Certainty, Uncertainty and Wisdom: The Christian Tradition
Ron Dart. University of the Fraser Valley. 2020
“For now we see through a glass darkly”— 1 Corinthians 13:12
“Our little systems have their day; They have their day and seize to be: They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, oh Lord, art more than they.”— In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.”— Shakespeare
The Gnostic Temptation
We are living through yet another acute phase in the culture wars. The content does differ in many ways from previous ages however the means of engaging the hot button issues has a long line and lineage. The obvious and presenting issues tend to sharply divide the cultural marxists, social justice warriors, woke ethos, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, street activists, progressive leftist leaning liberals and new atheists from the alt-lite-new right, reactionary right, free speech leanings and various types of traditionalists and nationalist conservatives. Those who would toss paint on historic statues and pull them down inevitably birth reactionary law and order types. One extreme births the opposite. Although the issues priorized and interpreted bring both tribes into inevitable collisions, both clans assume the sheer rightness of their positions and tend to demean the other and, worse yet, rhetorical flame throwing is common and cancel culture dominates. This obstinate and committed position of uncritical and uncriticized certainty is at the heart of the gnostic temptation of the simplistic and ideological left and right (and can be found within many religious communities also past and present).
There is a tendency to think Gnosticism was only an early church heresy in which spirit was opposed to matter, mind to time, the higher and eternal the good, time and history to be transcended as being evil. There is some truth, of course, in such a historic read of Gnosticism as a challenge to the early church, but deeper than the content is the gnostic way of interpreting our all too human journey. The Gnostics, like the Manicheans, reduced complex reality to black-white categories, interpretations were right-wrong, truth-falsehood, certainty-uncertainty was the way of deciding who was in-out in the tribe and inner ring. The simplistic dualism cannot be missed. The gnostic way of seeing and interpreting spiritual realities (they saw themselves as the enlightened ones, the church more subordinate and of lesser insights) was one of certain knowing (gnostic tends to mean knowing of a higher and more certain level) that cannot be doubted. It is this gnostic appetite and desperate need for certainty that very much dominates the newest scene and act in the ongoing human drama of contentious issues in the culture wars, political correctness the new secular creed and dogma, those who differ branded as heretics to “the Cause”.
I will briefly linger, using Eric Voegelin as a guide, on how the gnostic way is as much with us today as it was in the early decades of the church, the content different, the need for certainty the same. When Gnosticism is secularized, the certainty theme remains even though the literal gnostics of history vanish. Voegelin, in his updated notion of Gnosticism, The New Science of Politics and his smaller yet nonetheless poignant missive, Science, Politics and Gnosticism can be a valuable pointer on clarifying much on the perennial nature of Gnosticism. But, let us briefly return to the Patristic and Creedal era of the early church and ponder how they deftly avoided the gnostic temptation as a way of knowing and being.
The early mothers/fathers of the church from the 2nd-7th centuries in the East and West made a distinction between knowing and seeing in a finite yet legitimate way (via positiva, cataphatic) yet also recognizing the limitations of knowing (via negativa, apophatic). We do, indeed, see through a glass darkly. This means we see but we do not see exhaustively and comprehensively. The journey, by faith (pistis), into the mystery of Divine Love is always one of Yes and No, sight yearning for greater insight. This is why one of the earliest Creeds, “The Apostles’ Creed”, said what could be said but much was not said. Sadly so, the confessional wars of the 16th century leaned more in gnostic directions, each denomination claiming certainty in their reads and interpretations of the Bible, yet, true to form, each clashing and differing on whose certainty was the truest and best. The confessions of the 16th century went much further in being certain on a variety of issues that do not exist in the classical Creeds. This was not the Patristic way. But, we can see hints of the emerging dilemma by the Third Council of Toledo in 589 (that eventually divided the church East and West). The West took the position, much to the chagrin of the Eastern Church, that the outworking and economy of Father-Son-Spirit could be clearly defined and articulated. In short, the West was certain that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Son and the Father. This doctrinal amendment (known as the divisive filioque clause from the Latin word son) received papal confirmation in 1014. The Eastern Church (particularly the Greek Orthodox Church) thought this level of certainty violated the mystery of Father-Son-Spirit. We can see, though, how this need for gnostic certainty in the West was a breeding ground for other forms of certainty that would take place in the 16th century.
