AMERICAN GNOSTICISM

Walt Garlington

Protestantism was and remains at the center of life in the States, and this means that Gnosticism is also central there, for Protestantism is Gnostic at its core.  The Orthodox priest Father Andrew Stephen Damick writes,  . . . 

the ancient gnostics were the first heretics in the Church.  Gnosticism was sharply marked by individualism, the belief that salvation was ultimately a private matter rather than a communal experience.  The gnostics also stressed that salvation was obtained by saving knowledge rather than by faithful participation in sacramental church life.  The gnostic religious system was strongly dualistic, believing that “spiritual” things were good, while the physical world was evil or at best unimportant.  In its understanding of salvation and of culture in general, Gnosticism was also profoundly escapist, seeking to withdraw from the world.  Gnosticism placed a heavy emphasis on personal ecstatic experience contrasted with the “ordinary” ritual and sacramental life of most Christian believers (Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, Chesterton, Ind., Ancient Faith Publishing, 2011, p. 104).

 Fr Andrew goes on to stress the presence of Gnostic teachings in Evangelical Protestant circles, but it is present in all manifestations of Protestantism to one degree or another, especially the first two characteristics he lists, individualism and salvation through knowledge.

 Dr Joseph P. Farrell elaborates a little more on the Gnostic teaching about individualism and authority (God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes, and Their Cultural Consequences, Vol. 1: God: The Foundation of the First Europe, Lulu, 2016):

 Gnosticism evidences itself as a church within the Church by its attention to the distinction between the elite Gnostic “few” and the many, to hoi polloi. The problem with the Apostolic Succession, as far as the Gnostics were concerned, was thus precisely its connection to the doctrine of bodily resurrection maintained by the visible Church of the “many”. The problem of the apostolic succession for Gnosticism was not, as it is for so many moderns, its apparent elusiveness. The problem was not that the apostolic succession was unknown, but too well known. It was not esoteric, but exoteric. The consequences of these two views, the one maintaining the bodily resurrection on the basis of an apostolic succession, the other maintaining the view that the resurrection is a symbol of the doctrine of immortality of the soul, has enormous consequences for Church polity:

First, as the German scholar Karl Holl has pointed out, it restricts the circle of leadership to a small band of persons whose members stand in a position of incontestable authority. Second, it suggests that only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors…. Any potential leader of the community would have to derive, or claim to derive, authority form the same apostles. Yet, according to the orthodox view, none can ever claim to equal their authority—much less challenge it. What the apostles experienced and attested their successors cannot verify for themselves; instead, they must only believe, protect, and hand down to future generations the apostles’ testimony.

 . . .  Specifically, by the latter part of the second century, when the orthodox insisted upon “one God,” they simultaneously validated the system of governance in which the church is ruled by “one bishop.” Gnostic modification of monotheism was taken – and perhaps intended – as an attack upon that system. For when Gnostic and orthodox Christians discussed the nature of God, they were at the same time debating the issue of spiritual authority.  

Indeed, with the proliferation of “gods-behind-God” within Gnosticism, spiritual authorities themselves multiply out of a response to the needs of the system, i.e., out of the Gnostic Sitz im Lebem: Gospels, teachers, manuscripts and even variant readings of passages all multiply, often at a bewildering and dizzying pace. 

 Consider how Valentinus or one of his initiates might respond to Clement’s claim that the bishop rules over the community “as God rules in Heaven”—as master, king, judge and lord. Would not an initiate be likely to reply to such a bishop: “You claim to represent God, but, in reality, you represent only the demiurge, whom you blindly serve and obey. I, however, have passed beyond the sphere of his authority—and so, for that matter, beyond yours!”…Gnosis offers nothing less than a theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and priests!   

