    I can’t find anything one way or the other on Schelling, though.

  6. kvond Says:

    Perhaps it is as simple as (to be very rough about it):

    1. Gnosticism (and other purge the body and matter) paths to liberation came at a time when there were more brute force controls over political entities, the Roman army for one. Micro cultures could survive easily within the sphere of Empire. Escape from body meant escape from history’s hard powers. The micro-cultures that produced Gnosticism were not in a place to alter history.

    2. Praise of the Body occurs where the register of power and control is much more atmosopheric, much more ideational. This abstraction of power actually gave a path to liberation that was INTO history, into the body, and the one mode of resistance to wholesale mind policing.

    Of course the success of the ideas of 1. lead to the powers fled through 2.

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