Crunchy Pope, Part Two: Against Gnostic Economics

by Mark Shiffman on April 4, 2009 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Philosophers & Saints

The obscuring of the faith in creation is a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity.

As I survey all the perplexing shifts in the spiritual landscape of today, only these two basic models seem to me to be up for discussion. The first I should like to call the Gnostic model, the other the Christian model. I see the common core of Gnosticism, in all its different forms and versions, as the repudiation of creation.

Joseph Ratzinger, “The Consequences of the Faith in Creation” (1979)

Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Pope Benedict’s diagnosis of the ills of the modern world has been influenced deeply by the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin identified Gnosticism as the central pathology of modern political thought. By Gnosticism, Voegelin meant the belief that we can achieve heaven on earth through our own efforts guided by superior knowledge. In this sense, Marxist utopianism serves as a prime example of gnostic modernism, both for Voegelin and for Benedict.

I think, however, that Benedict has improved on this thesis by identifying repudiation of creation as the heart of gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics (such as the Manicheans Augustine got mixed up with in his youth) looked upon the material world as bad, a prison for the pure spirit. If only the spirit could be liberated into its purity, it would be wholly good.

Thus Gnostics rejected the Hebrew Old Testament as a book of materialistic immersion in the things of the world. They saw the Creator God depicted there as the passionate evil spirit responsible for imprisoning our souls in matter and subjecting them to the passions. The New Testament, according to the Gnostics, depicted the spiritual and peaceful God in the person of Jesus. (This remains a perennially attractive reading of the two texts; as far as I can tell, most of my Catholic students are taught some version of it in their early religious education.)

At first glance, it is not easy to see the connection between this otherworldly spiritualism and the quite worldly materialism that dominates modern life. The key to recognizing the continuity lies in understanding that for moderns, the spirit is more or less identified with the will. The ancient Gnostics saw that the world was not as they wished it to be, and created a fictional world of pure spirit as an alternative. They avoided acknowledging that this other world was the construct of their escapist will. As Augustine saw quite clearly, the Manicheans refused to admit that there could be anything wrong with their own wills, and placed the blame on the flesh that a malevolent power had trapped them within. Moderns refuse to accept that there could possibly be a problem with their own wills, but for a different reason: for them the will is the source of all values. Both ancient and modern gnosticisms deny that the world is good, but the modern form acknowledges that this is an assertion of the will against the world, and proposes to take the world in hand and set it straight.

The doctrine of creation presented in the Book of Genesis tells us that the world is good, that human beings receive this world as an undeserved gift, and that this makes them dependent upon their creator and bound in humility to acknowledge this gift with gratitude. Central to that gratitude is acknowledgment of a responsibility to “till and keep” the earth given to us and not to abuse it. (See “Crunchy Pope, Part One.”)

Marxism opposes itself to this acknowledgment of dependence and limits:

Its place is taken by the category of self-creation, which is accomplished through work. Since creation equals dependence, and dependence is the antithesis of freedom, the doctrine of creation is opposed to the fundamental direction of Marxist thought …. The decisive option underlying all the thought of Karl Marx is ultimately a protest against the dependence that creation signifies: the hatred of life as we encounter it.

As a European writing primarily for Europeans, the then Cardinal Ratzinger rightly focused on Marxism. We have to recognize, however, that everything said here of Marx applies just as well to John Locke, the philosopher of British and American liberal political economy. Though less stridently and forthrightly than Marx, Locke just as deeply rejects the Christian understanding of creation and dependence.

In chapter five of his Second Treatise, Locke defends the individual right to property by arguing that the entire value of commodities derives from human labor. After reflecting a bit on the complexity of human economic activity, Locke ends up estimating that human labor contributes all but about 1/1000 of the value of things, whereas “Nature and the Earth furnished only the almost worthless materials.” The given world is essentially worthless, except as a source of the raw materials for human making. If a nation encourages industry, humans can use those raw materials for increasingly limitless increase in valuable commodities, and that nation will become wealthy and powerful. The rising tide will, Locke assures us, lift all boats.

