Thursday, March 12, 2009

Transtheism or Supratheism?

I am giving serious thought to letting go of the category "gnostic and gnosticism" (just as I did with "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in my period, turning instead to "polydoxy" or multiple competing self-defining orthodoxies). My reason for this is not that I do not think that gnosticism existed in the ancient world - in fact I do. But the categories have become so abused, that they have become heuristically meaningless for me as an historian of religion. I can't use them without running into walls.

The category is a huge mess and people use these words whatever-which-way they see fit for whatever argument they want to make. If they don't want a particular text to be gnostic, they will say that it doesn't have this-that-or-the-other characteristic that is gnostic. If they want the text to be gnostic, they will say that it has such-and-such characteristic which is gnostic. And then there is proto-gnostic, which means there are elements of gnosticism here, but not enough to make it gnostic yet. And then when it comes to those who make the claim to be gnostics, like Clement of Alexandria, well, he can't be a gnostic because he is a famous church father who is considered "orthodox".

The biggest gripe I have is the claim to doceticism that so many people want to make - as if all or even most gnostics were! Marcion was docetic. For him, Jesus appeared on earth one day as an adult "appearance". But for most of the other Christian gnostics, Jesus was born and had a physical body (including the Eastern Valentinians).

"The snake is always the good guy." No, not in all gnostic systems. And even in those systems where he is "good", he sometimes becomes "evil" as in the case of the Ophians described by Irenaeus.

"The gnostics hated the body and lived encratic lifestyles." Some did. But not all by any means. The Valentinians and the Simonians enjoyed sex and considered it a sacred activity within the confines of monogamous marriage. Who knows what Carpocrates was up to or the Archontics.

"The creator god has to be evil." In some cases he is, in some cases he is just foolish, or trying the best he can - but because he is ignorant, he has a hard time. He is rash. He is arrogant. He is even repentant as in the case of Western Valentinianism. For Basilides, Abrasax is "psyche" and the best that psyche can be (if we believe Hippolytus' account). In all cases, he is powerful and must be reckoned with because he owns the soul within which lives the spirit from above him.

"The creator is singular." Most of the time he isn't. He is often helped by the archons or angels in the heavens to create Adam. Sometimes it is a collective of angels who create and a single angel name is not identified.

I could go on and on with all the misconceptions and nonsense that have been heaped on this category, smothering it to death.

So I am about to retire it because I cannot continue my work if I have to constantly be fighting the category's baggage. I am going to set it aside and work to develop new language so that I can create a map of what was going on in the first, second, third and fourth centuries with these communities. I want to know their histories, their relationships to each other, their relationships to other religious movements, their multiplicity of beliefs and practices, their scriptures, their hermeneutics, their geographical locations, etc.

My proposal is to name descriptively the phenonemon I want to study. What I want to study are those groups of religious people in the ancient world that worship a god who is spatially beyond our universe and who is not identified as the immediate creator and ruler of our universe. Instead, these roles are attributed to subordinate powers who are not being worshiped.

I'm considering two names for this phenonemon. Transtheism or Supratheism. I like Transtheism because "trans" has two connotations: across and above/beyond. This is nice because it suggests that the believers could understand that a cross-over between our universe and the otherworld is possible, in terms of the spilling over of the otherworldly god into our universe (as our spirits) and/or the sending of an emissary from the otherworld to assist with salvation and/or our journey "home" to the otherworld. Supratheism is also possible, although it may indicate too much of a complete transcendence and separation of the God, as if the otherworldly God has no contact with this world (which is not the case in these systems).

This may mean that I will have to subtitle my book: The Gnostics and Their Gospels: An Introduction to Ancient Transtheism, the Worship of the God-Beyond our World.

What are your preferences? Transtheism or Supratheism?


Rebecca said...

I understand the feeling of despair about the misuse of the names gnostic or gnosticism, but aesthetically I prefer those terms to transtheism or supratheism. They also have the advantage that some ancient people actually used them to describe themselves or others. I think you should stick with gnostic/gnosticism and just attach your definition to it every time you use the term (for example at the beginning of an article just state - this is what I mean by gnostic, gnosticism, and if you want to know more, see such and such an article that I wrote that explains this exactly with all the details).

