Volume > Issue > The Infantile Illusion of Omnipotence & the Modern Ideology of Science

The Infantile Illusion of Omnipotence & the Modern Ideology of Science

NOTES ON GNOSTICISM

By Christopher Lasch | October 1986
Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester. His books include The Agony of the American Left, Haven in a Heartless World, The Culture of Narcissism, and The Minimal Self.

The modern world finds it difficult, after all, to get along without religion. But the modern world finds it equally difficult to believe in the jealous, angry, “patriarchal,” and unenlightened God of our fathers. Modern man needs religion — but an enlightened, progressive religion, one that supports current notions of “liberation.” Hence liberation theology: only one, however, among a variety of attempts to refurbish religion in the light of recent political requirements. Another such at­tempt is the rehabilitation of gnosticism, which, it is said, stands in something of the same relation to feminism and environmentalism that liberation theology stands in relation to the revolution of the Third World proletariat.

Not only has gnosticism become the subject of intense scholarly interest, but this interest has been, for the most part, remarkably sympathetic, as if gnosticism represented an important correc­tive and alternative to Christianity (often accused of encouraging men to think of themselves as lords over nature). Elaine Pagels’s well-known book, The Gnostic Gospels, exemplifies this special plead­ing on behalf of gnosticism. Pagels presents the sec­ond-century gnostics as an embattled vanguard struggling against the repressive orthodoxy of the early church. With its emphasis on inner religious experience, its androgynous conception of God, and its admission of women into the priesthood, gnosticism had radical and egalitarian implications, according to Pagels, which the church fathers found profoundly disturbing. Their persecution of gnosticism, Pagels argues, rested on political rather than strictly religious considerations.

It was largely because gnosticism threatened the institutional hierarchy of the Church that Tertullian and Irenaeus found it so little to their lik­ing. Says Pagels: “What made [gnosticism] hereti­cal?… I suggest that…we cannot fully answer this question as long as we consider this debate [between Christianity and gnosticism] exclusively in terms of religious and philosophical arguments.” The debate “also involves social and political is­sues.” Pagels continues: “Like circles of artists to­day, gnostics considered original creative invention to be the mark of anyone who becomes spiritually alive.” Naturally, such ideas offended those who expected themselves to be the exclusive authority on all matters of doctrine.

The modern intellectual, committed to the liberal values of toleration and to the free market­place of ideas, finds the concept of heresy deeply suspect. Recent battles against censorship create an initial predisposition in favor of any group accused of unorthodox beliefs, especially one that advo­cates so many positions that are superficially ap­pealing to the enlightened mind. Pagels’s inability to take theological issues seriously or to put the dispute between orthodoxy and gnosticism in any kind of historical context reflects this predisposi­tion against orthodoxy as inherently repressive and intolerant.

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