A thought experiment on Gnosticism

I’ve been reading Karen King’s What is Gnosticism? as part of my research for the devil book. A challenge I’m facing is that I believe that patristic polemics against Gnosticism are a very important point of reference for understanding the development of the devil’s place in Christian theology — and yet it’s increasingly clear, after reading King’s patient demolition of modern scholarship on the issue, that the entity known as “Gnosticism” basically never existed and many of the scholarly attempts to reconstruct it are more or less totally made up.

This has prompted the following thought-experiment: what if we completely bracket the question of the “real” Gnostics and thus the question of the relative preferability of Gnosticism or orthodoxy? If we do that, we find that Gnostics are weirdly always adhering to extreme extrapolations from uncomfortable points of tension within Christian theology itself. It’s almost as though the patristic writers are positing an extreme version of the unappealling or inconsistent aspects of their own thought, such that they can then present their solution as a more moderate and acceptable option. (I was partly inspired to undertake this thought experiment after reflecting that J. Kameron Carter essentially pulls this move in Race: A Theological Account — he postulates the extreme anti-Judaism of Gnosticism as the point of reference, which makes run-of-the-mill Christian supercessionism seem much more reasonable and balanced.)

What’s at stake is less their outrage at the teachings of other groups than their anxieties about the tensions in their own system. If we then de-bracket the “real” Gnostics, I think it’s reasonable to assume that there were motifs and themes in some actual-existing texts that served as a jumping-off point for the Church Fathers — but the whole enterprise depended on reading those texts, not on their own terms, but as though their avowed purpose was to deviate from proto-Catholic teaching. In this perspective, the etymological implication of wilfullness in the term “heresy” is understandable, because the “Gnostic” thinkers are treated as though they know, deep down, that proto-Catholic teaching is true but rebel against it out of prideful stubbornness.

We can see the same logic play out in contemporary Christian polemics against homosexuality. The “slippery slope” arguments that posit a rash of pedophilia and bestiality once homosexuality is widely accepted assume that the reason gays and lesbians do what they do is because they are pridefully rebelling against a divine law they know to be valid. Since their whole reason for being is to rebel in this way, they will obviously respond to greater social acceptance by moving on to the next outrageous perversion. Such arguments do have their own twisted logic, and they do tell us interesting things about Christian anxiety surrounding sexuality — but it would be crazy to seek reliable information about actual same-sex erotic practices from these polemics, and it would be doubly crazy to study same-sex erotic practices with the sole purpose of vindicating the image of homosexuality constructed in the Christian polemic or determining whether the traditional model of monogamous heterosexual marriage is preferable to that purely virtual specter of “homosexuality.”

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11 Responses to “A thought experiment on Gnosticism”

  1. Ben Myers Says:

    There’s a great one-liner somewhere in Donald Mackinnon
    about this – how something of the internal structure of Christian
    belief is revealed in the peculiar ferocity with which the church
    has always suppressed Gnosticism.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Hence it’d be even more revelatory if they more or less made up Gnosticism in order to repress it.

  3. Brennan Breed Says:

    Great post. This is also what Christians did (and still often do) with Judaism — they basically made up some stuff and called it “what the Jews do/believe” simply to set themselves in relief. But it’s interesting that the different denominational and theological strains of Christianity invented different Judaisms that reflect their insecurities with their own identities. For example, many medieval Roman Catholics were worried about the status of images in their tradition (which is reflected in long and convoluted theological arguments to justify common practices involving images, and the occasional attack on particular practices that are understood to go too far). So it is common to find images of Jews worshipping idol statuettes in many medieval manuscripts. Ironic, right, since this is precisely what Jews would *never* do, since they are aniconic? And then you get the Reformers caricaturing Jews as earning salvation through mindless servitude to the Law — which again has nothing at all to do with Jewish practice. But accuracy in depicting Jewish practices isn’t the point — Jews are simply the other, the receptacle for anything that worries Christians about themselves — so Christians would depict them doing the very thing they worried about, externalizing their fears to exorcize them.

    On another topic: Adam, if you yourself leave the best comments for the month and win the title of “Best Commenter,” are you going to gift yourself a copy of Awkwardness? That’s… well… apropos considering the title, but it might not do much to raise productivity.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    There definitely came a breaking point in my studies of the history of Christian thought where I wanted to scream, “Can we just leave the Jews out of it?!” For example, if some Christians are viewing God’s grace in a mechanical and lifeless way, then surely the problem is that they’re doing that and not that it makes them too much like Jews. Etc.

  5. Brennan Breed Says:

    Is there something structural about majority Western Christianity that lends itself to creating enemies in order to externalize its own tensions? Or is this a much broader phenomenon? I’m not a comparativist, but it seems to me that several other cultural-religious systems do something quite different — they latch on to a specific historical incident(s) of violent conflict and draw broad brushstrokes based on those actual incidents, eliciting a hyper-historical sensibility (for example, the Bosnian muslims know all the details of their historical conflicts with the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croatians, etc.) In that way, the caricatures of the other are rooted in (perhaps misremembered) historical realities. The Western Christian mode seems to be more pure invention of theological systems that have little anchor in history. For example, caricatures of Jewish legal systems, the invention of Gnosticism, of the Cathars, and so on. Anybody know enough to show how dumb this sounds?

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It has to be a broader historical phenomenon, but it seems to me that the Christian strategy is almost certainly uniquely thorough-going and, as it were, “totalitarian.”

  7. danbarber Says:

    Brennan, “Is there something structural about majority Western Christianity that lends itself to creating enemies in order to externalize its own tensions?” … yes!!!!! (and damn, i know i just gave a shout out to one book of mine in one comment thread, but i can’t resist doing it to another in this thread, i.e. this is my argument in my diaspora book)

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I promise you will be amply and thoroughly cited if and when I develop this argument in my book.

  9. danbarber Says:

    Adam, thanks, but i didn’t intend anything like accusations of ‘borrowing’, etc. — we clearly are just really on the same page this week!

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I didn’t hear any accusations.

  11. danbarber Says:

    Ok, well i didn’t intend to presume that you imagined that i was accusing you, etc., etc., etc. :)


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