Lasch on Gnosticism
Christopher Lasch is right in pointing to a variety of motives in the scholarship on gnosticism. I cannot here go into this labyrinth, and will limit my comments to the modest role I have played in the debate, since Lasch both criticizes and defends me in Parts II (Dec. 1990) and III (Jan.-Feb. 1991) of his series on gnosticism.
Among other things, he writes: “The affinity between gnosticism and modern science lies…not, as Molnar argues, in a mechanical model of man and the universe ….” Yet, in the rest of his text he shows himself quite friendly to the thesis I propose, namely, that (1) modern science is not only the legitimate probing of nature, but also the main and symbolic achievement of modernity, and (2) as such, modern science is chiefly meant to liberate, not the spirit (pneuma) that the gnostics wanted to liberate, but the spirit’s successor in our time, as it were, the intellect (to liberate it not from the evils of the flesh, but from the defects and contingencies associated with the flesh and the human condition: passions, hazards, randomness, the vagaries of non-intellectual man and nonscientific society).
Science and technology, I argue in various writings, are today interpreted as desirable ways of excluding incalculability, not only from research laboratories, but also from the soul, the imagination, faith, the mysteries of love, artistic and architectural taste, urban landscape, and ordinary conduct. A Soviet officer I met after the war argued that “science has proved” Tolstoy’s superiority over Dostoevsky.
Ever since, “science has proved” many other things which do not at all pertain to its discourse. To look for a direct gnostic inspiration in each instance would be grotesque, yet the main theme is analogous: There is an elite in possession of absolute knowledge (professed by Descartes and Hegel, among others), not discursive but innate in some, which must be liberated from ignorance, ill will, conspiracy, or class interest. From the sapere aude of Kant to branches of contemporary hermeneutics, our intellectual milieu is permeated by these postulates.
Is this gnosticism? Eliade writes that his only encounter with Voegelin was disappointing because the latter accused all current unpleasant phenomena of being neo-gnostic manifestations. Indeed, this is a caricatural view. It would be more prudent for scholarship on gnosticism to posit the following: (1) Gnosticism before Christianity was an assemblage of many doctrines (Persian, Syrian, Judaic, Egyptian, Hellenistic), which acquired a degree of unity — only a degree, since St. Irenaeus, in the second century, still speaks of sectarian gnostic debates and skirmishes in Lyon — under the sign of a common opposition to Incarnation; (2) the rise of an intellectual militancy for the vindication of the pure spirit, allegedly immersed in the flesh by Christianity. This militancy is similar in later doctrines which diverge in other respects, such as Marxism, scientism, Comtean positivism, and Nietzscheanism. Western intellectuals seem to be stamped with this modern ideology, the more so in proportion as the Church loses its authority over civil society and as Incarnation fades as the unifying dogma of our civilization.
Thus those whom some call neo-gnostics do not, in many instances, deserve the label — this is where Voegelin over-systematized the issue — but are so branded because the intellectual reaction to Christianity easily takes the gnostic form.
Ridgewood, New Jersey
Enslaved by the Body
I subscribed to the NOR despite my reservations about your Catholic focus (I was raised as an Anglican, but presently choose to be “unchurched” in order to salvage what remnants of faith in Christ I still retain). My reaction to the NOR’s mixed bag of articles is extremely ambivalent, but growing more negative.
Despite the various calls for human dignity, peace, and social justice, etc., the not-so-subtle thread of traditional Catholic misogyny (which other branches of Christianity, to be fair, have also retained) runs deep and strong through your periodical. The regular one-sided bashing of the pro-choice position on abortion is tiring, to say the least.
The issue of abortion, like all issues involving human sexuality, boils down to one thing: choice and free will. This is one of the bedrocks of Christianity, and must remain so for there to be true faith, not just “believing” out of fear with a “theological gun” pointed to the head. As long as a woman remains enslaved to her biological reproductive system, she will be too busy (and exhausted) with domestic chores to be able to attempt to change her exploited condition (and that of her children).
