Gnostic transcendence through imagination
Posted by madcap on January 10, 2008
Several months ago a rather lengthy debate occurred concerning Eric Voegelin’s use of the term “Gnostic” to describe many of the social/political mass movements of the post-modern age. The following is a comment in response to the article “The Gnostic Implosion and Collapse of Second Reality” that is worthy of attention. I would like to thank Joe for taking the time to clarify the major points of Voegelin’s thinking.
Thanks for a very interesting debate, Madcap. To clarify what appears to me an often-made mistake concerning Voeglin’s claims about Gnosticism: to my knowledge, he never did claim that the attempt to “immanentize the eschaton” is characteristic of Gnosticism in general, but only of the modern variants of Gnosticism. Later, he claimed that this attempt to immanentize the eschaton by the modern variants of Gnosticism is due to an agglomeration of Gnostic with Hermetic and alchemist influences. He also referred to a scholar who regarded Hermeticism as the ‘positive variant’ of Gnosticism, and appears to have considered this a possibility.
What he did claim to be characteristic of the Gnostic movement in general, is that the Gnostic person “reaches the borders of transcendence,” but he doesn’t repent in faith (turn the soul around) to bridge the gap between the transcendent God and man. Rather, he chooses to bridge the unbearable gap speculatively (imaginitively). This imaginative speculation can assume many forms. A new conceptual system (cosmos) can make the gulf of transcendence appear less radical, and therefore to appear more tolerable. (For example, Gnostics often substituted a theory of “emmanation” for the intolerable, traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo). To reiterate: what Voegelin seems to me to have identified as characteristic of the Gnostic movements is the attempt to bridge the unbearable gap of transcendence through speculative imagination, rather than through repentence, and a restoration in in the openness of faith. (This is perhaps what comes through clearly when the Gnostic systems repudiated the idea of “radical transcedence” as due to ignorance, the which could be healed through a new gnosis concerning our “real” condition.)
In Hegel’s case, he claimed to be only clarifying what Christ came to do, when in fact he was eclipsing the revelation of Christ with a radically different, speculative one. He created a system in which transcendence was denied, and everything that was formerly ‘beyond’ our comprehension was now knowable. Hegel accomplished this imaginateve feat by speculating that ‘mind itself’ was the ground of all existence, and upon realizing this, he claimed, we would realize that everything that was formerly symbolized as beyond our experience would now be made knowable to us. Other speculators rejected the ground of being which Hegel postulated (mind-itself) as nonsense, but they substituted another ground of being, while keeping the form of the ’scientific system.’ For example, Marx substituted the immanent being of material dialectics for it, and created ’scientific’ communism. Other thinkers substitute the mysterious life force of biology & evolution for the ultimate ground of being (which is postulated by some radical kinds of ’scientific’ behaviorist theories.) These are known as ideologies, and an ideology is precisely what its name implies: the logic of an idea. A thinker can speculatively postulate some ultimate ground of being, and then claim that everything else follows logically, ’scientifically’, from this idea. That is why Voegelin claimed that the modern variants of ideologies are desendents of Hegel’s master ideology. He perfected the form of the ’system’ which postulated a particular ground of existence, that seemed plausible enough to eclipse our real existence in relation to transcendence, and then everything else would follow logically from this.
To reiterate: a new ground of existence is first established, all then other sectors of our experience are explained in light of that: our social, historical, and personal existences are then completely understood in light of the new ground of being, while the transcendent God of the Christian mystics is denied as ‘unscientific’ in the same way that the ancient Gnostics denied the idea of a transcendent God was a result of ignorance. By putting the Gnostic claims in the format of a new, scientific system, they acquired a new, imperialistic power to become influential.
The general loss of our experience of transcendence in the public sphere, the evocation of a “secular” society that denies public recognition to any claims about man that cannot be confirmed by the methods of science, is, according to Voegelin, largely a result of the influence of these imperialistic, Gnostic systems, (ideologies) that speculate about the nature of man under the new guise of ’science,’ and whose main concern has always been to eclipse our existence in-between ignorance and knowledge, imaginatively replacing it with one in which, real, ultimate knowledge is possible.
The imperialist style remains power in our universities because teaching a psychology which includes the experiences of transcendence would be denied as ‘unverifiable’ scientifically, and ridiculed by gnostics who are intent on denying them status, and they would also be branded as posing a danger to our separation of church and state. Unfortunately, all this leaves room the influence of ideologies to flourish because, since the ultimate grounds they postulate have scientific-sounding names like ‘evolution and biology’, they appear not to breach it.
This is a lot to compress into a short post, but I hope it helps in some way.