The Spirit of Modern Science
January-February 1991By Christopher Lasch
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics is being published this winter by Norton. The above article is part of a series on gnosticism. Part I appeared in our October 1986 issue, Part II in our December 1990 issue. Parts IV and V will appear in our next two issues.
Exposure to the vast literature on ancient gnosticism leads both to an admiration for modern scholarship and to an awareness of its limitations. Ones first impression is that scholars in this field have made a small amount of evidence go a very long way a tribute to their perseverance and ingenuity in tracking down even the most unpromising leads, to the sheer intensity of their curiosity, and to their willingness to collaborate on an international scale. Even with the addition of the Dead Sea scrolls and the gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, the supply of primary sources on gnosticism remains very small. Most of the gnostic writings have disappeared, and the movement is still known chiefly through the accounts of its critics, the early Church Fathers who apparently reported gnostic thought with scrupulous care.
On this tiny foundation, modern scholars have erected a huge structure of commentary and speculation, which now towers over the original object of inquiry and threatens to overshadow it altogether. The scholarly community has accomplished all this in the face of the most daunting obstacles: not only the shortage of documents but the semi-secrecy with which the gnostic movement deliberately surrounded itself; the intrinsic obscurity of its highly symbolic and allegorical form of expression; the hidden meanings and secret allusions with which it sought to baffle the uninitiated; the wealth of older traditions on which it drew, which lead scholars backward into the darkness of archaic rituals and outward from the eastern Mediterranean, in ever-widening circles, to ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, and India; its incorporation of themes drawn not only from ancient traditions but from contemporary Judaism, paganism, and Christianity, which adds to the difficulty of deciding whether gnosticism should be regarded as a distinctive movement of its own or merely as an offshoot of the dominant religions; the absence of an institutional history, of a gnostic church or priestly hierarchy; the bitter controversies that surrounded it from the beginning; and the public controversy that surrounds it even today, when gnosticism is denounced, on the one hand, as the source of our spiritual troubles, and welcomed, on the other hand, as the means of spiritual deliverance.
Perhaps the highest tribute to scholarly detachment and fair-mindedness is the impossibility of identifying the religious affiliations or political beliefs of most of those who work in the field, so well have they succeeded in subordinating ideological inclinations to the demands of rigorously disinterested inquiry. Nor is it possible, in a field that enlists the efforts of scholars in Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, the United States, Japan, France, Belgium, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Israel, India, Austria, and Korea to detect any national bias or even to identify any distinctively national traditions of investigation, the higher criticism of religion having long ago lost its specifically Germanic flavor and passed into the common coin of international scholarship. The imposing body of work on gnosticism, which overcomes distance, language barriers, and national traditions in order to focus on matters of common concern, reminds us that an international community of scholars really exists and that it seems to provide a tantalizing glimpse, in fact, of the possibilities for international collaboration in matters more directly related to the cause of world peace.
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