Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Story of Sophia & Apologists

“In the beginning was the deed.” -Goethe, Faust: Part One
Something I had thought about including in my homily for the Assumption of the Holy Sophia, yet, as most often happens, forgot entirely while giving the homily, was a response to a odd characterization of Gnosticism in regards to Sophia.

On the radio program “Speaking of Faith,” New Testaments Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (a person fated for such a profession from birth, it would seem) appeared to debunk the Da Vinci code. He did have some interesting perspectives, but was definitely an apologist.

In attempting to paint Gnostics as the opposite of viewing women as equals, he followed the usual tactic of picking out the apologist's favorite passage from the Gospel of Thomas. Looking on the bright side, it probably means that at least one apologist read the entire Gospel of Thomas, since the passage is the last one. (Was it my imagination, or did I really hear a collective squeal of glee from apologists when one of them found that passage?) Of course, we cannot assume that more than one has read it, for if those who hold it up as misogynistic had read the rest of Thomas, they would have either realized that their literalistic interpretation of the last passage was wrong, or they would be actively deceiving people.

However, the odd continuation of this otherwise unremarkable attempt at reversing the evidence, was Johnson's contrasting of attitudes towards women between those in Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity. He made the claim that the inferior role ascribed to women in orthodox Christianity was merely cultural, and therefore changeable. Whereas, he claims, the role of women in Gnosticism was both somehow not only inferior but also ontologically based and unchangeable due to the figure of Sophia. While I agree with the first point, the second, even if it made sense, has no basis and is pure polemics.

He uses a Selective Sample fallacy, limiting his argument to scriptural writings from New Testament times. He did this because he had to leave out the real basis for his argument, the ontological inferiority of women that is present in the story of Adam and Eve.

The only similarity in the stories is that in the story of Sophia, she is described as making an error. In attempting to move towards the light, she mistakes a reflection for the light. We can see a parallel in the notion of the Cloud of Unknowing, or the Dark Night of the Soul, in that the closer you are too the light, the darker it can seem; the closer you approach, the thicker the cloud. This does not make Sophia, or Wisdom, a fool as some have claimed. Nor is she somehow a dim point in the light for making an error in the story.

Gnostics have never held her in the poor regard that others hold Eve in for being deceived. In contrast, Sophia is praised. Perhaps not for the error, but praised in general. In what seems to be Johnson's ontological notion, she is the Most Holy Sophia. She is not regarded as somehow an example of the inferiority of women.

Perhaps the key to this understanding comes from Goethe's Faust, wherein Faust reconsiders the phrase “In the beginning was the word,” rewriting it as, “In the beginning was the deed.” In Gnostic mythology, the deed is the beginning, whether the story begins with Sophia or before, or is one in which Sophia does not play a role. The movement of the divine is towards expression, and also limitation; towards engagement which always means the giving up of the potential for the actual.

Perfection can only exist as an abstraction. Once form is given, perfection is not possible. Therefore everything done is imperfect. To act, to engage in a deed: includes a flaw, an error. That is the nature of action, of giving one form to the undifferentiated potential.


sparkwidget said...

Stick it to em, Troy. I am personally tired of Academics and apologists alike misrepresenting Gnosticism to attack it. This is lazy.

Besides, there are more prominent examples of misogyny and intolerance that could be exploited in Gnostic works. Any Thomasine document after "The Gospel of Thomas" for instance is anti-sex, anti-world, and anti-woman. But the fact that these folks hold to the common cliche attacks (Gospel of Thomas is sexist! Look at 114!) is indicative of laziness more than anything else. I don't think people are interested in understanding this stuff, just attacking it.

Matt Stone said...

I appreciate that you acknowledge "that the inferior role ascribed to women in orthodox Christianity was merely cultural, and therefore changeable." I personally hold to the equality of women and men and do so as an orthodox Christian. There is a diversity of opinion within orthodox Christianity on this issue and it would be nice if we could move beyond the way-too-simple polemics.

eclectic itchings