Transcription from David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast with an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020:
My interest in recovering the real form of gnosticism, trying to understand what it really was, if we are going to keep trying to use that word, is mostly to try to detach our understanding of the New Testament and the early church from the pictures that we formed of it based on later theological developments, later theological habits of thought, and later cultural alienations and estrangements from the original texts that allow us to imagine that we understand the world of the New Testament much better than we actually do.
…We tend to characterize Chrsistianity’s understanding of creation as, in an unqualified way, one of affirmation. Now it is in the sense that there is no notion in Paul or John that this world is literally ontologically estranged from God to the point that it is actually handiwork of a lesser celestial demon or the demiurge. And yet if you actually look at the New Testament, the Gospel of John is about as stark and dualistic in some of its formulations as it’s possible to be. Christ descends from above, and that above is not—and this is one of the things that I hope we talk about, the cosmology of the first century and other things like angelology that are often misunderstood, not just by modern Christians but Christians from the medieval period onward—but that descent is quite real. He is the man who is above, and he alone knows the secrets of the Father and descends into the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend him. Throughout John’s gospel, it is a war of darkness and light, and it’s also a light that divides rather starkly. Christ passes through the Gospel of John not like the frail man of sorrows or the political revolutionary of the synoptics but as already, not only risen but as one who comes from the mysterious realm that is already in some sense if not alien to but so transcendent of this realm that there can only be enmity until the end between the children of this world and of the devil who is called the ruler of this age, the ruler of this world, the archon of this world or the prince of this world in the King James and the one who comes from the Father who alone reveal the words of eternal life that gnosis that saves and heals.
In Paul, 1 Corinthians 15 is where it is most evident, but it is there throughout Paul. The current age, the olam ha-zeh in Hebrew, is not just a somewhat diminished reality. It is one that has been under the rule of mutinous angelic celestial powers literally in the heavens above separating us physically and spiritually from the highest heaven of God the Father as well as beings under the earth and on the earth that are very much the sort of malign spiritual agencies that were part of the intertestamental and second temple literature of the Noahic fall. For Paul, if you read 1 Cornithians 15, the age to come is one in which these powers are subdued by force, placed under the governance of the Son that may be handed over to the Father, and only then will the cosmos be under the rule of God and the way clear, physically and spiritually, to communion between us and God so that there is no longer any height or depth, no angel or archon or power between us and God. That imagery should be taken very literally because Paul meant it quite literally. The fallen heavens are guarded by these sentinel beings and the nations governed by them. The age to come is one in which we will put aside flesh, and he means flesh. …[Flesh] is actually an element incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So our body in the olam ha-ba, the age to come, will be a spiritual body that is literally a body composed of the element called spirit which is a semi-physical reality in its own right in the metaphysics that Paul’s language presumes.
So there is a very dark view of the condition of the cosmos under the reigning archon, the god [or archon] of this present evil age [or cosmos]. …It’s easier for twentieth and twenty-first century Chrsitians with antibiotics that work and when strep throat doesn’t kill your child and infant mortality rates aren’t fifty-two percent. It’s easy for us, somehow, to delude ourselves that the dissatisfactions and sorrows of life that we haven’t encountered aren’t as bad as they’ll prove to be, and we certainly can’t look at the world from the perspective of ancient persons who understood suffering and reconciled themselves to it far more easily than we do. Nonetheless, throughout Christian history, this provisional dualism [rather quickly] receded. It is there up to the early Alexandrians. You find it even in Origen when he talks about the nature of the cosmos. They still inhabited the same cosmology. It’s almost literal, physical estrangement, and I should say estrangement of nature between creation and the most High God.
Interviewer: Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism.
Interviewer: And one of the key claims is that—especially in the Alexandrian tradition starting with Origen—not everything that appears to us is a work of God, a creation of God. …That infuses the New Testament themes that you are talking about with the most substantial sense in which that provisional dualism is a true dualism, that one side has to be overcome, obliterated. This is inherent in the gospel, in the Kingdom of God.
