Thursday, February 01, 2024

Pagan Temptations

A long time ago when I was an undergraduate, I read Thomas Molnar's The Pagan Temptation. One of the take-aways that remains with me to this day is that the pagan temptation is Gnosticism, or neo-gnosticism. That's undoubtedly an over-simplification, but it's what sticks with me decades after having lost touch with my copy of the book. My apologies to Dr. Molnar, may he rest in peace.

Molnar was undoubtedly on the conservative side of things politically; in fact he told me he was a reactionary. Since then I've also come across Eric Voegelin's Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin's work, like Molnar's, is of course explicitly political in orientation. Above these political ponderings, the incomparable Hans Jonas's classic historical analysis The Gnostic Religion stands, its concluding chapter pointing out the parallel between ancient Gnosticism and modern existentialism in their denial of the inherent goodness and meaning of the universe.

Molnar and Voeglin are right to sound the alarm about Gnosticism. Thanks to the pervasiveness of scientism, the existential denial of meaning is the assumed background of our these days. Some of the more radical forms of Progressivism are effectively nihilistic in their rejection of nature, especially human nature. In the Progressive vision, an individual human's desire should reign supreme over every pre-existing constraint, including natural laws of all kinds, and even the obligations of piety and gratitude.

But the paganism Molnar describes (as I recall the book) is only part of the story. Even a pagan like Plotinus opposed Gnosticism. So clearly there are forms of paganism that are not Gnostic. An oversimplified view of anti-Gnostic paganism, which I'm just going to call Paganism, is that it accepts the world as wholly and entirely good.

To return to the political angle, what Paganism implies is that the powerful deserve their power, that it is largely just that the rich and the powerful have their advantages. Taken to an extreme, it means that justice is whatever is to the advantage of the strong, as Thrasymachus says in Plato's Republic. Paganism admires the powerful; think of Achilles in the Iliad.

Conversely, Gnosticism would say that the world is inherently unjust and the strong are inherently wrong. It's no accident that these statements sound like they come from Marx or the Frankfurt School. In recalling the leftist claim that the weak and victims as such are really "strong," one thinks of the Sophists who made the weaker argument the stronger.

While the left's temptation is Gnosticism, the right's temptation is the nature-worshipping kind of Paganism. Both are religious visions, broadly speaking. But notice that the left's Gnosticism requires a layer of evidence-denying faith, or at least a denial that natural strength is a form of goodness.

That religious connection can help us thread our way between the political extremes if we ask what the Christian answer is to the Pagan and Gnostic visions. For both Jews and Christians, the world is inherently good, but it is fallen. What is truly and most fully good is God the transcendent Creator of the world. God's transcendence over the world means that the world can have true goodness, but that it merely pales in comparison to the infinite goodness of God, the true measure.

So the goodness of the world God created demands we respect the world, including human nature. But human nature is limited in its goodness and in some ways dysfunctional. True justice can only find its basis not in this world, but in the transcendent goodness of God. We humans can know good and bad from the evidence of nature, even though it can be difficult to discern. God's revealed Law spells out the truth for us hard of heart and dim of mind humans.

In the Judeo-Christian vision, the world and every good thing comes from God. The basic structures of life, like the family, are willed by God for our good. But we have a tendency to pride and selfishness that inclines us to use the goods we possess to the detriment of our social life, our life with others.

Thanks for being patient with the ramblings of an old man whose eyesight may be too faded to get the details exact, but who can tell night from day and male from female.