Now nearly twenty years old, this book review is a pretty good primer of the cultural movements in America that made the Da Vinci Code a best-seller.
So far, the biggest religious revival of the early twenty-first century has been an increasing lack of religious affiliation at all. The Second Religiousness may yet come, but it isn't here yet.
Spirit Wars: Pagan Renewal in Christian America
by Peter Jones
WinePress Publishing, 1997
$18.95, 331 pages
A Preview of the Great Apostasy?
"Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...
(John Crowley, "Love & Sleep," pages 499-500)
It's a rare American church-goer who has not noticed that at least some of the leaders of his denomination have been talking funny in recent years. The use of gender-neutral language does not prove much, since this is becoming a standard professional-class dialect (failure to use which is in some cases actionable at law). Nevertheless, even the most trusting parishioner has to wonder whether new formulas like "Creator, Savior, Comforter" really mean the same as the old "Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Perhaps more incomprehensible to the folks in the pews has been the dogmatization of ecology, which might seem to some people to be the paradigm case of a prudential issue.
Paradoxically, it is only in the most extreme situations, where pastors speak openly of the Earth as the goddess Gaia and churches invite practicing witches to lead Bible study groups on Halloween, that it really becomes clear what is going on. The bald truth is that a large slice of the American theological establishment has abandoned Christianity as expressed in its traditional creedal formulations and adopted a species of gnosticism. "Spirit Wars," a new book by Peter Jones, currently Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, is a guide to this new religion, showing how it fits into the intellectual landscape of late twentieth century America and describing in detail its many close links with the classical gnostic heresies of the first few centuries A.D.
Professor Jones writes from an evangelical perspective, though not without reference to the state of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. (Regarding the latter, he quotes frequently from Donna Steichen's "Ungodly Rage.") With a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, he is certainly in a position to describe the progressive paganization of the leadership of the mainline churches in America. Though British-born, he seems to have made his way through the great educational institutions of the United States just before the Long March of `60s ideology began. Unlike many of his younger colleagues today, he is therefore still able to be shocked.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the connections it makes between the resurgence of gnosticism and other trends in the academy and politics. The literary technique known as deconstruction, for instance, helped to create the intellectual universe in which the transcendental monotheism of orthodox Christianity became quite literally unthinkable to many people with expensive educations. I might add that, most recently, deconstruction (which turned out to have been founded by Nazis) has been superseded in some institutions by some form of "historicism." As practiced by many prominent theologians, this approach essentially consists of recasting biblical history to fit an ideological perspective. The metaphysical anti-monotheism inculcated by deconstruction still remains, of course, but there has been added to it a profound dishonesty in the use of historical sources.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is Jones's assertion that American gnosticism has begun to serve as the theological underpinning of cultural and even political liberalism. For two centuries, the chief alternative to orthodox Christianity was atheist humanism, or agnostic scientism, or at any rate some way of looking at the world that categorically excluded the supernatural. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, people who oppose traditional ethics and who seek to collapse the human race into the natural world are claiming some sort of supernatural sanction. This trend has entered the mainstream to an appalling degree, as even a cursory familiarity with Vice President Al Gore's preachy eco-feminist tract, "Earth in the Balance," will confirm. In some ways, the people who control the key institutions of American society are more pious than their predecessors were a century ago. The problem is that this piety is directed toward objects that have less and less in common with the religion of the people these institutions are supposed to serve and represent.
The origins of gnosticism are disputed, as is the precise time of its appearance, but it is clear that in the first few centuries after Jesus there was a variety of sects, other than the orthodox church, that claimed to be Christian, indeed to be the true and esoteric Christianity. They changed and multiplied, as their adherents followed after one charismatic adept after another, but a few themes and names stand out. Marcion, for instance, who lived in the second century, essentially threw out the whole Old Testament as the work of the devil and kept only fragments of the New. Others, such Valentinus, tended to keep the scriptures but modified their meaning. As a rule, though, in gnostic speculation the God of the Jews was denounced as a tyrant who had created the inferior world in which we live. His law is folly and his promises are lies. The universe over which he rules is a multi-layered prison in which human beings are confined in ignorance of their origin and destiny. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was seeking to liberate mankind, and Eve was its prophet.
In most gnostic systems, there is indeed a god worthy of worship, but one wholly alien to this world. This god is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil, but beyond all categories even by analogy. The Christ is his agent, but understood primarily as a psychological function. The Jesus of history, to the extent the gnostics were interested in him at all, was an exemplar rather than a redeemer. Human beings contain the "sparks" of the alien god. After many incarnations, these captive souls may hope to attain the "knowledge," the "gnosis" (the words are cognate, by the way) that will allow them to return to their origin.
How did the sparks get there? They are trapped, through "love and sleep," in the mass of the world, into which a fragment of the complex divine reality called the "pleroma" has fallen. This final emanation of the divine is called Sophia, "wisdom." She is conceived of as a goddess whose fear and terror and grief at her separation from the pleroma gave birth to the Demiurge, the false god of our creation. There is a "higher" or unfallen aspect of Sophia who works to undo the enslavement of the divine to matter and to rescue the human race from the world of birth, death and division.
