Rorate Caeli


Since I have thrown around the term “gnostic” rather freely both here and elsewhere, I thought it might be helpful to provide some brief notes toward a definition. Gnosticism is at least as old as Christianity itself. It flourished in the early centuries following the death of Christ, and Church fathers such as Clement and Irenaeus struggled against it. Most of the worthwhile scholarship comes from Germany, and remains untranslated. However, the pre-eminent scholar of Gnosticism in the twentieth century, Hans Jonas, wrote a summary work on the subject that is available in English, The Gnostic Religion. A colleague of his, Eric Voegelin, has written extensively and provocatively on the modern permutations of this ancient heresy. At present, however, I would like to concentrate on the ancient paradigm, as summarized by Jonas, in his “Abstract of Main Gnostic Tenets”, in The Gnostic Religion:

Theology. The cardinal feature of Gnostic thought is the radical dualism that governs the relation of God and world, and correspondingly that of man and world. The deity is absolutely transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs, and to which it is the complete antithesis: to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule. . . . The transcendent God Himself is hidden from all creatures and is unknowable by natural concepts. Knowledge of Him requires supranatural revelation and illumination and even then can hardly be expressed otherwise than in negative terms.

Cosmology. The universe . . . is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man’s life. Around and above it the cosmic spheres are arranged like concentric enclosing shells. . . . The religious significance of this cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything which intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God, not merely by spatial distance but through active demonic force. Thus the vastness and multiplicity of the cosmic system express the degree to which man is removed from God.
The spheres are the seats of the Archons [aforesaid “lowly powers” who are ignorant of the true God and whose actions of governing the cosmos oppose Him]. . . . The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept . . . tinged with the Gnostic anti-cosmic spirit. In its physical aspect this rule is the law of nature; in its psychical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man. The leader of the Archons has the name demiurge.

Anthropology. Not only [man’s] body but his soul is a product of the cosmic powers. . . . Through his body and his soul man is a part of the world and subjected to the heimarmene. Enclosed in the soul is the spirit, or pneuma (called also the “spark”), a portion of the divine substance from beyond which has fallen into the world; and the Archons created man for the express purpose of keeping it captive there. . . . In its unredeemed state the pneuma thus immersed in soul and flesh is unconscious of itself, benumbed, asleep, or intoxicated by the poisons of the world: in brief, it is “ignorant”. Its awakening and liberation is effected through “knowledge”.

Eschatology. As alien as the transcendent God is to “this world” is the pneumatic self in the midst of it. The goal of Gnostic striving is the release of the “inner man” from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light. The necessary condition for this is that he “knows” about the transmundane God and about himself, that is, about his divine origin as well as his present situation, and accordingly also about the nature of the world which determines his situation. As a famous Valentinian formula puts it:

What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.

Morality. In this life the pneumatics, as possessors of gnosis . . . , are set apart from the great mass of mankind. Generally speaking, the pneumatic morality is determined by hostility toward the world and contempt for all mundane ties. From this principle, however, two contrary conclusions can be drawn, and both found their extreme representatives: the ascetic and the libertine. The law of “Thou shalt” and ”Thou shalt not” promulgated by the Creator [Archons and demiurge] is just one more form of the cosmic tyranny. As the pneumatic is free from the heimarmene, so is he free from the yoke of the moral law. To him all things are permitted, since the pneuma is “saved in its nature” . . . . Through intentional violation of the demiurgical norms the pneumatic thwarts the design of the Archons and paradoxically contributes to the work of salvation. This antinomian libertinism exhibits more forcefully than the ascetic version the nihilistic element contained in [Gnosticism].

As I reread Jonas’ description of the ancient heresy, one bell after another goes off in my head. Much nonsense and much evil springs from this single root. In my opinion, leaders of the Church over the past century have not been entirely free of its influence. There is an urgency to Irenaeus’ writing against the heretics. There ought to be similar urgency in our efforts, as Catholics, to extricate ourselves from this cultural omnivore, descended from the ancient heresy, and in whose jaws we jabber obliviously about modern man and his brilliant accomplishments.