Thursday, September 27, 2018

Spätantike geist

Geo Widengren was a Swedish professor of comparative religion. One of his books was “Religionens värld”, also available in a German translation as “Religionsphänomenologie”. This is a translation of one particular chapter from that book, a chapter which apparently is considered particularly important by scholars in the field. The chapter does contain some interesting angles, but it's difficult to read and hardly for the general reader. It also lacks context. For instance, why does Widengren suddenly start quoting Swedish poet Eric Johan Stagnelius?

Widengren believes that Gnosticism has Indian and Iranian roots. He sees parallels between the New Testament, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. Less controversially, he sees similarities between Gnosticism, Zurvanism and various forms of Hinduism. Widengren believes that the Gnostic redeemer figure should be seen as a personification of an impersonal deity (such as Brahman). The redeemer is also the “heavenly twin” of the earthly prophet preaching the Gnostic message. Thus, Mani received revelations from his “twin”, which in Widengren's interpretation is Mani's Atman, which in turn is identical to Brahman. He also claims that Zoroaster was seen as a “Son of God”, which would have obvious implications for later Christology (especially if the Son of God is actually a manifestation of Brahman). The author sees traces of Gnostic influence in Ephesians.

Widengren describes various Hindu and Iranian myths in which the soul of the accomplished mystic is seated on the throne of a personal creator-deity and *becomes* this deity, by putting on his “world garment”. The author apparently believes that this should be interpreted symbolically, presumably as a merger of the soul with the World-Soul. However, it's easy to see parallels to Jewish “throne mysticism”, the idea that Enoch became Little Yahweh, ancient Israelite coronation rituals, and Jesus Christ. These are not intended to be interpreted as allegories for pantheist merger with the Impersonal Beyond!

The main take away from this text is that Christian (and Gnostic) notions have a long pre-history. Combine this with the idea of a suffering, dying and resurrecting god (also very old) and some interesting theological discussions might follow…

If not, I suppose you could always read Birger Pearson's inspired translations of Eric Johan Stagnelius!

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