Now, all of this sounds like pretty esoteric stuff, something that only scholars or would-be magicians might be expected to run across. Until a few years ago, that was largely true. Today, in contrast, expressions of gnosticism turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for instance, the following autobiographical description of a vision experienced by the author of a recent book that dealt largely with the state of current progress toward a unified field theory in physics:
"...I became convinced...that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to ecstasy, it might consume me...With this realization, my bliss turned into horror...As I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves."
(John Horgan, "The End of Science," page 261)
The interesting point here is that the writer of this passage had apparently never heard of the gnostic doctrine that the world had been created through God's own fear. He mulled over this experience for many years and eventually wrote "The End of Science" to work through the possibility of a downside to omniscience. However, most people do get their ideas about gnosticism from books rather than personal experience. With certain adaptations, all of the themes described above as elements of ancient gnosticism now have modern analogues, expounded in prestigious schools of divinity and, in many cases, preached to actual congregations.
Some things have needed translation, of course. Classical gnostics loathed matter and the structures of this world because they thought there was an immeasurably better world elsewhere. However, though this better reality was absolutely transcendent, they believed the way to find it was by looking within. In modern gnosticism, in contrast, the transcendent is a more muted theme; any appeal to the "beyond" is likely to be denounced as an ideology. The search within continues, however. Instead of seeking union with the alien god, modern gnostics seek their authentic selves. The techniques for this search are therefore more likely to be considered therapy than magic, though in fact rather a lot of traditional hocus-pocus has become fashionable in progressive religious circles.
In any event, today the opposition to the "structures of this world" is at least as fierce as it was in the religious underground of second-century Alexandria. To take the most colorful example: if the God of Genesis said to be fruitful and multiply but otherwise to behave yourself, then obviously the way to subvert his law is to engage in any form of sex that does not result in children. There has always been a real horror of reproduction in gnostics of all ages. This sentiment was well expressed by Jack Kerouac in his declining years, when he regretted that he had fathered a daughter and thereby had added to the "meat-wheel" of the world system. Similarly, both in modern and in ancient times, there has been a strong gnostic tendency to regard homosexuality as metaphysically superior, since it moves beyond the division of gender roles established by the Demiurge.
Modern gnosticism is predominantly feminist, and indeed to the extent that feminism seeks an ontological justification, gnosticism is probably it. However, we should keep in mind that consciously gnostic feminism has as little to do with the actual needs and concerns of most women as Leninism does with those of industrial workers. I, at least, am increasingly convinced that the role of feminism in the critique of the Western tradition is in any case largely instrumental. Notions like "patriarchy" are essentially a form of class analysis, with the genders substituted for economic classes. It is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Like the term "bourgeois," it is a cuss-word rather than a description of anything. When the whole of art and science and politics are denounced as part of a system of patriarchal oppression, the point is not to draw attention to unjust gender-relationships, the point is to get rid of the art and the science and the politics. Again, the impulse here is fundamentally gnostic, a studied loathing of ordinary life not because it is evil, but because it exists.
A novel aspect of modern gnosticism is its millenarian streak. Ancient gnostics anticipated that the corrupt world system created by the incompetent Demiurge would come crashing down one day, but they did not normally anticipate it happening anytime soon. They were wholly uninterested in transforming the world or in becoming a universal faith. In today's gnosticism, in contrast, there is a strong dispensationalist sentiment. The Age of Christianity (or of Jehovah) is over, they say, and the New Age is about to begin. Among feminist gnostics, the motto "women will destroy god" is frequently met with. There is a high end and a low end to this sentiment. The low end is represented by "witches" who conduct gothic ceremonies in honor of the return of the Goddess Sophia. The high end is represented by people like Joseph Campbell, who held that the global society of the third millennium requires a new global myth, one consonant with modern science and social practice. There is no lack of perfectly respectable people, again notably including Al Gore, who have suggested that the myth of the Goddess Gaia, of the Earth as organism, might serve this function. Thus, modern gnosticism has plans not only for destruction, but for the reconstruction to follow.
On a less global level, vandalism is a good enough description for what has been happening in the Protestant mainline churches and elements of the Catholic Church for the past quarter century. (Actually, in the case of Catholic parish churches, "vandalism" is not a mere metaphor, considering the ghastly effect that modernizing liturgists have had on the ornamentation and design of church buildings.) Church-goers who have been paying any attention at all have had little trouble following the irresponsible mutations that have occurred in the treatment of scripture and liturgy.
Peter Jones is particularly exercised by the proliferation of tendentious Bible translations in recent years. Perhaps the most dishonest exercise so far has been "The Five Gospels," a heavily-marketed translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the "Gospel of Thomas," a work that came to light among the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The "Gospel of Thomas" is simply not a "gospel," both because it is of later composition and quite different in form, a mere collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of distinction that many modern theologians have been systematically subverting.
