This two-volume book, The Devil’s Redemption by Michael J. McClymond, is just too good of a resource to fuel only one blog post.
Last week, it was McClymond who helped me sort through the (intentionally?) confusing tangle of different claims about what Hermeticism actually is. We scratched the surface of Hermetic/Esoteric/Gnostic/Platonic/New Age thought enough to recognize that we have all encountered it before, and that it has had a pervasive influence on our culture in all sorts of ways. This week, I’m just going to list a number of characteristic doctrines of Hermetic/Esoteric thought.
Each of these bullet points (or cluster of them) could have a volume written about it (and probably has). I could write a 1,000-word blog post about each one: My personal history with it, the damage it does to people, why it seems to make sense, how it differs from biblical teaching. But today, I’m not going to do that. I just want you to be able to recognize these doctrines when you hear them, so you know that they are neither just common sense, nor orthodox Christian teaching, nor are they a profound new insight that was just had on the spot by whoever is asserting them to you. They are characteristic doctrines coming from an ancient, broad and deep, but erroneous, stream of human thought. All of these bullet points are paraphrased from the section “Common Esoteric Teachings” in McClymond’s Appendix A: Gnosis and Western Esotericism: Definitions and Lineages, pp. 1069 – 1070.
- The godhead has within it some or all of these things: inherent crisis, inherent evil, inherent or intrinsic suffering, temporality or process arising from inherent imperfection.
- Apophatic theology: God does not know himself, because “the infinite or unbounded cannot in principle be known” (p. 382).
- A divine feminine principle (sometimes called Sophia) exists in the godhead.
- Coincidence of opposites
- God did not create from nothing, and/or nothing is not really nothing; instead, nothingness or chaos is a “constitutive principle.”
- Spiritual things are somehow material, and material things are somehow spiritual. (“Spirit stuff”)
- All things are alive.
- “The material universe [is] ontologically inferior.”
- “The material universe [is] generated by human desire and imagination.”
- God/heaven/etc. was originally somehow human, or defined in human terms.
- And was also an androgyne (male and female at the same time).
- Christ: only seemed to have a material body (docetism); was an example or teacher rather than a savior; and did not atone for human sins.
- Humans have divine or godlike powers; human imagination has the power to create material reality; therefore magic, divination; and astrology are OK.
- Souls are reincarnated or transmigrated; this life (and sometimes, processes in the life beyond) acts as a purging fire to get rid of the soul’s imperfections.
- Following from all this, salvation is understood as “self-knowledge, self-realization, or self-integration” (p. 1070). Therefore, “love, not law.” Strict justice is understood as mean and unenlightened.
- Spiritual elitism: the good people are not those who have repented of their sins and placed their faith in God, but those who have secret knowledge. Hence, we do a lot of allegorical and other nonliteral readings of the Bible, and we make authoritative religious claims based not on the text but on “visions, dreams, or supernatural encounters” (p. 1070). (What could go wrong?)
I hope I don’t need to point this out, but … none of these doctrines are remotely Judeo-Christian. They cannot be reconciled with the picture of reality that is painted, both explicitly and implicitly, in the Old and New Testaments, unless we are willing to do violence to the text by reading it in an arcane, “symbolic” way which allows us to import our own esoteric doctrines. Esotericists, of course, are completely willing to do this, because they don’t like doctrines or definitions anyway.
Making things even more confusing, many of these ideas are alluded to by the New Testament writers, because they were “talking to” the estoeric philisophies that were already popular in their day. For example, John begins his gospel with “In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In first-century Gnostic and Platonic thought, the Logos was a character which was sort of embodiment of the organizing principles of the universe. John is saying, by implication, that these thinkers were close, but not quite right in their cosmology. The Logos, for John, is an actual person, namely Jesus, who is also actually a member of the godhead as God was understood by the ancient Israelites. He is not immanent nor present in everyone, and rather than there being inherent conflict within the godhead, He and the Father are one. John does all of this in just a few phrases. But if we bring esoteric assumptions to the gospel of John, it will be easy for us to “prove,” from this and other lines lifted from this gospel, that John supports our Hermetic or Mormon or New Age theology.
Next week, we will see how the apostle Paul upbraids esotericism directly in just one short, beautiful paragraph.