Gnostic Escape from the Metaxy

It was not just the historical legacy of the patterns of cosmological civilization itself – patterns which the Hellenic and Roman empires had displayed and reinforced long after the differentiational shift had first influenced Greek and Roman culture – that continued to threaten the unique potentiality of a person-centered civilization ordered in accordance with the experience of differention and with the new element of selective flexibility with regard to human social arrangements that it both allowed and required. Temptation to yield to the pantheistic pull was produced by the tension of the metaxy itself, inasmuch as it often remained too demanding even with the availability in principle of divine grace.

This was not only the temptation of releasing or escaping from the tension through a relapse into early pantheism, into the historically existing forms of closed cosmic immanence, through spiritual retrogression to the womb of divinized nature or community. As Voegelin shows, there also developed from an early stage another and different temptation: a future-oriented temptation to close by novel means the sometimes seemingly unbearable gap between perfection and impefection and to throw off the burden of responsibility for the free choice of destiny.

This could only be done by denying the true import of the differentiational experience. The denial could take two forms. One could either, seizing on the differentiational awareness of perfection, try, in its light, to efface imperfection, to impose perfection on the immanent order. This implied a denial of the distance between imperfect human nature and transcendent perfection, of the impossibility of man’s full possession qua man or even finite soul of the qualities of transcendence, and of the constitutive limits of the immanent order and thus of its reformability. Or, still seizing on the new awareness of perfection, one could simply deny the imperfection of the immanent sphere, by proclaiming it to be divine according to the new standard.

Both of these strategies were attempted. Through them, the demanding, open undecidedness of differentiation would again be closed, and the individual would be rid of the responsibility that followed from the clear perception of reality – the reality of perfection, of imperfection, of the hiatus between them, and of the inescapability of his own free decision in favour of orientation towards the one or the other. According to Voegelin, it is the difficulty of remaining on the high level of insight that the differentiational shift had made possible, of living up to the standards and the demands implicit in the tension of the metaxy, that gives rise to the recurrent tendencies of the subsequent development of Western civilization to move away from its defining, highest insights and standards, to distort them or to deny them.

A culmination of the insight into the nature of the existential reality of man had been reached, but few could sustain the new level of consciousness. Everything now hinged on the individual person as the nexus of transcendence and immanence. But the individual person was weak, and it was precisely the differentiational disclosure of his existential status that had made his constitutive imperfection fully transparent.

The rejection of the differentiational tension was, according to Voegelin, the deepest import of and motivational drive behind the Gnostic movements of antiquity. The phenomenon of early Gnosticism is a complex one, and the Voegelinian analysis, which stresses the radical transcendence and dualism insisted on by many of its early representatives, has been supplemented by an emphasis on the strand of immanentistic monism in the Hermetic writings, as well as – as I have already pointed out – by a more generally complexifying analysis and understanding, independent of the early polemic accounts of the Church Fathers. In this connection, however, it is important to stress both that radical unification with God was taught also, in their own way, by the dualistic Gnostics, and that their very dualism was for various historical reasons gradually transformed through a process of immanentization, resulting in the conception of the “transcendence” of the Gnostic utopians themselves and their pure vision vis-à-vis the evil order of the present, of the dualism between that order and the heaven on earth to be established by the revolutionary imposition of perfection.

Voegelin captures essential psychological components in the development of what came to take shape, during the long centuries of repression from the orthodoxy of Rome, as the mindset of the millenarian sects of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation period. And there can be little doubt about the correctness of his focus on the centrality of gnosis conceived as power to be used for the transformation and perfection of what is according to the differentiated vision a constitutively imperfect immanent reality.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi