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Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob's Boehme's Haunted Narrative

by Cyril O'Regan, Cyril OŠRegan

Buy the book: Cyril O'Regan. Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob's Boehme's Haunted Narrative

Release Date: January, 2002

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Buy the book: Cyril O'Regan. Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob's Boehme's Haunted Narrative


Out-Boehming Boehme

O'Regan's second work in his projected seven-volume study gives him an opportunity to take the methodology outlined in Gnostic Return in Modernity and to apply it to Jacob Boehme, the father of the Gnostic Return in the post-Reformation West.

Boehme's works are fascinating but offputting, even in English translation. His Lutheran pietist style grates on the contemporary ear. And he is far indeed from clear. But O'Regan, whose prose sometimes makes Boehme seem lucid by contrast, tries to match the famous cobbler's mythopoetic theologizing with the "narrative grammar" of Valentianian Gnosticism.

This "narrative grammar" is at the heart of O'Regan's project of "Gnostic return in modernity". Unlike other academic students of Gnosticism (Michael Allen Williams and Karen King, for example) who are very text-centered, O'Regan cares less for the details of the materials than for how they exhibit a deeper and repetitive structure. And this structure, in his view, tells a story of God, man and the universe that uses the materials of the Bible but disassembles and then reassembles them into a mythic vision. This narrative is not just heretical but utterly disfiguring.

The familiar orthodox narrative is of a self-sufficent but communitarian Deity (Father, Son and Spirit) who creates a variegated universe out of love and whose special human creation freely turns on this love to choose wilful selfishness; the divine Son becomes incarnate and by his obedience and sacrificial death restores the possibility of original communion, through the community of the Church and with the communitarian Deity. The Valentinian narrative describes a self-sufficient communitarian divine world of many variegated characters, where one of them likewise chooses wilfulness for the sake of knowledge and thus falls from this communion into a space of alienation and ignorance, indirectly creating the universe of matter and psyche and entrapping parts of his/herself therein. An envoy from the divine world enters this universe to awaken the entrapped and fragmented divinities caught therein (humans) and this self-knowledge restores them to their original home. In the orthodox narrative, God becomes man out of love, so that men might become gods by grace. In the Gnostic narrative, God becomes man out of need, so that men might remember by grace that they are gods by nature. Salvation by grace, faith and works vs salvation by nature, knowledge and identity.

O'Regan sees this second narrative, using characters and material from the Bible, as a parasitic deformation, a spiritual pathology, where the proper estate of man as an ontologically inferior, morally weak and epistemically challenged creature is overblown into a self-aggrandizement based on special knowledge of the divine causes of the state of the universe.

Like his spiritual and intellectual ancestor, Irenaeus of Lyons, O'Regan performs the paradoxical service of explaining to Gnostics more about their own religious experience. His outline of the Valentinian narrative and its resurfacing in modern thought is, for this Gnostic, utterly illuminating. And O'Regan's politely but firmly stated negative judgment on Gnosticism is not, of course, convincing to one who has found it liberating.

However, he does pressgood questions for Gnostics who do not thereby wish to embrace nihilism. But I fear that the influence of Voegelin's undisciplined and overblown use of Gnosticism as the prime category of modern evil is too strong in O'Regan. Political utopianism -or utopianism of any kind- is (pace Voegelin) hardly a Gnostic temptation. It is much more likely to find fertile soil in the visions that have grown from the theocratic and nationalistic legalism of the Old Testament combined with the messianic universalism of the New. In a religion like Islam, for example, which is, I think, accurately described in the previous sentence.

One thing that O'Regan "gets" clearly about Gnosticism is that it is provoked by the question of theodicy: how can this world, which for all its beauty and order, is structured on suffering and death, be the creation of a God who is utterly wise, good and powerful? Gnostics are pretty clear on the answer: it can't. We search beyond the creator God of this world for the Deity beyond Him, and hidden in us. But O'Regan makes a powerful argument to the contrary. Orthodoxy cannot solve, that is, explain, the problem of evil. Evil must be recognized and confronted. But if you solve the problem of evil by successfully explaining it, justifying it for the sake of God (theo-dicy) as Gnostics try to do, then what have you actually done but validated it and removed the reason to confront it? A successful theodicy is self-defeating. Food for thought.

Jacob Boehme may appear to have gotten lost in this review. And he has. But unless you can absorb O'Regan's underlying, orverarching and penetrating hermeneutic project, you might find the Boehme book just mystifying. Once you grasp his plan -whether you agree with his evaluation or not-it is a rewarding experience to see him "explain" Boehme so clearly, if ponderously.

Speaking of ponderously. A final word about his style. He is a Hegel scholar, so perhaps he is beyond redemption. And his third volume will be on Hegel. I'm stockpiling Advil for that adventure. But he really needs to do something about his writing. O'Regan is prodigiously intelligent and massively well-read, an tribute to the impressive Hibernian and Catholic intellectual tradition. And I do not fault him for his grand reach and neologisms. A Gnostic could hardly complain about that. But his sentences and form of argument are so wearyingly complex, overly nuanced at every turn, and obsessively lawyerlike that it stresses the patience of even the well-read. (Gnostic writings are notoriously dense and ill-done; you'd think an anti-Gnostic would take a lesson.) He should be forced, for the sake of his own project, to swear a feudal oath of vassalage to his editor and simply obey.

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