Man can send rockets to distant planets, create new and more terrifying weapons with his technology, but woman must remain a slave to her biology as she has been since the beginning of time — like dogs, cats, and all other animals. Why were we given the power of reason, intellect, and emotion that sets us uniquely apart from all other life in creation? Why should we have free will if we’re not allowed to make the “wrong” choice?
Nathan J. Latta
The Gift of Life — My Life
You have had several trenchant articles on abortion recently, mostly from a rather intellectual point of view. I would like to add my pepper to your salt.
My father died when I was two and my sister three. We grew up in poverty. We lived in our grandmother’s basement, wore hand-me-down clothes, and had a tab at the local grocery store which we always paid in full when the monthly relief check arrived in the mail. Throw in a long history of mental illness for both my sister and me, and one might think that I would rather have been aborted. Not so!
As a biology teacher for 28 years, I have always taught my students that life cannot be adequately defined, but when pressed, I always respond by saying, “Life is a gift.”
Every gift implies a giver. Some babies are born lacking certain abilities or traits which most would call desirable or “better.” But God does not give these equally. What a boring world it would be if He did! To see the smile on a profoundly retarded child when hugged (as I have) is an almost ineffable experience.
Thomas F. Mitchell
Lukacs Not Incoherent
In his review of John Lukacs’s Confessions of an Original Sinner (Dec.), Will Hoyt says twice that Lukacs talks about Stalinist soldiers and bureaucrats, but Lukacs uses the word Russian. (Do we have here summed up the difference between thinking politically and thinking historically?) Lukacs wants to contrast the Russian national character with the German character. (The recent article by another author in The New York Times Magazine on the Russian character indicates Lukacs is not alone in retaining interest in thinking about the character of peoples who have developed within a shared history.)
With that in mind, I find the passage Hoyt cites as an example of incoherence to be perfectly coherent. After Lukacs had observed Russian troops in Budapest, he contrasted them with the Germans he had seen. He found the Russians “to be a people utterly without pride,” shameful brutes, inhuman, though “probably less inhuman than the Germans at their worst….” He then lost respect for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (retaining his debt to Dostoevsky’s thought on some topics), seeing them as representatives of the worst features of the Russian character. He found in Chaadayev, Turgenev, and Chekhov, representing the best qualities of the Russian character, attitudes and ideas far more humane and truly Christian than the “self-professed” Christian pronouncements of the “great bearded fake puritans” who partook of the spirit of Rasputin (the dark side of Russia) more than they did of humane sensitivity, let alone the gospels. Note that my explication is certainly not more clearly worded than Lukacs’s sentences. Lukacs’s judgment may be harsh or strongly worded, but it hardly seems incoherent.
Robert E. Garlitz
Plymouth, New Hampshire
Answering Cort on Medjugorje
If John Cort wishes to research Medjugorje further (see his “Medjugorje: True or False?” Dec.), he may wish to consult Spark from Heaven by Mary Craig [reviewed in our March 1990 issue]. As far as I know, this is the only full-length book on the subject that takes neither a strictly favorable nor opposing stance. Craig is a reporter for the BBC.
Craig appears to believe that the first time the seers were asked about the Franciscan priests, they did not know who they were, but they were subsequently informed. The later messages were to the effect that the priest had been unjustly suspended, which is not to say he was innocent of any misconduct.
Bishop Zanic, in his first interview with the youth (one month after the apparitions began), believed the children, though was afraid the visions may have been drug-related or satanic. Only later did the bishop accuse the children of lying. Cort never points out that the Vatican has asked the bishop not to repeat his accusation that the apparitions are a Franciscan plot.
The statement attributed to Mary — “all faiths are equal” — seems to be a common misquote. Rather, Mary is alleged to have said that all religions deserve respect, and that a Christian must not treat another’s sincere faith with scorn and contempt. One who scoffs at another faith as stupid is not a true Christian. This is a message of equality of people, rather than equality of belief-systems. Mary is supposed to have brought this home by stressing the genuine sanctity of a particular Moslem woman in the area.
Cort says he wants a message of social justice. This equal civil treatment of other faiths is precisely the message of social justice that Slavic, Mediterranean, and Mid-East countries are most in need of hearing. No Christian who views a Moslem or rival Christian as his ultimate enemy is in much of a hurry to feed or clothe him. As an American, John Cort takes too much for granted, and is asking for a too specifically American agenda of social justice.
Contrary to Cort, the spirit of the Magnificat isn’t missing either. Mary is alleged to have said that America is too much in love with money, power, and pleasure, and to have contrasted us unfavorably with the people of Russia.
What I Saw at Medjugorje
Regarding Medjugorje (see John Cort’s “Medjugorje: True or False?” Dec): Bishop Zanic was at the beginning a cautious defender of the visionaries. He did “a flip” after Our Lady apparently said he had acted hastily in a controversy with two Franciscan priests. After that incident, he decided the whole thing is a “Franciscan plot.” The first commission investigating the apparitions was hand-picked by Zanic; Cardinal Ratzinger’s office in Rome refused to accept its determinations. The matter was officially placed in the hands of all the bishops of Yugoslavia. The local bishop (Zanic) was officially removed from the “case.” He was told to cease and desist by Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; he refused to do so, and has, if anything, gone more public and grown more bitter and offensive.
My question is: How could a Franciscan plot make the sun go opaque and surround itself with a rainbow of colors? That is what I saw when I visited Medjugorje in 1988.
Thomas W. Case
Ed. Note: After your letter was written, a statement of the Conference of Yugoslav Bishops (not the bishops’ Commission of Inquiry investigating Medjugorje) was made public. The key sentence is: “On the basis of research conducted so far, one cannot affirm that supernatural apparitions or revelation are involved.” The vote of the bishops was almost unanimous (with 19 bishops supporting the statement, none opposing it, and one abstaining). The statement, while significant, has been subject to various interpretations. In any case, it is not definitive. The controversy will continue.
Christopher Dodson’s article on why liberals should oppose abortion (Dec.) ignores one obvious question: If conservatives have such a disrespect for life, as evidenced by their supposed disregard for the poor, why are most of them adamantly against abortion? Perhaps Dodson would dismiss this as an anomaly. But maybe, just maybe, conservatives care more about the poor and disadvantaged than liberals would care to admit.
Samuel A. Nigro, M.D.
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
From Sex Ed to Gun Ed
There is an epidemic of gun problems at earlier and earlier ages. But, the Second Amendment to the Constitution means that the people have the right to bear arms without infringement (see “The Second Amendment” by Sheldon Vanauken, Jan.-Feb.).
This being so, it is the lack of education that is the problem! Therefore, it behooves professionals everywhere to make people aware of their gun rights at the earliest ages. A gun education effort must begin, comparable to sex education.
Gun ed is clearly indicated by the increasingly frequent misuse of firearms in the U.S. The number of accidents and deaths due to the mishandling of guns demands that youths be informed about guns as early as possible. They are going to use them. They have a constitutional right to bear them. No one can impose his or her morality on such a constitutionally based personal decision.
Gun ed would begin with a graduated introduction in grade schools, proceeding through secondary schools with gun clinics being made available at student health services.
Initial instructions in the primary grades would begin with elementary understanding of basic gun anatomy, progressing to general functioning and maintenance. This would be followed in higher grades by instructions in specific gun operation and in support services for ammunition, repair, acquisition, and proper storage. Coupled throughout and persistently emphasized would be safety and prevention of unwanted discharges and accidencies.
There is no question that the impact of gun ed would be quite the same as sex ed, but, more importantly, our grand commitment to all the freedoms given by the Constitution, which emphatically include the right to bear arms without infringement, would be fulfilled.
Moreover, the amalgamation of the right to privacy, the right to die, and the Second Amendment would allow us to return to dueling as a means of problem resolution. When you think about it, dueling is more civilized than random street battles, more prompt than this law we now have, and as respectably historical as abortion.
If we are right about sex ed, we will be right about gun ed. If we are right about abortion, we will be right about dueling.
Shooting a Dictator
Regarding the responses by Gordon C. Zahn and the Editor himself to my “The Second Amendment” (all in the Jan.-Feb. issue): The Editor offers the comforting assurance that the chances of dictatorship in the U.S. are “extremely remote, especially in these times….” So might the Germans have said in 1929. So might the Southern states have said before Lincoln. Who in 1891 could have believed that by 1991 the vast British Empire would be gone or that the sexual tiger would be rampant? The trouble with “these times” is that someone may be humming “The times they are a-changin’.” Who can say that by 2091 a Big Brother, promising to clean up our act, may not be voted in? Pendulums do swing.
The Second Amendment explicitly (with my emphasis) states: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Not just militiamen, the people. Not only must we not deny that right, we must not infringe (limit) it. I maintained that, by no infringement, the men who composed the Second Amendment meant no infringement. Zahn calls this a “strict constructionist” reading, and the Editor calls it a “fundamentalist” reading. Granting that they both very much want to infringe the right, I find it difficult to see how infringement can be done without infringing. Greater minds may see a way, hidden from me. But I may add that when the Supreme Court reads “freedom of speech” in the First Amendment to forbid (rightly) a law against flag-burning, it appears that strict constructionism is right in style.
Zahn suggests that the Second Amendment merely allows each state to have “a well-regulated militia” as protection against federal power. If so, the Constitution has been subverted by the federal power in the absorption of the state militias into the National Guard. But, while praising militias, the Amendment says that the people, not just militiamen, have the right to “keep and bear Arms” — that is, the arms are not to be owned by the state to dole out for drills or emergencies and then collected again.
Both critics relate the horrors of innocents killed by guns, but I had already spoken of these horrors, so no points were scored by their doing so again. Still, I might mention that motor cars, unprotected by the Constitution, kill far more innocents, but no one proposes denying cars to the people.
I also pointed out that “armed revolt against a modern government armed with tanks” wouldn’t have a chance; but Zahn says the same thing as though he were scoring another point against me. But I also said, isn’t it odd that the tyrant’s first act is to seize (registered) guns? Why? Well, if he has to use tanks and bombs against the people, he may not have any people left to rule. Then, too, he is strongly averse to having his head blown off by an uncollected shotgun and to having his lieutenants potted by sportsmen in the bushes. Let us remember the French Resistance. And the Southern Resistance, the original Kuklux. Think what we might have been spared had some hunter shot Hitler.
The men who wrote the Second Amendment thought that on the whole it is no bad thing if free citizens are able to shoot back; with that “shall not be infringed” they were right firm about it.
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
While we wait for a dictator to shoot, we’ve seen JFK, RFK, King, Wallace, Reagan, and other public figures shot. Unrestricted access to guns is your antidote to hypothetical tyranny — which is like a doctor prescribing morphine for headaches.
What really haunts you? A future dictator or the ghost of Lincoln? Your implication that Lincoln was a dictator, your favorable reference to the violent “Southern Resistance, the original Kuklux,” and (in your Jan.-Feb. article) your citing the Union as an example of “tyrannical” government and calling the Civil War the “Second War of Independence” — indeed, your well-known sympathy for the Confederacy — suggest that the tyrant has already visited us, and his name was Abraham Lincoln. Was John Wilkes Booth therefore committing a legitimate act of tyrannicide when he shot and killed Lincoln, and then cried out, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants), the motto of Virginia?
Perhaps we’re speaking different languages and further debate is pointless.
War in the Persian Gulf
Ed. Note: In our Jan.-Feb. issue we published documents from the U.S. Catholic hierarchy applying traditional just war teaching to the Persian Gulf crisis and urging patience in the search for a nonviolent solution. That was prior to the outbreak of war. As our March issue was about to go to press, we received the following statement (dated Jan. 16, the day U.S. forces began bombing Iraq) from the Most Rev. John S. Cummins, Bishop of the Diocese of Oakland:
I must deplore the news of the beginning of hostilities.
Our inherited Catholic tradition opposes the use of violence. Stringent conditions surround its justification. Among these are a just cause, war as a last resort, and the proportion of damage in relation to the justice of the cause.
The justice of the cause is apparent. It is not at all clear that it justifies the use of deadly force by the United States. Whether nonviolent means have been exhausted is not at all apparent. The kind and scope of this war and its awesome potential consequences in the Middle East and at home cannot caution approval.
As a citizen of this country of my birth, I deeply regret having to make this judgment.
I commend to your prayers our servicemen and women and their families.
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