Kenogaia: What Did My Family Think (and Does Modernity Need an Antidote of Gnosticism)?

My family and I read the last pages of David Bentley Hart’s novel Kenogaia out loud together the day after Super Bowl LVI when the Rams won over the Bengals. It was Valentine’s Day 2022. We started 420 pages earlier during the Nativity Fast in December 2021. This fantasy novel by David Bentley Hart is subtitled “A Gnostic Tale” and is inspired by the “Hymn of the Pearl” which is a third century Syriac poem recounting a hero’s quest. This hymn shows some evidence of Persian roots within the wisdom tradition of the magi, such as those who Matthew describes journeying under a new star to worship the Christ child. In fact, reading the opening pages of Hart’s novel felt like meeting one of the magi in the person of a long-suffering astronomer named Valentine who is watching by starlight for a child to arrive from heaven.

After starting this story as a family a few weeks before Christmas, we finished the book alongside the Super Bowl, arguably the loudest American public liturgy with a whirlwind of bluster and banners surrounding the game and its half-time show. Reading in the final pages of Kenogaia about an ascent up through the various celestial spheres of a collapsing world—each sphere with its own brilliant colors and pompous martial pageantry—it was almost disorienting when immediately juxtaposed with our nation’s own displays of gladiatorial pomp.

Hart is a religious history scholar, and his love of classical and oriental cultures is clear in the inspirations behind this novel. James R. Russell (Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University) describes the “Hymn of the Pearl” for Encyclopædia Iranica (2004):

While the Iranian setting and epic genre certainly predominate, many images of the Hymn would be congruent and evocative also for a listener acquainted with the Jewish and Christian scriptures: Moses in Egypt as a stranger in a foreign land, the precious pearl, the rescue of Israel “on the wings of eagles” from Egyptian captivity, and the parable of the prodigal son are prominent examples of such parallels. Jewish and pagan Mesopotamian listeners would have recognized in the dragon combat their own themes, of Leviathan, and of the victorious Drachenkampf celebrated in the Enuma Eliš [the Babylonian creation myth]. However, these multiple and multicultural layers of meaning reflect the reality of the Iranian world of the Arsacid and Sasanian periods, where Zoroastrians, Jews, Armenian and Syrian Christians, and adherents of numerous other faiths coexisted. Mani addressed his hybrid, gnostic message to all of them.

…The Hymn is recited in the first person by the hero, the Prince, whose parents, the King of Kings and the Queen of the East, send him from Parthia to retrieve the Pearl from the abode of the serpent, in the sea near Egypt. They equip him for the long journey with two guides and [with] treasures from Ganzak, Kušān, and India. …The prince …does not fight the serpent as a traditional epic hero might; rather, he casts a spell, or “magianizes”, which puts the serpent to sleep, and takes the Pearl home [where] he presents the Pearl to his father.

(For a full introduction, see “The Epic of the Pearl” by James R Russell in Revue des Études Arméniennes 28, 2001-2002, pp. 29 to 100.)

Although evidently a text with its own older history, this epic hero journey was preserved within the Acts of Thomas which is itself a story of a miraculous (and rather entertaining) “mission to India of Judas, the twin brother (Syriac thoma, hence Thomas) of Jesus Christ.” As Russell says: “In the Acts, while the reader is repeatedly reminded that his native speech is Hebrew, Thomas recites the Hymn to his fellow sufferers in an Indian prison. This is an ironically appropriate frame narrative, since the Hymn presents the world itself as a prison.” Both texts (the older hymn and the Acts) were popular at various points among Manicheans as well as Christians and various Gnostic sects (who often took the name Christian although unorthodox). In addition to those listed above, many other Christian connections could be noted, such as the garment that the prince says “poured its entire self over me” which Dylan M. Burns has argued is an image of Christian baptism (a chapter in Gnosticism, Platonism and the Late Ancient World, 2013). This garment or robe is the same word for a vessel in Aramaic, and both robe and vessel show up in biblical imagery for the human person.

