Vegetative Dogmas: Chesterton and the Gnostics

Though I had originally published this piece previously at Perry Robinson’s blog, in light of Fr. Behr’s lecture I linked to earlier, I thought I’d dust it off and edit where necessary to make it au courant. Also, in light of Fr. Behr’s lecture, I most heartily recommend Kostenberger’s and Kruger’s The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity. I read it about a year ago and it is an excellent thesis that could use some revision, but nonetheless, those two have a hand full of trumps. So, into the breach!!

“Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.” G. K. Chesterton

There was a book some years ago by that epitome of Calvinist social commentators, Rousas J. Rushdoony (who maintained, Armenian that he was–where the -ian fell off the end of his name I don’t know– that he was a direct descendent of Noah) entitled Infallability: an inescapable concept. I was reminded of the book when reading again Chesterton’s final chapter in Heretics, but also when viewing a Youtube clip of Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller fame) recounting how a man gave him a Gideon edition of the NT and Psalms. Jillette was quite complimentary of the guy, for he stated that if you think he’s going to Hell, what kind of hatred would you have for him if you didn’t try to warn him. Were a truck hurtling down the road, Jillette stated, and he didn’t do everything, including tackling you to get you out of the way, the only conclusion any sane man could draw from this was that he wanted you to be hit by the truck. Thus, while he is a self-professed atheist, he has no problems with people proselytizing him (“within reason,” of course). In the midst of his disquisition Jillette asserted “I know there is no god.” Anyone who has any beliefs must be willing to defend them, or else they are no beliefs at all. Gillette sees rightly that to have beliefs means to defend them.

Chesterton’s Heretics touches on these same themes, how we cannot avoid being dogmatic. When we seek to avoid dogma, we are regressing into the “vegetative” state. This needs some unpacking. The Renaissance had a depiction of the several states of man in relation to the phyla of existence. A man beset by accidia was like a rock, merely existing; a glutton was like a plant, existing, but also no more than merely animated; a vain person was like an animal, existing, animate, but merely sensing; and finally there was true humanity: a man characterized by study and virtue. Chesterton saw in his day the denial that virtue could be known, or that truth was nothing more than discreet facts, or that on any point people could hold forth with certitude. Yet these assertions were to Chesterton so much posturing. Poets and artists wanted to be heralds of the dawn by attacking, undercutting, challenging, and contradicting all that was considered accepted and studied truth. Iconoclasts all. But GKC pointed out that what in fact they were really doing was asserting a whole new dogma which devalued the human. Slipping away from the state of reason and virtue (which Chesterton so keenly pricked in his poem “Ultimate”) put people into the realm of, or valued them as much as, the turnip. This was a dangerous place. People who had no use for ideas were the worst sort of people in the world. They came at ideas the way adolescent boys come at love: “Just as a boy who has not known much of women is apt too easily to take a woman for the woman, so these practical men, unaccustomed to causes, are always inclined to think that if a thing is proved to be an ideal it is proved to be the ideal. Many, for example avowedly followed Cecil Rhodes because he had a vision. They might as well have followed him because he had a nose; a man without some kind of dream or perfection is quite as much of a monstrosity as a noseless man.” [I wonder whom Chesterton would single out as an example in our day?] Rushdoony in many ways asserted exactly the same thing, only devoid of all humor and wit, and completely innocent of Chesterton’s panache.

I bring this all up to relate it to the question of the Church catholic, by which I mean the question of the Early Church. To many contemporary scholars there was no such thing as the early Church, but only early churches, no Christianity, but myriad christianities. Dogma was not a reality except among the narrow and bigoted few (e.g., Sts. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr). Put another way, there was no such thing as the Catholic Church, and Orthodoxy (or even orthodoxy); it was a late imposition that destroyed the “truth” of Jesus (always set in quotes, and of course not the Truth of Jesus). To these people, Gnosticism has much a claim on Christ as St. Irenaeus. As one scholar said to me “I am not a Christian, but I do believe in the religion of Jesus.” These assertions go back to the Reformation, among those who could not help but admit that the early church was full of papistical enormities. It was given greater emphasis following Schleiermacher and his notion of the primacy of gefühl (sentiment), and then the flood of German liberalism. It should be noted that one of the leading “scholars” of Gnosticism, Elaine Pagels, had as her doktorvater, Helmut Koester, trained by the German liberal theologian, Walter Bauer. Bauer himself had argued the Christianity was simply the champion of the ancient classical world’s theological cage match, fighting it out with dozens, if not hundreds of other cults and mystery religions, including of course, the Gnostics. Pagels’ book, Beyond Belief, is premised on the notion that the Catholic Church arises from Irenaeus’s assertion of orthodoxy (he is the real villain), a system that stood over against the Gnostic notions of internal illumination and supra-carnal union with God. The title and argument of the book is for a creedless Christianity, one that embraces no set form, but one given to various christianities, and thus Beyond Belief really means Beyond Creed. This of course is in keeping with the current atomization of the academy. I saw a publication of my own university, a putatively evangelical school, in which the president was trumpeting our institution as a “mutliversity” (a term I first hear uttered on the pages of Marvel comics some twenty-five years ago by that paragon of theological, philosophical, and cosmological acuity, Galactus).

