Marcion and “Gnosticism”

Recent scholarship has overthrown the dominant image of Gnosticism, which Karen King has shown to derive from a carrying over of anti-heresy polemics into the modern scholarly literature. No single document in the extant texts evinces all the qualities traditionally associated with the patristic/modern concept of Gnosticism, and many appear to be very difficult to understand in terms of the traditional concept at all. This raises the question of where the early Church Fathers came up with their vision of Gnosticism in the first place. I’ve suggested previously that “Gnosticism” looks suspiciously like an exaggerated version of certain questionable themes in “mainstream” Christian thought itself — the devil who corrupted the world is promoted into the evil demiurge who created the world, for instance.

Yet it strikes me that, ironically, the actual-existing theologian who fits the traditional definition of “Gnosticism” most closely is someone who is regarded by many modern scholars as not being a true “Gnostic” — namely, Marcion, who starts from within the Jewish-Christian tradition and comes to conclusions that are suspiciously similar to “Gnosticism.” What if we switch things around, though? What if it is actually Marcion who provides the template for the patristic vision of “Gnosticism”? And what if the attempt to paint Marcion as just one “Gnostic” among others is actually motivated by the desire to make him a foreign intrusion into the faith rather than a natural, but extreme extrapolation from within it?

That is to say, what if all the so-called “Gnostic” thinkers were collateral damage in the fight against Marcion?

Against sacraments: On the Gospel of John

Normally one reads the Gospels as all filling out details of the same basic story. This traditional attitude even affects critical scholars, who have focused on questions about the synoptic gospels’ shared source and their incorporation of their own particular sources into its basic framework. When they come to John, they assume that he has some other source — hence “further information” about Jesus. But as class prompted me to read Mark and John in rapid succession (along with the basic context surrounding the temptation in the desert in the other two gospels), another theory forced itself on me: what if the Gospel of John is a polemic against the picture of Jesus we get in the synoptic gospels? And more specifically, what if the Gospel of John has a polemic against the sacramental rites that the synoptic gospels helped to legitimate?

Here are some data points: Read the rest of this entry »

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.”

“I’m not here to tell you about Jesus”: Don Draper and the Death of God

In the first-season episode “The Hobo Code,” which in many ways is the most important of the series, Don Draper is selling Peggy’s copy to a reluctant client. He goes on the offensive, asking them to leave if they aren’t serious about changing their strategy, and along the way he makes an enigmatic statement: “Listen, I’m not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus, either he lives in your heart or he doesn’t.” The pitch proves effective, and when Ken Cosgrove mentions how great “the Jesus thing” was (perhaps implicitly asking what it means), Don explains that “sometimes force is actually being requested.” I am probably not alone in finding this explanation, such as it is, less than helpful.

So what does the quote mean? Or better: What role does it play in the episode and the season? Read the rest of this entry »

Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life I: The Tension of an Allegory Wishing Not to Be

I saw Tree of Life back when I still lived in Nottingham. It was, in fact, the last movie I watched at Broadway Cinema, by far my favorite cinema in the world. I went knowing too much about the film already because of all the attention it had received, not just by the usual film critics I read but also by the theological blogosphere as well. And so I put off going to see the film in part because so many Christians had prostrated themselves in acts of piety that were only outdone in terms of awkward intersubjective embarrassment by their attempts to squeeze the movie into some pre-fabricated theological fan-fiction they feel they must repeat ad nauseum lest they fall into unbelief. Because of this I found that working up the energy to go see the film was harder than any other film I’ve gone to see.

In order to go I had to, and I’m not kidding, perform phenomenological exercises. I went under the epoche, bracketing what had become my natural attitude regarding the film. A natural attitude I can accurately describe as pure contempt (I love the French word for contempt, méprise, which I think actually, for those who can catch my citation here, bears on Tree of Life). So I went and I watched the film. I think I can even say that I watched it “so hard”. But I found after watching it that I couldn’t yet say anything about it. That would require more routing out of this natural attitude and coming to terms with what any actual critique could be beyond my contempt for the Christian theologians who had conspired – yes, it was a conspiracy! – to ruin this film for me. I think, after nearly three months of waiting I finally can express my thoughts on this film. I’m going to present this as a series of posts, which, for those who may be offended by some of my clearly polemical statements, is a witness to the seriousness with which I am giving this film. Some of these posts may deal more with the Christian theological reading of the film than the film itself, but those will be in part a defence of the movie against Christian theological overdetermination. For those who haven’t seen the film there is clearly going to be spoilers. Read the rest of this entry »

On Radical Orthodoxy’s Qutbism

A certain theoretical homology between Radical Orthodoxy and Qutbism hit me this evening while doing some background reading for the Speculative Medevialisms event. The connection was made while reading Bruce Holsinger’s chapter on Derrida’s medievalism in The Premodern Condition, which uses Catherine Pickstock’s polemic against Derrida in After Writing as a foil. It’s been awhile since I’ve read Pickstock, but Holsinger’s criticisms seem to me unassailable and crystallized some misgivings I had with Pickstock’s texts way back when about the flatness of her reading. But, that isn’t surprising since, after all, this was Holsinger’s goal. What is, well, perhaps not surprising, but interesting, was the structural similarity between Pickstock’s “utter lack of rhetorical modesty” (as Holsinger diagnoses her constant use of words like ‘only’, ‘optimum’, ‘alone’, ‘genuine’, ‘real’, and the like) and the same lack of rhetorical modesty in the Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb. Read the rest of this entry »

Specimen Texts for Speculative Medievalisms

One of the interesting aspects of the upcoming Speculative Medievalisms conference is the use of “specimen texts” (presumebly this is why it the organizers are calling it an atelier). Some texts I’ll be using for my paper, “The Speculative Angel”, have been uploaded now. In addition to Thomas’ now standard angelology of purely spiritual beings and their basis in Pseudo-Dionysius, I’ve included a short text by the Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun and three selections, in draft translation, from French thinkers Henry Corbin, Guy Lardreau (with Christian Jambet), and Gilles Grelet. If you’re interested in contemporary forms of gnosticism operative in philosophical theory you may find those short translations of interest.

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