David Bentley Hart includes the original hymn interspersed between the eight parts of his novel (in what appears to be his own translation, which is rich and delightful to read out loud). While the pearl is primarily understood as the soul in most surrounding literature, in Hart’s novel, the pearl is replaced with two simultaneous realities: the beloved little sister of the prince and an entire cosmos that is held together, in part, by his little sister’s dreams. These two images melded by Hart both have precedents in related folk stories. For example, in Yazidism (a monotheistic Kurdish religion with roots in pre-Zoroastrian traditions from western Iranian) the entire cosmos springs forth from a pearl that opens up.

So why is an Orthodox Christian theologian and religion scholar retelling a gnostic tale, and what did my family think of his book? I’ll answer the second question first, and the reader less interested in the first question may want to stop reading when I start to answer it.

What My Family (and I) Thought

Talking about how my family responded to the book is impossible to untangle from the question of how my family responds to me. I no doubt negatively impacted their attitude toward the book at several points with my own excitement and anxiousness to keep reading despite our many other responsibilities and entertainment options. However, I will try to summarize with a focus on the book.

My wife compared the feeling of Hart’s novel to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which is a book that seems to her like it is “trying a little too hard” when it comes to it’s philosophical and theological subtexts. I felt this as well, although I am far more happy to over-indulge with L’Engle and Hart in their philosophical and theological musings. For my own part, I only felt this negatively at a few points with Hart’s references to “Hel” as a false account of the afterlife that was invented only to frighten and control. Generally agreeing with the points that Hart is making, I was interested as the characters end up spending some time in Hel and also appreciated when they pointed out to each other that their entire cosmos has some similarities with the terrifying lies about Hel that they had been taught. However, even despite my agreement with his points and appreciation of several details in his presentation, Hart’s methods and wording on this topic felt somewhat tacky or heavy-handed.

Our two older children (13 and 17 years old) grew tired of some longer descriptive passages and found several characters wooden or under-developed, especially later in the story. They complained, specifically, that we heard too much about the beauty of all the leading female characters. However, they also expressed clear delight many times and had meaningful questions and observations throughout. Especially during the first third of the book, they were carried along by the story and invested in the characters. They loved Paichnidia (who reminded them a little of Effie Trinket from Hunger Games which we also read out loud as a family), and they were sad to see Paichnidia drop from the story but glad when she made it into the resolutions within the book’s closing pages.

Our youngest, a 4 year old girl, listened to long portions of Kenogaia happily and even asked a few times, of her own accord, if we could all read “Micheal’s Book” (her own name for the book, after the lead character). Most beautifully, during several vivid passages, my youngest climbed up into my lap and asked if there were any pictures of what she was hearing. I recall this during descriptions of a ferocious shadow monster as well as a scene with moonlight playing on a river amid mountains and shorelines covered in blue and white trees grown from seeds carried down from heaven.

For my own part, I most loved Hart’s many uses of light and color. Having recently enjoyed Hart’s evocative descriptions within Roland in Moonlight, I was delighted to find that his imagined world in Kenogaia possessed two moons:

In the blended light of Aurea and Argentea, the uncropped grasses shone the color of jade, the scattered white wildflowers glittered like frost, and the tall white trunks and blue crowns of the marmorean trees on the far side, under the low ridge of the mountain, were like bright columns of alabaster rising into a huge enameled blue vault. (78)

Or this passage:

“What else is Kenogia itself, after all, other than a place of continual suffering?”

Now Michael turned his eyes to the river as well. Aurea and Argentea were both full and gradually ascending the sky, their reflections spread upon the water in narrow fans of sparkling gold and silver; and, where the fans converged and their facets intermingled on the waves, their blended light became the color of electrum and rippled and glittered all about the boat like flaming glass. The mouth of the river, issuing through the gleaming white and turquoise of the marmorean grove’s farthest southern margin, was now visible in the middle distance, and beyond it the broad shining breast of the Phlegethon, and beyond that the deep violet crest of the mountain that rose above the far shore and turned up toward the sable-blue sky and gem-bright stars. “No,” he said after several seconds: “there’s . . . so much beauty here too . . . so much goodness.”

