Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Thought: The Secret

Still in the chapter detailing the first note of development, preservation of type, Newman discusses another of those superstitions of which Christianity was "seemingly the parent":

The impression made on the world by circumstances immediately before the rise of Christianity received a sort of confirmation upon its rise, in the appearance of the Gnostic and kindred heresies, which issued from the Church during the second and third centuries...

The Gnostic family suitably traces its origin to a mixed race, which had commenced its national history by associating Orientalism with Revelation. After the captivity of the ten tribes, Samaria was colonized by "men from Babylon and Cushan, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim," who were instructed at their own instance in "the manner of the God of the land," by one of the priests of the Church of Jeroboam. The consequence was, that "they feared the Lord and served their own gods." Of this country was Simon, the reputed patriarch of the Gnostics; and he is introduced in the Acts of the Apostles as professing those magical powers which were so principal a characteristic of the Oriental mysteries. His heresy, though broken into a multitude of sects, was poured over the world with a Catholicity not inferior in its day to that of Christianity. St. Peter, who fell in with him originally in Samaria, seems to have encountered him again at Rome. At Rome, St. Polycarp met Marcion of Pontus, whose followers spread through Italy, Egypt, Syria, Arabia, and Persia; Valentinus preached his doctrines in Alexandria, Rome, and Cyprus; and we read of his disciples in Crete, Cæsarea, Antioch, and other parts of the East. Bardesanes and his followers were found in Mesopotamia. The Carpocratians are spoken of at Alexandria, at Rome, and in Cephallenia; the Basilidians spread through the greater part of Egypt; the Ophites were apparently in Bithynia and Galatia; the Cainites or Caians in Africa, and the Marcosians in Gaul...the Ebionites of Palestine, the Cerinthians...the Encratites... the Montanists, who, with a town in Phrygia for their metropolis, reached at length from Constantinople to Carthage.

Good Lord. And to make matters worse:

"When [the reader of Christian history] comes to the second century," says Dr. Burton, "he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day."

Many of the founders of these sects had been Christians; others were of Jewish parentage; others were more or less connected in fact with the Pagan rites to which their own bore so great a resemblance.Montanus seems even to have been a mutilated priest of Cybele; the followers of Prodicus professed to possess the secret books of Zoroaster; and the doctrine of dualism, which so many of the sects held, is to be traced to the same source. Basilides seems to have recognized Mithras as the Supreme Being, or the Prince of Angels, or the Sun, if Mithras is equivalent to Abraxas, which was inscribed upon his amulets: on the other hand, he is said to have been taught by an immediate disciple of St. Peter, and Valentinus by an immediate disciple of St. Paul. Marcion was the son of a Bishop of Pontus; Tatian, a disciple of St. Justin Martyr.

Whatever might be the history of these sects, and though it may be a question whether they can be properly called "superstitions," and though many of them numbered educated men among their teachers and followers, they closely resembled, at least in ritual and profession, the vagrant Pagan mysteries which have been above described. Their very name of "Gnostic" implied the possession of a secret, which was to be communicated to their disciples. Ceremonial observances were the preparation, and symbolical rites the instrument, of initiation.

He then mentions the enthusiasms of these gnostic variations - these sects of a sect - their asceticisms and excesses, their zeal for ritualistic redundancy, their tendency to emphasize a point of doctrine leading to its death by exaggeration. Some abstain from wine, others from flesh (the first a sure sign of derangement, the second possibly, depending on what is meant by it). The Montanists, he says,

kept three Lents in the year. All the Gnostic sects seem to have condemned marriage on one or other reason. The Marcionites had three baptisms or more; the Marcosians had two rites of what they called redemption; the latter of these was celebrated as a marriage, and the room adorned as a marriage-chamber...The prophecies of Montanus were delivered, like the oracles of the heathen, in a state of enthusiasm or ecstasy...honour was paid by the Carpocratians to Homer, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, as well as to the Apostles; crowns were placed upon their images, and incense burned before them. In one of the inscriptions found at Cyrene, about twenty years since, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, Epicurus, and others, are put together with our Lord, as guides of conduct. These inscriptions also contain the Carpocratian tenet of a community of women. I am unwilling to allude to the Agapæ and Communions of certain of these sects, which were not surpassed in profligacy by the Pagan rites of which they were an imitation. The very name of Gnostic became an expression for the worst impurities, and no one dared eat bread with them, or use their culinary instruments or plates.

I think I may have figured out the gnostics, who have always been a great mystery to me. They were the original comparative religionists, or indifferentists, or relativists. If you're going to cram worship of every deity, of every spiritual or intellectual eminence you can think of into your "liturgy", can you really claim to prefer one to another? Musn't the pious make accomodation to the profane, such that the two eventually merge? And which do you suppose will triumph? They were very modern, those Gnostics.

9 comments:

Amy said...

A really good overview of gnosticism are the "Matrix" movies. I can't tell you how many times people have told me that they're really Christian movies because they use Christian terms, but gnosticism takes the terms from any other religion or philosophy it encounters and changes the meanings to fit with gnostic beliefs. That's exactly what the Matrix trilogy does.

Lydia McGrew said...

Your description of the gnostics as early religious relativists reminds me of the post on the old EM (I can't remember if it was Leon Wolf who put it up or our esteemed Paul Cella) with the headline, "When you get to Asherah worship, I think the train has left the station." It was about some Lutheran church (I think, but the Episcopals have done this too) out in California that was having "women's services" where they worshiped Asherah. They were also teaching them to sculpt God in the form of a woman, if I remember correctly. With Silly Putty or something like that.

William Luse said...

You're probably right, Amy, though after seeing the first entry I didn't think it was worth wasting any brainpower on it, and could not summon the enthusiasm needed to watch the sequels. There are enough - right now in our own time - real life parallels to keep us busy.

Asherah? Is that a variant of Ashtereth, the Phoenician Astarte? She's the one who devoured her children.

tso said...

They were the original comparative religionists, or indifferentists, or relativists.

I recently read that Pope Benedict said his greatest concern today was gnosticism, and since he is most known for his fight against relativism it makes sense those would be guises of the same thing.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yeah, that's the goddess.

William Luse said...

That's right, TSO, thanks for reminding me. I knew some smart person would see it my way, and Benedict's on the ball if you ask me. I think the Germans ought to name a beer after him.

Forgive my French, Lydia, but that goddess was one nasty b**ch. I've never understood how the worship of a god or gods or even a goddess could lead to the murder of the most obviously good thing in life - children and babies. I mean we have it in our own time (the abortion sacrament), I know it's there, but I can't comprehend it.

Lydia McGrew said...

Yeah, some of the feminist stuff being done in mainline denominations is exceedingly creepy. The Episcopalians had a service where they ate raisin cakes or sacrificed raisin cakes or some weird thing like that in explicit imitation of a passage in the Bible where the women sacrificed raisin cakes to the Canaanite gods (Ashtaroth, again, I'm pretty sure), and the "liturgy" to go with it included an express reference to that passage and to the fact that the mean Hebrew men in the story "refused to see your feminine face."

Don't these people ever get the hair on the back of their necks rising? Or perhaps they do, and that's part of the thrill of it for them. Playing with fire.

smockmomma said...

there is a church here in town with a road-side bulletin that reads "a church for all faiths." what the heck do you think that means?

William Luse said...

Just now seeing this Micki. It probably means just what you think it means, another gnostic melting pot.