Thus, when St. Irenaues emphasizes the recapitulation of all things in Christ, including all stages of human nature, he is stating more than just Christological doctrine. The unity of the Godhead and the inclusion of all of humanity in the effects of the Incarnation are double blows against the Gnostic proliferation of deities and authorities; his understanding of recapitulation is also a statement of ecclesiastical polity. There are, indeed, he acknowledges, two traditions, but only one derives from the Apostles; the other derives from Simon Magus and ultimately from Satan.

  . . .  The Gnostic program required a process of propaganda, of which the composition of its own Gospels, and the modification of the texts and methods of exegesis were only the more familiar components. But coupled with these is the promotion of themselves as authorities with a secret wisdom unknown even to the apostles. Iranaeus’ remarks should be read, therefore, not only as comments on their own spiritual state, but as a commentary on how the Gnostics promoted their program: 

They imagine that they themselves have discovered more than the apostles, and that the apostles preached the gospel still under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are wiser and more intelligent than the apostles.

  . . . self-knowledge, which in all Gnostic systems is what “knowledge of God” ultimately reduces to, is set against the “lie” of Christian sacramentalism.

 This intimate connection between the rejection of sacramentalism and the reliance upon interior emotional and intellectual certitude in one’s salvation is a feature of all Gnostic systems, and the Gnostic’s “direct access to God” referred to earlier is revealed for what it actually is: the opposition of the Gnostic’s direct access to his-own-certitude-enthroned-as-God in place of the Church’s apostolic tradition and sacramentalism. This certitude of gnosis is what the Gnostic refers to, and means, by the indwelling of Christ. Some went even further: 

some Gnostic Christians went so far as to claim that humanity created God—and so, from its own inner potential, discovered for itself the revelation of truth. This conviction may underlie the ironic comment in the Gospel of Philip. “God created humanity; [but now human beings] created God. That is the way it is in the world—human beings make gods, and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings!

  Again, the parallel to the modern critical paradigms is illuminating and more than coincidental: Gnosticism not only created its own Scriptures, and its own way to read the Christian Scriptures, but was compelled to do so because the Gnostic community had created its own God in opposition to the God Who created the community of the Church.

  . . . Gnosticism thus ultimately always conceals a psychological program in the guise of a metaphysic, for its ultimate goal is simply to realize the infinite potential of the self, of the self as Christ, of the self as God, of the self as Church, of the self as bishop. . . . Gnosticism thus not only invents terms, it invents its own literature, its own tradition, since, ultimately, these derive from the individual Gnostic’s own experience. Thus, creativity itself is the mark both of the true Gnostic as well as of Gnostic systems in general. Man not only creates his own gods, but his own “religion” by which to worship them. The essence of Gnosticism is its elite and total concentration on self, it is, quintessentially, an invented religion. This is the ultimate spiritual basis behind “Sitz-im-Lebenism”, i.e., the view that all religion is of human invention, that all Scriptures are merely the creative products of the mythological imagination of “the faith community” in response to some real or perceived situation (pgs. 87, 88-9, 91-2, 93-4; text adapted from first e-version of God, History, and Dialectic; https://godhistorydialectic.wordpress.com/read-this-first/). 

This clarifies some of the strongest features of Gnosticism:  the obsession with the self, with identifying oneself as a god, and with creating new traditions and/or realities based on one’s own experiences. 

Prof M. E. Bradford, one of the later Southern Agrarian writers, shows how this relates to the American experience.  In discussing Pres Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863), he writes at one point, 

The biblical note is quietly sustained and our problem with it compounded in the two major paragraphs of the speech.  Some of the religious language with which it opens is repeated, and some replaced.  “Consecrate” and “hallow” are invoked to sanction a “new birth”.  And the Union dead, not the clergy, shall provide an aegis for the event.  Finally, the opening confusion issues in a peroration even more confusing.  Collectively the red tide of battle is to redeem us—though this time the nation will midwife its own reincarnation.  The godly work of the fathers will be completed (or, more properly, replaced) in a joining of three in one.  . . . But to see what is most mischievous in this “new birth” and “baptism” we should recall that Lincoln had predicted a “new founding” as early as his “Springfield Lyceum Speech”.  And that concentration of power in the executive branch of government would be its final fruit.  What it is that “shall not perish” (recalling perhaps the most familiar passage in the New Testament, John 3:16) is not the soul, the new man, the re-born Christian, but a divinized state (‘The Rhetoric of Continuing Revolution’, A Better Guide Than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Transaction, 1994, pgs. 191-2)

.  . . .  Professor Eric Voegelin has written me that “Lincoln’s government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ is even more a millenarian blasphemy than becomes apparent from your paper.”  Voegelin traces the formula to Wycliffe’s prologue to his Bible and beyond to Romans 11:36.  Other sources are “in the stoic symbolization of the cosmos as brought forth of God, by God, for God” and in Marcus Aurelius.  “There you have the transposition of a cosmological formula into a millenarian formula for political action.” (Letter of Sept. 6, 1970) (Ibid., p. 192, note)

 At the Gettysburg Address we have come to the crux of the Modern American Project:  American man has now thrown off the last restraints of tradition and dedicated himself totally to the task of redeeming himself and the world through the creed of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’.  God is dead, so now man must create and rule in his place.  

 The seeds of this revolution were sown in the Declaration of Independence (1776), but, in the years that followed, their full growth in the States was held in check by the lingering devotion to the habits of Christian English/European life that the colonies had inherited (like the English common law, which finds expression in the middle sections of the Declaration itself).  While the South strengthened her tie to traditional living in the run-up to the War of Northern Aggression, New England’s weakened.  Or in Dr Farrell’s words from above, the South was walking the path back toward the true Tradition of the Apostles with its source in the Holy Trinity, while New England continued walking away from it and on towards the false tradition of Simon Magus with its source in the devil.

 But since the fall of the South in that War, this Gnostic worldview has become ingrained in most people in the States.  A good example comes from an Evangelical supporter of modernist America.  In the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections, he writes:

 Assessing America biblically, however, I believe there is one factor that especially explains our resiliency in the face of political, economic, and cultural turmoil. It was on clear display in yesterday’s elections and is proclaimed in the closest statement to a national creed we possess: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

This declaration identifies the cultural DNA at the heart of the American experiment. 

It rejects the systems built on class and caste that dominated human history. Prior to America’s founding, the list of nations in which anyone could rise to the pinnacle of leadership was remarkably short. Kings and dictators ruled by right of birth or force.

 The vast majority of the human race was consigned to lifelong servitude. A government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln so famously described America, was both novel and radical. 

It was “self-evident” to our nation’s founders because they were steeped in a Judeo-Christian worldview. This perspective values each person as someone made by God in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27). According to Scripture, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:28).

 I believe this emphasis on the innate worth of each person to be the foundational value that explains America’s ethos and success. No matter how frustrated we become with our leaders, we have a regular opportunity to cast ballots for change. The laws that regulate national life are produced by lawmakers who are accountable to the people they govern. 

While our democracy is significantly flawed in practice, it contains the seeds of its own continued rebirth and regeneration. And it stands aligned with our Creator in embracing the intrinsic value of his highest creation.

 –Jim Denison, https://www.christianpost.com/voice/election-success-for-america-still-need-jesus.html (bolding added) 

The circle of 2,000 years of history has now been closed.  We have now returned where we began, with the divine Gnostic individual who creates his own reality based on his own subjective spiritual experiences, all the while clothing it in Christian texts and terms that have been redefined.  Rather than strenuously trying to prop up this heretical system, the good-hearted folks in the red States and counties/parishes of the South, Midwest, etc. need to quickly leave it behind for the safe harbor of the hierarchy and monarchy which flow naturally from the true faith of the Orthodox Church, and which, to use Edmund Burke’s words, are among the real rights or needs of mankind.

Via https://www.geopolitica.ru/en/article/american-gnosticism