Gnosticism Today

29 June 2020

Wolfgang Smith

Based upon the almost universally overlooked distinction between scientific fact and scientistic belief, I have had much to say in recent years concerning the contemporary worldview. It turns out that we have been collectively duped. So far, namely, from standing upon solid scientific ground as we are taught to believe, that Weltanschauung  derives in truth from a very different source: the fact is that in the hallowed name of Science we have fallen prey en masse  to an ideology.  It behooves us then, in the wake of this recognition, to take the next step: to investigate, namely, that underlying ideology itself. There is in fact no other way of attaining authentic discernment in regard to that sovereign worldview which seems nowadays to impose itself on just about everyone, from heads of church and state to college freshmen.

This then is what we shall to do: we propose now to examine that recondite “ideology” itself. And in so doing, strange as it may seem, we shall discover that our contemporary worldview — scornful of “religion” though it be — proves even so to be inherently religious itself. This conflicts of course with the widespread supposition that modern science has in fact liberated mankind from its erstwhile enslavement to religious superstitions: is this not what just about every university in the land proclaims? Yet it turns out that this well-nigh universally accepted dogma proves to be misconceived: for even though a majority among the scientistically faithful may claim to be either agnostic or atheist, it happens that a religion of sorts does even so underpin our “brave new world” itself. The scientistic animus against  religion turns out namely to be itself something “religious” — even as a disclaimer of “politics” say, may be political. In the end, what underlies and secretly “drives” the modern world proves to be itself a kind of religion: a religion “turned upside-down” one might say, which in fact reduces to that ancient and protean counter-religion known to historians as Gnosticism.

Now it happens that, more than three decades ago, I published an article on that subject1“Gnosticism Today,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review,  March 1988. in which I argued that this archaic heresy has morphed — as in fact it has ever been wont to do — into yet another version of itself, and that under this new guise it has infiltrated Western civilization to the point of dominance. This infiltration has been in progress since at least the Enlightenment, and appears to have succeeded brilliantly in subverting, first the educational institutions — from universities down to elementary schools — and from thence extending its reach throughout the culture, last of all infiltrating the seminaries. We seem, at this moment in history, to be in fact nearing the Gnostic tipping point. The fact is that Gnosticism — or neo-Gnosticism, if you prefer — is presently warring to attain supremacy throughout Western civilization.

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And speaking now as a Christian, I would add that nothing short of authentic religion can stand against that Gnostic onslaught: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”  as St. Paul apprises us.2Eph. 6:12 Let those then who have “ears to hear” reflect upon these words! Being “reasonable” — or ever so “rational” — will not suffice: neither bourgeois “good sense” nor credentialed “expertise” will prevail against the Gnostic assault.

Notwithstanding what we have been taught to believe in colleges and universities, we are all in essence “religious”:  made “in the image and likeness of God”  no less, as the Good Book informs us. We actually cannot, therefore, choose not  to be religious. Our only option, it turns out, pertains to the kind  of religion we shall make our own. And there are, at bottom, only two choices: Christ speaks doubtless for true religion at large in declaring: “He that is not with me is against me.”3Matt. 12:30 Ultimately we must choose to which of “the two cities”4The metaphor derives of course from St. Augustine’s justly famous treatise Civitas Dei.we shall henceforth belong; and one way or the other, each of us will  make that fateful choice.

In light of these observations it is hardly surprising that we have chosen at this juncture to republish an updated version of my erstwhile article on Gnosticism, in the hope that it may be of interest to readers open still to vistas our mainstream pundits have long been at pains to debunk, to demonize, or most effectively of all perhaps, to trivialize utterly.

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Before one can speak of “Gnosticism” as a contemporary movement or trend, one needs to disengage the definitive features of this “philosophy” from the welter of ideas — for the most part exceedingly weird — to be encountered in the ancient Gnostic texts. To be sure, the curious doctrines of Simon Magus, of Marcion or Valentinus, are dead and gone, unless perchance they have been resurrected in our day by some outlandish cult. What primarily interests us, in any case, is the astonishing fact that quintessential Gnosticism has reasserted itself in post-medieval times — not in the form of some exotic mysticism — but precisely in and through the mainstream of contemporary culture.

