Heresy: Try It, It’s Good For You!

A colleague shared with me issue 56 of Philosophy Now magazine, which was devoted to the subject of heresy. If you can get access to it, there is a great cartoon by Chris Madden on p.27, a variation on another of his famous cartoons.

Since I can’t share the cartoon, I’ll have to settle for sharing a quote: “Religions are kept alive by heresies, which are really sudden explosions of faith. Dead religions do not produce them” (Gerald Brenan, Thoughts In A Dry Season, quoted in the aforementioned issue of Philosophy Now, p.7).

I found myself thinking about Gnosticism over the past few days. In one sense, most educated Christians today are probably ‘gnostics’ in the sense in which Clement of Alexandria used the term, just by virtue of being educated in a way most Christians down the ages never had the opportunity to be; and as a result, reflecting on our faith in relation to questions raised by our knowledge.

Taken symbolically rather than literally, it is much easier to appreciate many things the Gnostics (in the usual ‘full’ sense, with a capital ‘G’) had to say. On the one hand, they are dealing with the data the ‘intelligent design’ crowd are, but much more honestly. On the one hand, they had no way to account for apparent design than by appeal to a deity’s direct action; on the other hand, they took the evidence of less than perfect design fully seriously too, and thus reached the conclusion that the creation is the work of an inferior demiurge. In a sense, Christians who accept evolution have something in common with these ancient Gnostics: a willingness to let the evidence lead wherever it takes us, even if that means acknowledging that the creation is not a direct artifice of God most high, but the work of an at times inept (yet nevertheless clearly skillful) creator, in this case evolution rather than a personal demiurge.

Gnosticism also takes seriously what mystics have always claimed, namely that beyond the anthropomorphic deity of Scriptures and doctrines there is a reality that transcends such language and conceptualization, which is infinitely greater. When one ascends past that (image of) god, one finds that beyond it there is so much more to be ineffably known and experienced. Paul Tillich referred to this ultimate reality in terms the Gnostics would have been happy with, as “the God beyond God“.

Taken literally, Gnosticism’s system probably lacks any real appeal to most people today. There are alternative systems that seem preferable. But taken symbolically, as with any religious tradition, there are important questions it raises, and much to be learned in the process.

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  • Sophia Sadek

    Thanks for the posting.My personal observation on heresy is that it is the meat compared to the orthodox milk. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the underdeveloped. On the other hand, it is more satisfying and filling.

  • Quixie

    The last paragraph of your post is key. But how do you persuade the millions of lemmings who refuse to even consider religion without inerrancy-obsession to see the mythology process in realtime? At some point, they cross the line and, instead of engaging in religious thought, excercise some territorial imperative to defend one’s own home team. Cheerleading takes the place of religious experience. It’s fascinating to watch (and a little disheartening).- – – – – – – – – -I’ve found similarities between some of the gnostic traditions and some of the Mormon liturgical teachings on creation. I’ve also heard of Mormon “Bible-study” type meetings in which they read and discuss contemporary works such as Elaine Pagels’ “Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief.” Not to mention the secular masses, who have taken a fancy to the Nag Hammadi texts finally, sixty years after their surfacing. There are even people who consider themselves Gnostic (big G) and have started religious orders to that end. This seems a kind of nostalgic “gnosticism.” There’s even one group that calls itself “Essene.”The range of human gullibility is astounding.Ó

  • James F. McGrath

    My appreciation for Mormonism grew when I did family history research and saw the concrete positive consequences of some of their beliefs I don’t happen to share.The modern Gnostics win my appreciation when they do things like make out-of-print books on a Gnostic group I will be studying available in pdf files online! :)