Editor's Essay. Ancient and modern gnosticism

The Gnostic Scriptures, by Bentley Layton. New York: Doubleday & Co. 526 pp. $35. The New Science of Politics, An Introduction, by Eric Voegelin. With a new foreword by Dante Germino. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 193 pp. $9.95, paper.

Against the Protestant Gnostics, by Philip J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press. 347 pp. $18.95.

GNOSTICISM is one of those hard words I keep hearing on the lips of know-it-alls. Political scientists, literary critics, students of religion - they all seem to flaunt the word.

I looked it up. It has a Greek stem - gnosis, or knowledge - plus that ever present and always suspicious suffix ``ism.''

The adjective ``gnostic'' means ``having esoteric spiritual knowledge.'' Harper's Bible Dictionary defines ``gnosticism'' as teaching that salvation comes through knowledge of the true self as explained in a myth revealed by a savior (often Jesus).

Historically, it's not clear whether gnosticism predates Christianity, or whether it's a variety of early Christian thought. There are kinds of gnosticism that have nothing to do with Christianity. And most recently, it has been used as a diagnostic term by historians to discuss distinctly modern problems.

And yet, thanks to Bentley Layton, the historical record has never been clearer. Until now the general reader has not had access to the original gnostic texts. But Layton, professor of ancient Christian history at Yale, has edited and translated ``The Gnostic Scriptures.'' This book is a valuable source for the historical study of gnosticism. Lucidly and concisely, Layton discusses the historical, theological, and literary aspects of each text, before he gives the translation; each translation is annotated with glosses on problems in the text.

Character of the gnostic gospel

As Layton explains in his introduction, some of these ``scriptures'' were used by members of Christian churches until Constantine, who became emperor of Rome in AD 306, made them illegal. What is most important in gnostic scripture, says Layton, is its interpretation of Old and New Testament books - ``especially its open hostility to the god of Israel and its views on resurrection, the reality of Jesus' incarnation and suffering, and the universality of Christian salvation.'' They include the famous Gospel of Thomas, a gathering of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus after the resurrection. The extreme inwardness of this ``gospel'' is a quality often associated now with gnosticism, as is the promise that anyone who finds the interpretation of the sayings will not ``taste death.''

``Bizarre,'' says Layton, is what modern readers will say about the ``... breathtaking world of fantastic symbols, beautifully intricate myths, weird heavenly denizens, and extraordinary poetry...'' of the gnostic scriptures. Suggesting another quality often associated with gnosticism, esoteric pride, Layton says that the gnostic theologians ``attempted nothing less than to chart the whole mind of god ... and from that chart to show the origin both of the world's beauty and of its imperfection.''

Resisting the idea of a good God

Indeed, Layton says that the gnostics rebelled against the idea of the goodness and omnipotence of the Old Testament creator: ``gnostics believed that satan made the world.'' Is this one reason gnostic writings click with some people now? In the rubble of the world wars and the anxiety caused by man's inhumanity to man, the dualism behind the gnostic rejection of the world for another, superior realm is tempting.

Before it was outlawed, and even after, gnosticism was a sect with members from Gaul to the Persian Gulf. Close study of ``The Gnostic Scriptures'' suggests the basis for considering gnosticism as an enduring mentality, a ``syndrome'' or mind-set, involving escape from nature, society, the natural world, and God. Such an escape, it seems to some students, is common to a number of peculiarly modern phenomena.

As a diagnostic term, gnosticism was made popular among students of political science in 1952 by Eric Voegelin in his little book, ``The New Science of Politics: An Introduction,'' now reissued with a new foreword.

Voegelin's book is based in part on the German scholarship that got a boost in 1945 when a pottery jar near Nag Hammadi, south of Cairo, yielded an unprecedented 13 codices - including ``The Gospel of Thomas'' - dating from the mid-4th century.

According to Voegelin, there's a perennial tension between the desire for certainty about the meaning of history and mankind's role in it. Western thinkers try to give history a clear direction and act as if world history is evolving toward democratic, free society, or the worker's paradise. Opposed to this kind of intellectual or gnostic certainty, Voegelin argues, is the cognitio fidei, or knowledge under faith, and the resolution of the mysteries of time worked out in the New Testament.