Ancient Gnosticism, as one knows, did not present itself as a well-articulated teaching or unified doctrine: the very opposite, actually, has ever been the case.5Casey, Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 36, p. 55. In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of the erstwhile Gnostic schools is their extreme syncretistic tendency; as Hans Jonas points out: “The Gnostic systems compounded everything — oriental mythologies, astrological doctrines, Iranian theology, elements of Jewish tradition, whether Biblical, rabbinical, or occult, Christian salvation eschatology, Platonic terms and concepts…”6The Gnostic Religion  (Beacon Press, 1963), p. 25. And as if that were not enough, individual Gnostic gurus were by no means reticent to contribute novelties of their own: as St. Irenaeus informs us: “Every day every one of them invents something new.”7Adversus Haereses  I.18.1. Small wonder that within the domain of Judeo-Christian Gnosticism alone, scholars have counted as many as thirty different speculative schools.8Joseph Lortz, History of the Church  (Bruce, 1939), p. 65.

Yet even so, there exist of course common elements, failing which one could hardly speak of “Gnosticism” at all; and the most distinctive of these features — which invariably plays a key role in the economy of Gnostic thought — I would contend, is what may be termed the Gnostic devaluation of the cosmos. It is to be noted that this tenet may be characterized as the negation of a corresponding Christian belief: the contention, namely, that the world was created by a beneficent God, and is itself inherently good. According to this Christian belief — which apparently was shared more or less by the major philosophical schools of antiquity — the uncorrupted cosmos constitutes in truth a masterpiece as perfect as anything not itself divine can be. What is more, it is said to constitute actually a theophany, a kind of reflection or image of God himself; for as St. Paul declares: “The invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood from the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.”9Rom. 1:20 And if it happens that we ourselves do not behold these “invisible things,”  it is ultimately we — our “vain imaginations”  and “foolish heart”10Rom. 1:21—  that stand at fault.

Now this is precisely what the Gnostic can never admit: so far from constituting fallen creatures in an inherently good and indeed a theophanic  world, the Gnostic gurus proclaim us to be in effect quasi-divine beings, who through no fault of their own have been cast into an alien, cruel, and perfectly senseless world. And if it happens — as all too often it does — that we ourselves engage in vile and vicious acts, it is invariably the world at large that is at fault: it is this enslavement, this unjust compulsion that cramps our godly style! One is vividly reminded of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” and of Freudian neurosis as the effect of externally mandated inhibitions. And this constitutes in fact one of the central dogmas on which Gnostics of every stripe invariably insist: in the final count it is always the world — the cosmos with its inexorable law, its heirmarmene — and not our “foolish heart”  that holds us in chains.

But let us note what this entails: if indeed all our misery derives from the external world into which we have been undeservedly cast, then it behooves us to revolt, and seek by whatever means to liberate ourselves from the shackles of this world. Under such auspices one is apt to believe that nothing more is required for the attainment of unmitigated bliss than to divest oneself radically of external constraints. Such then is the second fundamental dogma of classical Gnosticism: the notion namely that the summum bonum  is to be achieved by a radical separation from the conditions imposed upon us by our terrestrial environment. And one should add that in ancient Gnosticism this liberating act was universally conceived as a “mystic journey,” a mysterious flight into “higher worlds.”

A word of warning is however called for at this point: we must not be too quick to perceive a “Gnostic journey” in every ancient mysticism we chance upon. When Plotinus, for instance, speaks of a “flight of the Alone to the Alone,” it does not instantly follow that he is a Gnostic! It needs thus to be realized that there exist in truth different kinds of “mystic flight” — ranging from that of a Plotinus all the way down to the psychedelic “high” of the contemporary hippie — which so far from being even remotely commensurate, are in truth opposed, somewhat as heaven is to hell. In this domain — more perhaps than in any other — it behooves us to exercise caution and prudent restraint: the stakes are high.

Getting back to Gnosticism: once that “mystic flight” has come to be perceived as the liberating act par excellence,  there remains but one question: by what means or modus operandi,  namely, is that crucial exodus to be effected? And it is in fact from their generic answer to this question that the Gnostic sects derive their common designation: “the one thing needful” for the attainment of that Gnostic Passover, namely, is said to be gnosis.