No one can deny the importance of human labor for producing necessary and useful goods, and for improving the productive capacities of nature. At the same time, the attitude of Locke and Marx toward the given world can hardly be described as one exhibiting gratitude and reverence. It’s all what we make of it.

But not only is the world what we make of it. We are also what we make of ourselves.

Locke’s Second Treatise is the sequel to his less-often read First Treatise, in which he attacks the monarchist Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer teaches, in Locke’s paraphrase, that “Men are not naturally free.” What Filmer seems most directly to mean by this is that we are born dependent, that this dependence is ultimately constitutive of our way of being. Locke quotes Filmer as claiming that “A natural Freedom of Mankind cannot be supposed without the Denial of the Creation of Adam.” At bottom Locke is rejecting the principle of dependence that lies at the heart of Filmer’s understanding of our status as children of parents and as creatures of God. Locke’s account of the relationship of children to parents undermines gratitude for the gift of our own being every bit as much as his account of labor and value undermines gratitude for the gift of the world’s being.

In a sense, Locke treats the parent-child relationship as something accidental, a relationship of convenience between beings capable of free exercise of will. The child needs the parents because he is not yet capable of “the Freedom … of acting according to his own Will.” The parents provide nutrition and education during the period of preparation for independence, and the child’s duty to honor his parents is in exact proportion to the care taken for his education. The “bare act of begetting” carries with it no claim to gratitude.

The human body, like the rest of nature, begins as worthless material until it is labored upon by the will of the person whose body it becomes. It is by the action of our will that we develop all of our capacities beyond the merely nutritive. Education is the great labor by which the human species makes of itself something worthwhile, and whatever role the parents play in that education, it can accomplish nothing without the exercise of the child’s will. Hence my mind too attains its worth from the labor that I will to invest in it.

This is the sense in which Locke understands human beings as being their own individual property. All that they are that is of any value results from the labor they exercise upon themselves. Parents are, at best, the enablers of our self-creation, providing us with the material that is nearly worthless until improved by our own efforts.

In short, just as nature and the earth constitute the worthless world whose value lies in what humans can make of it, so too my body and mind are initially parts of that worthless world. It is when my will reshapes all this and turns it into some embodiment of itself that I lay claim to it. The world as given is essentially worthless, and the value things have results from our laboring to make the worthless material suitable to our wishes. It is the will that imparts value both by determining what will make something valuable and by causing that valuable something to be built up in it.

The older Gnostics turned away from the created world in revulsion; the newer Gnosticism turns against it in active opposition. By reducing the terms to world and will, modern Gnosticism more forthrightly declares that the world can only be good if our will declares it such.

On this view it is reasonable to understand our bodies as our own property. It is reasonable to understand the gestating child as the property of the mother as long as it remains part of her body and is far more the product of her labor than of its own. If we view human beings as abstract choosers, wholly equal as such, it is reasonable to view them as only accidentally related to other abstract choosers, such as parents, who are moved by whatever incentives nature has planted in them to help along our project of attaining independence. It is reasonable to understand life and the given world as in themselves negligible, as little to merit gratitude.

All this accords with Benedict’s description Gnosticism:

Human beings want to understand the discovered world only as material for their own creativity…. Gnosticism will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.

This means that Gnosticism will always be prepared to sacrifice what is, or “life as we encounter it,” to its vision of the unfettered life of the will, and to deny the reality of whatever places limits on our choices, such as the normative principles built into intergenerational relationships or into long-term sustenance of productive soil. Modern Gnosticism, under the guise of worldliness, is more thoroughly and intransigently world-negating than its ancestor.

As Benedict observes, this vision of the person confronting the world sets us in a new total antagonism to the created order:

Previously human beings could only transform particular things in nature; nature as such was not the object but rather the presupposition of their activity. Now, however, it itself has been delivered over to them in toto. Yet as a result they suddenly see themselves imperiled as never before.

Christianity, by contrast, recognizes the created order as a gift:

The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on “love.” … The doctrine of redemption is based on the doctrine of creation, of an irrevocable Yes to creation…. Only if the being of creation is good, only if trust in being is fundamentally justified, are humans at all redeemable.

If we do not recognize the created order as harboring a goodness that comes to us from outside and makes claims upon us, we can recognize nothing as good except what is said to be so by our own act of valuing. Only if we are not the source of all value can we embrace the possibility of redemption.

Thus faith in creation is not (as modern theology too often treats it) “devoid of anthropological importance.” The question of creation, and of whether the creation and the Creator deserve our love and gratitude, goes to the very heart of what it means to be human, of what it means to be a laboring being, of what constitutes wealth and prosperity and an economy consonant with human aspirations and the human good.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks April 4, 2009 at 9:43 am

Dr. Shiffman,

Bravo! Brilliantly rendered! You have provided the foundational philosophical perspective for the front porch republic.
Thank you for a wonderful definition of modern gnosticism (I didn’t know the Pope was a Voegelinian…so many books, so little time).
Is it then that modern gnosticism acts to destroy the transcendent pole of the metaxy and render man a world-immanent entity; and that gnosticism permeates the modern ideological distortions (Marxism, socialism, neoconservatism, et al)? And thanks for the clarifications on Locke!
I believe your essay might cause a couple of the contributors to begin the anamnetic process! I would hope it might expand into a book on the subject.
The essays on this site just continue to delight!

avatar Empedocles April 4, 2009 at 10:54 am

Um, can we expand the “foundational philosophical perspective for the front porch republic” be be moral realism itelf, which we can paraphrase as the view that the “created order as harboring a goodness that comes to us from outside and makes claims upon us” rather than demanding we conform to specific religious doctrines, please?

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

Thanks, Mark. We are all discovering anew that the great metaphysical significance of Aquinas celebrated by Maritain and Gilson — his grappling with existence — is not a passe holdover from the fadish decades of Existentialism. It is one portal to encountering the meaning of creation. What is that meaning? It is more than the “interface” where Grace meets Nature; rather, it tells us that to speak of “grace completing nature” makes sense only if we first understand grace as “giving” or “gifting” nature, as in, grace makes nature “to be” rather than not to be.

To harp further on a peeve of mine: the routine attacks on the “Hellenism” of Aquinas derive from the apparently extrinsic role of Christ in reality as Aquinas perceives it. But wasn’t Aquinas’s genius to show us that the fact of creation so overwhelms us, so informs every aspect of reality, that in its light we must understand all things? To attempt to follow Christ without attending to the creation that conditions our following (because we are in it and of it) would itself lead to Manicheism, to gnosticism.

avatar Mark Shiffman April 4, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Bob: That’s the kind of comment to lead off a string! Yes, gnosticism in this sense pervades modern ideologies. Perhaps ideology as such is gnostic, given that it involves cropping the picture of reality rather than opening oneself to the gift and the mystery.

Empedocles: I think I agree with you, though not sure how specific you mean in “specific religious doctrines.” Despite the papist flavor that is especially pronounced this weekend (largely by coincidence), this is certainly not a Catholic site per se. On the other hand, if you mean the specific doctrine of creation, that might be closer to “foundational” for most or all of us writing here.

A related question, and one that I think is becoming more and more important to ask, is whether moral realism is tenable without metaphysical realism. I’ll be exploring that more in the future.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Empodocles, an oft times brilliant discussant, hits the nail on the proverbial head, in his critique of “specific religious doctrine.” I get the sense that he means that the relationship with Christ is predicated on the gospel (“For a gospel is neither a poet’s work of dramatic art, nor an historian’s biography of Jesus, but the symbolization of a divine movement that went through the person of Jesus into society and history.”)and that this metaxical relationship by definition is experiential.
Church doctrines were in large measure established to counter the Gnostic heresies, an early example is Irenaeus’ “Adversus Haereses” (ca. 180). Apparently it didn’t work well because as EV points out we saw the rise of the gnostics in: “Maricon, Valentinus, Basilides, Carpocratres, Simon, and others.” And, as you and the Pope have pointed out, gnosticism is flourishing today!
If the gospel is itself “..an event in the drama of revelation,” but is utilized by church intellectuals and theologians to facilitate the process of defining the historical Christ, and the doctrinal Christ at the expense of the experientially revealed Christ, doesn’t that, in part at least, explain the loss of membership, in those people who have fled to the “fundamentalist, Born Again, and Charasmatic movements” in search of the experience of revelation and God?
Are not our various Christian denominations guilty of being seduced, in one degree or another, by the gnostic heresy; the effort to immanentize the Christ?

avatar D.W. Sabin April 4, 2009 at 3:16 pm

My my do we not have a wee conundrum here…..the Gnostics and their socialist heirs, busily making the world over in their image….. they stand back and attempt to admire that which their utopian urges created and as Benedict asserts, they are forced to , “See the world imperiled as never before”. May we have the restart button please? All that work and with every new improvement, the rig runs worse. Whose army is this anyhow?

Stewardship demands that one actually love that which one is attempting to conserve. Unfortunately, Loathing still appears to be raining down out of the bombay doors of the improver’s air force so the liberation of violence and fear marches on. Titanic Man finds an enemy to embrace in himself and given his predilection for energetic aggrandizement, the enemy in the mirror becomes greater than expected. Perfection would appear to have a principle occupation called suicide.

As an apostate, I’ve always enjoyed the manifest beauty contained within the messy poetry that has come since a random stellar purportedly body deep-sixed an epoch of gargantuan Reptiles. The dance of continents across the globe and the waxing and waning of ice and shallow seas possesses an awesome pageant that makes telos seem somehow besides the point because with energy and life like this, who needs perfection? However, that the ordered anarchy of biologic evolution, in concert with a benevolent if vigorous troposphere could create such a remarkable garden as ours…well, it beats a certain and undeniable mysticism into chance. One is forced to ponder the fact that If chance had no underlying divinity, poetry would be unnecessary and it cannot be that poetry is merely a mechanistic product of a randomly clinical intellect in service to chance. Without poetry, mankind is merely a slave digging a grave. Technological progress, in this age would appear to be a race to escape poetry by a process of distraction and busy hands and so it would seem that when all has come under the knife and all we have left is our poetic urges as life ebbs away, that grave we stand in has earned the appellation “Terror”. For me then, uncertainty becomes a portal into the possibilities of the divine. The Crunchy Pope hands my skeptical relativism back with a wink from the ages of both past and future.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 4, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Dear D.W.,

Dude!
You are a terrific writer and thinker! Apostate? I don’t think so. More the poet than philosopher? Maybe, but you see the horizon and that makes you a philosopher, yet its all about free will and that messy business with Augustine and his “peccatum originale,” coined in his best selling “Ad Simplicianum.”
I do read you in much the same manner I drink Buffalo Trace; slowly and deliberately, with much the same effect! You are the Vietnamese Rat Sauce (I pour it on everything)of the Front Porch Republic, alway adding flavor and zest!
Now on to serious matters: Could you possible ask Ms. Dalton, one more time, for a story? YOU should ask because your writng is so poetic (I think she likes that!) and I don’t want her mad at me. If this works out, we can ask Bill Kauffman for a story too!
In closing, I should tell you I’m going to put you on my prayer list (I pray for people!), if you don’t mind. And, if you do mind, I’m going to pray for you anyway.
Yours-in-Christ(or the Logos, if you prefer),
Bob Cheeks

avatar Mark Shiffman April 5, 2009 at 12:01 am

“Yes, man made the water flow over the dam, to temper his tantrum with magic; now he can’t be sure of that tent of azure, since he punched a hole in the fabric. Poor fractured Atlas….” (Elvis Costello)

