Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Twenty-Something Gnostics.

My wife and I went to the graduation of the college where we teach on Saturday.  Despite some of the difficulties I had with some of the lyrics at the Mass in the morning, the ceremony was pretty good.  I particularly enjoyed the speech given my David Van Andel, a wealthy Dutch Calvinist who has given a lot to the school.  The speech was about vocation- very Reformational!  Luther could have written it (probably with more cursing).

Anyways, one interesting phenomenon was that as they gave out the diplomas about a 1/4 to a 1/3 of the people on the program didn't come up.  Why?  Answer: They failed some of their final classes and couldn't graduate after all.  Now, I know and people I know, know some of these students.  One student (who will of course go unnamed) told me coming into my class that they had failed it several times and now were going to try to pass so that they could graduate.  To make a long and complex story shot, this person failed the class simply because they choose not to take the final or turn in the final paper.  They were also doing very well.  They probably would have received an A/B.  In any case, these other people who didn't graduate did so for the same reason- they just didn't turn things in when it was just that close for them!  Furthermore, many of them have been here for 7 or 8 years- so what's the deal?

My wife and I were talking it over and I think I have something of an answer.  I think this is tied up the phenomenon that other commentators have noticed.  That is, the fact that childhood gets longer and longer.  Students, for whatever reason, don't want to grow up and leave the college.

Why is it so?  What it comes down to is the essential Gnosticism of American culture.  

Allow me to explain.

Gnosticism (for those unfamiliar) is an ancient form of paganism/an early Christian heresy.  Scholars are still undecided whether or not it was pre-Christian or not.  In any case, the basic Gnostic myth goes like this: We are all divine children of the divine God/Father in heaven.  Being divine we aren't really creatures.  We have no beginning or end, merely an origin in the divine, spiritual, transcendent Father.  Now eventually, because of an accident or because of punishment or something, get sucked down into the inferior realm, of an inferior material God.  This God is punishing and violent.  He places us under his rules and his rulers the Archons, astrological deities.  In the versions of this that are Christian, this is YHWH.  Now, to escape this, a divine savior (Jesus) comes from the higher realm and tells us who we really are- namely divine.  By shucking off our situatedness in creation (that is, the realm of the evil God) and becoming pure spirit, we thereby become free.

I can see all this playing out in how my students think about their lives.  First, (as I've noted in the past) they don't believe in protology- in other words, they don't believe they are determined by anything and therefore can't really stomach the idea that they are creatures- this being merely a ploy of the evil, lesser deity!  For Christianity (as for Judaism before it) we are determined in our essence by what happens in Genesis 1-3, but they think that they just make up their own beings as they go long.  They believe in autopoesis.  Secondly, they don't believe in eschatology.  If the self is free and self-creating, then any final judgment about its rightness or wrongness is destructive to that free play of autonomy- again, law comes from the evil, lesser God.  Therefore, there must be an infinite provisionality.  In other words, the self, for my students, is groundless.  It's suspended in mid-air, undetermined by its situatedness.  It is divine- it has no past, no future.  It is utterly undetermined.  Any claim otherwise is a ploy by evil forces (modern culture has all kinds of names for these, but usually religious or political conservatives are given the role occupied by the Demiurge or the Archons in the earlier myth).

Now what does that do for one's view of vocation, family, and marriage?  Well, let's think about it this way.  If one buys into the idea that our essence as creatures is determined by Genesis 1-3, and that in those passages, the centers of human existence are established (Luther's "orders of creation") and that one's being is determined by how one fulfills their purpose by existing within these as God decided at the beginning of time- then one is likely to embrace marriage, work, government and the like.  Why?  Because it is precisely in one's situatedness in these created institutions that one's finds their being as God's creature.  We are not divine, but situated, created beings, who find ourselves in our determinateness.  We lose it by trying to escape it- because we are nothing but what God has determined us to be!

Now, if you hold the Gnostic view of the self, as divine, undetermined, and absolutely free for self-creation, then what?  One will hold onto the indeterminacy of childhood and early adulthood as long as possible.  Since the self is most authentic the less encumbered it is by things that impede it's own self-determination, the more one grows up and takes on responsibilities the less authentic one is.  When I decided on a career, a wife and have child- then provisionality is lost.  I'm now determined.  My life has gone in such-and-such a way, and there's no going back!  Growing up then, effectively means the lose of the self.  So, childhood gets longer and longer as people try to hold onto the Gnostic, divine self.

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