On Cyril O’Regan’s Gnostic Return in Modernity

One reads the first few pages of Cyril O’Regan’s Gnostic Return in Modernity with a kind of dawning horror: not only is this just the “method” volume rather than the thing itself, but the thing itself is going to total seven volumes (on Boehme, British and German Romanticism, Hegel, Schelling, 19th-century anti-Gnostic discourse, and 20th-century Gnostic and anti-Gnostic discourse) — many of which, he leads one to believe, are already largely drafted. Surely this is one of the most ambitious scholarly projects currently underway in theology today.

One also reads with a sense of profound relief, because it is clear that this is not going to be a moralizing discourse on Gnosticism of the Voeglin type. He rejects the notion that modernity as such is Gnostic, and he also rejects the common notion that Gnostic teachers are egomaniacs addicted to fame — in short, that the cause of Gnosticism is being a bad person. Instead, he defines Gnosticism narrowly, focusing on Valentinianism, which is the paradigmatic form of Gnosticism for Irenaeus and is also the school of Gnosticism from which we have the most primary texts, due to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library. He argues that what is at stake in Valentinianism is above all a narrative grammar that borrows from a range of discourses, but whose ultimate agenda is a thorough-going rewriting of the Christian narrative.

The choice of Valentinianism as paradigm, then, serves the broader agenda of O’Regan’s project, which is to put himself forward as a kind of modern-day Irenaeus — an Irenaeus with more powerful conceptual tools (the concept of “narrative grammar” above all), but also an Irenaeus with a more difficult task in that the Valentinian narratives of modernity are more powerful, creative, and attractive than their Hellenistic forebears. Where one gets the impression from Irenaeus that he has been reading material of unrelenting stupidity, O’Regan admits the fascination of Gnostic forms of thought, the robust explanatory frameworks that they erect, the vitality that funds their ever-proliferating forms.

I may not ultimately read the rest of the series — and O’Regan is up-front about the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that any single individual wil read all the volumes — but this methodological volume has already proven very fruitful for me. It seems to me that the concept of “narrative grammar” fits very well with what I was trying to do in Politics of Redemption, trying to find what I alternately called the underlying “ontology” or “logic” of the varied atonement narratives. Although I am suspicious of much use of “narrative” as a category in theology, further study of Ricoeur’s work on the concept of “narrative grammar” will be helpful as I move forward in my research, which will most likely take the form of developing the subtheme of the devil from Politics of Redemption.

It is also helpful in providing a plausible definition of Gnosticism, a term that has been stretched to the breaking point through over-application. I wonder, though, if his inclusion of the mutation of the Christian narrative into the grammar of Valentinianism might make things a bit too narrow. Might a similar narrative logic work on other religious and philosophical traditions as well, as Plotinus complained of Gnostics reworking Platonism? Genealogically it makes sense to focus on the paradigmatic form of Christian gnosticism, since the modern figures O’Regan is analyzing are of course mutating Christianity — and that’s really as far as O’Regan needs to go in his own terms.

Still, I wonder if this notion of a narrative grammar of Gnosticism could redeem the (to me) inescapable impression that when dealing, for example, with Valentinianism, Manicheanism, and certain forms of Kabbalah, one is dealing with “the same kind of thing.”

O’Regan rightly claims that any plausible genealogy of a Gnostic return in modernity needs to have at least some initial point of contact with classical Valentinianism, which he finds initially in Boehme. Even with a similar proviso, it seems that the point of contact between classical Gnosticism and Manicheanism is pretty straightforward and, despite the difficulty of pinning down when Kabbalah actually arose, that some kind of point of contact between Kabbalah and classical Gnosticism (likely mediated by many steps) is not unthinkable, given that Kabbalah initially existed outside the boundaries of an enforceable Christian orthodoxy.

In any case, even though it was exhausting, I am very glad I made it through O’Regan’s extremely rigorous and thought-provoking work — I’m sure I’ll be digesting it for a long time to come.

17 thoughts on “On Cyril O’Regan’s Gnostic Return in Modernity

  1. I picked up The Heterodox Hegel in Ann Arbor this weekend. I’m struggling to make it through the introduction. That’s mainly because I’m not smart, though.

  2. This leads me to realize that we were within a few hundred miles of each other pondering O’Regan on Hegel, and specifically (in my case) his desire to move beyond moralizing about gnosticism (a la Voegelin).

  3. Heterodox Hegel is sitting on the shelf in my office in Kalamazoo — so it was even closer to you.

    I’m open to any suggestions for book events, though my initial reaction is that O’Regan in particular wouldn’t get much traction — not sure why I think that, though.

  4. This is one of those odd surprises when I realize that a book I have used is actually quite well known within a different discipline. I remember picking up The Heterodox Hegel and using some quotes on privative negation for my chapter on Hegel, but mostly I recall thinking how it was such a strange book (I made it to the chapters on the Fall – maybe half way in?) before I decided I was out of my depth.

  5. The reverse side of that is that sometimes the same figure can seem to be almost completely different in a slightly different field. For instance, I have a colleague at Kalamazoo who’s very interested in social philosophy (Habermas-type stuff), and I sometimes suspect that we have gotten confused and are talking about two different people with the name Hegel.

  6. I think it has to do with the sense of dread you described reading O’Regan and realizing what he’s trying to do. Hegel is already so intimidating and massive, and then you see just how carefully and systematically O’Regan intends to treat him: “the horror… the horror.” But I read on in morbid fascination.

  7. ‘…I sometimes suspect that we have gotten confused and are talking about two different people with the name Hegel.’

    This is even the case with many philosophy departments. Our Hegel reading group (currently in its 2nd year) is split along a kind of Habermas-Hegel and a ‘Continental’-Hegel. Occasionally we get the reconstructed Hegel (via Brandom readers) but in that case we unite against a common enemy.

  8. Because of my interest in the varied religious phenomena called “Gnosticism” I tried to read this book, but only made it 40 pages in before I cried uncle. I found his attempt to redeem Baur very strange, but I don’t mean that in the usual academic way where it means ass-backwards. Just, I didn’t get it. Maybe encore un effort.

  9. To me, the “return to Baur” is part of a broader pattern of him being as thorough and “scholarly” as possible — it’s a very elaborate and detailed way to say, “I think Baur’s really onto something, but you have to do things differently to really demonstrate it.”

  10. I thought The Heterodox Hegel was a great book, very exhaustive and impressive and provocative. But I haven’t yet tackled Gnostic Return in Modernity.

  11. I would also like to see more about O’Regan’s work, but “The Heterodox Hegel” does seem like it’s too scholarly for a book event, or something like that. Too rich.

    On the plus side, this thread got me to pick the book back up again.

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