Eric Voegelin, in The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics and Gnosticism, highlighted, in historic succession five moments of the hubris of the gnostic temptation and appetite for certainty: 1) Joachim of Fiore (spiritual Franciscans) argued there was the age of the Father (Judaism), age of the Son (infant Christianity) and the Age of the Spirit (spiritual Franciscan) and it was this age of the Spirit that Joachim and his devotees best understood (and those who differed with them did not understand the Spirit’s outpouring). In short, Joachim knew for certain how God’s Spirit was being embodied in history and those who followed him were the enlightened ones—they would have done well to listen to Bonaventure. 2) Oliver Crowell’s political puritan theology was committed to a gnostic read of how God was going to purify and purge England and those who dared to differ with him only proved they were traitors to God’s will and way. 3) If Joachim of Fiore and Oliver Cromwell embodied a form of religious and political Gnosticism that was oriented towards time and history (rather than a flight from it), the French revolution was a more secular form of the gnostic addiction. The horrendous tragedies and slaughter that took place by the pure revolutionaries purging one and all and beginning a new phase of history was yet another form of the gnostic way. 4) Both Marx and Marxism were both yet another dialectical form of Gnosticism, the bourgeois the oppressors who, in time, would be overthrown, in the dialectic of history, by the proletariat. This simplistic either-or epistemology with its notion of absolute certainty, both in theory and practice, wreaked havoc throughout much of the 20th century. And, 5) Voegelin argued, that there is a form of science that is also quite gnostic—we can see this tendency being played out in the trendy new atheists.
In sum, religious and political Gnosticism takes various forms and guises but what unites all gnostics is the desperate need to have the certain knowledge that diagnosis the problem, offers a clear and distinct prognosis to solve the problem and the means to be used to bring in the New Jerusalem. Such is the gnostic temptation and, I might add, the tragedies that emerge from those who naively heed such pied pipers in thought, word and deed.
The Agnostic Temptation
Those who have been taken in by the gnostic temptation and lived to see the reality of its implications are, often, understandably so, hesitant about being committed to any sort of gnostic certainty position again. I have had, in my years of teaching, many students who have been raised within various types of gnostic religious and political traditions (others join such tribes as they search for some sort of commitment and ideal to live by), been damaged by it, hence find it difficult to absolutize any sort of position again. This means they often, by default, slip into some variation of agnosticism, skepticism or cynicism. The relativizing of all perspectives then becomes the new credo. Needless to say, when agnosticism becomes a new certainty, it becomes its own gnostic temptation.
There are, of course, more subtle versions of the agnostic position such as the turn to hermeneutical generosity and, equally popular, the hermeneutic of suspicion in which all texts, classes, interests, ideologies hide and conceal deeper agendas of power and power imbalances. This latter approach can be found in some forms of postmodern exegesis. The ideology of the hermeneutics of suspicion can go in two directions—suspicion of all forms of interpretation or suspicion of those in power, hence the rise of cultural Marxism (quite different then historic economic Marxism, the former more concerned with identity, race, gender, LGBQI issues). Those who see power inevitably at work from all directions and sources often slip into the gnostic temptation of agnosticism. Those who uncritically genuflect to the dualism of power-powerless approach are gnostics of yet another variety, essentially agnostic about any position except their own, power and who has it the defining criteria. Power does come in varied shapes and sizes, though, those often without power, given power, become as nasty and ruthless in their use of new found power as those they once questioned and opposed. History is replete (then and now) with such relentless and obvious parables and messages not to miss.
The agnostic temptation can, in some ways, reflect and embody the Hamlet dilemma. There are those who see a variety of ways of interpreting ideas, historic events and issues and each have their own truths. Much hinges on where a person, class or community comes from. This means all is, simply put, a matter of perspective. Our conditioning and socialization (or, to use Heidegger’s phrase, our “thrownness”) will predispose us to see things in a certain way that if we were thrown into another context, we would see and interpret differently. I have been fortunate to have spent time at Nietzsche’s home in Sils Maria (Engadine Valley in Switzerland) and Heidegger’s hut in Todtnauberg in Southern Germany. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger have done more than most to deconstruct significant aspects of the Western Tradition thereby creating a generation and followers of a certain type of agnosticism. The powerful ideology of deconstructionism we find in Nietzsche and Heidegger has, of course, its own gnostic tendencies when deconstructed. We can always raise the question of why are not cynics cynical of cynicism or why don’t deconstructionists deconstruct deconstructionism, but often those mired in such a reductionistic ideology refuse to walk such a pathway.
There are a variety of agnostic positions very much active and alive in these times and if time and word space permitted, much more could be said on the issue. I do see, though, as mentioned above, that many who naively (either through upbringing or various forms of socialization) are taken in by the gnostic bait and lure, often turn, as a reaction, to some form of agnosticism. Trust once betrayed is hard, like a Ming Vase, once broken, to put together again.
