Symbolic Loss, Memory, and Modernization in the Reception of Gnosticism

In: Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies
Matthew J. Dillon Rice University

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Social scientist of religion Peter Homans has demonstrated that symbolic loss, cultural memory, and modernization are tightly intertwined. As a consequence of modernization, Western culture has lost a shared relationship to the symbols of its Christian past, leading to religious mourning. This article demonstrates that the category gnosticism opened up an imaginative possibility for individuals to reinterpret the cultural memory of the Christian past and achieve rapprochement with the tradition. The argument proceeds through case studies of psychologist Carl Jung, visionary artist Laurence Caruana, and public speaker Jonathan Talat Phillips. Each case exhibits how symbolic loss of the Christian tradition throws the individual into a period of inner turmoil. When each of them read ancient gnostic texts, they do so to reinterpret the symbols of Christianity, specifically Christ, in ways that respond to forces of modernization. The article concludes that popular and religious interpretations of the ancient gnostics should be recognized as attempts by those who lost Christianity in the West to re-envision its cultural memory and reimagine Christianity in the present.

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