I’m with D.W., which is why I think two of the best things I do as a teacher are 1) make students confront William Blake and 2) make students spend time every week staring at a tree or pond. Confronting reality means experiencing the exquisite tension between the perfection of form and the excess of presence and promise that shines through that form. This is the experience of beauty and goodness, both in what IS in nature and what promises or proposes to be in poetry and visual art. Technology flatters the love of dominion and control by framing experience in accord with the narrowest limits of our desires. Poetry and nature demand that we acknowledge the farthest and most difficult to articulate reaches of our desires, and thus they confront us with the otherness that beckons us out of the selves that we can delude ourselves are “safer”. This is part of what Ratzinger describes as the humility of being.

avatar Empedocles April 5, 2009 at 8:19 am

Mark,
I hope I don’t open up too big of a can or worms here, but I was wondering what your take is on the relationship between centralized political and economic power and centralized religious power. Why not be a congregationalist? :)

avatar D.W. Sabin April 5, 2009 at 11:36 am

Cheeks…
“Vietnamese Rat Sauce”……….yee haw but this is a welcome nom de plume. I don’t care what it tastes like because if the rat snout fits, one must wear it happily. Pray as you like, it’s one of the last things this God-forsaken lapsed-Republic of Smiling Warcrats still aint taxed on and I’m all for a vigorous application of the untaxed. You are too kind……. Abusive prolixity should not be encouraged. On the other hand, you are right as regards Ms. Dalton…more would be better in her case.

Mark, William Blake fits the bill of one of my favorite Ed Abby quips :”Only the half mad are wholly alive”

As to Empedocles’ query to Shiffman about the possibility of Congregationalism…….be careful what is wished for as demonstrated by the following yuletide parable:

The Wife and I hold an annual Christmas Eve party for some of what we like to call the local Orphans…or people who don’t have family close at hand. Well, it is an ecumenical affair with my wife the Jewess cooking a pork roast and when the timing is right, lighting the menorah next to the giant 18′ Christmas tree she makes me, the Half-bred near-Mormon heretic erect …..and another Jewish guest circumcises the roast while the dominant Christians , both Catholic and Protestant enjoy the Christmas Music and Hootch Table. One year, we completed the circuit and had a young Muslim exchange student from Uganda present and when the Yule tree keeled over in the crush….a longstanding tradition……and I erupted into a very unholy stream of picturesque invective threatening to launch the infernal pagan vessel off the back deck …the Ugandan lad smiled and said one of the few english words he knew how to pronounce perfectly:”NASA!”. This, of course cheered my passions despite the devastation. For a moment, I considered holding a Christmas Eve countdown and duct-taping the incessantly shedding family cat to the top before firing it southward but…., I digress as usual. Well, it seems that the local Congregationalist contingent who struggle in from the white church on the Green after the Christmas Eve service were unusually somber one year. A first round of drinks would not even lift the atmosphere of confused melancholy and after I asked what might possibly be wrong, I was amazed to hear a summary of what the Congregational Minister had told the assembled….. on Christmas Eve of all days: She told them that the Virgin Birth was not confirmed scientifically and that the Three Wise Men were, (and this part really added to my sadistic pleasure in the story) “Zoroastrian Wizards”. Well, I’m all for intellectual skepticism and the exploration of competing historical narratives as the spirit may move but on Christmas Eve? Only after I hatched a plan to sponsor the printing of a hundred bumper stickers asking “Who Boi*ked Mary? ” (Cheeks, you can start praying for me now please) and inaugurating the run by sticking one on the Minister’s car during a night raid did they relent from the dismay of hearing one’s Beautiful Christmas Story pedestrianized so. The Congregationalists would seem to have an awful lot of ministers who have a poor sense of timing and like to mix in the trendily temporal a tad too much. This aint Cotton Mather’s Puritans by any stretch of multicultural reveries. Needless to say, the Congregationalists at one time in New England made the Reverend Creflo Dollar look unenterprising. Nothing…and I mean NOTHING was done without sanction and a proper notation in the book of taxable property. Separation of Church and State , that thing they had fled England to enjoy, lost its charms once their religion enjoyed exclusive occupancy.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 5, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Empedocles, good work, your brilliantly phrased query obviously provided the impetus D.W. required to relate perhaps the most hilarious story ever told on the internet. I read it to my beloved (after returning from SERVICES!)and we both laughed til the tears ran down our CHEEKS!
Mark, I went back and read your earlier contributions and I’m very impressed…I should have a piece, tentatively titled: A Critique of Atheism, due out in a Brit quarterly this summer or fall, that will no doubt get me banned from the casinos at Monte Carlo…oh well there’s alwalys sking in the Alps with Taki! Also, I would appreciate it if you continued on the gnostic problem..sorry about the Wildcats, they should have brought the team that beat Pitt.
DW, Dude, you’re just killing me! If you aren’t contributing to the FPR in short order something is terribly wrong…unless, of course, you’re writing from prison…a distinct possibility.
A Jewish wife, now that’s cool. I married a West Virginian, just about the same thing, and oh yes she doesn’t like the gov’t any more than you, “Moutaineers are always Free!” BTW, I think I’ll pray for your wife, too!