“Yes,” said Oriens, “there truly is — and, like my sister, all of it is stolen . . . all of it in bondage.” (117-118)

I also loved the theological and metaphysical territory covered by the story. For example, patristic scholar John Behr recently said in a podcast interview with David Artman that Origen, strictly speaking, would not say that “the devil” or “satan” will ever be saved but that some true creature of God responsible for this false self will eventually be restored. Such distinctions can sound like silly semantics, especially to us moderns with our paucity of thought categories. However, within the final pages of Kenogaia, Hart provides a compelling and profound image for just this concept of false selves who will be destroyed (and this image is one that will no doubt remind many readers of Saruman in his diminished state at the end of Tolkien’s stories).

One moving overall accomplishment that I got from the book was Hart’s capacity to depict substantial and sustained evil and suffering and then to show it to be utterly impotent in the end. This is a claim that Hart has made in many of his writings such as here in his 2011 book The Doors of the Sea:

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

While such bold claims are thought provoking, it is even more remarkable to experience them through a story and the resolution that Hart finds for the evil and the suffering of his fictional world. When the little sister Aurora very nearly allows everything, again, to come to utter ruin near the end, her only response to her big brother is: “Yes, yes, thank-you, Oriens. I’m awake now. Yes, I know. He fooled me again. How silly of me.” (387) This is somewhat like the response of Christ to his terrified disciples when they awaken him in desperation during a storm at sea.

There are many moments of humor as well. This Mary Poppins reference was a favorite as Michael is momentarily overcome by the glory of a young goddess:

Then her eyes met his across the distance. “Don’t gape so, Michael,” she said with the irrepressible laugh of an amused little girl. “You look just like a fish.” This broke the spell. He coughed, swallowed, cleared his throat, closed his mouth and attempted a dignified smile. (387)

(Incidentally, this nod to Mary Poppins is probably far from haphazard. My mother almost refused to allow any of us kids to read any of the original P. L. Travers books because they were so very pagan. Just exploring the connections between Aurora and this nanny from the sky would make an interesting essay in its own right.)

One question that I had while reading was the extent to which Hart modified the gnostic wisdom with Hart’s own Christian beliefs and insights. For example, the sense of goodness in every aspect of the fallen and “empty world” (the meaning of Kenogaia) is potent and all-pervasive. Did the gnostics have a sense that all aspects of creation are good and to be brought to fruition and that a substantial embodiment is an essential part of life within the divine pleroma? I don’t know enough about these matters to be clear. However, to give one apparent Christian idea introduced by Hart, sexual procreation is a good aspect of life among the immortals within the divine pleroma (99, 418) whereas one aspect of the Acts of Thomas (well attested by scholars) is that salvation would depend upon strict abstinence from all sexual activity. Such apparent adjustments away from gnosticism and toward a more Christian understanding of creation, may not be as pronounced as they seem in every case, but they are a welcome aspect of the story in either case.

I could go on and on. When Aurora gives her older brother Oriens the full and final explanation regarding what it will take to save this world, the echoes of Evagrius Ponticus are strong (399). Or there are nuggets such as: “You must become the labyrinth in which you wander” (107). However, to give more examples of what I appreciated in Kenogaia, would lengthen this far beyond what would be appropriate to post and further violate any pretense of avoiding too many spoilers. Therefore, I will simply close by praying that many others in this lonely world of ours might one day also enjoy the blessing of reading this story out loud with their loved ones, starting in the weeks of the Nativity Fast or Advent.

What Hart Loves About Gnosticism

So why has Orthodox Christian scholar David Bentley Hart written a gnostic tale? Briefly, Hart believes that the nihilism of modernity is best treated with the antidote of ancient gnosticism. Starting in September 2021, Hart argued in a series of essays for his Leaves in the Wind newsletter that “modernity at its most truly nihilistic is in very great part the effect of the final expulsion of any genuinely gnostic spiritual disquiet from the consciousness of the Christian West” and that this lost of any gnostic spiritual disquiet in the West is high among the “causes that allowed secular modernity to evolve out of early modern Christendom.”

Hart is among a varied group of scholars that consider modernity to be a Christian heresy, and Hart has specifically argued that the nihilism of modernity has at its heart a final and complete loss of gnostic spiritual disquiet from within Western Christianity. This is the opposite instinct of most other Christian cultural analysis in recent years who have labeled as neo-gnostic a variety of trans-humanist trends such as the hope to migrate human consciousness into a virtual reality. For example, Rod Dreher made this case in “Our Neo-Gnostic World” (The American Conservative, February 2021). While avoiding use of Dreher’s name with a kind of playful truculence, Hart explains that—although he can understand this line of thought from Dreher—it is getting things almost entirely backwards. Hart unpacks this a little in “Our Age is Most Definitely Not ‘Gnostic: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part One” on his Leaves in the Wind newsletter (Substack, Sep 3, 2021):

[Dreher] was vaguely aware that the ancient gnostics had a malign view of the material cosmos and of flesh, he assumed that their chief desire was to be delivered from embodiment as such, in order to assume the condition of “pure intellect,” and that their understanding of “pure intellect” must be something along the lines of mental activity divorced from corporeality. Moreover, he clearly had only a very indistinct notion of what kind of eternal life those ancient gnostics longed for.

…In fact, the transhumanist’s dream would have been the worst imaginable nightmare to those who belonged to the late antique gnostic sects—the very image of hell. For one thing, far from simply longing for pure incorporeality, they almost certainly hoped to escape from “this present evil world” by assuming a higher, mightier, deathless corporeality, a spiritual or ethereal frame, thereby eluding the powers that hold sway over the elements of this death-bound cosmos. In this, they were as one with the large majority of their religious contemporaries, pagan, Jewish, Christian, or what have you. Just about no one in the late antique Graeco-Roman world ever conceived of a wholly disembodied existence as a good or even possible thing for finite beings; but, by the same token, just about no one thought of the carnal body as something to be gladly affirmed, or as something worthy of eternity. Again, Paul himself says as much in no uncertain terms.

…It is a passion for truth in its eternal splendor, a longing for spiritual deliverance from all illusion, as well as a yearning to be freed from the merely successive time of death (chronos) and granted entry into the fully realized divine aeonian time above, where the redeemed spirit might come to know the divine fullness (the pleroma) in its true glory. It is the longing for reconciliation with the one true God, beyond the heavens of the fallen order. Far from being a desire for mere personal immortality, it is a hunger for communion with the divine, even if it is also encumbered by a tragic sense of all the malignant powers around us that seek to prevent that communion from coming to pass.

As a religion scholar and a classicist, Hart has given substantial consideration to gnosticism, and he has written about it for decades. While consistently pointing out its chief flaw as its failure to represent the extent how this fallen world still participates faithfully with the good creation of God (i.e. gnositicm’s lack of a participatory metaphysics or its tendency toward absolute dualism), Hart has also long maintained that Christians (especially in the Western Latin traditions) have tragically lost contact with a healthy gnostic disquiet that pervades their own New Testament. This is really best related directly by Hart from his Substack online newsletter (“Whose Orthodoxy? Which Gnosticism?: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part Three” Sep 17, 2021):

