Appendix: Gnosticism

The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Appendix: Gnosticism

This book has at no point claimed completeness. Not only are the stages of preaxial development treated only formally and the axial cultures of China and Persia wholly omitted, but also developments in Greece and Palestine have been dealt with schematically in such a way as to ignore other modes of existence which took shape within them. Hence, no special apology is appropriate for the omission of one or another particular movement

However, the avowed principle of selection and emphasis has been interest in Christian existence, and this has been presented quite simply as an outgrowth of prophetic existence. I do not apologize for this arrangement of the material, and I hope that in part the presentation in terms of structures of existence lends justification to this embattled view. Nevertheless, the view is an embattled one. The close affinities of Christianity to contemporary Hellenistic alternatives compel us to consider the extent to which it should be understood against this background instead of that of the earlier Hebrew prophetism and its peculiar consequences in Israel. Even the term ” spiritual existence points directly to such affinities with Hellenism.

Although the Hellenistic alternatives to Christianity are highly varied, they tend to be distinguishable from Socratic existence by traits which in their full-blown form constitute Gnosticism. Gnosticism is here understood as that movement of the later Hellenistic world which sought salvation from the whole cosmos regarded as, in principle, an alien and evil power. It is to be distinguished, thereby, both from Socratic and from prophetic existence. To grasp what is entailed in this definition, it must be understood that the cosmos includes the human body and even the human soul as a whole.

I am in no position to enter into the historical debate as to the relative importance of the several sources of Gnosticism, but I must attempt to place it in reference to the schematism of this book. In confronting this task, one is faced first by the exceedingly extensive use of mythical material by the Gnostics. In spite of this, Gnosticism must be recognized as an axial phenomenon. That is, it reflects the shift of the seat of existence to consciousness and the consequent objectification of the mythical products of the unconscious. However, in this case, unlike those of Socratic and prophetic existence, men experienced themselves as thrust out of preaxial existence by partly unwelcome forces, concretely the cultural imperialism of the Hellenistic empires, which drew men toward Socratic existence.

In its own origins, Socratic existence presupposed the prior victory of Homeric existence over the mythical powers, but in its spread through Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, this precondition did not obtain. Cultural intermixture plus Persian influence had brought these regions to the brink of axial existence, and some universalization and systematization of myth preceded Hellenization, providing the possibility for taking the myths seriously also from the Hellenic point of view. In this situation, alongside the possibility of rejecting the mythical lay the other possibility of seeking in it meanings intelligible to the rational consciousness, and structuring and elaborating the mythical material so as to give expression to these meanings. Thus the form of Gnostic self-expression can be understood as a consequence of the direct impact of Socratic existence on highly civilized peoples prepared for the axial revolution, but not yet freed from the dominant power of the mythical.

More important than the mythological form of Gnostic expression, however, was the content expressed. This can be interpreted in the same way. From the beginning of civilization, men experienced an inner estrangement between their rational consciousness and the psyche as a whole. This estrangement gained expression in myth and was thereby contained. The shift of the seat of existence to the rational consciousness, however, created an alienation of the self from the unconscious psychic life as a whole. Thus the sense of alienation was an inevitable element in all axial existence.

Where the transition from preaxial to axial existence occurred not by internal cultural development but by the impact of a foreign proselytizing culture, the sense of alienation was greatly intensified. The Socratic world into which Egyptian or Syrian man was called by Hellenization was indeed an alien and resented world. From this world there was no return to simply mythical existence, but myths and other ancient traditions could yet be made to yield an expression of the hostility felt toward it. The sense of alienation both from the unconscious and from the world of Socratic reason created a consciousness of self or spirit as something wholly other to all the rest of the psychic life.

According to this theory, Gnosticism was primarily the product of the less completely Hellenized peoples of the Hellenistic world for whom, nevertheless, Hellenization was the agency by which they were carried across the axial threshold. Among those who experienced the impact of Hellenization in this way were also those inhabitants of Greece and Israel who had earlier participated, but fragmentarily, in the dominant cultures of these peoples. To appraise the total role of Gnosticism, however, it is important to see that the sense of alienation which received such pure expression in Gnosticism played its independent part also in the dominant axial cultures of Greece and Palestine, where it was initially contained as a subdominant element in a larger synthesis. Only in this way can we understand both the parallel developments in these cultures and the readiness with which fusion sometimes occurred.

In Greece, Homeric men undertook to domesticate the alien powers within an aesthetically ordered world. In Israel, prophetic man attempted a moral ordering of the whole of life in response to his apprehension of the divine will. Neither attempt was entirely successful. Within both traditions the sense of alien and even hostile powers made itself felt. In Greece, this was in terms of an always limiting and sometimes oppressive fate and of the struggle to master the Dionysian spirit. In Israel, the pull toward disobedience required a doctrine of a tempter, and the injustices of life confronted man with an insoluble problem of evil. This meant in both Greece and Israel that man could not be entirely at home in the world, that there existed between himself and his world an element of tension. Nevertheless, for Homeric man the understanding of the world as cosmos, as intelligible order, remained fundamental, and for prophetic man the tempter was radically subordinated to the Creator-Lawgiver.