Jared said...

What?! No "Biblical Demiurgical Traditions"?! ;)

If you should choose not to follow Rebecca's advice, of those terms I would lean toward Transtheism, because it suggests a certain dynamism inherent in the systems you are trying to describe, whether the hypostatic unfolding of aeons in one way or the mystagogical ascent in the other way. Oh yes, and a cosmic craftsgod caught in the middle.

On a somewhat related note, when does the second edition of your Thirteenth Apostle come out? I am slated to teach a class next fall on gospels--using the genre as a lens to discuss, as you say, polydoxy--and I think the second edition of the book could be a great help for undergrads in conceptualizing this.

sparkwidget said...

Dr DeConick, I cannot thank you enough. I stopped trying to educate so-called modern Gnostic groups specifically because of many of these misconceptions, and the hostility I receive for dispelling them. In many cases, modern Gnostic "revivals" are just anti-Christian groups hiding under a veil of antiquity. But unfortunately a lot of these misconceptions stick throughout their history of use (and abuse) because of their anti-Christian tone. Both neo-Gnostics and traditionalist Christians of all stripes are guilty of this: neo-Gnostics distance Gn from Christianity because they do not like Christianity, and Christians distance Gn from Ch because they do not like Gnosticism. I know you are commenting specifically on scholarship and not necessarily the popular mind. But both have deeply rooted polemics. Faith, for instance, is denounced by many pro-Gns as opposed to Gnosis, the keystone for determining whether someone is a Gnostic or not. But faith seems to play a role in Gnosticism in most texts (specifically Valentinian IIRC) and is not crudely denounced as in the popular imagination. Polemic from many sides, the sympathetic and non, is partly to blame for all these confusions and misconceptions, in my humble opinion.

I hesitate to endorse the label "transtheism," because like so many Gnostic definitions, there is much overlap with decidedly orthodox traditions. The Greek tradition of theosis, for instance, is transtheistic. Prayer in general is transtheistic, if I understand how you're using the term. Coptic Christian literature (my recent forays at CUA) is absolutely inundated with transtheism, as the divine and material worlds are constantly overlapping, providing visions and miraculous events left and right.

My solution has recently been to do away with drawing these lines altogether and acknowledging that early Christianity is indeed a "polydoxy" as you aptly put it. In my reading of Samuel Lieu, for instance, I learned that Constantine's administration hardly distinguished between Gnostics, Manichees, and regular old Christians because they all had a high enough Christology to be considered "not Arian," which was good enough for Constantine's officials. Instead of trying to pin a name on "the phenomenon formerly known as Gnosticism," I prefer to simply refer to individual groups.

John Ottens said...

I would humbly recommend Supratheism as the term which more clearly communicates what you seem to be trying to articulate.

sparkwidget said...

The following is a myths-facts sheet I posted on Facebook. I received hostility from some neo-Gnostics for doing so, and was essentially denounced as heretical and excommunicated by a Gnostic bishop. It doesn't get much more ironic than that!

Myth: Constantine demonized Gnostics at the council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed was formulated to exclude them. Then Constantine essentially murdered, assimilated, and destroyed Gnostics, burning their texts.

Fact: Constantine's council only specifically denounced a small number of sects, most importantly the Arians. While Gnostics were denounced in 172, Constantine declared their tolerance in the edict of Milan, which declared tolerance for all sectarian denominations except, basically, just Arianism. Both Gnostics and Manicheans were considered by Constantine's administration to be in doctrinal conformity to the Nicene Creed. "Deviant" sects, with the exception of the Arians, had more free reign under Constantine than under the generally-believed-inclusive-by-modern-Gnostics pagans.

Myth: Gnosticism flourished under paganism, which was open, spiritual, and tolerant, but was stomped by the early Church, which was closed-minded, worldly, and xenophobic.

Fact: In the Nicene years, individual sects received less persecution from Christians than from Pagans in earlier times. Diocletian indiscriminately lumped Gnostics and Manicheans in with the Christian church as a whole, and endeavored to wipe them all out for being anti-Roman, anti-Pagan, foreign infiltrators. Later, Constantine's administration indiscriminately lumped Gnostics and Manicheans in with the rest of the church.

