Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pope Francis Versus Gnosticism

Pope Francis has gotten a lot of props for his progressive-sounding statements, but it is also important to understand that he has done little to change Roman Catholic theology itself. His statements about compassion for the poor and income inequality are welcome, but it also should be kept in mind that such positions have been advocated by the church for centuries. It's just that since John Paul II it was an issue that received little attention, so it's good to hear Francis bringing it up again now.

While I find Francis to be a vast improvement over his last few predecessors, what would really impress me would be if he began making significant changes to some of the theological points that seem out of touch with the modern world. This he has not done. Recently Francis gave a speech in which he outlined the "two temptations" facing the church, one of which he described as "Gnosticism."

The Pope then identified the second temptation as “Gnosticism.”

Francis said this leads to “trusting in clear, logical reasoning” which “loses the tenderness of the flesh of the brother.” The fascination of Gnosticism — he said — is that of “ a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings” ("The Joy of the Gospel," No. 94).

Pope Francis said that the difference between every form of Gnosticism and Christianity is to be found in the mystery of the incarnation (of God who became man). “Not to put the Word (of God) into practice, not to bring it to reality, means to build on sand, to remain in pure ideas and to degenerate into intimacies that bear no fruit because they make its dynamism,” he said.

Now this is no real surprise because Gnosticism has been considered a heresy by the Roman Catholic Church since the first millenium. It also is true that the Gnostics of that period at least to some extent fit Francis' characterization. I've always found demiurge theology bizarre because it is based on the contradiction between the portrayal of God in the Old versus the New Testament. Put simply, the first millenium Gnostics decided that since the Old Testament God was an asshole and Jesus was cool, the Old Testament God must be a "false God" that they called the demiurge.

However, if you're not a literalist and understand that the perception of God has a more to do with the perspective of the various authors and less to do with what really took place at that time, this apparent contradiction falls apart. The Bible was finally written down after the Babylonian Captivity around 580 BCE. Before that it consisted of nearly a thousand years of oral tradition. The narrative gives a general sense of what the Israelites of the time believed their history to be, but that's about as far as it goes.

First millenium Gnosticism also suffered from the influence of Manicheanism, which split the universe into matter-bad and spirit-good. The logical conclusion from that premise is that in order to seek the good, people must renounce the material. I expect that this is where Francis' contention that Gnosticism eschews material action comes from. If matter is fundamentally evil, there's no point in trying to engage with it and one should work towards escaping its grasp.

The problem is that to my way of thinking, a religious tradition that acts in the material world but offers no technology to transform consciousness might as well not be a religion. People working in such a tradition might be good activists, and they might do a lot of good in the world, but at the expense of personal spiritual growth for their membership. It leads to seeing one's church not as a training ground for spiritual experiences, but rather as just another club with a series of social missions.

The key point for me is that for a religious tradition to be effective, it must engage its adherents in both spiritual practice and material actions. Many of the first-millenium Gnostics failed to engage the latter, but the intercessionary model of spirituality espoused by the mainstream Roman Catholic Church fails to engage the former for many. While many possible spiritual practices are available to Roman Catholics, nobody can do them for you, not a priest and not even Jesus.

Also, many modern Gnostic traditions do not follow the matter/spirit split. They are Gnostic because their focus is on direct personal experience of the divine, but not Manichean dualists who see nothing of the divine in the material world or seek to escape from it. They affirm the material world rather than reject it. One example is the ecclesiastical arm of my Thelemic tradition, Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. And we are by no means the only world affirming Gnostics out there - or even for that matter the only Thelemic tradition.

If Francis is going to characterize Gnosticism in this fashion, he should be clear that he refers to the dualistic world-denying version of the tradition, rather than implying that focusing attention on personal spiritual growth is somehow bad or wrong. This latter implication ignores that the motivation towards the sort of compassionate work that he is urging people to do often begins with a shift in consciousness at the individual level as the result of diligent spiritual practice.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble


Peregrin said...

Thanks for this intelligent summary, Scott :)

Your comments regarding His Holiness are very apt. Indeed, it is easy to see his liberal and compassionate expressions, so loved by the modern secular west, as nothing more than a working out of the direction the church decided to go during Vatican II. It takes several generations for ‘innovations’ to be fully embraced in institutions such as the RCC: basically a generation or more of leaders need to die and be replaced.

His Holiness has not only declined to reframe or change theology, he has not altered doctrine and still oversees excommunication writs to those faithful who are seen to challenge or go against this doctrine.

Your comments re Gnosticism hit the nail of the problem for modern (Neo?) Gnostics on the head: “They are Gnostic because their focus is on direct personal experience of the divine …”

Yet calling themselves ‘Gnostic’ these groups will automatically place themselves in the broad sweep (and IMO largely useless) category of ‘Gnostic’ dualists that is held by religious historians the world over. I am not sure how, while still using the term, we can get around that …

The sad paradox of course is that the core teaching of the RCC also INSIST that every Christian has this personal experience, this personal encounter and change of heart. That this core teaching is ignored almost completely means that any sensible person would agree with your comments regarding the church not offering ‘technology to transform consciousness’ and being ‘just another club with a series of social missions’.

However, I would argue the RCC does offer – almost completely hidden – incredible ‘technology’ of consciousness change. In every mass and in every ritual. However, the priests, by and large do not know how to work it. That does not mean it is not there, and is not available to the laity. As I said on my own blog:

“In Orthodox and Catholic traditions the Priesthood is seen to have a different role to the laity. However, this does not stop full and complete participation by the laity in the Church rituals (and of course their own personal practice). All it means is that we are not the ones leading the rituals. For example, I defy anyone who enters it with an open spirit (especially using the visualisation and other techniques of western magic) not to deeply participate in and experience the Passion of Christ through the Stations of the Cross.”

These gems within the church may be as hidden as the demolition notice in ‘Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’, but they are there :) And may be well worth the effort to find … In any case, the most potent ‘technology’ the church offers - which can be acted upon, meditated upon, used as the centre piece of magical work, become the foundation of our life - is that freely given at each service: ‘to love our neighbour as ourselves’.


Scott Stenwick said...

Roman Catholicism certainly does have a whole panoply of spiritual technologies at its disposal, many of which most of the Protestant churches wound up discarding. The big exception that I've seen to this is Anglican Christianity, which kept most of the technology but revised their theology over time.

The problem comes in when people don't practice them, or don't think that they have to, or think that all they have to do is attend Mass where a priest does the work for them. Then they basically turn their church into a club. For the record, I think this problem is far worse in evangelical churches where they don't even perform Mass as a proper magical ritual and insist that all you have to do is "accept Jesus as your personal savior" and you're good to go - with no work of any kind required, spiritual or otherwise.

Generally speaking, most members of the EGC actually call themselves Thelemites rather than Gnostics, but I think that the "Catholica" - universal - following the "Gnostica" communicates pretty clearly that our path is not a strictly dualist one. I also think that many of the Hermetics from the Renaissance forward could properly be called Gnostics, or maybe lowercase-G gnostics, of a world-affirming sort. Hence, the fascination with science and the natural world as opposed to the rejection of it.