avatar Dan April 5, 2009 at 6:07 pm

>>Though less stridently and forthrightly than Marx, Locke just as deeply rejects the Christian understanding of creation and dependence.<<

Come now.

Locke believed in the goodness of creation. Locke believed in God. Locke believed the created world was redeemed through Jesus Christ. Locke believed in innate human dignity. Marx did not believe the world was created. Marx was an atheist. Marx did not believe this world was redeemed. Marx did not believe there was any special value attached to human life.

I am not likely to take your arguments seriously if you include these kinds of statements.

avatar Mark Shiffman April 6, 2009 at 6:33 am

Dan,

I would actually dispute every claim you make about Locke, but this would involve us in a detailed examination of his writings. That will be for my individualism book. What I will say now is the following. You have to look carefully at what Locke means by all these things (like God and human dignity) and ask yourself whether he is at all talking about them in anything like the sense in which the Christian tradition does. Your first claim I would dispute most strongly. Does Locke believe in the goodness of creation? I think much of the answer lies buried in the Essay on Human Understanding, and that would be where our argument would have to venture. The Second Treatise is a political work and makes a lot of rhetorical accommodations to his audience that do not, I think, accurately reflect Locke’s own point of view. But even in that text, the assertion that he makes in chapter two that our dignity is grounded on our being “God’s property” is undermined when he comes to examine property more minutely in chapter five.

avatar Mohammad April 6, 2009 at 2:27 pm

this would be a good article if you omit the complete nonsense about gnosticism! I don’t understand the reason for trying to categorize everything. Truth is one, but error is many, and you (or the Pope) cannot and should not unify the old and modern errors, in such a superficial manner, under the term Gnosticism (which has many different connotations, positive and negative).

Firstly, Gnosticism of the first and second centuries itself was hardly just one unmistakable entity. True, there were some of them who were Manicheans. But there were many other trends. The idea that the created world is good is the full view of Christianity, as the Gospel of John teaches us: “the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” The idea of the spirit being imprisoned in the material body is not foreign to Christianity either; wasn’t it the Christ who taught us that the people in Paradise are made of pure spirit?