Now “gnosis”  is simply a Greek word meaning “knowledge,” which for thousands of years has been used by philosophers and theologians to refer in particular to the “higher” — or “supreme” — knowledge pertaining to the quest of God. What happened is that the Gnostic gurus have usurped that term by turning “gnosis”  into the modus operandi  of their own Gnostic Passover, a practice which ended up giving the word a bad name. Never mind the fact that St. Paul speaks of a high and venerable gnosis,11St. Paul distinguishes sharply between authentic gnosis — which bestows a knowledge of God — and what he terms “pseudonymou gnoseos”  or “gnosis  falsely so named” (1 Tim. 6:20).  It hardly needs saying that for St. Paul the Gnostic gnosis  was indeed a prime example of such a “pseudonymou gnoseos.”and that Christ himself rebukes the Pharisees for having “taken away the keys of gnosis”  as we learn from the Greek text of Luke 11:52! Yet, even so, the offending term has been demoted within the academic world to its Gnostic counterfeit, with the result that authentic gnosis  is hardly ever mentioned anymore “in polite society.”12It may be worth pointing out that the Sanskrit word jnāna  derives from the same Indo-European root as gnosis.  What Hindus term jnāna yoga  is therefore literally the way or “yoga”  of gnosis:  authentic gnosis, that is, as distinguished from its Gnostic counterfeit.

As to the role of  gnosis  in the Gnostic enterprise, what actually stands at issue is not  gnosis  as such — which in truth the Gnostics do not possess — but its counterfeit in the form of the “Gnostic secret,” by means of which that  gnosis  is reputedly brought into play. Gnosticism thus entails four  essential components: first, a radical devaluation of the cosmos; secondly, a grievance or complaint, directed against an oppressive status quo; thirdly, an eschatological concept of a “mystic journey” as an escape from that status quo; and finally, the stipulated possession of the “Gnostic secret” which reputedly enables that liberating act.13There exists at least a superficial resemblance here with the “four noble truths” of the original or hinayāna  Buddhism, namely: “the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” Actually however, Buddhism in all of its forms constitutes the very opposite of Gnosticism: no respectable Buddhist, namely, has ever blamed “the universe” for his own miseries. Buddhism puts the blame for suffering squarely on our own ignorance and inordinate desires: it is we — and not the universe — who are at fault! Which entails, moreover, that we too can remedy that condition in which we presently find ourselves. What in pristine Buddhism replaces the “mystic flight” of the Gnostic is a radical separation — not from the external environment — but from our desires and cravings.

As regards the notion that the credo of a “liberating gnosis” — all by itself — constitutes Gnosticism, let us note that if such were the case, it could indeed be claimed that religion per se  is Gnosticism: for where does one encounter a bona fide  religious tradition which does not, in some way, allude to a sovereign  gnosis  as the liberating act? Despite its conspicuous emphasis on love — on agape — Christianity moreover is no exception in that regard: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”  the Savior declares!14John 8:32Think of it, “the truth shall make you free”:  what indeed could be more “Gnostic” than that! If these words had been discovered on some ancient tablet or papyrus, would not our periti  conclude at once that it must be a Gnostic text?

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It is to be noted that the Gnostic deprecation of the cosmos leads naturally to a rejection of perennial norms and traditional admonitions. First of all it causes the Gnostic to be ever the nonconformist, the spoiler who typically delights in disrespecting whatever authentic religion perceives to be venerable, let alone sacred. As a rule the Gnostic finds it hard to concur on anything even with his fellow Gnostics; and when it comes to the non-Gnostic portion of mankind, his sympathies tend to run thin: any deviation from Gnostic dissent or disbelief is apt to provoke rejection and contempt even where his own are concerned. The Gnostic’s antipathy to the cosmic order appears to extend moreover into the cultural sphere: it is directed towards everything, in fact, that presents itself as a given, a status quo of whatever kind. In a word, the Gnostic is a born revolutionary, a creature of ressentiment:  the postulate of unmerited misery, it appears, is apt to arouse antagonism and bitterness in even the gentlest soul.

Now the irony is that this ressentiment  in itself obstructs the realization of the Gnostic telos,  its quest of world-transcendence, to the point of actually rendering any authentic “liberation” unattainable: for where there is so much as a trace of anger or ill will, there can be no  emancipation, let alone true gnosis. Authentic world-transcendence calls in truth for the very opposite: “Take my yoke upon you,”  Christ declares, “and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”15Matt. 11:29 It appears however that the Gnostic is doing the very opposite, literally inverting the teaching of Christ. Let us understand the point as clearly as we can: if Christ had only said “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,”  he might conceivably have been a Gnostic; but he also said: “Love thine enemies, do good to them that persecute you”16Matt. 5:44—  and no Gnostic could ever utter these words.

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To the casual observer nothing, to be sure, could seem more outlandish than speculations of a Gnostic kind. It needs, first of all, to be recalled that with the advent of the Renaissance the dominant interest of Western man began to shift: from God and transcendence to the exploration and eventual mastery, namely, of the visible world. It was a time of transition when rationalism and skepticism regarding the “higher worlds” began to prepare the way for the Enlightenment through its capture of the European intelligentsia. The medieval penchant for theological speculation was fast falling out of vogue, while in the universities the ground was being prepared for the scientific revolution soon to get under way. It would seem that by the fifteenth century or thereabouts, a visible disenchantment with the mystical quest as such was beginning to manifest. A growing contingent among the emergent ranks seemed rather to be ready and eager to give themselves to more tangible pursuits. A new Zeitgeist  was beginning to manifest: rarely in history, it seems, had this world appeared quite so fair and inviting to mortal eyes! A brave new breed of men — far more interested in building empires, it appears, than in mystic journeying of any kind — had emerged and was fast taking over the helm.

And so, by the time the Enlightenment arrived, something quite unprecedented had taken place: it happens namely that “the modern West is the first society to view the physical world as a closed system,”17Forgotten Truth  (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 96.as Huston Smith points out. Never before, it seems, had mankind in general — and the intellectual elite especially — forgotten so completely the existence and function of what, from time immemorial, mankind had conceived as “higher spheres.”

Under such auspices Gnosticism is still of course conceivable as a sub-culture or counter-culture in opposition to the prevailing Zeitgeist.  But how — in a civilization that has abjured transcendence — could there be a Gnosticism within  the cultural mainstream? How indeed could one speak of a “flight from this world” when this world had in effect become all that exists? To do so the ancient doctrines needed evidently to be interpreted in a new key: a contemporary Gnosticism, to be conceivable, calls evidently for a new hermeneutic, a new way, that is, to envision the Gnostic “flight.” And so in fact it does. As Eric Voegelin points out, the requisite reinterpretation was in fact achieved through what he terms “the immanentization of the Eschaton”:  in place of an Eschaton transcending the ontological confines of this world, the modern Gnostic envisions an End to be realized on the ontological plane of this world, within the confines of human history in fact. To speak in geometric terms, there has been a rotation of 90 degrees turning the “above” into the “ahead”:  eschatology has been transformed into history, into “social engineering” if you will.

But to complete the picture, it is also to be noted that whereas contemporary Gnosticism may thus have “immanentized” the Eschaton, a hunger to transcend “this narrow world” remains in the neo-Gnostic as well, and may drive him to seek a taste, at least, of transcendence here and now by whatever means yet remain. And let us note parenthetically that there are in fact two such means within easy reach: one is psychedelic drugs, and the other is sex, which has ever served many as “the poor man’s mysticism.”

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Now it is perhaps surprising that the key notion of neo-Gnosticism was actually prepared for by Christianity itself. For it constitutes a profound novelty of the Christian worldview that history itself comes to be endowed with a telos,  a direction and an “end” in both senses of the term. Under the aegis of Christianity, thus, history came to be viewed no longer as an endlessly recurrent series of cycles, but came to be perceived rather as a directed movement converging relentlessly to a final encounter with Christ in the Parousia, at which point history as such will be terminated. Just one more step, formally speaking, was needed to transition from this Christian conception to the neo-Gnostic Eschaton: the Parousia needed to be immanentized, that is to say, the End of history needed to be conceived as taking place within history itself, as its final phase.

But for this too, Christianity had in a way prepared the ground: for it happened that the conspicuous clarity of the early Christian teaching was eventually compromised by chiliastic speculations which tended in effect to immanentize the Eschaton by postulating an imagined millenary reign of Christ. Already in the fourth century St. Augustine had labored to put an end to such notions, and succeeded in settling the matter theologically for the Church. Yet not only did chiliasm survive, but during the latter half of the Middle Ages it became a quite significant movement. From the time of Joachim of Flora, it seems, up to the Renaissance, Europe was rife with millenary speculations, which at times erupted in frenzied movements of unrest. And in all these manifestations of what historians are wont to call “the pursuit of the millennium,” we encounter one and the same presiding idea: a belief, namely, in a collective salvation to be realized here on Earth through a radical transformation of some kind.

To be sure, medieval chiliasm presented itself in Christian colors and was as a rule perceived by its votaries as the true Christianity no less. Yet, as is always the case — despite superficial appearances and vehement protestations to the contrary — heretical Christianity is not in fact Christianity at all. As has often enough been noted: deny one dogma — one seeming fine point of fundamental theology — and you have implicitly denied all the rest. And this explains why chiliasm — once it had immanentized the Parousia — could readily shed its Christian garb and morph into a medley of anti-Christian sects.

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that the key notion of the neo-Gnostic Eschaton — the seductive vision of a terrestrial and futuristic salvation — may have been bequeathed to the modern world by the millenary movement of medieval Christendom. As previously noted, this proves in any case to be the key notion which enabled classical Gnosticism to transplant itself into the modern age: the master-stroke which permits the post-medieval Gnostic to “fly into a higher world” when there is no more “higher world” to fly into! Let us be clear on this crucial issue: the decisive Gnostic revelation for the New Age asserts that there is no  “higher world” — nor shall there ever be — unless it be created by man himself.  The “heavens” and “paradises” of religion are but a fantasy — until, that is, they are realized through the labors and ingenuity of man. And God himself — so the neo-Gnostic declares — is finally but a shadow or premonition of the coming Superman.

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But let us remind ourselves that one “myth” does not make a Gnosticism: there are always four  essential components as we have seen, the first of which is what we have termed “the Gnostic devaluation” of the cosmos. Now this too may strike us as an antiquated notion: how could the cosmos be conceivably “devalued” when it has in fact been elevated to the prime reality itself? Yet, on closer examination, it appears that this neo-Gnostic postulate itself constitutes a “devaluation of the cosmos,” and in fact the most radical at that: for by negating the transcendent origin of being,  every order of existence has been reduced to the status of a contingency, a mere “accident” one might say. Once being has been thus “decapitated” — to use Eric Voegelin’s excellent term — everything, both in the natural and the human realm, has lost its sanction, its legitimacy, and above all, its meaning.  Undoubtedly the denial of transcendence constitutes the ultimate devaluation of the cosmos.

Now this denial — this “decapitation of being” — is at bottom the Gnostic “murder” of God: the very “mystery” Nietzsche had his eye upon when he announced the “death” of God. But needless to say, this is a “murder” which can only be consummated “speculatively,” in the mind and heart of man — and even that proves not to be an easy task! The enterprise has in fact engaged many of the brightest minds of Europe and America for about the past four centuries: at the close of the Middle Ages mankind had yet by no means “progressed” that far. By then, admittedly, incipient neo-Gnosticism was already in possession of its futuristic Eschaton: had in fact inherited that pivotal notion from heretical Christian sects. The neo-Gnostic devaluation of the cosmos, on the other hand, had as yet hardly begun. Nor had anyone yet revealed to mankind the “neo-Gnostic keys” which will empower mankind to enter at last into the proffered Paradise.

Yet, what was missing still was ere long to be supplied. It arrived in stages: one by one the Gnostic gurus made their appearance. There was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and the tribe of Encyclopedists; after which came Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, followed by a host of lesser luminaries too numerous to mention. The salient fact is that the history of neo-Gnosticism all but coincides with the intellectual history of the modern West: for as Eric Voegelin points out,18The New Science of Politics  (University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 126.the re-emergence of Gnosticism constitutes the very essence of modernity.

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Carl Jung was unquestionably right in observing that Gnosticism is in fact the counter-position to Christianity. To the extent, moreover, that belief in the God of Christianity wanes, it comes to be replaced — in one way or another — by an allegiance, in essence, to a futuristic Eschaton: futurity replaces transcendence, that is the crucial point. As Voegelin observes:

Gnostic speculation overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment. In the measure in which this immanentization progressed experientially, civilizational activity became a mystical work of self-salvation.19Ibid., p. 129.

Golden words, let me say, which should be inscribed over the portal of every university and every seminary in the land! So far from reducing to an arcane and outmoded superstition, Gnosticism in its resurrected form is in truth the current counter-religion to Christianity, which has evidently succeeded, in stages and degrees, to become in our day the dominant influence in Western civilization.