To begin with, we should learn to regard the “gnostic” schools of the early Christian centuries not as outlandish cults with no natural affinities to the church of the apostles, but instead as extreme expressions—bedizened with often tediously opulent mythologies, some perhaps only allegorical, many perhaps not—of a dualistic theological register already present, in only slightly more restrained form, in the New Testament, and most especially in the Pauline corpus and fourth gospel.  Much of what we think of as the general “gnostic” narrative is merely scriptural.  It tells of a cosmic dispensation under the reign of the god of this aeon (2 Corinthians 4:4) or the Archon of this cosmos (John 14:30; Ephesians 2:2) or the “Evil One” (1 John 5:19).  It tells of spiritual beings hopelessly immured within heavenly spheres thronged by hostile archons and powers and principalities and daemons (Romans 8:3, 39; 1 Corinthians 10:20–21; 15:24; Ephesians 1:21; etc.), bound under and cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic or archontic powers (Galatians 3:10–11, 19–20). It claims that into this prison of spirits, this darkness that knows nothing of the true light (John 1:5), a divine savior has descended from the Aeon above (John 3:31; 8:23; etc.), bringing with him a knowledge that has been hidden from before the ages (Romans 16:25–26; Galatians 1:12; Ephesians 3:3–9; Colossians 1:26), a secret wisdom unknown even to “the archons of this cosmos” (1 Corinthians 2:7–8) that has the power to liberate fallen spirits (John 8:31–32, etc.). Now, supposedly, those blessed persons who possess “gnosis” (1 Corinthians 8:7; 13:2) constitute something of an exceptional company, “spiritual persons” (πνευματικοί), who enjoy a knowledge of the truth denied to the merely “psychical” (ψυχικοί) among us (1 Corinthians 2:12-16; 14:36; Galatians 6:1; Jude 19). It tells us also that, by his triumph over the cosmic archons (1 Corinthians 15:24-28), this savior has subdued the powers in the celestial spheres above and opened a path to God’s true heaven, and that now no spiritual adversary or gulf of cosmic separation can separate us from our true home above, in the shelter of God’s love (Romans 8:38–39).

The letter to the Ephesians is practically a primer in this sort of agonistic cosmic soteriology: Christ has been seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, “far above every Rule and Authority and Power and Lordship” with “all things ordered under his feet” (1:20-22), having taken the hostile Powers captive as he ascended through the heavens (4:8-10); he has, moreover, emancipated us from the “Archon of the Power of the air” (2:2), so as to set us alongside himself in the heavenly places (2:6); and even now he is revealing God’s plan to these vanquished celestial Archons and Powers through his church (3:10); and, until the consummation of all things, Christians must continue in this life to contend “not against blood and flesh, but against the Archons, against the Powers, against the Cosmic Rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the celestial places” (6:12).

Where the gnostic versions of this tale clearly diverge from the orthodox is in their amplification of the New Testament’s provisional or qualified dualism into a complete ontological schism—a complete denial that creation has any natural relation to God at all, even in his eternal intentions. Not only is lower reality the work of a lesser or intermediary kind of divinity; its very existence is one of alienation from God. As a result, here in the land of unlikeness, below the turning spheres of the planetary heavens, all is governed by cosmic fate, εἱμαρμένη, rather than by divine providence; and, far from entering into or (as F.C. Baur and others claimed) achieving his essence through creation, in time, by way of a fall and return, the true God of the “gnostics” is so far beyond the reach of cosmic eventuality that this world must be seen as having no ontological relation to him at all, not even of the most tenuously analogical variety. In place of something like the Platonic μεταξύτης, the mediating metaphysical interval between the transcendent and the immanent, and of the metaphysics of participation this interval of difference permitted, these schools provided only a mythology of absolute estrangement, a grand epic of exile and ruin followed by rescue and restoration.