Hart: Right. Yah. …It is actually Paul who speaks of the “god of this age.” John and Ephisians both speak of the archon, the prince of this cosmos. First John, all things lie in the power of the evil one. The heavenly spheres are throned by archons and powers and principalities in Romans, in First Corinthians, in Ephesians. They are cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers. Galatians quite clearly says the law was written by angels delivered through human mediators. So even the law comes to us in a defective form because the angels that govern the nations, even the angel that governs Israel apparently—the Angel of the Lord, is defective in his rule. So the world is a prison of spirits, and this is a darkness and in John it doesn’t know the true light. A divine savior descends from the aeon above into this world. In John, aionios doesn’t mean everlasting in the durative sense. It doesn’t necessarily even mean the age to come, in the sense of the future but actually refers to things heavenly or divine that exist in the aevum or aeon above rather than in the realm of chronos time. He brings with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages we’re told in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Collasians. It’s a secret wisdom unknown even to the archons of this cosmos in First Corithians. He has the power to liberate fallen spirits we’re told in John 8. And now there are certain blessed persons who possess gnosis, First Corinthians, and they constitute an exceptional group called the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. …In Jude, when it speaks of psychical men who do not possess spirit, and that is always translated as “who don’t possess the Holy Spirit,” but there is no “the” and no “holy.” It means …who are without spirit. In that context, it is as much a quality of one who has been sanctified as it is an actual element or constitution of their nature. And so the savior opens a pathway through the planetary spheres, the heavens and the armies of the air and the powers on high. That is when Paul will tell us that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor things present nor things imminent nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.
…So what is the great distinction? Well, God created this world. There aren’t two gods. Well, even then, there are certain ambiguities there. As the lawgiver, God the Father is not even the author of the law.
…What we vaguely call gnostic sects, …if they can be classified as in any way as heterodox (they are certainly vulgar in the mythopoetic excesses sometimes), it’s this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism.
…If I had to say that there is one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic, is that if they have a metaphysics of relation between God and creation, as far as we know there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. There is not an ontological sophistication there. You have spatial metaphors like all of reality is contained within the Father who is the encompassing sphere, and I think it means that literally. …They tend to head instead toward metamyth [rather than metaphysics]. We are left wondering how literal is this, how allegorial. We’ve been taught to think that they literally mean all these things, but how do we know? How do we know that these aren’t propaedeutic figures?
…What a Thomist understands by the term angel, taking his cue from Thomas, and what St Paul thought about angels, taking his cue from the book of Enoch and Jubilees and from a long temple mysticism, are two completely incompatible things. They have next to no connection with one another.
…Interview: [Berdyaev] has the famous footnote which says, “This was revealed to me in a dream.”
Hart: Yah. Now of course I have refrained from putting that footnote with many of the things that I have written just because I don’t want to scare people. I don’t want to give them a sense of their inferiority, so the number of things that have been revealed to me in dreams, I have kept to myself. One of my favorite passages, I remember the first time I read it was when I was 18 in Berdyaev, it said: “The preexistence of souls doesn’t have to be argued doesn’t have to be argued. We just know it to be true. It’s an obvious truth of reason and experience, so let’s move on to what we can conclude from this.” I do think—as exotic and as idiosyncratic as Berdyaev’s use of these things are—he’s onto something. There is a sense in which this world is not yet the world that God creates. …This is the way that Paul is thinking constantly. Creation is that which is yet to be revealed. In part, creation is something that is constructed by spiritual natures. He doesn’t talk in terms of a demiurge. He does talk in terms of a god of this world, but …the world we inhabit is the one that has been corrupted by spiritual natures. I think he probably has a book of Enoch notion of the degree to which angels participated in this, the degree to which we participated in it. I don’t know if what he talks about the impress, the image of the celestial man, if we fully understood, but that seems very much inline with the first and second and third century mysticism of the true human who dwells in the heavenly places as the true image of God and of the Son of God. Until then, the world that we inhabit, that we create together as spiritual beings, that we perceive, that is the work of our wills in our ignorance is maya. …You know I’m trying to come up with a form of Vedantic Christianity to carry us into the next century.
Hart: Well, you’ve already got it there in the neoplatonic tradition, I just think that there are all these wonderful Indian thinkers who had all sorts of categories and reflections that can enrich the Christian treasury of terms. But actually, it’s a good term. …What does maya mean? …Appearance, illusion. …To a degree, that’s the meaning it has. …But really, it’s the same Indo-European root as maguš, magic. It’s the power of creation but it’s also illusion. It has that dual sense. There’s that kind of demiurgic distance between us and the world that is a work of spiritual estrangement from God that’s both, in one sense, natural, even physical if you want to use the Pauline language and also moral. Berdyaev instinctively understood that this is something that is actually there in the essence of the New Testament language even though he wouldn’t be encouraged to think that from later Christian thought—although in the East, obviously, many of these tropes were retained a bit more fully.
…Of course one has to tread delicately here because I’m more than willing to say that, in one sense, all of creation is a real theophany, a real incarnation, even, of the divine story, of the divine nature, but am I willing to allow that the fallenness of that history is constituent of the goodness, is constituent of the nature of God such that violence, death, betrayal, cruelty become, even if negative, nonetheless probative aspects of the divine story? That is actually not a gnostic impulse. To say that is just the opposite. The so-called gnostics …[had] absolute horror of that suggestion. The God most high is not, in any of these systems, …is in no way involved in the fall of nature. The Father remains absolutely inaccessible, unknown, incomprehensible and removed from any taint of evil, from any finitude. It is something of a point of …a neurosis in the gnostic texts that might alone explain why they go in the direction they go in—the anxiety to make sure that in no way can the evil of this world, the darkness of this world, the pain of this world in any way be attributed to the true divine nature.
Jordan Wood: I get a little bit anxious around analogy talk. …Maximus presses constantly, incessantly upon identity which is the thing that Przywara and Balthasar rule out in principle in terms of what’s able to be said from an analogical perspective. Yet at the same time, my reading is that it’s actually because of the conviction that the highest God was crucified that actually gives rise to the provisional dualism or makes sense of it that you rightly detect in the New Testament and the gnostics and so forth. …Is there a possibility of affirming both that God is incarnating into all things …such that there must be an identity between the the true history, the true creation, the true world and that that actually entails the destruction of the false dualism that we generate? …It’s actually a christological identity which opposes, so you can actually say, that because God makes Himself identical with the world in the Word, that He does not simply develop through the slaughterhouse of history because He overcomes that history by His identification with that history.
Hart: I think that you’re worrying too much about analogy in the sense that you’re thinking of the actual interval of analogy as a pure disjunction. It’s not. An analogy is a unity that is different in aspect according to which side of the analogy is given priority but that ultimately is not a disjunction or even an opposition, certainly not an antithesis. …Analogy simply is to say that there is a unity between the way in which in God all possibility is actual and the way in which in the actuality of creation there is a real collapse of possibility into finite actually. Therefore, you are looking at a participatory unity. When I say unity, I mean unity. I don’t mean participation in the sense of something that is other than God in any but a modal way. I’m going to get excommunicated if I keep going on here. But an analogy is simply pointing to different modalities within a unity. That’s different from either opposition or simple identity that does not allow for the kind of distinction that you seem willing to preserve between the true story and the false story, the way in which we are integrated into the true story. And now I’m sounding more Jensonian than I mean to or more Yale school than I mean to …But at the end of the day I’m a monist as any sane person is. We can play games with it, but any metaphysics that is coherent is ultimately reducible to a monism.
Since you’ve read the book You Are Gods, you know how it starts. It argues that nothing can become anything that it isn’t already. …God does not become a man …in a way that it somehow alters who He already is. Nothing that is in a man is excluded from who God already is. In the same way, we cannot become partakers in the divine nature unless we are already fully partakers of the fullness of the divine nature. Between that understood as the dynamism of possibility and actuality from this end of spiritual perception, spiritual life, from this far removed end of the ordo cognoscendi, …from the other end, the ordo essendi, the fullness of God, what is for use the dynamism of the of the possible and the actual, is a full genuine manifestation and participation in that infinite actuality that is God. I’m not sure how analogy here is a problem for you. If you don’t want to use that word, you don’t have to. You do however, have to acknowledge that there is a modal distinction between being Jordan Wood and being God the Father.