In a way, the emphasis modernity puts on will is the exaggerated and deviated form of the orthodox Christianity (it being the religion with the most emphasis on Will), rather than a renewal of ancient heresy. The ancient heretics might have misunderstood and misinterpreted the notions of inherent truth (“The kingdom of God is within you”), or the evil of the world (from which the true hermits, saints and monks would flee). But for most part regarding them as the predecessors of modernity is superficial.

avatar Mohammad April 6, 2009 at 2:28 pm

and please forgive my poor English in the previous post!

avatar D.W. Sabin April 6, 2009 at 2:43 pm

While I recommend a short stay in a jail cell to everyone as long as they have an entertaining cellmate……I am gainfully employed to an extent that Jailhouse Correspondence aint my gig…yet.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm

In the spirit of full confession, I spent a rather memorable three days in the county facilities for an act of civil disobedience… and regardless of the fact that I look darn good in orange, the site of a steel, seatless toilet bowl continues, to this day, to cause discomfiture.

avatar Mark Shiffman April 7, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Muhammad rightly points out that the story is more complicated than a short discussion can do justice to. Nonetheless, I think drawing out important underlying principles can ultimately clarify the unity and divergence of fundamental attitudes. The pope and I are both, to a certain extent, following in the lines of Hans Jonas’ great study of gnosticism. There have been critics of Jonas of course. But Jonas makes a strong case that gnostic dualism is the indispensable background for the interminable conflict between modern materialist science and idealist philosophy. I think this is pretty clear if you look closely at the unstable unity Descartes tries to maintain between the two within a dualistic frame. This turning away from the world as a whole to reappropriate it on our own terms is the central trope of what I am calling modern gnosticism.

One point about Christian hermits: The “world” they turned away from was the corrupt social world of late antiquity, not the created order. This is quite clear in Evagrius’ “Chapters on Prayer” which is to my mind the best expression we have of the spiritual itinerary of the desert fathers.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 8, 2009 at 7:51 am

A foundational element of modern gnosticism is found in Boehme’s mysticism that explicates “…the eternal tendency towards a self-realization and self-consciousness.”
There appears a clear line-of-meaning, illustrated by Stefan Rossbach in his “Gnostic Wars,” from Marx to Hegel to Boehme that, for whatever reason, has only fitfully been pursued by academia. Rossbach’s project is to examine the spiritual “underpinnings” that informed the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War, consequently, he explores millenarianism before and during the American founding period, apocalyptic “excitement,” American activist mysticism found in Wilson’s “war to end war,” Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” policy, and the Cold War, and as we’ve recently experienced has come down to us as the war “to take democracy to the Middle East.”
The gnostic distortion appears much more dominate than scholars acknowledge or, perhaps, understand. I’m looking forward to your comments on this phenomenon.

avatar Anna April 10, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Mark–can’t believe you’ve got me reading a blog, and posting on one, no less. A great read. Might add Burrell’s thesis from FREEDOM AND CREATION about how Christianity turned ‘creation-as-gift’ into ‘creation-as-given’ much more radically than ever happened in either Judaism or Islam.

avatar Dave Taylor August 8, 2009 at 6:45 am

Mark: I’m responding belatedly on this because I’ve previously committed myself to the position that Benedict is wrong about Locke (the crooked thinker was Hume), and so therefore are you.

One has only to appreciate Locke’s personal involvement with Newton’s experiments with light and his (still half-baked) attempts to draw out the philosophical implications of those to see that his interest is in education and “the truth which sets you free”. This includes the truth that “will” (surely an Augustinian rather than Christian invention) is not a faculty, while “freedom” from expoitation by others is a “power” which is normally acquired during the programming of our own mind. “So far as a man has power to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference or direction of HIS OWN MIND [my emphasis], so far is a man FREE” (Essay Bk II ch XXI). It follows that a human mind is not TRULY free which is not adequately informed about or appreciative of the state of reality, being enslaved to learned preferences or erronious directions.

Locke’s objection to monarchy is, let us note, to Filmer’s “own bare words … For however [he] seems to condemn the novelty of the contrary opinion, yet I believe it would be hard for him to find any age or country of the world but this which have asserted [enslavement to] monarchy to be ‘jure Divino’” (Two Treatises, Bk I ch I). In other words, he is objecting to an English Protestant doctrine premised upon the Fall and not the Resurrection of the Word of God.

In short I agree with Dan. I will add, would-be commentators should read originals in context, not slavishly follow other people’s misunderstandings.

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