Gnosticism, for Voegelin, points to the very nature of modern experience, to the success of modern man in working ``the miracle of self-salvation.'' Voegelin sees symptoms of gnosticism in all the high points of modern Western culture - in the literary immortality offered by humanism, in salvation as seen by the Puritan saint in discipline and economic success, in the ``civilizational contributions'' of liberals and progressives, and, finally, in the dreams of the perfect society that fuel revolutionary action - as in Marxism.

Symptoms of gnosticism today

It would appear, then, that modern man has put ``the premium of salvation'' on activity in this world. Voegelin says: ``The resources of man that came to light under such pressure were in themselves a revelation, and their application to civilizational work produced the truly magnificent spectacle of Western progressive society.''

The reader of Voegelin is confronted by an irony. If material progress is a result of gnostic drives, it's also a response to the failure of man's efforts to deal with the tensions of living in history. ``The death of the spirit is the price of progress,'' says Voegelin - but he does not leave it there. ``The New Science of Politics'' is above all a call to order. The basic aspects of the human world - man, society, nature, and God - can't be escaped. Common sense has a way of reasserting itself in the face of disaster. Patience, as opposed to gnostic impatience with the human condition, remains a relevant virtue.

All is not lost! Voegelin's spirit of resistance to gnosticism is taken up - with a vengeance - by Philip J. Lee. In ``Against the Protestant Gnostics,'' Lee quotes - and quarrels with - Voegelin's suggestion that throughout the Middle Ages, gnosticism had been contained, but with the Reformation, it surfaced ``in a massive flood.'' In Lee's detailed analysis, gnosticism appeared later, at the point when American Calvinism turned away from God toward the human self as the locus of salvation. Puritan habits of introspection gave way to despair ... or to transcendentalist optimism.

Calvin's warning

In Lee's view, Calvin warned against the gnostic turn. Having gained knowledge about God through knowledge of ``His mighty acts,'' it's tempting, Lee quotes Calvin as saying, ``to pass by the true God, and set up in his stead the dream and phantom of our own brain.'' The falling away from true Calvinism happened in two stages, says Lee. The original idea that inspired some of the early Americans - that they would create New Jerusalem - faded under the harsh light of American experience. And, as the individual became isolated in the new landscape, the Puritan church became elitist. Each man for himself and his soul.

After detailed and fascinating historical chapters on ``Gnosticism in Conflict with the Faith'' and ``Gnosticism in Ascendance in North America,'' Lee looks at contemporary ``results and reform.'' His itemization of the gnostic element in contemporary America sounds so many bells that it may strike many as obsessive.

From God of the Bible to god of self

And yet Lee does seem to have a point. In a section called ``Everything So Long as It is Not Anything,'' Lee focuses on the blurring of boundaries and the breaking up of distinctions that resulted from the turning away from the God of the Bible toward the god of the self. In the first few pages of this section alone he cites Emily Dickinson, Alfred North Whitehead, Reinhold Niebuhr, the Reader's Digest, Norman Vincent Peale, Hannah Arendt, Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, and so on. Almost in parody of his main point that the gnostic religion is ``syncretistic'' - in escaping the particularities of the Christian story, it accepts fragments of everything - Lee's flow of discourse is, at times, positively tidal. The effect is sometimes merely provocative, as when he wrongly catalogs Christian Science with sects in which ``technique has entirely replaced any genuine concern for God's activity in human affairs.''

Lee is a Presbyterian minister, and his recommended ``reform'' includes going back to the use of the sacraments in the church service. Opposed to the ``liberal theology'' that, as Alfred North Whitehead remarked, gives people only ``minor, vapid reasons'' for going to church, Lee asserts the ongoing relevance of the Christian story of man. In doing so, he has made the study of gnosticism crucial to the ongoing debate about the future of American culture.

One claim often made about the American experience is that it's strangely ahistorical, as if the original Puritan plan to build New Jerusalem has been pursued in nonreligious terms. Lee's book is a valuable discussion of this claim. And since gnosticism does seem to be a cop-out from the ``heroic adventure'' (Voegelin) of living in history without gnostic certainty, the study of gnosticism not only puts modern society in deep perspective, but also confirms the continuing relevance of Christian teachings.

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