As Voegelin points out, it is precisely the new Gnosticism that provides the telos  of contemporary Western civilization in its “progressive” modes, as that “charged” adjective itself suggests. By pretending to be “scientific” and value-free, the new Gnosticism can disseminate its pseudo-religious and anti-Christian credo with impunity while denying authentic religion access to the public square. It has succeeded brilliantly, thus, in transforming schools and universities at large into neo-Gnostic temples dedicated to the mystical work of self-salvation. From the halls of academia that “work” spreads soon enough into the “halls of Congress,” and eventually infiltrates just about every institution in the land.

The fact is that beneath the contemporary veneer of scientific enlightenment and pragmatic sobriety there lurks a mysticism. The very terms we cherish the most — such as “progress,” “freedom,” or “science” — have acquired a kind of mystical ring; as Martin Lings points out, they have become “words to conjure with,” enchanted mantras “at the utterance of which multitudes of souls fall prostrate in submental adoration.”20Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions  (Perennial Books, 1965), p. 45. Behind these contemporary mantras one senses the magic power of the New Eschaton: the Gnostic Good News of “self-salvation” which today speeds millions on their mystic way.

But let us remind ourselves, once again, that every Gnosticism requires — not one — but ultimately four legs to stand upon. The Good News, thus, of which we speak would not make the slightest impact upon anyone if it were not supported by what has been termed “the speculative decapitation of being.” And this means that a second myth is called for to shore up the first: a cosmological myth, namely, is needed to complement the eschatological.

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The decisive cosmological myth of the present age is doubtless the myth of evolution, beginning with the Darwinist version thereof. As has often enough been noted, Darwinist evolution has never constituted a bona fide — let alone a viable — scientific theory, and in fact could have been proposed only at a time when knowledge in the relevant domains of science — biology, biochemistry, and geology mainly — was yet in its infancy. The fact is that if Darwinism were truly a scientific theory, it would have long ago joined “phlogiston” and other such misbegotten notions as an erstwhile conjecture which turned out not to be tenable. But as I say, Darwinism has been, from the start, an inherently ideological postulate, dressed up in scientific garb: the fact that it has been doggedly retained in the face of Himalayan counter-evidence itself substantiates that claim. My point is that the doctrine of evolution has swept the world — not on the strength of scientific merit — but precisely in its capacity as a neo-Gnostic myth.

Darwinism affirms in effect that living creatures create themselves, which constitutes an inherently metaphysical  claim.  A century later, moreover, that Darwinist hypothesis was in a way universalized in the Einsteinian astrophysical cosmology, which is likewise evolutionist; and I might add that meanwhile this astrophysical theory has also, in turn, been disproved.21I have argued the point in Physics and Vertical Causation  (Angelico Press, 2019), pp. 68-71. The two evolutionist visions fit together, moreover, to yield a single Weltanschauung  which conceives of the universe as one grand self-creating process, a notion pivotal to the neo-Gnostic synthesis: for only under the banner of “self-creation” can the Good News of “self-salvation”  be seriously entertained.

No one however has brought to light the neo-Gnostic vistas implicit in the evolutionist myth more poignantly than Teilhard de Chardin, who seems to have pursued that notion into its utmost depth. As Hans Urs von Balthasar observed, “evolution” came to be, for Teilhard, “the only category of thought,” swallowing even the concept of God in the process.22“Die Spiritualität Teilhards de Chardin,” Wort und Wahrheit,  XVII (1963), p. 344. The Teilhardian cosmogenetic tale begins with the notion of a primordial cosmos in which nothing “recognizable” yet exists. Gradually entities corresponding to subatomic particles emerge, which combine to form more and more complex conglomerates. When this ever-increasing complexity reaches a certain threshold, “consciousness” is said to emerge. And this evolutive activity gives rise to the biosphere. The process does not however end there, but continues on a social, technological, and even political level to form “super-organisms.” The point is that evolution does not terminate at the present civilizational level, but continues its “upward” course to bring into being a single super-organism, which Teilhard proceeds to identify as the Eschaton.

It is all rather simple: if atoms have aggregated themselves into molecules, and molecules into living organisms of every description, then why should not mankind aggregate itself right into the New Jerusalem? The Mystical Body of Christ, Teilhard informs us, is being formed before our very eyes through the exploits of technology and the formation of super-states.23Think of it: to perceive a connection between the European Union say, and the Mystical Body of Christ — to dream this up does take genius of a kind! And this evolutive process extends even into the astrophysical domain in the form of a vast convergence to what Teilhard terms Point Omega, and takes to be the New Jerusalem: the fullness of Christ himself no less! Never mind that “big bang” astrophysics affirms just the reverse: that instead of converging to anything the universe is actually expanding at the rate of almost 300,000 kilometers per second! Not that this matters any more, now that the astrophysical theory itself has fallen.