The flowering and transformation of Greek culture in Socrates continued the dominance of the sense of order but heightened the implicit tension. Man identified himself with one factor within reflective consciousness. This factor was still perceived as in harmony with the cosmos as a whole, but this harmony with ultimate cosmic reality must be contrasted with its frequent opposition to such inferior aspects of the cosmos as the physical and the emotional life of the soul. In Stoicism, the contradiction between reason and all else in the body and soul was carried to an extreme point, and although reason still claimed kinship with nature and cosmos, most of what we regard as “natural” was ruthlessly suppressed.

Similarly, in some forms of Jewish apocalypticism, the tension between the felt injustice of history and faith in the God who was Creator and Lord of history reached an extreme pitch. All that was factually given to man in this life was dissociated from the work of the Creator-God, except as signs and portents of a total transformation to come in which faith would at last be vindicated.

From one point of view, it was not a great step from the Stoic hostility toward the irrational to Gnostic condemnation of the world as a whole. Yet it was just that kind of step which I have called the crossing of a threshold. It was the accentuation of one element in a given synthesis to that point at which the old synthesis collapsed and a new one was formed around a new center. When this step was taken, the aesthetic and rational order fundamental to Greek existence was abandoned. Hence, the center of existence could no longer be reason. Instead, it had to be identified with “spirit”! At this point, a movement growing out of the inner development of Greek existence could be receptive to and even merge with the Gnosticism that had essentially bypassed this development.

The relation of Jewish apocalypticism to Gnosticism was similar, although not identical. Despite the world-denying emphasis of apocalypticism, Jewish apocalypticism never rejected the Torah. Hence, the movement from apocalypticism to the Gnostic rejection of law was more abrupt than that from Stoicism. The choice between Judaism, even in its most apocalyptic forms, and Gnosticism remained clear-cut. It was directly from apocalyptic Judaism that Christianity arose, rather than from Gnosticism. Nevertheless, the significant affinities are also apparent.

It is because of the close parallel with Christian existence, especially in the understanding of selfhood, that it is not possible to omit this brief discussion of Gnosticism from this book. Christian existence has been described as spiritual existence fulfilled in love, and the rise of spiritual existence has been identified with that of Christian existence. Yet we find that, independently of Christianity, “spiritual existences” was the self-definition of the Gnostic as well. Furthermore, the meaning of “spirit” in the two cases was similar. For both it referred to the self or the “I” as the center that transcended all such other elements in the psyche as reason and will. In both cases there was a close correlation between this transcending human spirit and the God who transcended the world.

Nevertheless, there was a profound difference between spirit in Gnosticism and in Christianity, such that by the definition of “spiritual existence” in this book, the Gnostic did not participate in it. This difference can be explained in terms of responsibility. The Gnostic as “spirit” transcended all other elements in his psychic life in the sense that he differentiated himself from them and distanced them. He experienced some power in respect to them in the sense that he might either repress them or gratify their several inclinations. But he accepted no responsibility for them. Their evil character was none of his doing, and if they entrapped him or gained mastery over him, that was the work of forces alien to himself.

Similarly, Gnostic “spirit” was self-transcendent in the sense that it knew itself as such, but it took no responsibility for itself. It understood itself as a supernatural entity caught or implanted in the natural psyche. In its own being it was simply good. Whatever responsibility the Gnostic may in fact have felt for the state of his “spirit,” his self-understanding allowed no explication in such terms, and to a considerable degree the implications of this lack of responsibility for what one’s self was was consistently developed in theory and practice.

Whether the Gnostic understanding of the relation of the “spirit” to other elements in the psyche resulted from or was projected onto the understanding of God’s relation to the created world, the close correlation and mutual reinforcement is apparent. God transcended the world in the sense that he was outside the world and other than the world. God even had some power with respect to what transpired within the world. Nevertheless, he had no responsibility for the world. It was something wholly alien to him. His only kinship lay with men, insofar as men were ” spirits.”

Having indicated both the close parallel between Gnostic and Christian existence and also the difference, I can explain why the account of this threshold crossing was omitted from the body of the book. The fundamental reason is that it appears to have been abortive. Gnosticism did succeed in extricating the self from its identification with reason and will, and in this respect it went beyond Socratic and prophetic existence. But it did so in such a way as not to incorporate or fulfill Socratic and prophetic existence but so as to negate them. What would have occurred had Hellenistic man not received in Christianity the possibility of transcending the limits of Socratic and prophetic existence without their negation, one can only conjecture. But in fact the Christian alternative did appear and was victorious.

Even if Gnosticism in its distinction from Christianity is recognized as finally abortive, the critic might argue that the rise of Christian existence as such presupposes Gnosticism. In this case, a chapter on Gnostic existence should be placed between those on prophetic and Christian existence. My reasons for rejecting this should now be clear. The world-rejecting elements in Christianity are adequately explained by Jewish apocalypticism, and this, despite its enmity toward the present world, stopped short of and opposed the dissolution of moral order. Christianity continued and even heightened the apocalyptic sense of estrangement of the self from the given historical situation, but it heightened also the sense of total responsibility for the soul. It acknowledged its kinship with Gnosticism by employing some of its terminology, but it correctly recognized in Gnosticism not its parent but its most dangerous enemy.