I presented a paper at a conference entitled The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psycholgy at the University of Chicago in March of 2015. I meant to post my thoughts on that conference immediately after its conclusion, but a number of other commitments kept me from being able to do that. The conference, sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, was extraordinarily stimulating. The keynote speakers were Jeffry Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Rice University, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in the Department of Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy), Stanford University, and Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Princeton University.
I was excited to be on the same program with Jonathan Lear and Elaine Pagels. I am a huge admirer of both scholars. Lear is an extraordinarily talented scholar who has done some wonderful work on Kierkegaard as well as on classical philosophy and psychoanalysis and although Pagels has not, to my knowledge, written on Kierkegaard, her books on the history of Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular have been very helpful to me.
It was Pagels’ presentation, “’Making a Difference’: How Promoting Exploration of Human Experience Became Heresy,” that prompted this post. Much of that presentation was directed against Irenaeus and his attacks on the Gnostics. Pagels argued that Irenaeus was dismissive of human experience and antagonistic to the idea, so central to Gnosticism, that human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine. In fact, she attributed this antagonism, as the title of her presentation suggests, not merely to Irenaeus, but to orthodox Christianity more generally.
As I said, I am a huge admirer of Pagels, but that account of Irenaeus, and the Christian tradition more generally struck me as simply false and I said as much during the question period. Knowledge of the divine is clearly possible according to Kierkegaard, as I argue in my book Ways Of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). God, observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae]” (Crumbs, 126).
The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (Ignatius Press, 1990) that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι] for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (Against the Heresies, p. 45).
Irenaeus is specifically concerned in Against the Heresies to reject the claim of the Gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (Against the Heresies, 45).
Man’s imperfection, or sin, is for Irenaeus, the obstacle to his attaining specifically Christian knowledge. Thus Irenaeus observes that “the Word of the Father [i.e., Christ] and the Spirit of God [i.e., faith in Christ], united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation [i.e., man], made man living and perfect capable of knowing the perfect Father” (Against the Heresies, p. 57). But sinful man is no longer perfect and hence is incapable of knowing God without the intermediacy of Christ. Thus Irenaeus asserts that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”
Can “the truth be taught?” asks Kierkegaard in Crumbs (88). His answer, of course, is yes–if God himself teaches it. In other words, Kierkegaard’s claim in Crumbs that union with God is necessary in order for specifically Christian knowledge to be possible echoes exactly Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”
I presented a paper concerning the similarity of Kierkegaard’s view on the possibility of religious knowledge with those of both Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2011 and was figuratively besieged by admiring Patristics scholars throughout the rest of the conference.
I’m not in a position, of course, to comment upon Pagels’ more general claim that Irenaeus, and the later Christian tradition, was dismissive of human experience. She is certainly correct to the extent that Christianity assumes human experience, characterized as it is by sin, is profoundly problematic as a means for coming to understand the truth. The picture of Irenaeus’ objection to Gnosticism that one gets from Against the Heresies relates, however, to the Gnostics’ condemnation of physical reality, as well as to their elitism, or their view that only a tiny select group of human beings, the πνευματικοι, could know God.
I was very fortunate to share drinks with both Pagels and Luhrmann just before the conference dinner and Pagels assured me then that there were other works by Irenaeus that would support her view that he was dismissive of human experience. She neglected to mention what works those were. But it is not inconceivable that other writings by Irenaeus might display a certain ambivalence about what one could call the “authority” of human experience, since the Christian tradition more generally is ambivalent about this “authority.” Human experience certainly has a kind of authority, however, for Irenaeus. It just isn’t the same kind of authority it has for the Gnostics.
It is clear, however, both that Irenaeus believed human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine and that this view is an important part of the Christian tradition.