The progressive line now is that the gnostics had as much right to be considered Christians as did the orthodox Church. The victory of one faction over the other was a matter of pure chance, the outcome of a power struggle. How Christian orthodoxy, an outlawed religion for three centuries, could have won a power struggle against anybody is hard to see. Syncretistic religions that included elements of Christianity were not illegal; a statue of Jesus stood in the pantheon of the third century emperor Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, in the interests of inclusiveness, "Gnostic Bibles" containing apocryphal literature from Nag Hammadi and other sources have already begun to appear. They find increasing acceptance in seminaries where the whole idea of a biblical canon is under question.
The situation is only exacerbated by enterprises like the "Jesus Seminar," whose participants vote periodically on which elements of the New Testament should be given what level of credence, and particularly on which sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. The sayings they endorse are those that suggest Jesus was mostly interested in finding the inner self and subverting gender roles. The Seminar is, as Jones notes, essentially a hoax perpetrated by people with impeccable credentials. However, it has the backing of Time Magazine, which gives choice bits of its "discoveries" wide publicity every Christmas and Easter.
Just thinking about this subject is enough to invite cosmic paranoia (which is a good definition for gnosticism in the first place). And then, of course, sometimes merely odd stuff happens. As I mentioned, Peter Jones is English, and he hails from Liverpool. In fact, he was a good friend of John Lennon in high school. They parted company when Lennon went to vocational school for the arts while Jones took a college track. Jones pronounces himself mystified as to how, despite this divergence in education, Lennon was incorporating gnostic themes into his later work that Jones knew about only because he had studied patristics. I mention this because, a few hours before starting to read this book, I was poking about on the Web and I came across a site whose author purported to be no less a person than Antichrist himself. Of course, sites purportedly maintained by Abraham Lincoln are probably no less numerous than those maintained by Antichrist. This particular Antichrist, however, had an eschatology that incorporated John Lennon as the final incarnation of Christ, so that Lennon's death marked the beginning of the end of the Christian era. I hate it when this kind of thing happens.
Spirit Wars is in fact fairly free of paranoia and quite devoid of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, towards the end of the book, Jones does permit himself this observation:
"As she covers her anemic body with a fake robe of Christ, Sophia begins to look more and more like the harlot of the Apocalypse, that startling image of an apostate Church, fornicating with the kings of the earth, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. On the threshold of the third millennium, the `Spirit Wars' have begun in dead earnest, though at present we have only seen the initial skirmishes. Sophia is only at the beginning of her reign."
(Spirit Wars, page 257)
Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are some other points to consider. The big one is the size of gnosticism's actual audience. Peter Jones cites dozens of conferences, books and papers that propound a gnostic point of view (the book has 60 pages of notes; I just wish it had a better index). I am quite ready to believe, as Jones suggests, that gnosticism is now the orthodoxy of many of America's major seminaries. Still, he does overlook one key point about the power of gnosticism: it empties churches faster than stink bombs. The mainline Protestant churches with which Jones is primarily concerned have been bleeding membership for thirty years. They adopted fad after fad in theology and liturgy, so that when gnosticism and feminism came along they had no living tradition of resistance. The result was that soon many such churches also had no members.
On the Catholic side, of course, the saddest case has been what happened to American nuns. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, some few orders made only the modest reforms suggested by the Council, and at this writing they look like they will survive. Most, however, followed essentially the same gnosticizing trend as, say, the Episcopal Church in America. The result is that the scariest academic conferences Jones discusses, in which the God of the Bible is denounced as an idol and goddesses are openly worshipped, are largely populated by Catholic nuns. They are, however, for the most part aging nuns. Their orders do not attract new members. They can solicit contributions from ordinary Catholics successfully only by appealing to old memories of parochial school graduates. Their fate is as clear an indication as one could wish that liberal Christianity has no future.
The churches that are growing in the United States are for the most part those that make some effort to remain theologically conservative, though one might wish that they could combine this endeavor with a higher level of theological sophistication. Some of the mainline churches, notably the Presbyterians, have recoiled from the abyss at the insistence of their local memberships and started firing liberal staff in their central organizations. The Catholic Church in this decade has produced a thoroughly orthodox Catechism that has reached a wide popular audience despite the efforts of liberal ecclesiastical bureaucrats to suppress it. While these developments hardly constitute rollback (a fine old Cold War expression), they do suggest that Sophia is not having things all her own way.
Finally, there is one other point to consider in assessing the prospects of modern gnosticism. The religious future of the West cannot be discussed without reference to the future of the West as a whole. Peter Jones notes the analogies between the religious climate of the early Christian centuries and that of today. Cyclical historians have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jones cites Toynbee on the subject, who says that the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when the "Higher Religion" of the third millennium appeared. You may pick your own favorite historical tea-leaf reader, but mine is Oswald Spengler. Writing seventy years ago, he used the term "Second Religiousness" to describe the cultural state of old civilizations, after their "modern" eras have ended. According to him, it is precisely in this final phase that "fancy-religions" like Theosophy and the cult of Isis lose their appeal. Civilizations return to the forms of their springtimes, which in the case of the West means a form of conservative Christianity. It is not wholly clear that time is on the gnostics' side.
This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly