Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Limitations of Playing Make Believe

Theology: Playing Make Believe with Religious Things

I guess it's time to throw down the gauntlet on the whole Theology issue. After biting the tongue for some time to listen to folks who seem to value such things, and after having what seems fairly common sense questioned about the potential utility of theology, I've been asked to demonstrate why theology isn't a good tool for Gnostics to engage in (except perhaps in private between consenting adults). Although the following was very rushed, I think it covers the basics.

The reverse of this question has a lot more merit: why should Gnostics even try to use theology? Is there any actual reason? We can assume that it is the thing to do because this is religion, and theology and religion are found together. (I'm hoping that fallacy is obvious.) We can assert that we need to talk the language of people who use theology. Yet this comes up against the issue of talking about computers in Nahuatl—why do it when you can't say what is important to the conversation in that language? When is just perpetuates their misunderstanding and creates more of your own?

Let's cover old territory for a moment. Theology (from theos 'god' + logos 'word, speech, reason') once upon a time simply meant reasoning or discoursing about the gods or religious matters. It is still sometimes used in that sense, and that is what I have previously called the trivial definition and said that it should be a non-issue because reasoning about religious matters should be ubiquitous. In the intervening centuries, however, Theology has come to mean something in particular. Let's just call it: playing make believe with religious things.

Playing make believe? Yes, that's what I said. Theology (which I will use in the non-trivial sense) starts out with many assumptions and is essentially literalism-lite.

Literalism takes what the sacred stories describe as being actual literal documentary film-like history of events. To take one example: Noah physically built a big boat. The world was actually under water. There really were 2 of every kind of animal on that boat for forty days, since the evolution of new species couldn't have happened. All of these things are taken as established historical fact that a film crew could have documented if they had cameras, and weren't under water. Why? Because it is in the story. Given these basic assumptions one can reason about these things without any serious difficulties.

Literalism has all kinds of problems which I'm not going to go into for a Gnostic audience. Let's just say accepting these assumptions for someone who doesn't accept the assumption that everything in some stories is historically factual, isn't going to happen. While the defense of that kind of silliness may not fit one's notion of Theology, they can be quite well reasoned. We would just look at them as being well reasoned make believe. Given this make believe situation from a story and so on, and so forth as characteristics of this make believe game, one can arrive at a reasonable means of explanation.

While more mainstream theology isn't involved in such things, agreeing with the assessment of Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: let's not go there it's too silly; the game is played in the same way with different assumptions. Instead of the literal assumptions, there are others, yet it is still playing make believe.

Another characteristic of playing make believe is that although it is primarily a reflection of the person doing it, to them it can seem objective. It has been projected into an abstract idea realm. Like Plato's only yours, and not so idealized. Like the example above, someone can spend a great deal of time rationally examining and overcoming objections to the Noah story being literal, and think that they are describing something objective because they are talking about things.

The issue with any sort of make believe is that whether there are rules of reason involved or not, it is still make believe. Someone can think that they are talking about something real when they speak of Incarnational Trinitarianism, or an Emanational Cosmogeny—and that is precisely the problem. These things are abstract constellations of the glass beads on the game board of make believe. Things so far removed from anything any of us actually have experienced as to make the idea of experiencing them absurd.

When we play make believe in a rational way using the elements and characters from Gnostic stories. We are being literalists, just at a slightly less embarrassing level. There are many ways to look at these things, and putting on a literalist-lite cap to look at them is certainly a standard one. If you don't take what you do too seriously, mistake your ideas for what is really “out there somewhere,” then it is another useful tool. We can speak of Sophia as a character in Gnostic mythology, as an abstract notion of “Wisdom,” or as a part of our experience. If any but the last gets stuck in our understanding as being “it” we have missed the path to Gnosis, and followed the path to cloud coo-coo land. It is so easy to fool ourselves, to not notice the “hairs breadth of difference” that splits considerations involving the real from simply playing make believe.

People have been playing the Theology game for centuries, there has never been the level of understanding involved that it isn't about real things. The distinction is simply whether you believe or not. And so it may be described as playing make believe with the objects of belief. If you don't see a problem here for Gnostics, I'll spell it out. Gnosticism isn't about beliefs. Even if we all believe something, why assume that it is the case at all, let alone the case in the way in which we believe it? That assumption jump is just too much—if you take it for yourself and are aware of the assumptions you may gain some understanding, if you try to take it in some objective way, say as a group, you say bye bye to Gnosis.

Playing the same old religion games with different pieces isn't Gnosticism. Substituting belief in the salvific power of Gnosis for belief in the salvific power of belief in Christ, isn't liberation, it's redecorating. Throwing Sophia into the mix as a character to go with the Logos character, makes nothing Gnostic. And no matter how refined we are about it, playing theological make believe with things associated with Gnosticism isn't Gnosticism, it is still make believe.

If you say, “but there really is this or that, it's not make believe,” you are not seeing what is in front of your face, but rather are seeing from the perspective of the land of make believe. Experiences are not abstract, they cannot be removed from the subject experiencing them. Sophia is a character, an idea, and an experience. Guess which two of the three you cannot play abstract games with the experience, and so you must be playing make believe.

If you say, “but the ancient Gnostics saw it in a literal fashion,” you are again making enormous assumptions, placing limitations on the perspectives of others for our own convenience. Buying into the literalism of heresiologists isn't exactly a large stride forward for our understanding of Gnosticism.

If theology is playing make believe is it worthless? Of course not. In a tradition where creativity and looking at things from multiple perspectives are the order of the day, it can be very useful—for an individual to use to look at things from different perspectives. Where we go into literalism and make assumptions that take us into cloud coo-coo land is when we mistake any of this for anything but playing make believe.


Jordan Stratford+ said...

It does seem to me that theology is nothing more than plain-speaking on a specific issue. When we talk about why Gns tend to prize the spiritual over the physical, it's because we have a theology that states that our souls are older than our bodies and have their roots in a transcedent eternity to which we aspire to return. That's not literalism, and it's not make believe. It's just clarification, distinction.

Orthodox Christianity has a sophiology - a distinct role for Wisdom as a moving power. This understanding of sophiology is different from Gnosticism in several ways, and similar in many others. Just looking at this and talking about it and reaching an understanding is theology.

So Gnosticism has a theology just as it has a history, an aesthetic, and a vernacular. I fail to see the dangers in questioning and examining our ideas by using the tools that exist specifically for questioning and examining ideas. A peculiarly anti-educational stance for someone advocating an Institute of study!

Further, I think we have a responsibility to be exclusionary, discriminating, judgmental and all kinds of nasty things about what Gnosticism isn't: I see every day someone saying that gnosis is so personal that Gnosticism can mean anything they choose, including UFO worship (not making this up) or worse, Protestantism. Theology is a pencil for drawing lines through and around ideas, nothing more.

While I'm content to agree to disagree, it does very much seem you're working with a definition of theology with which I'm unfamiliar. That being said if this was the ONLY tool we have for deeping our understanding of our experiences, it would be to our poverty. For this we have our intuition, art, dreams, poetry, imagination, compassion, and each other.

Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...
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Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...
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Jordan Stratford+ said...
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Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...
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Eckhart Christopher said...

Thank you, Fr. Troy for writing this post and sharing your thoughts on theology. As you posted hurriedly, I can only assume you shall provide a more detailed outline of your viewpoint at a later date. But, at this point, I'm afraid that we can only agree in part. And, I appreciated Fr. Jordan's comments. I feel he inadvertently summarized my opinion nicely. However, since I asked you for this demonstration, I thought it would be best to offer some feedback on what you have written so far.

First, you have offered the most peculiar definition for theology that I have ever encountered. The standard academic definition, alluded to by Fr. Jordan, runs something like this: "the rational and systematic study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truth." You are right to allude to the literal meaning, from the Greek, as being "reasonable discourse concerning God." But, at no point do you make it clear how one gets from these definitions to the one you gave.

In fact, I can't help but notice what appears to be the poisoning of well (trying to discredit theology by presenting it in an unfavorable light) and begging the question (your premises include the assumption, either directly or indirectly, that the conclusion you are trying to demonstrate is true). Again, I assume this is because the post was rushed and you hadn't taken the time to examine your thought for inconsistencies. Nonetheless, it does make me wonder about the overall validity of your argument.

In the intervening centuries, however, Theology has come to mean something in particular. Let's just call it: playing make believe with religious things.

With respect to this assertion, I was wondering if you could trace, for me, the antecedents (historical trends, philosophers, theologians, and particular theological systems) that you feel in "the intervening centuries" caused theology to develop into the sort of thing you describe.

Now, you spend a good deal of time discussing language and theology. I think that is an important relationship to highlight. As I mentioned in other places, it is important that we examine the ontological commitments of theology. It is important that remember the perspectives from which the ontological commitments originate. And, it is important that we examine our own ontological commitments. However, it is the nature of ontological commitments to change when the words themselves change. You change the words and you have changed the whole construct (ontological commitments, narrative structure, systemic ideas, signs, semiotics, etc.) This fact is contrary to your assertion that substituting one set of words for another set doesn't make any real difference.

As an aside, ontology in language theory could be described thusly: "the specification of one's conceptualization of a knowledge domain. An ontology is a controlled vocabulary that describes objects and the relations between them in a formal way, and has a grammar for using the vocabulary terms to express something meaningful within a specified domain of interest. The vocabulary is used to make queries and assertions. Ontological commitments are agreements to use the vocabulary in a consistent way for knowledge sharing." This is why when one changes the set of words used in the vocabulary you change the entire nature of the linguistic ontology. In other words, the way we know, understand, experience, and talk about reality changes with each different specification.

Finally, one need only point to the catechistical work of +Hoeller and the French Bishops of the Restoration as successful examples of Gnostics utilizing the discipline of theology (among other less prestigious examples that could be offered) to discredit your claim that the two don't mix.

So, thanks again for offering up a more in-depth explanation of your viewpoint. However, I remain unconvinced. And I'm still not sure you demonstrated the antithesis of Gnosticism and theology.

By the way, the "except perhaps in private between consenting adults" just killed me. I laughed so hard that I spilt my tea.

Rev. Troy said...


LOL. I love ad hominem red-herrings as much as the next hominid. Bonus points for an ad hominem anti-intellectual red-herring (phrased as 'anti-educational'). Very Funny.

On a slightly more serious note, lets look at the 'argument' you present. You have made a big assumption in the following quote: a theological assumption, which is then used to prove a conclusion about the existence of a theology. Using an assumption that includes a conclusion, to prove that conclusion, is generally referred to as circular reasoning.

“When we talk about why Gns tend to prize the spiritual over the physical, it's because we have a theology that states that our souls are older than our bodies and have their roots in a transcedent eternity to which we aspire to return.”

Is this really the case? Is the story the reason? Which I would still claim is moving in the direction of literalism. (Belief based on the literalness of a story.) Or, is the Gnosis the reason, the understanding of which is then expressed in the story? The theological framework makes many assumptions. If we cannot examine the assumptions made by our methods, how much questioning and examination are we doing? If our examination takes place within our imaginary idea realm (aka. make believe) and we pretend it is something else, how useful is our examination?

“It does seem to me that theology is nothing more than plain-speaking on a specific issue.”
“ does very much seem you're working with a definition of theology with which I'm unfamiliar.”

Have you are confused 'Philosophy' or 'Analysis,' for 'Theology,' and charged full speed ahead with your own definition of things? Before jumping into debates, I tend to look these things up to see if it is my understanding that is the issue. (But, that's “anti-educational” me :) As far as the argument for dismissal based upon my 'private definition' goes, there was the following bit in this particular article:

“Theology ... once upon a time simply meant reasoning or discoursing about the gods or religious matters. It is still sometimes used in that sense, and that is what I have previously called the trivial definition and said that it should be a non-issue because reasoning about religious matters should be ubiquitous. ... Theology (which I will use in the non-trivial sense)...”

However, if this is your assertion, then in responding you define 'Theology' differently than you do in practice. In practice the effort to define Gnosticism theologically is an example of what I call playing make believe.

You may also have inadvertently made my point; but I won't hold you to it. You called theology a method for examining our ideas. This is my point, they are ideas, and they are one's own. One examines them in an abstract realm of ideas, certainly not this world we live in, that is the “playing make believe” part. The issue is that some want to elevate playing make believe to a status beyond that of make believe. That way lies doctrine, beautiful glass bead games, and the probability of missing Gnosis entirely.

The article is in response to your and Eck.Val.'s dismissal of criticisms of theology. So, I turned the tables and dismissed Theology, using an argument about it's utility as a tool for critical examination to do so. Even logicians examine the foundations and assumptions of logic. The whole thing felt like I was being challenged to prove Santa Claus isn't necessary for Gnosticism. But, I responded to the challenge.

Simply restating assumptions with a couple of red-herring elements isn't an argument, let alone a refutation. Nor is trying to redirect the issue to make it about “critical examination of ideas” in general: turning it into a discussion about Philosophy rather than Theology. That is either a bait-and-switch, a straw-man argument, or an admission that you've been arguing strongly about your own private definition. (But, then there is the issue that your definitional enterprise is an example of what I am describing.) In any case, not too good for your position. Normally I let folks off the hook and just try to educate them, but fuzzy thinking from a theologian is against your definition, isn't it? Actually, this seems to be the only way to proceed with education, if a bit harsh. (For me, at least. :)

I've answered unflattering (to say the least) comments based on my being critical of Theology with an article that outlines why I am critical. We've just done another round of that in the comments here, and we are still here with the article and its arguments. Why not take up that gauntlet? I don't see how I can view a failure to do so except as an admission of BS. I actually find Theology to be a poor tool that seriously limits its usefulness for critical examination. I outlined the reasons for this in the article. They involve assumptions and ignoring the fact that it is all something that takes place in an abstract mental landscape, I call this “playing make believe.” If you can show how the assumptions I describe are not a part of theology (that it is not make believe), do so. Or, showing how your definitional enterprise has any chance given these inherent assumptions (that it can still work despite being make believe), would be another way to go.

I don't see “agreeing to disagree” as an option at this point. You can't claim the analytical/philosophical ground as your domain and then slip out the back door at the first challenge on that ground. However, you can admit you were acting out of ignorance, and try to modify future behavior. In my “anti-educational” world this is called “learning.”

Rev. Troy said...

I'm glad you recognized the “poisoning the well” issue. Real points for you! Yet how else can one get through to those who know so thoroughly that they are right, except by turning the tables on them? So, yes, unlike what seems to be the case here, I did know I was using a rhetorical form. As for the circular reasoning claim, there may be something to that in the form of the article (I'll check), but not in the form of the argument, which is descriptive.

I thought about doing the whole basic education on “theology” like I did with “seminary” but what's the point? The Internet is full of information. If you want to make it about a 'private definition,' then you'll need to erase a lot of the world out there. This 'private definition' claim may be due to the admittedly, and explicitly stated rushed nature of the article.(My Internet connection is good only for short periods and I've got to post when I can.) Yet I wonder if you aren't confusing terms like Jordan seems to be.

As for history, you have heard of the intervening period of time between the ancient world and our own time? You can follow PKD's notion of this period not being real, but for our purposes we need to acknowledge it. I think any history of Philosophy will include the material you seek, tracing antecedents and such. Sorry, I just can't find a way to take the question seriously, so I hope you didn't really mean it that way. ;)

The question is: what happens, specifically what assumptions are made, when someone engages in theological methods? It is about the nature of the glass bead game, not the specific rules of the game, by then the assumptions have been made. The ontological way of addressing these issue is an attempt to ground the game from inside the game.

The real issue is that of mistaking what you are doing for something else, not that it is worthless. I don't take scriptures literally, yet they are extraordinarily valuable to me. There value does not lie in my mistaking them for history or literal descriptions. This is the issue of the assumptions made about theology. Folks seem to want to claim a privileged status for theology, I'd like to see something that backs that claim up. Instead I have given reasons why this should not be so.

If I give anything a privileged status, I hope it is clear that it is Gnosis. To paraphrase Hillel: the whole of Gnosticism is Gnosis, the rest is commentary. I'm in favor of treating it as such, if I have to verbally smack a few heads together to get folks to see that it is just commentary—then, obviously, I'll do it.

In playing in these abstract games, you can forget about Gnosis, experience, all of the things that make Gnosticism something other than just another set of ideas in examining these things—that's actually the point.

Rev. Troy said...

Roger, I have tried to make the point elsewhere that Apostolic Succession is not a matter of theory and that its value is not arrived at by reason. The chair I am sitting on was not arrived at by reason either, yet it works just fine. If we start reasoning about the chair, it is no longer the particular chair that is holding me up, and we can come to the problem of coming to the reasonable conclusion that it can't hold me up. Yet, I still sit here.

If this were a theology game there might be arguments that the value of Apostolic Succession was due to this or that abstract thing. We could then examine such claims. In fact, I personally thought little if nothing of AS until I was being ordained, then it wasn't a thought, it was an experience. And it has remained an experience.

Now, given the fact of the experience, we can look at it in different frameworks, including theological ones. But this is theorizing. The story is that Christ imparted something to his disciples, and they in turn have imparted it down the line. This story make sense to me, given my experience. It seems likely to be the winer of an Occam's razor slash-fest, at least in any account that touches upon theological issues.

People can, and have, made all kinds of claims about what that something grants them. But that is the separate issue of Apostolic Doctrinal Authority. That I can't imagine as being an issue in Ecclesiastical Gnosticism, though at least one organization intentionally muddies the waters on that point.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

Father Troy - you have gravely mistaken my gentle chide as an ad hominem attack. I do apologize sincerely for giving offense here, and I at no time said that YOU were anti-educational, just that a blanket condemnation of theology in the context of studying religion was and is a curious choice. It feels to me like saying we shouldn't use math to talk about chemistry.

I have seen no unflattering comments about you or your work, and certainly never intended to make same.

You've also got a bit of a bee in your bonnett, it seems, about the course of this discussion; I maintain that having a theology does not necessarily imply circular reasoning, and your implications that I don't know what I'm talking about seem a little reactionary.

I do wonder, though, which terms I seem to have confused, in your eyes: certainly your definition of theology "in the trivial sense" seems perfectly workable to me. I'm reading what you're reading, and each posts seems to me to be a lot calmer and straight-forward in tone than your reactions suggest.

We have many tools in our toolbox to express and explore what we're doing here. You don't like pliers, I get that. I also get that you're championing the experience of gnosis over the discussion of GnosticISM. That's an important, and critical stand.

But I'm not crazy about the "chill" that you seem to be advocating: it does very much seem to me here that you're suggesting we cannot or should not discuss (or define or study or attempt to quantify) GnosticISM at all.

Yes, there's gnosis and there's commentary: but I personally find the commentary (which is really all the Ecclesia is, to me) rewarding, challenging, nourishing, and inspirational. But that's just literalism-embracing ole me. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to stone people for eating shellfish.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

I LOVE "Occam's razor slash-fest" by the way. Can I steal that?

Eckhart Christopher said...

Fr Troy,

Thanks for the real points! I hate those fake ones. They never last nearly as long.

As I reread your article (and your subsequent responses) I'm willing to grant that the substance of the argument may not be circular. But, I think you can understand how it is easy to read it that way. Maybe a little verbiage rewrite for 2.0?

As for "private definitions," I never made that argument. By offering other definitions, including the more widely accepted one, I was hoping to give you an opportunity to demonstrate how your definition wasn't private. In other words, through more critically engaging in the more standard definitions, you would be able to demonstrate the strength of your own. So, I was really just trying to get you to be a little clearer on what you meant by "literalism-lite" and "playing make believe with religious things."

In regards to the history question, I'm afraid that I'm quite serious. I have very familiar with the historical development of Western philosophy and it's theological counterpart in the Church. I was hoping you would be able to point to certain antecedents for two reasons. First, one shouldn't underestimate the value of tracing such antecedents, especially when expositing a viewpoint that differs from that which is generally accepted. Second, this exercise would further establish the "publicity" of your definition and give a greater context to those of us who are trying to understand your perspective.

I hope I have made it clear that I grant no such "privileged" status to any human discipline. As I have said, I agree that we must be critical and universal in our examinations. But, by highlighting the issue of ontological commitment, I was hoping to demonstrate that we can't escape them. And, so to make them the enemy is to set us up for a serious "head-against-the-wall"-athon. One of the important lessons of post-structuralism and the whole postmodern enterprise is "perceptions are perspectives." This is why I agree we need to be critical. But, this is why I also understand the necessity of an ontological commitment.

Furthermore, I am very familiar with many theological works by respected scholars in the field that would agree with you about not mistaking what you are doing for something else. In fact, when I was taught philosophy and theology one of the first lessons was "Don't mistake the definition of God for God." Since the early to middle 20th century, this is one of the first lessons students learn (I know I certainly taught it in my classes). If you are interested in this point, I would encourage you to explore the writings of Paul Tillich (paying specific attention to his Introduction to his Systematic Theology, in volume 1) and also the work of Rudolf Bultmann.

Finally, I agree that it is possible for people engaged in the study and utilization of theology to forget about Gnosis. I have seen it happen countless times throughout my theological education. But, I don't believe this should put a stop to it. For example, driving in a car is one of the most statistically dangerous ways to travel. But, you and I do it every day.

Spiritual Emergency said...
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Rev. Troy said...

Thanks, EV, we may be close to the beginning of a conversation.

I don't see the circular issue, but hey, I don't mind be knocked for style (or substance for that matter), as long as the substance isn't completely ignored. When it is ignored I do what everyone else does, I talk louder and make bigger gestures. And when the responses seem to go away from the substance or re-frame it in an unfavorable light, at this point I was willing to put the smack down at the expense of being an ass about it: handing out the rhetorical noogies. (My Internet connection being flaky really hasn't helped my mood either, to be honest.) The whole larger picture of my criticism of one small, and defended by very few, area of what might be called the larger academic enterprise as being characterized as being against reason or inquiry or debate, isn't the type of thing I can let pass.

The assumptions are still many. So let's get them out in the open. As I understood it, I was challenged to demonstrate my assertions about the limitations of Theology, and to show what possible negative issues there might arise from using theology.

I believe I have addressed these. There are limitations to theology, it is an abstract thought game. The possible issue is that it has no place for Gnosis and following it can take you far from Gnosis. I don't think my scope was any larger than that, and so should not be assumed to be arguing for anything larger.

I did not set out to demonstrate that theology is useless or worthless, in fact I state otherwise. Nor did I set out to demonstrate that theology as a whole was dangerous, only that it naturally lead in a direction away from Gnosis. I honestly don't have a problem with theology, if we can be honest about what it is, and “make believe about religious things” while not a complete characterization does state the limitations quite honestly. However, I don't see an awareness these limitations in practice. I see people taking their thought games seriously and the contents of them in a somewhat literal fashion. Unfortunately, distant and dead theologians don't change that. Though they may be useful in educating the theologically inclined.

As far as practicing theology goes, self-effacing recognition of what you are actually doing, and trying be aware of, if not keep track of, the assumptions would be the way to go. I don't recall advocating the end of theological speculation. Like I said, the assumptions are still thick and deep.

Rev. Illuminatus Maximus said...


"If we must play the theological game, let us never forget that it is a game. Religion, it seems to me, can survive only as a consciously accepted system of make believe."

- Aldous Huxley, Time Must Have a Stop

Rev. Troy said...

Very apt. Thanks, Rev. Max.

Anonymous said...


In reading your original post I could not help but make an immediate association with it to something I'd read attributed to the Sufi saint, Rumi:

In reading

Those who don't fell this Love
pulling them like a river,
those who don't drink dawn
like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don't want to change,

let them sleep.

This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way,

sleep on.

I've given up on my brain.
I've torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.

If you're not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words
around you,

and sleep.


This is essentially your message too, is it not? Peace be with you!

Michael Thomas Gederberg

Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...

Troy--while it just arrived today and I haven't read it, but thumbed through it--if we are looking for an academic standard in Gnostic Studies why are so many folks disturbed by Michael Allen Williams "Rethinking 'Gnosticism'"?

Whether one agree or disagrees this book is a model for Academic Research on a subject! If one thinks he is wrong--it is easy to refute by just picking up a pen or keyboard and going point by point drawing from the same historical texts a different view--then we would have, most likely, another 300+ page book on Gnostic History.

It seems to me that this book is a rather fantastic roadmap through Historical nuances regarding Gnosticism from late Antiquity to our time.

So who or where is our champion to sallie forth in this good fight? I would recommend Richard Smoley????!

Cheerfully, Roger

Rev. Troy said...


It comes down to assumptions. Analysis is a very useful tool, but so is synthesis. Both of these are also limited by being intellectual tools.

Analysis breaks things down into component parts. The Analytical Error is to break things down in such a way that they no longer go back together. Analysis is always limited in the scope of what it can consider by its nature.

The issue is in the assumptions. When beginning an analytical enterprise there are always assumptions. The problem comes with them being implicit, or more commonly, unconscious assumptions. This can be a form of Circular Reasoning, as in the case of Williams: wherein the implicit/unconscious assumptions at the beginning of the enterprise include the conclusion of the enterprise. This does not make the enterprise valueless, it just means that its conclusion isn't one: it is just another assumption.

Anyone using the same assumptions, assumptions that include the conclusion, will, oddly enough, reach the same conclusion. We can pretend that this is the “repeatable” aspect of science, or see it as a con game, even if an unwitting one.

On a side note: I don't recommend Smoley. He seems to have only an esotericists understanding of Gnosticism.

Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...
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Rev. Troy said...


I wasn't referring to that level of assumptions, but to larger implicit ones. It was probably stupid to simply indicate these. Implicit assumptions are not easy to see. And assumptions that are implicit in either the way one frames an issue or in the methods used, are even more difficult to see.

You are quite right, not all assumptions are bad. It is implicit assumptions that include or preclude conclusions are a problem. Let's just say that if there where implicit assumptions in framing the question or in the methods used, then discovering those assumptions later in the form of a conclusion would not be surprising.

I am not a modern dualist (there's a post coming that) and so I don't think that makes the scholarly work of Williams less valuable. But we cannot ignore the limitations of the framework in which we work. That is one of the main reasons that I advocate using multiple frameworks, that isn't a solution, just an aid.

Who knows, maybe the day will come for a lengthy wrestling with Williams's book. However, my aim is more creative than critical, to set about a Gnostic approach to Gnosticism. People are really stuck in their current approaches, but I still think it is possible to build an alternative. Then we can say, "look here at the alternative to your theory" rather than "see where your theory is wrong." In criticism, your framework is shaped by the framework of what you criticize. Creativity gives a lot more options.

The Smoley comment was poorly phrased to say the least. I should have said that he approaches Gnosticism from the perspective of an esotericist. Which is to say, that in the works I have read, he focuses on connections in history--tracing the esoteric or hidden knowledge. Otherwise, I am agnostic about him. (I made an implicit assumption, my stupid ;)

I'm not advocating an ideal Gnostic Scholar, just pointing out that there isn't one. His approach and focus are the limitations I have found in Smoley's work. For me, these limitations have meant that I haven't gotten enough from his work to recommend it.

The field is fragmented, though it is hard to say to what extent. The Gnosis Institute will hopefully be a way to move forward. Academic rigor that is open to a Gnostic approach, including questioning our approaches and methods.

Eckhart Christopher said...

Well, for what it's worth, I happened to find Williams text insightful and well-written. I recommend it often, actually. And, in my opinion, Smoley is also a good place for people to begin the journey. It just depends on how they wish to begin interacting with Gnosticism and what their goals might be.

The main reason I find Williams work intelligent and generally right is a simple one. He illustrates how fragmented Gnosticism was and that is a perfect reflection of how it is today. Sure, there seems to be some concensus when terms (and theological ideas--sorry Fr. Troy I had to use the word) are defined broad enough. But, the Gnostic movement reflects the same level of diversity as it did in the early centuries of this Common Era.

I, therefore, tend to draw encouragment from work like Williams. But, I have also been accused of being a complete wacko. So, there you go . . .