Volume > Issue > Probing Gnosticism & Its Modern Derivatives

Probing Gnosticism & Its Modern Derivatives


By Christopher Lasch | December 1990
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His books include Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Mini­mal Self. His The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics will be published by Norton early next year. The above article is part of a series on gnosticism. Part I appeared in our October 1986 issue. Parts III, IV, and V will appear in our next three issues.

In 1910 a curious little pamphlet was pub­lished in London under the title Gnosticism: The Coming Apostasy. The author, D.M. Panton, presumably a clergyman, warned that gnosticism, condemned as heresy by the early Church, had come out of hiding in the 20th century, in the form of spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, Campbellism, and the “New Theology,” as the principal rival and threat to Christianity. “Modern conditions,” Panton wrote, “have exactly reproduced the natural soil of gnosticism.” He did not pursue this line of argument, but the intuition behind it was sound. If gnosticism is the characteristic form of contemporary spirituality, it is because the “postmodern” megalopolis has given rise to forms of social life uncannily reminiscent of the Hellenistic empire — that sprawling, polyglot empire that proved so vulnerable, in its hyperextension, not only to military raids along its borders but to the incursions of Eastern mysticism. The Hellenistic age bears a close and uncomfortable resemblance to our own. Then as now, the decline of small property and local self-government encouraged the centralization of political and economic power. The classic polis had ceased to exist. Private life was preferred to citizenship, and political loyalties, insofar as they had any life at all, attached themselves not to civic institu­tions but to the person of the emperor. The militarization of government and civic life was an added discouragement to any form of popular participation. The widening gap between the rich and the poor did not prevent a rapid circulation of elites or the rise of a parvenu class that was widely traveled and superficially sophisticated but only half edu­cated. The most striking parallel between Hellenistic society and our own was the per­vasive sense of homelessness in the mercantile and administrative classes, the members of which had been uprooted from their home­lands and condemned, by trade and the poli­tics of imperial expansion, to a migratory life.

In the 20th century a like configuration of social conditions leads to a like response — to forms of spirituality that combine homesick­ness with a contempt for everything homelike, aesthetic refinement with superstition, despair with a crazy kind of optimism.

In The Coining Apostasy Panton endorsed the contention, already advanced in 1907 by a writer in the British Congregationalist, that the “reproduction to-day of the second century Gnosticism is extremely close, often startling.” Since gnosticism had always been a “drift, a tendency…rather than a coherent creed,” its influence betrayed itself not in a single movement, let alone a church, but in a great variety of doctrinal aberrations and panaceas: vegetarianism, the temperance crusade, the campaign against monogamy conducted by Victoria Woodhull and other spiritualists, and a large assortment of dietary and sexual re­forms, all of which oscillated “between severe asceticism and gross carnality.” When Mary Baker Eddy dismissed Jehovah as a tribal god, when Helena Blavatsky announced that “Jehovah is Cain,” or when a respected histo­rian of religion, Adolf Harnack, produced an admiring biography of St. Paul’s heretical fol­lower Marcion, they carried on the gnostic tradition, according to which matter is evil and the physical universe the creation of an evil spirit or lesser deity, not the handiwork of God. Unlike George Fox, Elias Hicks, Emanuel Swedenborg, and other recent forerunners, 20th-century gnostics, Panton observed, no longer bothered to conceal their heretical be­liefs. They denied the humanity of Jesus — a “doctrine peculiarly characteristic of Gnosti­cism.” They insisted that salvation comes not from love but from knowledge. They were “frankly and jubilantly Gnostic.” Thus R.J. Campbell explicitly traced his New Theology back through Hegel to the “old Greek think­ers,” as Panton called them, while Theosophists tried to combine the hermetic, cabalis­tic, and gnostic traditions into a synthetic re­ligion far wider in its appeal, they claimed, than the parochial religions dominant in the past. All these movements carried within them the “throbbing heart of Gnosticism, perhaps the most dreaded foe the Christian faith ever confronted,” said Panton. They portended the invasion of the West by the “demonic philos­ophies of the hoary East,” which “rot away all the heart, while [they] maintain the husk, of the revelations of God.”

Panton’s proved to be only the first of several warnings against a gnostic revival, is­sued from time to time during the course of the 20th century by observers having little else in common. A suspicion that gnosticism might turn out to have more than merely historical interest drew the Jewish scholar Hans Jonas to the study of gnosticism in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not until the 1950s, however, that Jonas began to see gnosticism as the pro­totype of “modern nihilism.” Meanwhile, Eric Voegelin defended the “classic and Christian tradition” against the “growth of Gnosticism” in his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951. Voegelin regarded gnosticism as the original source of the Western tradition of millennialism, which included not only Christian millenarians and Reformation theo­logians but secular thinkers like Comte, Hegel, and Marx, and culminated in modern totalitar­ianism. Voegelin’s argument anticipated the critique of millennialism spelled out a few years later by Norman Cohn, who traced modern totalitarianism to underground reli­gious movements in the Middle Ages, which sought to fulfill scriptural prophecy by estab­lishing a revolutionary commonwealth. The 17th-century Puritan revolution in England, according to Voegelin, served as the model for subsequent attempts to engineer a “change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society.” Gnosticism deified man and society and turned politics into a means of “eschatological fulfillment.” Totalitarianism, the “existential rule of Gnostic activists,” car­ried the “essence of modernity” to its logical conclusion. It represented the “end form of progressive civilization.”

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