Yet scientifically unfounded and monumentally simplistic though the Teilhardian “science-fiction theology” proves ultimately to be, its impact upon contemporary society — and most especially upon the Catholic Church — has been immense beyond description. Why? What is the explanation of this perplexing fact? What stands at issue, I maintain, is the seductive power of Gnosticism, that perennial counter-religion: no wonder millions have been deceived!  Remember: “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.”

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A key notion of the Teilhardian theory is his so-called “law of complexity/consciousness,” which in truth reduces to the gratuitous assumption that — somehow — consciousness “emerges” out of complexity. Yet vacuous and chimerical as that notion proves to be when viewed from either a scientific or a philosophical point of vantage, this so-called law plays a pivotal role in the Teilhardian doctrine. Teilhard himself, in his magnum opus  entitled The Phenomenon of Man,  informs us at the outset that all the rest of this, his premier treatise, is nothing but the application of this single one “great law.”24The Phenomenon of Man  (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 61. It expresses the truth of evolution, we are told; and in a philosophy in which Evolution has become “the only category of thought,” this imagined law comes to be seen as the supreme truth itself.

What is it, then, about that vacuous so-called “law” that renders it central to the point that all the rest of Teilhard’s voluminous opus flows, as it were, from that one tenet? The answer — once recognized — proves to be simple: Teilhard’s “law of complexity/consciousness” encapsulates actually the “secret” of his neo-Gnostic enterprise. Now Gnosticism, from the most ancient times, has ever been focused upon one thing: its own version, that is, of Salvation. But what in the world, one is bound to ask, does this have to do with Teilhard’s fabled “law of complexity/consciousness”? Everything, it turns out. The fact is that this “law of complexity/consciousness” constitutes the key to the Teilhardian mystery, his neo-Gnostic “way of salvation.” In plain words, what this Law proclaims is that through the pooling of human resources — the formation of a “super-organism” as Teilhard has it — man is enabled to take control of his own evolution: can in fact build up the Mystical Body of Christ, which has now morphed into the Gnostic Superman.

Given the enormity of the Teilhardian influence and the centrality of his role in restructuring the Catholic Church, let us look a bit closer into this remarkable claim.25A thorough treatment of this subject may be found in my monograph, Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy  (Angelico Press, 2012). Once one has glimpsed its neo-Gnostic core, just about everything Teilhard proclaims reveals a hitherto unsurmised perversity. Consider for instance his response to the first detonation of an atomic device: for Teilhard this was not only an outstanding feat of science, but a milestone in the spiritual ascent of man “pointing the way to his omnipotence”!26The Future of Mankind  (Harper & Row, 1964), p. 148. Continuing to muse upon that event, he goes on to declare — in unmistakably prophetic tones: “In laying hands on the very essence of matter,27As every true metaphysician knows, it is in fact “the very essence of matter”  not in truth to have any essence  at all. Placing “essence” in matter  rather than in spirit  (the opposite pole) is in fact indicative of the Gnostic inversion.we have disclosed to human existence a supreme purpose: the purpose of pursuing ever further, to the very end, the forces of Life.”28Ibid., p. 151. The explosion of an atom bomb, it appears, was for him but a step in a gargantuan progression, “the first bite at the fruit of great discovery”:  the “discovery,” it appears, of how at last we may make good the ancient promise “Ye shall be as gods”!  Let us see, then, how Teilhard envisions the realization of this tantalizing prospect. Referring back to the atom bomb, he goes on:

Was it not simply the first act, even a mere prelude, in a series of fantastic events which, having afforded us access to the heart of the atom, would lead us on to overthrow, one by one, the many other strongholds, which science is already besieging.29Let us note that some eight decades after this prediction was made, it appears that most of these “strongholds” stand safe and sound, apparently immune from these predicted attacks. On this question I refer to my article, “Lost in Math: The Particle Physics Quandary.” The vitalization of matter by the creation of supermolecules. The remodeling of human organisms by means of hormones. Control of heredity and sex by manipulation of genes and chromosomes. The readjustment and internal liberation of our souls by direct action upon springs gradually brought to light by psychoanalysis.30On the nature and occult dangers of psychoanalysis I refer to ch. 5 in Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008). The arousing and harnessing of the unfathomable intellectual and effective powers still latent in the human mass…31Ibid., p. 149.

