Posted by: gcarkner | August 1, 2021

Incarnational Spirituality: a new horizon 10.

Gnostic Spirituality: Dis-Incarnate Faith

Four Working Assumptions + Seven Theological Markers

1.   Modern Gnosticism is a highly individualistic quest for personal and spiritual self-invention or re-invention. One senses the need to seek one’s own individual destiny—to become a god or goddess. This contains the goal of a higher spiritual plane (moving towards the Light) than traditional religion, a higher plane than scientific knowledge. What is at stake is the primacy of self, choice, personal freedom and self-actualization. One is shooting for the higher, enlightened self and thus one must consume various spiritual experiences along the way. Gurus offer special knowledge for the journey, spiritual secrets (Gnosis). How I feel about myself and how I define myself is critically important. I must transcend groups, institutions and covenants and the way they define me. At core, Gnosticism is the gospel of self-idolization. It is a race for the top through performance: towards perhaps super-wealth, success, happiness or bliss. Salvation is all about transformation of the inner pneumatic individual.

2.   The world we live in is inferior, flawed, broken, dark, chaotic, confusing: god, the creator (demiurge), did a bad job. It is the world that holds me back from my true and ultimate spiritual fulfilment. Some Gnostics believe the physical world is evil, matter itself is evil, confining, restrictive with respect to the soul–dualistic anthropology. The individual must transcend all this pain, suffering, struggle and tragedy by means of disengagement from the world, retreat, losing desire for the world. The spiritual is above (outside of) the physical world. This world is not my home but an alien, offensive place into which I have been tragically thrown. Hell is other people; society is the problem, not me.

3.   To flourish, one must escape the world, its confines and restrictions for a new utopia, a new ideal form of existence. To reach this goal, one must transgress given limits: gender, sex, white male domination, divine moral tenets, family, institutions. The escape can involve travel to other planets, drugs, extreme sports, extreme makeover, or extreme lifestyle. The job is to become an original, a revolutionary. This has led some into loss of discernment regarding good and evil, right and wrong with the attendant victimization that follows. Others have become vulnerable to cult leaders, dictators, health and wealth gospelers, Ponzi schemes, charlatans of various sorts. Some egregious crimes have been perpetrated by Gnostic leaders and gurus. At core, there is a fundamental denial of death (Ernest Becker).

4.   The Gnostic Ghost: We discover in the mix a sacrifice of true personhood for a fantasy world of one’s own creation. Dream is more important than reality. There is a deep dissatisfaction with the paradoxes of being human. The ghost projects an image of self through a monologue of strong rhetoric. Built in is a commitment-phobia, a rebellion against moral code, personal responsibility and sacrifice for the other or the common good. The Gnostic is involved in a ‘revolution of release from restraint’. Freedom of choice is of the essence—consumerism writ large. One finds in the ghost an obsession for continual change and a passion to accessorize: hair colour, tattoos, clothing, jewellery, crystals. But all this can leave the Gnostic Ghost feeling isolated, disengaged and fragile.

Theological Articulations of Gnosticism

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Seven Markers 

Summary from Kevin Mongrain, 2002, 33-37, but also based on Raymond Gawronski’s fine work on Balthasar, Word and Silence, 2015).

Gnosticism chooses mysticism over mystery, aesthetic mythologies over incarnational revelation or theological aesthetics, negation of personality over uniqueness of persons, resigned agnosticism over affirmation of the Word who claimed to be the Truth, Nothingness of Nirvana over Fullness of Being.

  • Gnosticism prefers ahistorical, a priori myths or speculative theories over against the contingent events of history. For example of such epic positions, see Hegel’s philosophy of Absolute Spirit. Karl Marx invented his secular utopia with the ruling proletariat and the mythology of a “new man” based on Hegelian dialectical materialism.
  • It rejects belief that the divine transcends the categories of human thinking. The divine must be mastered in a priori theories (Neo-Platonism, 19th century German Idealism, materialistic naturalism, pantheism or panentheism). Therefore, it is highly abstract and rationalistic. Some of these theories are quite destructive.
  • It is inherently disdainful of the Christian claim that the eternal God entered time, became incarnate as a human being. Believing in a larger gap between the human and divine realms, it resorts to mysticism to cross the gap. The Gnostic worldview tends to see Yahweh the Creator as beneath them and Jesus as a created aeon or much lesser divine being. Hubris arises from the theory that there is a God behind God (a Monad), an unknown abyss behind the Creator God, a hidden Light at the top. God (“The One”) is hidden and ineffable. It is ironic that Gnostics consider themselves as pneumatics (higher spiritual élites exploring the divine spark within) to be more sublime than the master builder of the universe.
  • This gives rise to a variety of alternative religious systems: redemption is stated in terms of a priori metaphysical laws. Humans must save themselves. Two types: a. Dualist—soul must escape the material world (often seen as evil); b. Monist—offers enlightenment through a grand universal theory (rationalism, scientism, pantheism, evolutionism) and dispels all differences, all relatives in favour of the supremacy of the Absolute.
  • The Gnostic view of the meaning of Christ is not glorification of creation but negation of creation in its materiality, temporality and multiplicity. The individual must de-create themselves and escape vertically into the infinite, impersonal Absolute.
  • It is often highly élitist and extremely ascetic. It is salvation by knowledge and mastery of self and others. This makes it secretive and insular, open only to the specially initiated, like Yale University’s Skull & Bones Society or the Masons. Michel Foucault’s ethics has this self-mastery element to it in his technology of self and has influenced many. Zen was the tradition of the elite in China and Japan, and now in the post-Christian West. Yoga has also grown its influence in the West. 
  • Discursive thought or I-Thou dialogue is spurned. God the Creator is scorned in favour of silence which is present with God ‘above’ or ‘behind’ God. It involves a monological movement of self-explanation, self-invention, self-divinization. The individual becomes one with ultimate being or non-being (Zen).

