Gnosis, A Faith Without Reality

Author: Massimo Borghesi


Massimo Borghesi

Idealism, or modern gnosis, is the speculative basis of "the philosophy of the non-event", the philosophy of the resurrection without the bodily risen Jesus Christ.

1—The "Philosophy of the Non-Event".

The Mythical Diminishing of Christianity

"<The divine cannot have happened in this way> (first and foremost in such an immediate way, and then in so crude a way) or <what happened in this way cannot be divine">[1]. The statement comes from the first volume of the <Leben Jesu> by David Friedrich Strauss and constitutes the dogma of modern rationalist exegesis in its attempt to demolish the historical value of the Gospels. God cannot act in history through <particular actions> (miracles), and even less can he become <a particular man.> God can only act through the <eternal and universal> laws of nature, or of thought, which do not permit exceptions or infringements. According to Strauss, this criterion makes it possible to distinguish between history and myth in the Gospel account. "One can recognize that a report <is not historical>, that something <could not have happened> as narrated, first of all if it is <not in agreement with the known laws of event> which are valid, instead, in all other cases"[2]. In this way "if an account tells us of an apparition or a fact with the direct or unstated affirmation that it was immediately done by God himself (heavenly voices, theophanies, etc.) or by human individuals endowed by him with supernatural powers (miracles, prophecies) in those cases and within those limits we must accept that the report is not an historical one"[3]. Its working out belongs to an extra-logical, imaginative realm, to the realm of <myth>, whose genesis is to be found in the mystical and irrational ardor of the first Christian community. "Myth has two aspects: first it is not history and secondly, it is an invention springing from the spiritual bent of a certain community"[4].

A "critical" examination of the Gospels thus distinguishes between history, the set of "natural" occurrences that have actually happened, and myth, the set of tales dealing with the "supernatural", the fruit of imagination and invention. From Strauss to Bultmann this distinction was the canonical point on which great part of so-called "historico-critical" exegesis hinged. As Regina has rightly pointed out, the criteria for this sort of exegesis "are merely <the explication of the philosophy of the non-event">[5]. This philosophy cannot conceive God as a subject present in history, his acting as <particular> action in <space> and <time.> This is in obvious antithesis with all Judeo-Christian experience as described by Luigi Giussani: "All these emblematic references to the self-manifestation of God have something in common which characterizes the action of the Lord. That God manifests himself as the Lord of history by intervening in history means that he must use a <particular> since history is made up of particulars, and it means that God <chooses> this particular. It is precisely this chosen particular, this particular with which he even identifies himself in a gesture of love, that is elected to demonstrate to all what God is, the Lord of mankind"[6]. For Bultmann on the other hand: "A mythological conception is one in which the unearthly, the divine, appears as earthly, human, the beyond as the here and now"[7]. Myth "is the narration of a fact or event in which supernatural forces or persons intervene"[8]. This conception is allegedly unacceptable to <modern> man since he has irreversibly passed from a mythical to a scientific conception of nature. "One cannot use electric light or the radio, or turn to modern medical and clinical innovations when ill and at the same time believe in the world of spirits and miracles proposed by the New Testament"[9]. In its elementary naivete the assertion is priceless, for it shows that <positivism> is the true <philosophical a priori behind historico-critical exegesis.> The scientific method describes the perimeter of what is real; everything that transcends that sphere necessarily belongs to myth. Thus "with modern thought, as it is given to us by our history, we also receive the critique of the <New Testament vision of the world. Experience and the conquest of the world> have reached such a point of development in the realm of science and technique that no one can seriously keep to the New Testament vision of the world, nor in fact do they do so"[10].

2—A Faith Without the Resurrection. From Positivism to Idealism

This obliteration of the historical veracity of the Gospel accounts regarding the supernatural needs to take account of a fundamental problem: How did the Christian faith arise? From the point of view of the Church, faith presupposes the <resurrection of Jesus Christ>, Christ's victory over death as the undeniable sign of his being God. It is after the apparitions of the Risen Christ, present in the way of a physical reality, that faith becomes <reasonably> possible. For the Church the physical experience of the Risen Christ becomes the transcendental condition of faith. From the Strauss-Bultmann standpoint and given that the <resurrection cannot have happened,> the problem becomes complicated. The basis of faith cannot lie in objective, <external reality> but has to be located within the subject, in the <religious needs> of the self. It is religious awareness that in <idealizing> the "historical Jesus" produces the "Christ of faith", in other words, the Man-God. It is this that by transfiguring and sublimating the defeat of death on the cross renders the messianic image of Jesus in an ideal timeless space. In this way, as Bultmann says, "the <resurrection> is, rather, the <very object of faith">[11]. It is the faith which "gives basis" to the resurrection and not the resurrection to faith. "<The resurrection of Jesus cannot be a miracle that creates faith>, on the basis of which the doubtful can re-establish his faith in Christ"[12]. Historically it "is not credible since it is a mythical event -the return of a dead man to the life of our world (for that is really the issue: the Risen One was perceived by bodily senses)"[13].

Sure enough Bultmann acknowledges that "one cannot deny that in the New Testament the resurrection of Jesus is often taken as a miracle that makes for faith. As when it says that God has provided the proof in favor of Christ's just right by raising him from the dead (Acts 17, 31). And again in the legends of the empty tomb and the Easter stories which report the evidence offered by the Risen One of his corporal nature (see in particular Luke 24, 39-43). But these are undoubtedly late developments that were altogether unknown to Paul, though it is true that on one occasion Paul also wants to guarantee the miracle of the resurrection as an historical event by listing the eyewitnesses (I Corinthians 15, 3-8)"[14]. This, though it isn't clear why, is alleged to be a partial argument. What according to Bultmann cannot be denied is that "for the New Testament the <resurrection of Christ> is the <eschatological fact>"[15] and the sign of the final victory over death. In this sense "the Easter event, if it is understood as the resurrection of Christ, is not an event that concerns history"[16]. The only historical matter is "<the Easter faith of the first disciples>", their "visionary experiences"[17]. "The Easter faith of the first disciples is hence not a fact on the basis of which we believe"[18] but it is trust in an eschatological event whose present relevance—the resurrection as victory over death finds its mythical portrayal in Christ. The <notion of faith> set out by historico-critical exegesis <thus presupposes the negation of the resurrection as a real historical event>. Faith does not depend on the reality but idealizes the facts by setting them in the spectrum of myth. The positivistic axiom whereby only the object of science is real entails the <idealistic reduction of faith>, its inclusion in "religious awareness".

3—The Historical Christ and the Eternal Christ

From the standpoint of the history of ideas this reduction occurs in the crucial passage from Kant to Hegel. It was in this context that the "philosophy of the non-event" worked out a way of explaining the genesis <of faith from the starting point of the non-event:> a faith without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the historical Jesus was not God, how was it possible for the community to pass from history to myth, from the historical Christ to the eternal Christ? The explanation given by Hermann Samuel Reimarus that faith in the resurrection was invented by the first disciples so as to hold on to a religious and political role after the death of the Master was too crude and unsatisfying to persuade. The path taken by Kant and the Idealists was to be different. Faith does not arise from <practical> reasons but from the <ideal> need of our spirit which transfigures reality in the light of the absolute idea. Thus the object of the ideal is the eternal Christ, not the historical one who was only an imperfect and transient exemplification of a divine model present in our mind. Thus on one hand Kant can reject the resurrection, the idea of which, "while certainly in line with the mode of sensible representation of men, is nevertheless burdensome for reason"[19]. Indeed, "who holds their body so dear as to want to drag it with them through eternity if they can be rid of it?[20]" And on the other, he can celebrate the <Idea Christi> as eternal model of moral perfection, source of true faith. It was with Hegel, however, that the passage from the historical to the eternal Gospel took place with unprecedented breadth[21]. The key point of this shift lay precisely in the notion of resurrection. The resurrection was, in fact, a possibility for Hegel on condition that the historical Christ, the empirical individual Jesus of Nazareth had <died.> It was that death, as the death of the finite, which made for the affirmation of the infinite, of the universal Man-God no longer particular as is Jesus. The death of Jesus meant <pain> absolute to his disciples, a <split> absolute between the human and the divine, the end of their dreams. From pain and love, however, arose the need for <reconciliation>, the <religious> need that, with the <actual person> dead, then turned towards the <idea> of him, the cosmic Man-God, the Spirit. In this precise sense it was "the consciousness of the community" which made "the passage from the simple man to the Man-God"[22]. It was <through the community that Christ rose again.> The need for the resurrection produces the Risen One, the eternal and atemporal Man-God. This being does not coincide with the historical Christ, an excellent person who, like Socrates, ended his existence in defeat. The defeat, however, prompted a sort of sublimation in the awareness of the community. It became the banner of victory, the point at which death turns over into life. The deification of Christ thus presupposes his defeat, the stirring of religious awareness which recognizes its proper ideal in the Man of Golgotha. The apotheosis of the Man-God is based in this way not on <facta>, not on the eyewitness experience of the empty tomb and the real presence of the Risen Christ, but on his death, on the void of his absence.

The Church's faith arises as the filling of a void, as the idealization of a deed that never occurred, as the ideal (religious) transfiguration of a dead man. Faith makes <real> what never happened, what no eyewitness could ever have seen.

Philosophical idealism thus sanctions the paradox whereby it is (inward) faith that creates the object and not vice versa. Christ <becomes> God, he "rises again", since for the Spirit he turns out to be <in line with the eternal ideal> immanent to it. His historical person was only the <occasion> for the awakening of an awareness of his <ideal> figure present in our minds. About this "eternal" existence, the product of a religious need that demands conciliation of the finite and the infinite, the historical Jesus knew nothing. His existence ended heroically and grimly in death. The other life, which began with his resurrection, belongs not to his history but to that of the community. <Idealism thus constitutes the speculative basis of the "philosophy of the non-event", of the philosophy of the resurrection without the "Risen One">. This "new faith", as Strauss was to recall in his <Leben Jesu,> was already heralded by Spinoza, by the same Spinoza who wrote to Oldenburg: "I say that for salvation it is not absolutely necessary that we know Christ according to the flesh; whereas it is quite another thing in regard to the eternal son of God which is the eternal wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and in supreme fashion in the human mind, and in an altogether particular way in Jesus Christ"[23].


1 D.F. STRAUSS, <Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet,> I, Tubingen 1840, p. 2.

2 Op. cit., p. 100.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 U. REGINA, <La vita di Gesu e la filosofia moderna. Uno studio su David Friedrich Strauss>, Brescia 1979, p. 132. For a closer study of the questions raised by historico-critical exegesis cf <L'esegesi cristiana oggi> (Christian Exegesis Today), by various authors, Casale Monferrato 1991; J. CARRON, <Un caso di ragione applicata. La storicita dei Vangeli> (A Case of Applied Reason. The Historical Value of the Gospels) in <Vangelo e storicita> (Gospel and Historical Value), by various authors edited by S. Alberto, Milan 1996, Ps. 485-517.

6 L. GIUSSANI, <La ricerca del volto umano> (The Search for a Human Face), Milan 1996, p. 30.

7 R. BULTMANN, <Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkundigung: Neues Testament und Mythologie>, Munich 1985, p. 23, note 20 (The Question of the De-Mythicization of the New Testament Message. New Testament and Mythology).

8 R. BULTMANN, <Zum Problem Entmythologisierung,> p. 16 (On the Question of De-Mythicization).

9 R. BULTMANN, <Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkundigung>, cit., p. 110.

10 Op. cit., p.15.

11 Op. cit., p. 59.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Op. cit., Ps. 58-59.

15 Ibid., p. 59.

16 Ibid., p. 61.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., p. 62.

19 I. KANT, <Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft, Theorie-Werkausgabe,> W. Weischedel, Frankfurt 1968, p. 793 (Religion Within the Limits of Simple Reason).

20 I. KANT, <Der Streit der Fakultaten Theorie-Werkausgabe,> W. Weischedel, Frankfurt 1968, Vol. XI, p. 305 (The Conflict of the Faculties).

21 On this point, cf M. BORGHESI, <L'eta dello Spirito in Hegel. Dal Vangelo "storico" al Vangelo "eterno"> (The Age of the Spirit in Hegel. From the "Historical" Gospel to the "Eternal" Gospel), Rome 1995.

22 G.W.F. HEGEL, <Volersungen Ober die Religionsphilosophie,> Stuttgart 1965 (Lessons on the Philosophy of Religion).

23 B SPINOZA, <Briefwechsel, 73, Brief: An Heinrich Oldenburg>, Leipzig 1914, p. 277 (Letters to Heinrich Oldenburg).

This article was taken from the No. 5, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.