When Hart distinguishes between Platonic tradition (with a healthy metaphysics of participation) and gnosticism (with a lack of any such participatory idea), he is joined by other scholars. For example, Stephen R. L. Clark writes in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy:

Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’. Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)

While Christianity, like Platonism, insisted upon maintaining a sacramental understanding of creation, what is often forgotten by many Christians is that Christianity also advocated an orthodox gnosticism. When Irenaeus so thoroughly confronts the various forms of “false gnosticism” in his day, he is doing so in defense of a true gnosticism. Within the patristic witness we see this perhaps most clearly in what Evagrius Ponticus teaches about a true gnosis that we can acquire by learning to see reality without interference from the clouds of passion (the distortions introduced by agner or acquisitiveness). Evagrius describes an angelic knowing and a demonic knowing, with human knowing being capable of trending in either direction (see chapter 3 of Looking East in Winter by Rowan Williams for an explanation and defense of Evagrius and Christian gnosis). This is a tradition picked up and developed by Maximus the Confessor as well and connected to our human capacities as subcreators. Here is an summary of this idea transcribed from comments by Jordan Daniel Wood (in conversation here with David Armstrong):

For Maximus’s metaphysics, …what you can do (which is at once an amazing but also harrowing idea) is that you can fundamentally imagine something and try to bring it into being by lending your very life or existence or self to it which is what makes sin so difficult and what makes, say, Evagrius’ instructions about the thoughts so essential, which is why [Maximus] keeps all that. Because you need to know what sort of fantasy, what sort of a nightmare, you might be laboring consciously or not to bring into being. It’s not just a problem in your mind, but it’s really a part of the world. He says (and Origen and Gregory of Nyssa and all of them say) that’s why not everything that appears is a work of God. So you can experience something, right, that is actually a figment of your own imagination, but because you try to bring into being it doesn’t rest a mere figment it becomes—even if incompletely or inadequately—it becomes in some sense a phenomena, an illicit one that God never wills. So his theory of evil is going to be a little more complicated than just privation, although that’s part of it.

…So there’s something about experiencing which is also fundamentally active. In an almost metaphysical or ontological sense, you’re never simply experiencing something utterly external to you because you’re also always interpreting it and reacting to it simultaneously. Your very interpretation [as well as] what [action you take] in some sense contributes to the phenomenon being constructed.

One other author (an Orthodox scholar like Hart) who has written about this is Olivier Clément in Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition:

In contemplation, the “gnosis of reality,” *ta onta*, corresponds to the Platonic cosmos noetos, which St. Maximus the Confessor calls the “eternity of eons.” Proportion, truth, the unchangeable structures of the cosmos, the geometry that orders creation, the symphony of mathematical rhythm, are all stable and immutable and they confer coherence and intelligibility on the perceived universe. Time and eon are facets of one another: the eon is immobile time, and time is the eon measured out in movement. The world of visible things is, in fact, immobile in its nature, in its order, and in its persistence. One substance never leaves its natural domain to change into another or to become admixed. And yet the material world is a perpetual flux and reflux. When, in contemplation, “the world of sense perception is perceived as entirely and gnostically immanent to the whole intelligible world,” the universe ceases to be exterior to the contemplative. “The purified heart becomes an inner heaven with its own sun, its moon and its stars” (Philothea of Syria, On Sobriety). However, this state of complete interiorization, in which the intellect rejoins its “true state,” is not knowledge of true eternity. Evagrius’s abstract teaching on the gnosis of the absolute, gnosis ousiodes, which is very close to the Hindu teaching on the “escape from time,” was both absorbed and surpassed by the great ascetic Orthodox teachings. In the Philokalia one anonymous father says, “the noûs will be perfect when it has completely brought down the gnosis ousiodes.” The eternity of the eons is not in fact divine eternity. Paradoxically, the eternity of the eons is part of creation. Lossky writes, “the intelligible is not eternal: it has its beginning in secular time, in the eons, in the passage from non-being into being.”

For St. Maximus, the world is “the closed house” in which time is reflected in the eon and the eon in time, whose perfect center lies in the “ex-centric” transcendence of God. “God is above all beings, those that circumscribe and those that are circumscribed, because He is beyond any interdependence.” Divine eternity transcends both the constant change characteristic of time and the immutability characteristic of the eon. “God is not changed in any way: nor is He stillness, as this can only be ascribed to a circumscribed being whose nature has a beginning.” Apophatic silence bars us from envisioning the Living God according to the cold eternal progression of mathematical laws.