The central assertion of Gnosticism is that there is an essential connection between the human and divine spirits. God and the human spirits are so ontically fused that self-knowledge is equivalent to knowledge of God. Therefore, faith is superfluous; the key here is gnosis (knowledge). Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar sees Gnosticism as a direct opposition to incarnational thinking.

He promotes agonisme or resistance to Gnostic tendencies. There is little or nothing in Gnosticism of the centrality of justice and peacemaking, public responsibility, civic virtues and politics, ecological concerns and the importance of place, time and history. It involves the trajectory of the via negativa or so-called negative theology, ultimately landing us in the silence of nihilism, the un-word. Zen is the apex in Asia of such negative theology, absolute nothingness, Non-Being or Nirvana = Samsara. (See my YouTube video comparing The Way of Zen and The Way of the Incarnation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67VP83R5mwQ).

Zen represents the most intense, the extreme human attempt to escape the limits of the human condition. It implies annihilation of God, man and the world. Raymond Gawronski summarizes the problem that Balthasar astutely recognizes: i.e. this radical religious nihilism where the Absolute is ineffable. It is a natural religion without grounds:

Natural man tries to escape from this world of limitation, finitude, death. Individualistic schemes of salvation lead him to dissolve his individual humanity or to dissolve his ties with the rest of humanity in attempts at union with the Absolute. In the end, all systems of natural religion or religious philosophy are based on attempts at identity. Without the revelation that comes from a personal God, a personal Absolute, reason tends to take over and reason projects itself as a monologue, the union is ultimately with oneself…. The way of human religion and religious philosophy is the way of ascent—towards God to be sure, but most significantly away from the world of multiplicity, individuality, relativity…. One is in danger of losing both the world and God. There remains absolute emptiness, Nirvana…. The ascent is always the way of silence [negation]. (R. Gawronski, 2015, 69-70)

The spiritual vacuum left by a technological society seems to have created the hunger for Zen in the West. The Western soul is searching for something/anything spiritual after becoming technologized to the point of emptiness. Balthasar is sharp on connecting the gnostic outlook of 19th century German Idealism and eastern religions like Zen. There is also a link between Neo-Platonism and Buddhism. I have often suspected this; he confirmed it. This is part of the quest to be one in identity with ultimate being and lose one’s individual self in the process, Identitas Entis. British public intellectual Jonathan Sacks (now deceased) spoke of Plato’s problematic influence on contemporary globalization in his very insightful volume The Dignity of Difference (especially the chapter entitled “Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost” 2002, 45-66). He writes to contrast Platonism to the biblical God. He believes that Platonism contributes to tribalism and the clash of civilizations. 

He [God] is a particularist, loving each of his children for what they are…. God, author of diversity, is the unifying presence within diversity…. A God of your side as well as mine must be a God of justice who stands above us both, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear each other’s claims and resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent—greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe, capable of being comprehended in any human language, from any single point of view. Only such a God can teach mankind to make peace other than by conquest and conversion, and as something nobler than practical necessity. (J. Sacks, 2002, 56 and 65)

Gnosticism is a faulty attempt to answer the big existential human questions of longing for God, personal transformation, guilt of existence, identity, shame, suffering and death. Its spirituality is dis-incarnate, other-worldly. We trust that this brief overview will lead to some good debate and dialogue about the contrast between incarnational and Gnostic spirituality. We sometimes gain more clarity about what we believe through contrast.

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner, PhD Philosophical Theology, Meta-Educator with UBC Postgraduate Students, Author, Mentor, Blogger.

YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl4NgIg_ht8IZCRIhho4nxA

Gawronski, R. (2015). Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West 3rd edition. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press.

Mongrain, K. (2002). The Systematic Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: an Irenaean Retrieval. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Sacks, J. (2001). The Dignity of DifferenceHow to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. London, UK: Continuum. 


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