…You can speak of analogy of Father and Son in the Trinity. It doesn’t indicate a disjunction. …The Son is the fullness of the Father reflected, the fullness of the depth of the paternal arche, but not in the mode of the Father. However you want to define analogy, the point of the analogia entis remember, and this is where you have to appreciate Przywara, is that his claim is not that there are two distinct, separate realities that are held together in a neutral medium called existence, but that rather the one reality of being, which is the fullness of God and a dynamism in us, is expressed in these radically different and yet utterly intimately inseparable ways. The analogy there is not a gulf. It is a union under the form of a distinction but not of a separation like the divine and the human natures of Christ.
But I’m quite content for you to use the christological language instead. If you want to throw the word analogy out you can because it’s a vague word. Among those arid, hopeless Thomists of whom I spoke, the manualist Thomists, it becomes quite a descecating category of linguistic attribution and ultimately dissolves into a kind of useless apophaticism, one that’s not enveloped in a deeper gnosis.
Jordan Wood: …The problem with alalongy from my perspective …is not so much that it’s wrong, it’s just that it’s too abstract to say what is peculiarly true of the Christian incarnation.
Hart: I don’t disagree with that.
…It is true that at that time [writing The Beauty of the Infinite] I was more hesitant to go all the way towards what should have been obvious to me. In many ways, this book You Are Gods, …is a much bolder and definitive statement of my theological views than has been printed before. …It has been a movement. I’m more unapologetically neoplatonist, more fully monistic, not at all worried about the sort of things that I thought I used to have to be careful so as not to …cross over a boundary that I shouldn’t cross. I’ve become more convinced that if you really …think about grace and nature—and it is one of the good things about the revival of this whole issue of the natural and the supernatural, as annoying as it is in one sense that there are people who read Garrigou-Lagrange with pleasure. …It helps to clarify things. You have to go one way or the other. I find that whole system utterly repugnant, genuinely hideous in its implications. …It allows you to send most people to hell with a clear conscience. …Those [earlier concerns of mine about analogy, etc.] were as much rhetorical than anything else. We’re all products of the period in which we had to deal with certain supervisors, certain teachers.
[Of Bulgakov:] …I don’t know of any other Christian theologian in the twentieth century that got it as right and who got what was right for all of the right reasons. What is the real meaning of a thoroughly consistent christology, and I think christology really is the heart of Bulgakov’s whole metaphysics. …My conviction always ways that the notion that orthodoxy could be formulated according to the correct acceptation of tradition, that the very notion of tradition, as we think of it, is self-defeating.
…You mentioned the Brandon Gallaher …exchange. For him, analogia entis involves somehow denying that the being of the creature is divine being. That’s not right. There is not an analogy between two different kinds of beings, but there is an analogy within the one infinite act of divine being, between the mode of creatureliness and the paternal fullness of the godhead. ..I prefer the language of sophia to the language of analogy just on poetic grounds. I’m willing to say it’s not the same thing, but it’s near enough as to make no difference if you understand analogy correctly. …Creation must be what it is. God must create, not because of an external compulsion, but because, as the fullness of reality, this is the fullness of the freedom to create that He has, in expressing Himself fully both as God in se and in alieno or in contraria. I don’t think Przywara would ever characterize creation as contingent in a metaphysical sense (that creation and this creation might or might not have been), …in regard to the divine nature, the divine identity, the divine story of Father and Son, and of the divine humanity (which even Przywara somewhat talks about). …But if I have to make a choice between the language of analogy and the language of sophia, …then I’ll stick with sophia.
[In a speed round of “random non-questions” with a “good or bad” response with “a sentence tops of why,” we learn that Hart finds Luther impossible to dislike (and with a sense of humor more brutal than Hart’s own), likes the early Romantic Marx (the Marx who believes in play and basic freedom) and finds the late capitalist Marx very bad (wanting to turn the whole world into a factory), hates the Catholic novel (not even liking Flannery O’Connor much), dislikes some of the same things that Roger Scruton dislikes, hates G.K. Chesterton (except distributism), among many other likes and dislikes.]