Pagels, whose earlier works were less personal (Beyond Belief is nothing other than her apologia), and thus affected some scholarship, while clearly now a popular writer, is saying nothing but that can be found in numerous other, far more technical and scholarly monograhps, cf, K. King’s What is Gnosticism? or Birger Pearson’s Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Pearson’s work is less technical, and thus more accessible for the general reader, and ultimately far less strident in its Balkanization of early Christianity. King, however, a pronounced feminist, is animated clearly in her iconoclasm by erecting new images of the ancient church. Just as the rood screens were destroyed in England, often to be replaced by royal images, so King wishes to get rid of Orthodoxy and Catholicity in order to supplant it with her feminist vision of the church. As Chesterton said of George Bernard Shaw “Mr. Shaw may have none with him but himself, but it is not for himself he cares. It is for the vast and universal Church of which he is the only member.” For King, truth is not ‘pure’, and thus all creeds are nothing but the outcomes of syncretism. All religions are unique in that all historical phenomena are unique, and thus mixture and contamination (read, “heresy”) are red herrings used by one group to ‘marginalize’ others (notice how modern identity politics becomes the rhetoric of doing theology). She even calls upon that great Princeton theologian, uh rapper (which is it today?) Cornel West: “Tradition is not just a given, it is fought for.” In an endnote about methodology, King asserts her indebtedness to the fad of ‘the new historicism’ (one which is pretty much moribund now, and she wrote only about five years ago). One of its tenets being “no discourse … gives access to unchanging truths or expresses unalterable human nature.” Now aside from the fact that this point vitiates everything she has just written she has become Chesterton’s radical poet, who wishes that “[h]aving been given by the gods originality – that is, disagreement with others – he desires divinely to agree with them.” Or, more akin to Chesterton’s take on H. G. Wells and the lessons of The Time Machine “He began with the end of the world, and that was easy. Now he has gone on to the beginning of the world, and that is difficult.” In essence, our modern Gnostics are little different than many of their ancient forebears (they just don’t write as well), who sought to pollute the source in order to dig other wells.

For King, as well as the ancient Gnostics, and especially for the Manichees, but also equally of most moderns, self-professed gnostics or no, the one underlying assumption (and this comes out in modern notions about ‘discourse’ and ‘narrative’) is that difference is opposition. There is much to be thought and written on this count, as it touches existential angst, communist notions of alienation, and of course gnostic pessimism, as well as the modern rhetoric of race and gender. But for the Orthodox such a notion is itself completely alien: The Father is different than the Son is different than the Holy Spirit, but there is no opposition.


About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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7 Responses to Vegetative Dogmas: Chesterton and the Gnostics

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Benjamin says:

    Very happy with Penn’s statement. I have always wondered myself whether true charity toward an unbeliever would stop even at tackling him. It would be a kindness then.

  3. Davd Fraser says:

    Thanks for this post — and the book recommended. I’ve always enjoyed Chesterton’s wit and wisdom. I’ve not read the Kostenberg book yet but will pick it up now.

    Bauer’s re-presentation in Erhman has always seemed to me to be a case of proving a point by ignoring much of the data — or by creating a narrative that assumes more than it has actual facts to string on the narrative, in the process distorting the evidence we do have. I’ve listened to Erhman’s lectures on the NT and found them astonishing in their confidence and self-assurance in the face of clear contradictory data. Rhetorical brightness does not make up for the lack of good evidence (except in the law courts).

    I can only hope that Rushdoony is not the epitome of anything! Certainly not my brand of Calvin (ism). Most “isms” are a degeneration of a better idea anyway.

    I for one did not like Jillette’s analogy. I do not think Hell is so much a truck hurtling toward us and the Good Samaritans those who tackle us to get us out of the way. That seems to be a rather passive view of how people get hammered in the final reckoning. And it seems to make the Good Samaritan’s act to be a rather violent and aggressive action.

    Rather I think more along the lines of C.S. Lewis: “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.”( And perhaps nine-tenths of what is miserable in our lives as well.) We are active agents with disordered and misplaced loves (apologies to Augustine), seeking love in all the wrong things and places (and people). Yet we are often “found” by the instrumentality of a human who makes the True Love tangible to us by humanly loving us, not by tackling us. Most of us are hurtling headfirst on the broad path and need no truck to hit us!

  4. Cyril says:

    Well, David, to be fair to Jillette, it is only an anology. I should post his original video, with the proper caveat, of course. Your point about love though is spot on, for too many people, including a great many Christians, our Lord has become the Great Property and Casualty Insurance Salesman, Not exactly our get-out-of-hell-free card, but rather close. Heaven has become an escape from judgement, and not the new life in Christ for which we were created.

  5. Cyril says:

    The aforementioned youtube clip by Penn Jillette can be found here.

  6. Davd Fraser says:


  7. Athanasia says:

    “our Lord has become the Great Property and Casualty Insurance Salesman,”

    LOL! Now that’s a first for me!

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