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.”