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Hi Dilys,

You write, "Note to a circle of informed readers. These thoughts are only stimulated by recent discussions, showing, as we like to do, where such things tend. Nothing here is targeted toward any sincere participants or inquirers, they being much too wise to take these reflections personally."

I'm going to be a little unwise here, because I take strong exception to Banty Rooster's cavalier dismissal of Gnosticism, the tone of which may be summarized in his sarcastic and completely inadequate characterization of Gnostic soteriology, "Enlighten yourself! And feel good about yourself while doing it!" To the extent that an authentic system of spiritual practice and teaching existed within the early Christian communities, it was largely developed by the Gnostics, and the sectors of the church whose motives were imperial and exoteric were the ones who eventually wiped the Gnostics out largely by putting them to the sword. This is a great shame to the church, and the bad habit that so many modern Christian intellectuals have of calling things that they don't like (such as Marxism, for example) "Gnostic" adds insult to the injury, all the more so when it is cynically asserted that these particular victims of Christian violence were "cruel" in their "heretical" beliefs.

I am not saying that I agree with the tenets of Gnosticism. On the contrary, I regard it as having significant limitations precisely analogous to the limitations of Theravada Buddhism which had to be corrected later by Mahayana and Vajrayana. However, you don't see contemporary Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists going around using "Theravada" as a synonym for everything that they think is wrong with the world.

What I am claiming is that Gnosticism, for all its limitations, possessed an authentic teaching and technology of spiritual liberation, just as Theravada did, and that it deserves honor as a valid, if limited, spiritual system. The existing Church triumphed over the Gnostics by murdering them, and therefore the complacent denunciations of Gnosticism by contemporary theologians are made from a highly questionable moral position, at best.

It will go without saying that despite the fact that I am a neoconservative in politics, I do not accept the refutation of leftism on the grounds that it is "Gnostic", as Eric Voegelin argues.

Respectfully yours, despite my strong disagreement on this point.


Bryan, you're entitled to your very broad brush of history. That doesn't satisfy the question of whether apiritual technology is enough, or where it takes one, a matter on which we obviously disagree and which I hope is in the long run moot. I for one don't know for sure, and am taking my best shot through various historical and a-historical kindnesses&cruelties, anomalies, and mysteries, riding on a formidibly miniature and limping beast.

Perhaps "modern gnostic" is useful shorthand only for those peering from a certain perspective, invoking a particular archetype. I'm certainly not equipped to say whether "modern Theravada" would be a parallel tool, generously and compassionately abjured by those otherwise inclined to adapt it.

We probably differ too radically on this, analytically and in other ways, to engage a uniform vocabulary. In general, I'm concluding that the blogosphere is a huge pool of all who dare too easily to speak of these things, myself definitely included in the indictment. The memes become collage, in everyone's hands. Discourse on many things, especially in the absence of living personal relationship and reciprocal agreement, may be a mistake.

Find what is here useful and stimulating, or not. You have a gift for especially civil argument. If this locale is below your standards of either scholarship, civility, or accuracy, please enjoy life in as many other places as please you. G&H is partly to find out what I think, and for those who per se care.

Many others may be both better informed and engage other purposes in writing and life.

So far as I know, I've never murdered a gnostic, and don't plan to start. Don't know personally anyone who has, nor do I have enough faith in historiography to say who did or didn't, without adopting various preconceptions, which then determine the outcome of the investigation.


Hi Dilys,

To an extent I regret the strength of the language that I allowed myself to use on this subject. The enmity of the Christian church with Gnosticism throughout its entire history is a subject that I have been pondering passionately since my early twenties, and the mental fuze that I blew upon reading Banty Rooster's post was more a result of the inner debate that I have been carrying on in my head with a host of Christian theologians for a long time, and was really directed at them rather than at you or Banty Rooster.

That said, I do think this is an important issue, and the church clearly agrees; the issue is sufficiently complex and broad that I really should spend some time preparing a detailed post on the matter. I should also remark that my motive for carrying on debate like this is an effort to imitate the method of the Platonic dialogues: i.e., you find the truth by putting a stake in the ground and discovering where the subsequent debate among mutually disagreeing minds leads, so I do think that debate is useful, and I hope that it will not affect our friendship which I value highly and want to continue.

You write, "That doesn't satisfy the question of whether apiritual technology is enough, or where it takes one, a matter on which we obviously disagree and which I hope is in the long run moot." You are quite right to point out that the historical vicissitudes of the relationship between Christians and Gnostics are a logically separate question from that of the intrinsic value of Gnosticism, and I myself have reservations about that intrinsic value. Gnosticism is in my opinion a limited system. What I would insist in opposition to the attitude of the theologians is that saying that Gnosticism is limited is one thing, and saying that it is the root of all evil is another. (There is a story, for example, hopefully false, that the apostle John once ran out of a place where some Gnostics were teaching and yelled, "There are the enemies of the Lord!" Sheesh.) It would be one thing if the church had said, "Gnosticism may be a useful path for certain types of people, but we believe that it has limitations and that we have a more integral and complete teaching." One could agree with such a claim, or one could disagree with it, but it would be civil and humane. Instead the church chose to demonize the Gnostic movement. I am inclined to regard that passionate rejection of Gnosticism as a sort of psychological symptom, and I want to find out why it was done and what it means.

You write, "Perhaps 'modern gnostic' is useful shorthand only for those peering from a certain perspective, invoking a particular archetype." The political philosopher Eric Voegelin first made the argument that leftism was a modern form of Gnosticism, and he insinuates that the major problem of leftism that led to its atrocities and crimes against humanity was that it tried to make immanent the eschaton, in other words, to create the kingdom of Heaven on earth. I find this kind of a maddening argument, because I agree for the most part with Voegelin's practical political views, but I object to that kind of language and believe that he has misdiagnosed the problem and thereby set up a false dichotomy: institutional Christianity or Marxist disaster. Our friend Bob Godwin has translated Voegelin's claims into language that I find somewhat more congenial when he (Bob) claims that the Left collapses the horizontal and the vertical. Ironically, however, Voegelin does as well when he refuses to distinguish between the vertical ambitions of the Gnostics and the horizontal ambitions of the Left.

Why is this important? Because the implication of Voegelin's reasoning is that the spiritual quest of the Gnostics is also an illegitimate attempt to bring the kingdom of Heaven down to earth. Instead of being reconciled to their fallenness and depending completely on belief in an external deity to save them, the Gnostics had the temerity to try to save themselves. And this, for both Voegelin and the church, is evil.

But if this is evil, then any spiritual path that does not rely on an external deity for salvation (like Buddhism, for example) is also evil.

You can see why I get rankled at this. The church's anti-Gnostic argument is clearly heading in the direction of "salvation for those who believe, and damnation for everyone else," even if one is too tactful to say so explicitly.

Concerning the question of the historical relationship between Christians and Gnostics, I clearly did not provide historical evidence for the claims that you correctly regarded as broad-brush. I will have to go back to my sources and do some refresher research in order to prepare a more detailed post on that.

So this was the background leading up to my explosion in the previous comment.


I also would like to add that discussing such matters with me is not an exercise in futility. I had to spend over a year arguing with a Hermeticist over whether or not Hermeticism was a good spiritual path before he finally persuaded me that it was. I have been known to reverse my opinion on matters of significance, and I might even end up converting to Christianity if I spend enough time arguing with my Christian friends. :)

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