…The Living God contains all that is positive of temporal existence. He both reconciles and surpasses stasis and kinesis. On the cross, the Eternal-become-Temporal draws into himself all that is negative in temporal existence. This act not only annihilates all that is negative but also inverts its meaning, saturating the negative with light, so that henceforth “the glory as of the only Son from the Father” is conveyed in time through all aspects of temporal existence. Thus time is revealed not as opposition to eternity but as the vessel chosen by God to receive and communicate the truth of eternity. In this regard, Cullmann correctly notes that the atemporality of the Platonic conception of eternity is completely inconsistent with the history of salvation. True eternity cannot be the negation of temporal existence, since through time the Eternal chose to reveal himself. Man cannot open himself to the eternity of God by turning his back on temporal existence. The encounter with the eternal ripens in time, through the lived moments of hope, faith, and love. These moments are both fully in time and fully eternal, just as Christ is both wholly God and wholly man.

…For one person to give himself to another, he must be received. Thus contained within a personal God, eternity is inserted into history as the most beautiful gift of love. The one who in the radiance of his nature is always present had to patiently follow the path of history in order to be welcomed as man. “The following question deserves sustained inquiry; how can that which is always present come into the world?” The presentness of the divine energies becomes waiting and expectation. Such is the mystery of the “acceptable time” of the kairos prepared by the Lord and enacted by the Son and the Holy Spirit, the mystery of those moments when he who is always present comes to meet mankind.

David Bentley Hart is clearly far from the only one advocating a re-engagement, first, with the understanding of our world and our current historical time as tragically fallen as well as, second, with a Christian gnosis that allows us to see the goodness of God’s eternal creation as it is accomplished by Christ on the cross even within our fallen world. And after reading Kenogaia, I agree that I’ve seen no better way to fight the lifeless, calculating and mechanistic world of modernity than with a heavy antidote of classical gnosticism at its most radiantly luxuriant. As J.R.R. Tolkien has made bitterly clear, the elves cannot return to Middle Earth once they have sailed, and I do not think that the secular disenchantments of our shared world can ever be undone on this side of eternity. However, if anything might help us to remember and to care for the goodness that we still have the eyes to see, it is a vision such as this one that Hart has provided with the story of Kenogaia’s salvation.

Drawing by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Composition (Veiled Woman), 1907.

6 thoughts on “Kenogaia: What Did My Family Think (and Does Modernity Need an Antidote of Gnosticism)?

  1. Thanks for that!
    For the record Travers met Gurdjieff in Paris and was apparently quite influenced by him – and in the film ‘Meetings with Remarkable Men’ (based on Gurdjieff’s memoir) one can see a Yazidic boy trapped in a circle drawn on the ground…it’s a small world 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought the characters in the latter half of the book anything but wooden. They were positively Dickensian. Dr. Glumgum is my hero. Sr. Galera is my nightmare.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Speaking of Hart and Tolkien, have you read the dialogue between the elvin king and human wise-woman, Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth? It seems to me that one gets a glimpse of a different Tolkienian mythology for humankind in Middle-Earth that insinuates humankind was not made for death and that even the elves, who would pass away with the world, might yet be saved through humanity. There is even a hint of ‘Gnosticism’ in Tolkien’s suggestion that we (humans) were always to be mere guests in this world. I have not found many good philosophical discussions of the text-which should have closed out the Silmarillion. But it has intriguing similarities with Kenogaia. I enjoyed Hart’s novel but it was a bit blunt at times. Tolkien’s text feels like a desparate search for understanding and hope-perhaps this is fitting for neither Oriens, nor Christ has yet come to Middle Earth.


    1. Yes, I’ve read Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth a couple times. Your thoughts are excellent and have planning to read it again. Thanks for sharing!


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