June 07

Zionism and Gnosticism

Dr. Yotam Hotam

Translated by Saul Noam Zaritt

The world around us has changed. I don’t refer to the obvious changes that science can easily detect such as global warming, but rather to the ways that religion and religious thought play significant roles in our political and social landscape. They are present in phenomena like Al Quaida, in the political tensions based on religious differences in Europe, and even in the conservative tendencies swirling about in Washington D.C. Of course, the event that best represents this connection between politics and religion is 9/11, the day in which people of faith shattered the World Trade Center in one of the most profoundly disturbing acts of our time.

The shock-waves of this event permeated the world of thought, resulting in a “theological change” among researchers in the humanities and social science. Post 9/11, these researchers became interested in the connections between politics and theology, religion and political thought, faith and ideology. As researchers began to investigate the subtle ways in which religious terms underpin political, secular, and modern thought, the term “political-theology” – which was first introduced by the German philosopher of law Carl Schmitt in the early 1920s – returned to the fore of social science.

It seems that the changes of the last few of years have begun to threaten the secular fixation, or to be more precise, the fixation on the fantasy or pretension that the modern world had “freed itself” from the fetters of its religious past. Against this backdrop, today’s historians are reexamining past phenomena in which political-theology – or the connection between theology and politics – is apparent. One of the most fascinating examples of this phenomenon is Zionism. But what can be said about Zionism in political-theological terms? In order to delve more deeply into this categorization, Zionism must first be defined as a modern secular movement.

Zionism: Faith, Fantasy, or Fact?

Over the years, historians have traditionally seen Zionism as a secular national movement – though one with motivations rooted solely in fantasy and faith and wholly non-reflective of historical or sociological reality. Many of the Zionist claims, such as those of the recreation (i.e. “Renaissance”) of the “New Jew” in contrast to the “Diaspora Jew,” the “renewal” of the Jewish people and of the Hebrew language, and the call for the “return to Eretz Israel” – though central for various Zionist thinkers from the beginning of the twentieth century and for Zionist thought in general – were based on faith and fantasy rather than fact.

Indeed, the historian Jacob Talmon, one of the most prominent figures in his field in our time, understood Zionism as a secular movement that contained a redemptive fantasy, or, as he called it, a “secular messianic” movement – a modern political secular movement still holding its internal justification in theological terms. To understand this view, it is important to define Talmon’s understanding of the term “secularization.” For Talmon, “secularization” is the mundane translation of religious terms like “redemption” or “repentance.” In this way it is not God that redeems the Jewish people, but rather the Jewish people actively redeems itself. Likewise, it is not the return to a Kingdom of God that waits at the end of the national trajectory, but rather the return of the Jew to an original “Jewish-self” that had been lost in the Diaspora. Put differently, Talmon describes secularization as a transformation of the divine into an earthly medium, ultimately expressed in the national Jewish movement. “Secularization” consists of capturing characteristics that were once associated with the divine and grafting them onto earthly matters. Or better yet – to paraphrase the historian Joshua Arielli on Augustine’s Civitas Dei – it was through secularization that the earthly city inherited the City of God.

The concept of secularization as understood by historians such as Talmon and Arielli – and as echoed in the research of their students – follows from the German intellectual heritage, most particularly from the first third of the twentieth century. At the center of this conception of secularization is not observation of human activity, but rather the analysis of human consciousness. Questions of the percentage of the population attending church or the number of people voting for religious parties, which preoccupy contemporary sociologists such as Peter Bruce, are not central to this approach; in fact, they are basically insignificant factors in understanding the secularization process. Instead, this approach questions the consciousness, or “the human spirit,” and the changes that occurred (and occur) within it. It is an epistemological approach for understanding historical phenomena that places less emphasis on sociological, empirical, and quantitative studies. And as mentioned above, the conclusion of this approach is that the term “secularization” does not express the liberation from a religious consciousness, but rather the translation and transformation of this consciousness into the framework of modern life.

While the system of thought explaining “secularization” is compelling, it still carries a flaw. True, the character of the secularization process is clear (as a translation of the sacred into the mundane), but what is the source of this process? How did it happen that people, seemingly out of nowhere, decided to develop an approach to political and national problems which seems to be genuinely new, translating that which their ancestors had treated as divine into the earthly and mundane? This set of theoretical questions is also pivotal in understanding Western history in general: the conception that there exists a process of secularization in terms of translation of the divine to the earthly and mundane does not explain the source of such a process, or a reason for its occurrence.

Blame It on Gnosis

What then could be an answer to the question of the source of secularization in Europe? The historical assumption, which really is quite intuitive, is that the Western secular world proceeds from its Christian past. In his book Meaning in History (1949), Karl Loewith, a German thinker of Jewish origin, claims that modernity is merely Christianity which has undergone a process of secularization. Loewith, one of Heidegger’s students during the twenties, was forced to leave Nazi Germany because of his Jewish background, and was one of the first intellectuals to return to Germany after the war, ending what he considered to be twenty years of forced exile.

According to Loewith, the Christian past serves two functions: it is both the historical background for secularization and the very reason for the creation of the modern secular world. Thus, in Loewith’s approach, Protestant theology, introducing as it did the unmediated connection between man and God as well as the way in which “faith alone” guides one’s actions, evolved into a secular perception of man himself as the “purpose, goal, and measure” – as is expressed in Kantian philosophy. In other words, secularization is a process that not only is tied historically to the Protestant past, but is in fact deeply founded upon and rooted in Protestant terminology. Loewith’s definition, no doubt influenced by Karl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger, summarized for many of his colleagues – such as Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss – the dominant thesis of secularization. However, Loewith’s response regarding the connection between secularization and its origins in Christian theology was not the only possible theory or solution. And such was the view supported by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg.

Though virtually unknown to the English reading public, Blumenberg has been hailed by many as one of the most important philosophers in Germany in the second half of the twentieth century. Born in Germany in 1920, he completed his high school studies on the eve of the Second World War, and worked as a simple laborer throughout it. He was arrested near the end of the war due to his Jewish origins, or in the language of the Nazis, for his being a “half Jew.” After the war he retreated to the ivory tower of academia, where he turned his focus towards philosophy. In his book of the 1960’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Blumenberg detaches the occurrence of secularization (as the transformation of the divine in Christian theology into the earthly and mundane) from the reason or cause for this occurrence, directly challenging Loewith’s thesis. The origins of secularization, according to Blumenberg, are external to Christianity and are external to Judaism as well. Blumenberg calls this other source “Gnosis.”

Blumenberg borrowed the concept of “Gnosis” from German thought of the first third of the twentieth century as formulated by such leading thinkers such as Adolph von Harnack, Rudolf Bultmann, Richard Reizenstein, and most importantly by Hans Jonas, a young German-Jewish philosopher who had been a student of Bultman and Heidegger. Jonas wrote the most important book on Gnosis, published in the thirties when Jonas himself, following his Zionist convictions, had already moved to Jerusalem. According to Jonas, Gnostic theology of Late Antiquity was comprised of a dualism between God and the world, the hidden character of God in relation to the world, and the alienation of the human being from this world in his search for godly truth which lies at the heart of a person’s own soul. In basing his approach on Jonas’s research, Blumenberg uses “Gnosis” as an “icon” for a dualistic perception in which the evil world stands in opposition to the hidden and godly goodness within human beings.

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