Myth: Constantine and his council set the biblical canon and persecuted anyone who deviated from it.

Fact: There was NO official canon in the Catholic or Orthodox church until the 16th century and the Council of Trent. The Catholic Church formed a canon in response to Protestant criticism that Catholics read too many deviant, heretical texts.

Myth: Irenaeus and his fellows persecuted Gnostics, and the church at large went along with it.

Fact: Irenaeus was a member of a specific party, the proto-orthodox. They did not, and did not have the power to, persecute Gnostics. They only kvetched about them.

Myth: Proto-orthodoxy reigned supreme. Later proto-orthodox like Eusebius conspired to rewrite history out of malicious desire to conceal the truth.

Fact: Proto-orthodoxy was a single segment of a massive milieu of Christian sects. The proto-orthodox were portrayed as dominant by later orthodox authors like Eusebius, whose theological views obviously influenced their history. This was not intentional, malicious, trickery or revisionism. It was an honest mistake.

Then by request I added:

Myth: Plotinus was a pagan Gnostic. His followers were pagan Gnostics. Hypatia is a Gnostic martyr, killed by the Roman Church.

Fact: The Plotinian school of philosophy explicitly regarded Gnosticism as a heresy, just another anti-Hellenist Christian sect and a dangerous foreign infiltrator of Roman culture. Hypatia was a Pagan in the 4th-5th century, a cultural group that would gladly have seen Gnosticism exterminated, and belonged to this anti-Gnostic philosophical school.

Hypatia might be the best example of the underlying polemic involved in popular misconceptions of Gnosticism which tend to view history as a binary story of good vs evil.

Jim Deardorff said...

Well, someone needs to vote for the obvious: the consequences of extraterrestrial visitation a few millennia ago (or whatever nice scholarly term would describe this).

The humanoid aliens came from outer space, and, at least nowadays, do not pretend to be the creators of the universe.

This possibility should not be overlooked, especially since astronomers acknowledge that the sol-like stars within the habitable zone of our galaxy have an average age a couple billion years older than our sun. Think what science that's just a few thousand years ahead of ours, not to mention millions of years, could achieve.

Unfortunately, present biblical scholasticism cannot come any closer to discussing this than to mention Merkabah mysticism.

There are quite a few books on the topic, and much online material. For starters, try this peer-reviewed paper written in 2005 by a retired atmospheric scientist, an astrophysicist, a top-notch ufologist, and a leading physicist.

mac said...

Would not "Panentheism", a technical term, be an appropriate alternative because it holds that God pervades the World, but is also beyond it. And could not the term "Transtheism" imply beyond/ without(outside Theism) less accurately. A book(Google Books)"The Philosopy of Religion on the Basis of It's History" by Dr. Otto Pfleiderer (1887)references Panentheism. Also, refer to the following interesting Link discussing Panentheism.

The above Link is quite comprehensive.

Ann said...

I prefer Transtheism. With the other option the imbedded letters cause 'atheism' to jump to my eyes, and distract from the intended meaning of the larger word. Thanks very much for your work.

Richard said...

Transtheism for me. So now I'm a Sophian Transtheist. VV00T!

Jordan Stratford+ said...

In my view, "Gnosticism" must be a soteriological distinction: Saved by gnosis? Check. Saved by something else? Not Gnosticism.

Like any argument, as binary as it sounds by definition, there's always border zones. Clement is straight-up orthodox, but was a big enough fan of gnosis that he gets a kind of honourable mention. Marcion? Definitely not. Mandaeans? Yes. Mani? Only after a good stretch.

With regards to your "Transtheism vs. Supratheism", certainly to my mind panentheism fits the bill and is a widely understood and accepted term.

Adam Smith said...

Love your work, and saw you at Rothko Chapel recently. I think Supratheism, simply because I'm seeing trans theism used already on wikipedia. Not sure whether it makes a diff, but it could end some confusion before it starts by not appropriating a term already in use.
Just my 2 drachmas worth.:-)

Mr.Owens said...

I vote for transtheism,it is simply the point of your message.