GNOSTICISM EXAMINED

–Epinoia Cesare, 1999

INTRODUCTION AND HISTORY

“The winners in history determine the outcome,” says Elaine Pagels, doctorate in religion from Harvard and now the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton. History certainly supports the Orthodox Christians, who eventually became the Catholics. However, often times the means to their end are not entirely promoting the pursuit of “higher truth” or universal “higher good” which underlies all of existence. Perhaps their tactics are necessary in order to allow the softer elements of human nature to be preserved in a more clandestine manner. The gradual formation of the Catholic Church, based fundamentally on the Pistic, or Orthodox, traditions of early Christianity, essentially beat the Gnostics for the primary Western religious doctrine. However, this ‘win’ may have been necessary in order to preserve and foster at least some, and possibly all, of the overall Christian ideologies.

ORTHODOX VERSUS GNOSTIC

In this case, the Orthodox members often lambasted their own ilk, known as the Gnostics, who were then referred to as the “heretics,” which literally means anyone who believes something other than your doctrines. The Pistics startlingly (or at least ironically) were dedicated followers of Justin Martyr, from which our modern day term comes. One of the hallmarks of the Orthodoxy was self-incrimination during the Roman rule, a practice the Gnostics shied away from in order to preserve their people (and selves!) The Romans weren’t particularly threatened by the Christians at this time but would placate certain others who wanted the Christians stopped. So they adopted a pseudo “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, and if convicted they wanted the disrupters to deny involvement and they would be set free. If not, they were sentenced to awful deaths. The Pistics made it fashionable to accept the fate of death, utilizing the logic that “Jesus did it for us, now us for him.” Since the Gnostics did not play into this aspect, as well as other more fundamentally philosophical principles, the Orthodoxy saw the Gnostics as heretics (I’d almost look at this statement alone as totally ironic!)

The Gnostics practiced different teachings of a more personal, mystical, and some would say eastern manner. For them knowledge derived from personal experience was much more important than blind faith, and personal salvation was much more important than human and spiritual authority. Later, as the orthodoxy grew in power and magnitude, the deacons, bishops and priests mandated the destruction of all original gnostic theology. The Nag Hammadi scrolls, not found until 1945 and written during the New Testament era, include Gospels and Apocrypha attributed to several Apostles, including some profoundly mystical writings attributed to Thomas, Philip, John, and Peter. Historically, the Gospel of John almost did not make the New Testament it could have gone either way. Therefore the Nicene council placed the Gospel after Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John’s book often has been referred to as one of the more esoteric writings within the orthodoxy.

Through time the Pistic (Orthodox) movement became stronger and more powerful. Social costs accompanied this growth, however, which too are part of sociological human nature: the desire for power, authority, money, and other less desirable ends. However, there probably are certain elements within society who relish in these characteristics. And these qualities may be necessary to “move the masses,” as unfortunate as this reality may be. To a certain degree, the Gnostics and Pistics, respectively, could be the Yin to the other’s Yang. The Gnostics were singular or individual in their preachings, striving for personal peace or enlightenment, avoiding the “noise” which clutters humanity’s collective mind into the darker, more animalistic, more admonishing behaviors of power and authority.

The Pistics are the sort who act as either oppressor or victim, leader or follower, deriving their own personal energy from their “standing”—be it power, money, status, or any other gauge with which to measure—when compared vis-à-vis their other societal members. However, this movement may have been necessary for Catholicism, and thus Christianity in general, to become a world force. To think that this almost went unchallenged in the Western World (ex the Byzantines!) until Henry VIII of England. One other aspect of Christianity which too needs some historical context is how the Eastern, Byzantine Christian religion successfully fostered its own ‘variety’ for well over 1000 years. However, this denomination was more Pistic given the Emperor’s omnipotence, although the religion is known to be much more mystical. Interestingly, the Byzantine Empire seems to be the “lost empire” in the Western World, ironically the powerful remnant of the Roman Empire—and interestingly the citizens always referred to themselves as Romans. Without the Byzantines, surely all the works of the Greeks would have been lost in the general academic / spiritual / philosophical battle. Why we (collective Western society) don’t study this empire more is baffling to me. Why they did not save more Gnostic works is also curious considering they saved the Greek’s (and given their proximity to Egypt, which actually was part of their empire for some time.)

THE NAG HAMMADI SCROLLS

The Nag Hammadi scrolls were found in Egypt in a pottery jar that was hidden through time for about 1000-1500 years; they have been authenticated. They include John’s “other” works. As writer Elaine Pagels summarizes at the end of her book The Gnostic Gospels, “Had [these scrolls] been found 1000 years earlier, the gnostic texts almost certainly would have been burned for their heresy. But they remained hidden until the twentieth century, when our own cultural experience has given us a new perspective on the issues they raise.” Interestingly, the last paragraph of the Apocryphon According to John states: “And the savior presented these things to him that he might write them down and keep them secure. And he said to him, ‘Cursed be everyone who will exchange these things for a gift or for food or for drink or for clothing or for any other such thing.’ And these things were presented to him in a mystery, and immediately he disappeared from him. And he went to his fellow disciples and related to them what the savior had told him.”

GNOSTIC BELIEFS

The gnostic tradition seems to be an extraordinary marriage of Western and Eastern concepts, conveyed by what is portrayed as a more mystical, spiritual Jesus Christ. In essence, the gnostics’s creed is an interesting mix of traditional Christian and Jewish doctrines, Greek philosophy, astrology, mystery religions, and eastern religions. According to some of the writings, Christ existed not necessarily first as a human being, then to transform to Divine, spiritual energy, but one who transcended both realms simultaneously (this philosophical argument reminds me of modern-day Bertrand Russell’s quest to answer the basic questions—When a tree falls in the woods does it make a noise? When I see a chair is that what I see or its molecular make up which is just an illusion? Under this mode of thought, both states exist simultaneously on different planes of existence.) Still other believers saw him as a messenger from God (or the Universe) to convey the true principles, similar to Buddha, and once his “mouth is drunk from” the drinker shall become equal with, or one with, him, and/or universal energy or enlightenment. The former school of thought is more Western, possibly encroaching in on the Byzantine mysticism, and the latter more eastern.

In some ways, actually, the gnostics transcend this power struggle and thus remind me more of a true universal order. Therefore, in spiritual terms they are actually higher than the highest of Pistics, or Catholics. They know and therefore they are. They are part of and simultaneously fuel the universe’s energy. They escape the animalistic tendencies, to a degree, of the darker elements of human nature. They are largely individualistic, although not necessarily alone. Much knowledge and mental discipline is necessary to attain their state, as is the case with Buddhism and Tao’ism.

Furthermore, the modern philosopher / psychiatrist CG Jung thought the gnostics expressed “the other side of the mind” in their beliefs and teachings – the emotions, spontaneous, unconscious thoughts that any orthodoxy requires its members to suppress (from Pagels). I love this aspect. This perhaps too is where a lot of the mystical associations arise. Furthermore, many of the beliefs of collective 19th century psychology, sociology, and anthropology fit nicely, if not directly, into this religious school of thought. In fact even some of the often thought ‘trivial’ schools fit as well—those of astrology, which essentially is a metaphysical solution for figuring out the answer to “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” once one digs deeper, beyond daily horoscopes, into the utter foundations of this school (which I may add are extremely thought provoking, to say the least). One particularly interesting quotation from The Nag Hammadi, Gospel of Thomas:

“If you bring forth what is within you, you bring forth what will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

And another from Allogenes:

“[I was] very disturbed, and [I] turned to myself…[Having] seen the light that [surrounded] me and the good that was within me, I became divine.”

And my personal favorite, from the Apocryphon According to John:

“And I said to the savior, “Lord, will all the souls then be brought safely into the pure light?” He answered and said to me, “Great things have arisen in your mind, for it is difficult to explain them to others except to those who are from the immovable race. Those on whom the Spirit of Light will descend and (with whom) he will be with the power, they will be saved and become perfect and be worthy of the greatness and be purified in that place from all wickedness and the involvements in evil. Then they have no other care than the incorruption alone, to which they direct their attention from here on, without anger or envy or jealousy or desire and greed of anything. They are not affected by anything except the state of being in the flesh alone, which they bear while looking expectantly for the time when they will be met by the receivers (of the body). Such then are worthy of the imperishable, eternal life and the calling. For they endure everything and bear up under everything, that they may finish the good fight and inherit eternal life.”

According to Pagels, from the Gospel of Truth, “the process of self discovery begins as a person experiences the ‘anguish and terror’ of the human condition, as if lost in a fog or haunted in sleep by terrifying nightmares.” Everything now simply exists, and if individuals choose to channel themselves into the appropriate state, and thus energy, enlightenment is possible. Of course, significant mental discipline, and probably a good moral character, will help one on his or her journey.

A BRIEF ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Pistics certainly argue that, within this context, humanity as an aggregate needs to be “shown the way” and through the eventual development of its own power structures, assumed its own order, which historically through the middle ages was remarkably similar to that created by the Roman Empire; many would argue given Constantine’s conversion that the church actually just assumed such an order. And they indeed may have been correct. The Gnostics relied more on a Greek model, perhaps Athenian, one which valued the elements of the universe—earth, air, fire, and water—as well as universal order, and our ‘participation’ in this grand scheme (note the nice fit here with astrology). Once one connects him or herself into this universal energy, enlightenment or self actualization is the outcome; if all collective members participate, universal order prevails, and this is akin to the “heaven on earth” principles that Jesus and the Gnostics taught. However, common man may not be able to take the necessary steps without being told what to do and how to do it: (Pagels) “The Gnostic saw him or herself as ‘one out of 1000, two out of 10000,’ the Pistic (Orthodox) experienced him or herself as one member of the common human family, and as one member of a universal church.”

The gnostics may have taken the Greek model one step further stating that human nature, humanity, or anthropos, is this universal energy. Thus, Jesus is known even within Catholicism as the “Son of Man.” Perhaps this belief is too egocentric. However, in my opinion, although possibly guided by some interestingly different means, the ultimate end sought by both groups (the Greeks and the gnostics, let alone the Buddhists and the Taoists) in time was the same. Given this argument, the ultimate end, or oneness with god, or the ‘source’, is the same end sought by both the pistics and the gnostics, although God takes on a remarkably different role and essence. Of course the means are quite different for each. Does the end justify the means in all cases? Obviously, the ‘answer’ to this age- old philosophical question will vary by person and has been debated since the dawn of humanity. However, the ‘heaven on earth’ principle is possible within each and every one of us, and has even made it into both the canonical Gospels of Luke & Matthew.

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