Is it necessary to point out that this is the purest neo-Gnosticism? One is amazed that even such an utterly odious and overtly Promethean outburst as this did not forewarn the faithful when they thronged adoringly around the Master by the million!

Thus we arrive finally at the conclusion of our reflections — at the moral, so to speak, of our story — which reduces to this: we find ourselves today, both outside and inside the Church, in a predominantly Gnostic environment, and no Saint Irenaeus has yet appeared to apprise us, with spiritual might, of this ominous fact. The onus is therefore upon each and every one of us to exercise, in the highest degree possible, what our forebears used to term “discernment of spirits.” The hour is late, and the need is urgent in the extreme: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”32Matt. 24:24. To which one might add that so far as we ordinary mortals can tell, the “deceiving of the very elect”  appears to be in full progress as we speak.


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1. “Gnosticism Today,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review,  March 1988.
2. Eph. 6:12
3. Matt. 12:30
4. The metaphor derives of course from St. Augustine’s justly famous treatise Civitas Dei.
5. Casey, Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 36, p. 55.
6. The Gnostic Religion  (Beacon Press, 1963), p. 25.
7. Adversus Haereses  I.18.1.
8. Joseph Lortz, History of the Church  (Bruce, 1939), p. 65.
9. Rom. 1:20
10. Rom. 1:21
11. St. Paul distinguishes sharply between authentic gnosis — which bestows a knowledge of God — and what he terms “pseudonymou gnoseos”  or “gnosis  falsely so named” (1 Tim. 6:20).  It hardly needs saying that for St. Paul the Gnostic gnosis  was indeed a prime example of such a “pseudonymou gnoseos.”
12. It may be worth pointing out that the Sanskrit word jnāna  derives from the same Indo-European root as gnosis.  What Hindus term jnāna yoga  is therefore literally the way or “yoga”  of gnosis:  authentic gnosis, that is, as distinguished from its Gnostic counterfeit.
13. There exists at least a superficial resemblance here with the “four noble truths” of the original or hinayāna  Buddhism, namely: “the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” Actually however, Buddhism in all of its forms constitutes the very opposite of Gnosticism: no respectable Buddhist, namely, has ever blamed “the universe” for his own miseries. Buddhism puts the blame for suffering squarely on our own ignorance and inordinate desires: it is we — and not the universe — who are at fault! Which entails, moreover, that we too can remedy that condition in which we presently find ourselves. What in pristine Buddhism replaces the “mystic flight” of the Gnostic is a radical separation — not from the external environment — but from our desires and cravings.
14. John 8:32
15. Matt. 11:29
16. Matt. 5:44
17. Forgotten Truth  (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 96.
18. The New Science of Politics  (University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 126.
19. Ibid., p. 129.
20. Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions  (Perennial Books, 1965), p. 45.
21. I have argued the point in Physics and Vertical Causation  (Angelico Press, 2019), pp. 68-71.
22. “Die Spiritualität Teilhards de Chardin,” Wort und Wahrheit,  XVII (1963), p. 344.
23. Think of it: to perceive a connection between the European Union say, and the Mystical Body of Christ — to dream this up does take genius of a kind!
24. The Phenomenon of Man  (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 61.
25. A thorough treatment of this subject may be found in my monograph, Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy  (Angelico Press, 2012).
26. The Future of Mankind  (Harper & Row, 1964), p. 148.
27. As every true metaphysician knows, it is in fact “the very essence of matter”  not in truth to have any essence  at all. Placing “essence” in matter  rather than in spirit  (the opposite pole) is in fact indicative of the Gnostic inversion.
28. Ibid., p. 151.
29. Let us note that some eight decades after this prediction was made, it appears that most of these “strongholds” stand safe and sound, apparently immune from these predicted attacks. On this question I refer to my article, “Lost in Math: The Particle Physics Quandary.”
30. On the nature and occult dangers of psychoanalysis I refer to ch. 5 in Cosmos and Transcendence  (Angelico Press, 2008).
31. Ibid., p. 149.
32. Matt. 24:24. To which one might add that so far as we ordinary mortals can tell, the “deceiving of the very elect”  appears to be in full progress as we speak.