I might add, by way of ending this section, mention Lauren Southern. Lauren assisted (when working for Rebel Media in 2016) in the launching of Jordan Peterson at the notorious University of Toronto event. Lauren did much of the filmed interviews on that controversial day. I have travelled with Lauren for many a year (many long conversations with her) as she moved to the far right and became, in many ways, one of the leading ladies and divas of the alt right, although, at a deeper level, she was never there. Lauren, in the last year, after many a conversation and email exchange, has departed from a form of alt right Gnosticism and is feeling her way into a more thoughtful political vision. She has not taken the agnostic pill but she is not sure what is on the far side of Gnosticism and agnosticism. Such will be her journey in the next few years. Such has been, in many ways, the journey of Jordan Peterson. Is there a way of thinking, living, moving and being beyond the gnostic and agnostic temptations? Such, of course, has been the historic way of both classical philosophy and the best of historic Christian theology. Such is, indeed, the wisdom way that is a via media between Gnosticism and agnosticism. And, it is to the wisdom way I now turn.
The Wisdom (Sophia) Way of Via Media
I began this missive of sorts with St. Paul’s insights on “seeing through a glass darkly”, Tennyson’s “broken lights” and Shakespeare’s “modest doubt”. The classical notion of wisdom (Sophia) was linked to friendship (philia), hence our understanding of philosophy in a more traditional sense (true friends ever in search for wisdom). The idea of friendship can be found in Plato’s Lysis (interestingly enough the Greek name of the Fox in Lewis’ best novel, Till We Have Faces), Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books XIII-IX), Cicero, Augustine’s indebtedness to Cicero and, of course, Aelrid’s classic Spiritual Friendship (that thread together in an exquisite manner the best thinking on the nature of friendship and wisdom). The obvious fact that none of us see perfectly or comprehensively means we need others who can correct our misguided commissions and point out our omissions. Such friends who hold wisdom high are imperative on our all too human journey to prevent us from thinning out interpretations that are reductionistic and lean in either gnostic or agnostic directions.
If I might return to the 16th century Reformation briefly, I think it can be argued that Luther’s reductionistic and desperate need for certainty explains why he and Erasmus locked horns. My book on Erasmus, Erasmus: Wild Bird, ponders this issue in some depth as does Michael Massing’s larger tome, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind (2018). Many of our late modern and postmodern ideologues are merely secularized Lutheran gnostics (the need for certainty paramount). The mark of a wise person is the ability to see that initial interpretations and commitments might be misguided and skewed. Many could be the illustrations of this but I will land lightly on two examples. First, The English High Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey) initially idealized the French Revolution, but as such romanticized ideas turned violent they rethought their youthful folly. This did not mean, though, they became reactionary conservatives. They were much too thoughtful for such an either-or gnostic move.
The young Martin Buber (I worked on my PHD thesis on Buber) was taken by Theodore Herzl’s idea of Zionism. The more Buber became aware of such right of centre nationalist leanings, the more he distanced himself from such a position. In short, the Erasmus-Luther conflict and the tragic and hard facts of the French Revolution and Zionist nationalism made it clear to both the English High Romantics and Buber that simplistic and gnostic interpretations of a more layered religious and political reality had to be avoided. And, equally important, it was their honest and thoughtful friends that assisted and birthed such a deeper way of looking at the human journey. I might add that such was the situation with St. Paul, his pre-Damascus and post-Damascus experience taking him in a different direction. I think the same thing can be said, to the lesser degree, in the journey of Lauren Southern.
I would like to end this reflection on the wisdom way and friendship by briefly pondering the life and ideas of two Canadians: Stephen Leacock and George Grant (both High Tory Anglicans). Both men were significant public intellectuals in Canada in the 20th century. Much can be learned from them. The economic issue has often divided the right from the left. Is either position absolutely the certain and not to be doubted one? Stephen Leacock is, at a popular level, known as one of Canada’s finest humourist, but Leacock taught in the department of political economy at McGill most of his adult life. Leacock’s primer on economics, The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, highlights how both the state and society need one another for a just common good. The market provides goods but can lead to terrible injustices just a statist tradition provides essential goods but can be unjust also. Leacock, in short, was no economic ideologue or gnostic. George Grant was feted by the New Left in Canada in the late 1950s-1960s-early 1970s for his critique of the Vietnam War, multinational corporations, American imperialism and the military industrial complex, but when he took a decided position on pro-Life, euthanasia, traditional family virtues and the significance of religion contra secularism, he was placed on the conservative right. Needless to say, Leacock and Grant transcended the gnostic tribalism of the right and left in which both clans are convinced of their own certainty and rightness. Leacock and Grant, like St. Paul, Tennyson and Shakespeare realized the danger of absolutizing their darkly seeing and broken lights—such is gnostic idolatry.
Intellectual humility warns us against going too far down the gnostic and agnostic pathway. The way finder of the wisdom tradition (well grounded and rooted in historic Western and Christian thought) illuminates for us an authentic via media that gives the truth nod to aspects of Gnosticism and agnosticism but when either becomes absolutized, wisdom becomes the sacrificial lamb. The way of wisdom, of course, points the way to Love which is the greatest, and Love, at its most demanding, is about overcoming divisions for a greater unity in which frayed and fragmented ways of seeing are unified in thought, words and deed. But, such is a dialogue and discussion for another day and season.