CwtC Session 4: Gnosticism and Augustine

Wednesday, October 22: This week Dr. Kane introduced us to the movement called Gnosticism.  It took many forms across the years and geographical regions of its existence, usually assimilating most of the characteristics of its neighboring religion, but with the added claim that there was higher level of secret knowledge or insight beyond what most people knew or believed.  This special knowledge (from which we get the name of their movement from the Greek word gnosis) was available only to the elect, special group of people who were privy to it.  Gnosticism, in whatever form, generally held that all physical matter was inherently evil.

The first reading for the week, On the Origin of the World came from a collection of texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  It hints at Christianity and Judaism in its narration, but ultimately reveals the two unifying themes of Gnosticism — 1) that the physical world is inherently evil and everything with matter is corrupt, and 2) that there exists an esoteric or superior knowledge beyond the apparent.

Then, readings from the Confessions described Augustine’s encounter with Gnosticism, specifically his time with the Manicheans (followers of Manes).  One of the things that most troubled him about their teachings was that, although they claimed to have this special knowledge, they were flat-out wrong about some basic principles of astronomy.  Realizing those two facts were inconsistent, Augustine ultimately left their group.  He also had difficulty with their belief that the physical world was evil, and perhaps as a result developed his own theory that evil must be the absence or corruption of good — rather than something that a perfectly good God could have created.

Finally, Book XI of City of God showed how, in contrast to the Gnostics, Augustine held a more Aristotelian view of the world.  Further, he seems to hold the view that the Bible is not literally scientific, but must constantly be reinterpreted in the light of new scientific discoveries, for in recounting the story of creation in Genesis, he comments “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!”

Join us next week as special guest Dr. Emily Steiner speaks with us on mysticism, or how literature explores transcendence of or alternatives to the rational knowledge of nature.  We’ll be examining in particular William Langland’s Piers Plowman.  Hope to see you there!

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