I. BACKGROUNDER. Modern Western society in an obvious downslide to all–out nihilism. Not so much a violent nihilism, as in the Nietzschean atop the alpine mountain summit, defiantly standing against that always unnamable oppressor represented by an omnipresent leaden sky. Rather, it is a quiescent type of nihilism, suave and self–complacent in a way, as if a battle has been fought and won, and that now is the time to rest and revel. Without question, this casual denial of values and morality in the twenty–first century is most immediately traceable to the 1960s Counterculture Revolution. It is evidential of the victory of a loud rebellion whose exponents, now beyond middle age and established, wield positions of no minimal influence in modern society. From the media and the entertainment industry to education and politics there is an unvoiced acceptation that says all values are relative, that truth is an anachronism, and that morality to any minimal degree is a barrier to personal liberty.
Posts Tagged ‘antinomianism’
But another story–a less dramatic one suggested by the letters–seems much more likely to be the true one. When Scholem learned that the Mar Saba discoveries bore on the Carpocratians, he replied enthusiastically: “I am amazed to hear that there is still unknown information about the Carpocratians to be found. Those are the Frankists of Antiquity. Produce it as soon as possible!” The Frankists were the followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century Polish Jew who had taught that those who followed him were free from the law and should pursue salvation through ecstatic sexuality. In a famous essay published in 1937, not long before Smith joined him in Jerusalem, Scholem explored the mysteries of what he called “redemption through sin”: “It would be pointless to deny that the sexual element in this outburst was very strong: a primitive abandon such as the Jewish people would scarcely have thought itself capable of after so many centuries of discipline in the Law joined hands with perversely pathological drives to seek a common ideological rehabilitation.” In this characteristically imaginative way, Scholem, no religious believer, re-created the deep meanings that Judaism had even–or especially–for its heretics in another age.
As a midcentury Episcopalian, Smith would never have thought the Bible inerrant. But he did think almost that of Scholem. Could Scholem’s enthusiastic comparison of Carpocrates to Frank have set Smith on the way to making Jesus a magician? Could Scholem’s teaching have inspired Smith to rethink the nature of religious experience, and Christianity, and find new meanings in the life of Jesus? It seems very likely, to me at least, that Scholem’s way of thinking about redemption and salvation, religion and sex, acted slowly but irrevocably on Smith–in just the time-bomb way that great teaching often acts: like so many of the great Jewish scholars he knew, he found in history of a particular kind a way to appreciate the emotional richness of traditions to which he could no longer pledge personal loyalty. In The Secret Gospel, Smith described Scholem’s deep impact on him and recalled that when he told Scholem about the letter, “he pounced immediately on the mention of the Carpocratians,” whose leader supposedly “taught that sin was a means of salvation…. A remotely similar theme was important in the writings of some seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish heretics whom Scholem had been studying (Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank).”