Gnostic Mumbo-Jumbo

I enjoyed Larry Hurtado’s dismantling of the myth of gnostic intellectualism. As a Unitarian who celebrates religious diversity, I come into enough contact with neo-gnostics, and there are even aspects of gnosticism I find positively interesting. Salvation by self-discovery is something orthodoxy could use more of. But there’s also a lot to laugh about in gnosticism, especially fantasies that they were intellectually and/or spiritually superior. Hurtado writes:

“It’s perhaps a natural mistake for people who haven’t read the texts, given that ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’, which means ‘knowledge’. But in the case of those called ‘gnostics,’ the kind of ‘knowledge’ that they sought wasn’t ‘intellectual,’ but (to put it kindly) what we might term ‘esoteric,’ secretive truths expressed typically in cryptic, riddling form, deliberately intended to make little sense as expressed. Put unkindly, one might characterize it as a bunch of ‘mumbo-jumbo’ with no attempt to present them reasonably and in terms of the intellectual climate of the time… There are modern equivalents to the ancient gnostics, people who go for the esoteric, who imagine themselves special in some way [and] can leap into mystical truths.”

That’s not uncharitable, just accurate, and again as a Unitarian I know all about the allure of pretentious spiritualities.

Hurtado’s post reminded me of a novel called The Throat, by Peter Straub. It’s a mystery about a serial killer, narrated by a protagonist named Timothy Underhill who likes the Gospel of Thomas. At one point in the story he is derided for it by his friend and professor of religion, John Ransom (see pp 485, 487-88):

John Ransom: “What’s that mighty tome? I thought the gnostic gospels were my territory, not yours… I like the verse where Jesus says, ‘If you understand the world, you have found a corpse, but if you have found a corpse, you are superior to the world.’ [Thom 56] That has the real gnostic thing, don’t you think?… Why are you bothering with such drivel?”

Tim Underhill: “I’m hoping to find out. What do you have against it?”

John: “Gnosticism is a dead end. When people allude to it now, they make it mean anything they want it to mean by turning it into a system of analogies. And the whole point of gnosticism in the first place was that any kind of nonsense you could make up was true because you made it up.”

Tim: “I guess that’s why I like it.”

Note that Tim Underhill is a lead character in many of Straub’s novels, and according to the author a lot like himself, so Straub could be having some fun at his own expense. That’s commendable. As I said, there’s plenty to laugh about in gnosticism. Even if John Ransom is a despicable man (as we later learn), he nails the gnostics properly like Hurtado does.

I once joked with another blogger about gnosticism being parasitic, latching onto a host religion, feeding off its nutrients, leaving little if anything recognizable. This is as true today as it was in antiquity. Consider John Sanford, who gives Jesus’ sayings a complete psychoanalytic overhaul. The Good Samaritan, for example, is translated from a subversive parable about ethnic conflict into an interior jerk-off that has nothing to do with a “good Samaritan” at all:

“We find our identity in the man who fell among the thieves… [We] fall prey to our own collective rigid attitudes, which in times of crises leave us bleeding and beaten on the road. In these crises all that is respectable and accepted — the priests and levites — pass us by. These persons in our lives whom we most adulate, and whose acceptance we most want, are the very ones whose opinions we fear in the time of crisis… Salvation comes from the ‘Samaritan’. The Samaritan is the despised one, the one in ourselves whom we have looked down upon for so long. In being administered to by our inferior side, we can make a beginning towards wholeness.” (The Kingdom Within, p 146)

That’s a perfect illustration of esoteric “mumbo jumobo” (per Hurtado) and indeed just “making things up” (per Ransom); of emptying out real-world entities like Samaritans, priests, and levites, and pouring into the shells whatever abstractions you want. Jesus (or the early Christians, or Luke) had been suggesting that cultural enemies (Samaritans) and evil men (traders) can be unexpected heroes. However orthodoxy later tamed the moral, the original idea remained. Even the trivial Sunday-school lesson you can derive from it carries echoes from the hills of Galilee. But the gnostic puts us in another universe.

Let me again stress that I don’t bash gnosticism in favor of orthodoxy per se (that wouldn’t make me a good Unitarian). Gnosticism’s root idea is salvation by self-discovery, which I believe has solid potential. It’s the parasitic strategy that’s problematic. Theological evolution is one thing, and scriptural reinterpretation, however radical, can be for the better or worse. But gnosticism was less an evolution and more a hostile takeover. In its extreme forms, the material world became an evil place, the human body an evil vessel. The Hebrew scriptures praised an evil demigod, and Jesus became the remedy for this (badly perceived) problem. His sayings were interiorized to provide an inner escape route — most of which, frankly, are obtuse spiritualizations masking as superior theology.

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