Friday, July 29, 2005

gnosis 10: God as friend

   Kierkegaard, in his very different way, asks us in one of his many satirical parables, to imagine a global war (such as had never yet occurred in the nineteenth century in which he lived), on account of which Europe's rulers jointly issued a rescript commanding all priests and other clergy to engage in a massive, official supplication of heaven. A prodigious exhibition of worship is arranged, with a choir of a hundred thousand professional musicians and a vast team of a million clergy all bawling for all their worth till the noise (Kierkegaard mischievously suggests) must surely have penetrated the heavenly gates. God, however, is not in the least interested and certainly not at all moved by all this official hubbub, knowing as he does that such official demonstrations are merely elaborate ceremonious insults. Yet when a poor man hobbling down Main Street sighs to God in the sincerity of his heart, that concerns God indescribably and moves him subjectively. That is most certainly, then, the way to gnosis of God, as all the great sages and prophets from the earliest times have seen, however dimly, each in his own way. It is what some of the mystics have called "walking with God as a friend."

- MacGregor: Gnosis, p26.

I've been stirred to get on with this examination of gnosis and gnosticism by Tim Boucher's return to this topic. The idea, expressed here by MacGregor, that gnosis concerns a friendship relationship with God is one I contributed to an exploration of possible definitions of gnosticism.

Some time back now, I listed an elaborate scholarly definition of gnosis that MacGregor had reproduced, only to demolish it item by item. Elements like (1) and (16) are typical of any form of mysticism; elements like (2), (6) and (7) are common to any metaphysics; most of the remainder are found in all religions, with (4), (13-15) being specific to Christianity. Item (11) - that Gnosticism is a religion of revolt - is compared to an equally age-old existentialist outlook in religion which breaks down old legalism and dethrones old gods. The new gods then become the new establishment and the round must begin anew.

MacGregor then more fully compares gnosticism with modern existentialism with their common themes of the world as prison resulting in the human response of Angst or a sense of being in exile from one's home. He concludes:

   […]The awareness of individual responsibility, the inner assurance of the individual's capacity for free choice and of the individual's power to attain an understanding of his relation to the cosmos and a knowledge of his potential destiny: all these are gnostic motifs and also common existentialist coin.

   […]When Bianchi and others suggest that gnosticism always appears as a parasite on a living religion, they surely fail to see that their slur on gnosticism could apply equally well to existentialism and be equally ill-founded. It is a well-known paradox that many of the most illustrious gnostics, mystics and existentialists tend to be peculiarly well-rooted in a particular institutional religion while not only transcending it but dramatically vitalizing it. Clement of Alexandria, Teresa of Avila, Pascal, Kierkegaard and Berdyaev are examples that spring readily to mind. None could be less parasitic on their respective traditions. On the contrary, without men and women of this calibre the traditions out of which they have sprung would have dried out long ago. The truth is, indeed, the other way round: it is the gnostics and the existentialists, the mystics and the religious humanists, to say nothing of the heretics, to which the Church is indebted for its survival. Too often the parasites are the institutions that survive through sucking, however inefficiently and therefore in the long run fruitlessly, from those superabundantly life-filled sources.

- MacGregor: Gnosis, pp 51-52.

MacGregor then goes on to expand on this idea of gnosticism as the creative element in religion.

   All human thought, notably philosophical and religious thought, has two indispensable components: the speculative and the critical. The former is the imaginative, creative element, the latter the logical and analytical. Without the critical element, speculation runs wild; without the creative element, analytical critique, having really nothing to do, merely hones its tools and makes them more elegantly useless. In short, only through free discussion can progress in religious thought be made and true gnosis attained. Such progress cannot even be begun without imaginative, creative speculation.

- MacGregor: Gnosis, p54.

While God is perceived as an old man on a throne, distant and demanding, we cannot play with him. We cannot get to know him. It's up to each of us to reach out to God as friend and hope that He can be big enough to return the favour. Then we can play and dance together and keep the cosmos spinning in orderly craziness.


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