The gospel version was: “in the beginning was the word.” That is a very attractive idea for the intellectual, the creature of formulas, chalkboards, debates, science, and all that stuff. The word gets a big advantage, heritage-wise, and can lord it over the rest of creation.
However, as we know, the Gospel of John touches on gnostic heresy. It is the most philosophical of the gospels. In Genesis, the star turn is taken by the creation of the heavens and the earth – not by the instrument God uses. Whereas there is a variant within gnostic belief (gnostic gathering together the mixed cosmic schemes of the first to third century A.D.) that I have some sympathy with. This variant took a dim view of the heavens and the earth. In a sense, in this view, “in the beginning was the mistake.” The mistake was, precisely, to begin. And the reason that mistake was made was the subject of the colorful mythologies that we can extract from obscure texts by Origen and Iraneaus, who were always slagging Gnostic groups with delightful descriptions. For those with the kind of pre-disposition for it – those Blakeans among us – the heresies listed in Iraneaus or Origen are objects of revery. What if we lived in a culture where we believed that the seven heavens were guarded by seven totemic beasts?
(1) Michael the lion-like, (2) Suriel the bull-like, (3) Raphael
the serpent-like, (4) Gabriel the eagle-like, (5) Thautabaoth the bearlike,
(6) Erathaoth the dog-like, and (7) Thartharaoth (Celsus: Thaphabaoth) or Onoel the donkey-like. – Tuomas Rasimus, 18.
Onoel the Donkey-like is an entity I wouldn’t mind praying to. Donkeys are the most spiritual of animals. They have long been the philosophers friend. Giordano Bruni was especially fond of his donkey, and wrote a sort of spoof, an ass fest. Would that there were more of these.
It is no longer the case that the gnostics are simply obscure bogeymen of obscure theologians. We know more, now, than we’ve known in 1500 years about them, or about the scattered heresies that have been categorized as Gnostic, due to the Nag Hammadi Library and other manuscript discoveries.
That almost all the heresies the early church fathers discuss are now called gnostic shows a very interesting interchange between the two terms, as though any deviation from Christian orthodoxy must become gnostic. Heresy is derived not from the Greek word for error, but from the word for choice: haireo. A heresy is perseverance in choice - which opposes it to perseverence in faith. It has long been the reigning idea among heavy thinking conservatives that liberalism, and indeed, modernity itself, is a form of heresy - or gnosticism. Eric Voegelin was the most famous proponent of this idea, and it allowed him to label both Marx and Nietzsche and the modernist everyman as gnostic. You can tell a gnostic, to make Voegelin sound a bit like J.Edgar Hoover on Communism, by the way he cuts off questions. Voegelin has a peculiar notion of what cutting off questions means. Because Voegelin wants to say that there is, at the foundation of society, a transcendence that he gets all mushy about in the usual philosophical way (At the opening of the soul—that is the metaphor Berg son uses to de scribe the event—the order of being be comes visible even to its ground and origin in the beyond, in the Platonic epekeina, in which the soul participates as it suffers and achieves its opening), he is making a claim. But it is made in the weird way that we get there from the possibility opened up by questioning whether man is just a part of nature, whether, that is, the social order does reflect something transcendent. Possibility is magically transmuted into a claim by way of the question: interrogation becomes assertion, and assertion becomes opening. Well, two can play at that game, and one wonders why we couldn’t open up the possibility that this isn’t so by questioning whether transcendence makes sense, opening up the possibilty of a world in which transcendence doesn't make sense. In Voegelin’s view, I guess, you can go up the staircase but not down it.
Voegelin might nevertheless be right that there is somethng distinctly gnostic about modernity. Voegelin’s notion is that the very notion of alienation is the clue that the gnostic hunter should be looking for, since for the gnostics, matter is the primal sin, and man is forced to live as matter and among matter like a prisoner.
But given the alchemy of questioning, this prison, for the modern gnostic, must be a form of self-deception that does not actually ultimately fool the self, which has the power to question and can, as aforesaid, open itself wide.
Voegelin then draws up a model of self-deception or intellectual swindling in three moments:
“On the surface lies the deception it self. It could be self-deception; and very often it is, when the speculation of a creative thinker has culturally degenerated and become the dogma of a mass move ment. But when the phenom non is apprehended at its point of origin, as in Marx or Nietzsche, deeper than the deception itself will be found the awareness of it. The thinker does not lose control of himself: the libido dominandi turns on its own work and wishes to master the deception as well. This gnostic turning back on itself corresponds spiritually, as we have said, to the philosophic conversion, the periagoge in the Platonic sense. However, the gnostic movement of the spirit does not lead to the erotic open ing of the soul, but rather to the deepest reach of persistence in the deception, where revolt against God is revealed to be its motive and purpose.”