Yesterday I called attention to Bruce Chilton’s remarks about gnosticism, particularly the way neo-gnostics cherry-pick ancient sources, with which I am largely in agreement. A gnostic pastor named Father Jordan feels very differently. Meanwhile, Jim Davila writes as follows:
“Many, perhaps most, religions can be accused of misconstruing and selectively reading their own scriptures to suit later agendas. Some go as far as falsifying history (for example, Christian fundamentalist creationists and Muslims who deny that a Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). If people today want to be Gnostics (and it’s not for me to tell them whether they should be or shouldn’t), I would rather they be Gnostics who support women’s rights and the prudent use of the earth’s resources and who aren’t anti-Semitic. If any of that is untrue to ancient Gnostic scriptures or doctrines, so be it. (But if they want to claim that these are the actual values of ancient Gnostics, I will, as usual, call them on any historical inaccuracies.)”
I agree with what Jim says here, but I do think neo-gnostics tend to cherry-pick with more abandon than most, without realizing they’re doing so. This is how I responded to Father Jordan in comments on his blog:
Contemporary Christianity too must cherry-pick in order to be a coherent functioning religion… Are not “neo-Christians” unlike their ancient counterparts? Doesn’t ancient Christianity have a history of anti-Semitism, misogyny, elitism, and dualism?
Yes, but this isn’t exactly news. Neo-gnosticism often comes as an antidote to a traditional Christianity weighed down precisely by the above baggage. It’s a mystery to many that the sources of that antidote have just as much (if not more) baggage. There’s more ignorance and misperceptions about gnosticism than about traditional Christianity, and reports like this don’t exactly reinforce one’s faith in any discerning ability of the laity.
What really bothers Chilton (a scholar for whom I have a great deal of respect) is that “Neo-Gnostics” (us, presumably) accept The Secret Mark as a genuine text. The thrust of his article here isn’t really about how dishonest “Neo-Gnostics” are, but how Secret Mark is an obvious forgery. So we’re really guilty by association.
I hate to break the nightly news, but scholars who like the gnostic gospels tend to be the same ones who defend the authenticity of Secret Mark.
Here’s the thing: I don’t know of a single Gnostic who identifies with Secret Mark, or considers it to be a legitimate or authentic Gnostic text. Not one. At best it’s a peripheral curiosity. Gnostics are not standing up in churches or the PTG saying “this proves Jesus was gay!”. Gnosticdom (!) as a general rule is just not interested in Secret Mark, and every Gnostic I know familiar with the text rejects it as a total forgery.
Neo-gnostics I know either (a) prefer to give Secret Mark the benefit of the doubt without knowing quite what to make of it, (b) accept and identify with it as gnostic, or (c) have never heard of it before. I haven’t run into a single neo-gnostic who rejects it as a forgery/hoax. We mix with different breeds, obviously.
What scholars like Chilton so often fail to grasp is that the role of history is simply not as important to us as it is to Christians… Most Christians keep trying to wring “what really happened” out of their Gospels, whereas we’ve never been about that. We’re more interested in what is happening, our own alchemical reaction to these catalytic texts.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, so long as one is upfront about it. But as I’m sure you know, many people who read (say) Elaine Pagels walk away convinced that gnosticism is really what Jesus was about, and claim accordingly.
As a secular-minded Unitarian, I have nothing against gnosticism per se. People should believe as they want, though with Jim Davila, I prefer that those beliefs not conflict with basic human decency (i.e. respect for Jews, women, gays, the earth and its natural resources, etc.). But history matters too — especially to those of us who love it — and it irks when adherents like the neo-gnostics believe their sources to be purer than those against which they are often reacting.