Saturday, August 18, 2012

Gnostic Hermeneutics Yields Gnostic Theology

As we have previous explored on this blog, the hermeneutics of suspicion that underline the modern so-called historical-critical method, are rooted in the revival of Epicureanism in the early modern period by figures like Hobbes and Spinoza.  Epicureanism assumes that religion is based on the ignorance of human beings of the material causes of things.  Wicked priests exploit such ignorance by telling people that they have spoken with the gods or God.  This allows them to trick people into giving up their power and money so that the priests can exploit them.

Following from these assumptions about the nature of religion, the creators of the HCM argued that biblical texts should be read as power plays by people in ancient Israel and the early Church.  By discerning what power play by what person or group of people was being propounded, one could date the text and reconstruct the social setting of the text, even if one had no access to that social setting or direct evidence that it ever existed.  Since only individual texts appeared to support these power plays within large texts, the argument became (particularly among German scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries) that biblical texts were the amalgamation of various earlier texts that contained other contradictory power plays in the different historical setting that they were written.  They were joined together by one or many later redactors, who hadn't done a very good job because elements of the earlier social settings and power plays (some of which contradicted their own present interests!) had gotten through.  Again, this was asserted (and continues to be asserted) without 1. Actually existing versions of these original smaller texts that make up the large ones (no one has ever found JED or P!)  2. Without any direct access or evidence of the reconstructed social settings of these texts  3. With the knowledge that authors can write in multiple styles, and therefore discovering multiple styles in a text does not automatically yield multiple authors.

This understanding of human beings as innocent victims of various power plays works remarkably well with the Gnostic theology opposed by the Church Fathers.  According to Gnosticism, human beings are divine children of a transcendent divine father.  They were at some point in cosmic history trapped in the material world by inferior god called the Demiurge, and are ruled over by wicked powers called Archons.  The Gnostic redeemer (in the Christian version, Jesus) comes and gives special knowledge to human beings about their divine identity and therefore helps them regain their godhood.  Therefore, much like the Epicurean worldview, the Gnostic assumes that humans are victims of powers greater than themselves and a knowledge of actual reality will help them unmask these powers and gain freedom.

The current state of theology within mainline Protestantism is well explained by the coming together of these two traditions.  On the one hand, there is the uncritical acceptance of the HCM as scientific.  On the other hand, the revival of the Gnostic theology.  The latter takes some explaining.  Many members of the bureaucracies of the mainline Protestant Churches and many members of their seminary and college faculties were followers of the New Left in the 1960s and its injection of Marxist philosophy into mainstream American politics.  Marxism assumes that human beings have limitless possibilities and are therefore quasi-divine (Feuerbach, who Marx took his philosophy of religion from, argued this quite explicitly).  In classical Marxism, the masses are held down from attaining full godhood by Capitalists.  The New Left add other marginalized groups beyond workers and therefore also adds other villains (white males, etc.).  Such powers represent new kind of Archon, but now no long spiritual powers, but now social and political ones.  Marx got his basic ideas from Hegel, who got many of his ideas from Jacob Boehme (a German Lutheran mystic) who took over Kaballah and Hermeticism, which were strongly influenced by Gnosticism.  So, Marxism and by proxy the politics of the New Left, are ultimately secularized versions of the ancient Gnostic myth.

With the combination of these two tradition, it's easy to see why the theology of the mainline Protestant denomination is the way it is.  According to this theology (taught in most sermons and seminary courses) Jesus taught social justice and unmasked inappropriate power relationships, i.e., gave special knowledge of the limitlessness of human possibilities and their blockage by sinister powers (whatever form they may take!).  The role of the contemporary Church then is also to see past these power relationships and decode them for the larger public.  Often times decoding the Bible is part of this, as for example in the case of Feminist biblical scholars like Phyllis Trible have argued that women had a role as prophets in ancient Israel which the biblical texts have suppressed.  She actually addressed the ELCA national assembly on this point in the 90s.  How she gained access to this knowledge is something no one can tell.

In all this, Christian orthodoxy falls by the wayside or is co-opted into the larger framework of this Gnostic myth.  Ultimately, Christian orthodoxy is not sustainable in these denominations because churchly hermeneutics, which assume that the Scripture really is from God and understood properly on the basis of the analogy of faith has been utterly abandoned.  Gnostic hermeneutics yields Gnostic theology.

2 comments:

  1. Dr. Kilcrease, this is great. Are you familiar with a little booklet by Eric Voegelin, "Science, Politics, and Gnosticism"? Though not addressing the HCM, per se, he strongly ties Marxism to Gnosticism. He also shows quite clearly where these symptoms lay today.
    -Geoff Boyle

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  2. Eric Voegelin thought that Gnosticism was the main thing that was wrong with the 'left'. Great thinker.

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