Who were the Gnostics? Christian commentators described them as dualists who pitted ‘divine spark or ‘light’ against the of the material world. Christianity painted many Gnostics as heretics for claiming to be Christ’s true followers while denying his singular divinity.
Its claim of a world as a mistake and shadow of the Christian creation myth (if not Christianity as a whole), favors a gloomy view of the world. Carl Gustav Jung warned that if societies do not attend to their collective shadow, a world crisis can result. Our era is one of failing civilizations and broken social covenants, is fraught with the dangers of unleashed economical, military and social chaos. We each can do our part to safeguard each other by understanding black swans.
Are we witnessing a rediscovery of Gnosticism? I’d say yes. Increased academic attention (beginning with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scriptures in 1945) and the ensuing popular interest have produced utter confusion. It is often difficult even to tell what is meant by the word. Not only Gnosis is gnostic, classical Gnosticism of Valentinus, Basilides, but the heretics are gnostic, the Neoplatonic too, Nazism was gnostic, Islam (at least Sufism) if not also seen of heretic origins, existentialism and psychoanalysis is gnostic too. Certainly the early C. G. Jung can be seen as one.
This metaphysical dream is utterly incompatible with Christianity. The world was made fundamentally good, as the first pages of Genesis remind us. Though Creation has been corrupted by sin, its essential goodness could not be totally destroyed; being corrupted is not the same as being completely corrupt. Both Gnostics and those Christians seeking a rapturous rescue from the world have misread the architecture: our bodies are not “prisons” to be escaped, renovated, destroyed ad lib., but temples of the Holy Spirit.
So the Corinthians heard from St. Paul, whose much-abused spirit-flesh distinction Irenaeus clarifies: “the weakness of the flesh” can be “absorbed by the strength of the Spirit”; the two may then inherit the kingdom together. Our resurrected “spiritual bodies” are not spiritual in substance, but in the sense that they are moved first by spirit and not by flesh. In the Christian metaphysical dream, matter is subordinated in order to be glorified – neither abolished nor discarded, but perfected.
But affirmations of the world’s created goodness require a leap of faith, and thus a rejection of knowing spiritualism and dogmatic materialism; the normativity of this stance tolerates neither.
Certainly it is true that gnostics who ridiculed the idea of bodily resurrection frequently devalued the body, and considered its actions (sexual acts,for example) unimportant to the “spiritual” person. According to the Gospel of Thomas, for example, Jesus says, “If spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth [the spirit] has made its home in this poverty [the body].” I have written here an here of the Chartensians in Southern France, which I consider a as typical medieval Neo-gnostic movement.
Now, any leap of faith has a mystery at its core. But the ‘mystery’ of Gnosticism is less a reasonable affirmation that can be accepted in love than a hopeless and anti-individual agnosticism, ever subject to opportunistic revision. Neo-Gnostics and cultural revolutionaries give us an imagined freedom from norms while imposing – consciously or not – worse commitments. It is the same liberty that defines the right to construct one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life – a sunny ambiguity the employed to extend the right to end and create life.
The Hypostasis of the Archons, recounting Sophia’s tale, says the universe started out “like a miscarriage.” In a world built on stillbirth from the womb of an aeon, or on the freak chance of meaningless matter from nowhere, destruction in our own mothers’ wombs just blends into the landscape. A flight to the pleroma or an escape into “pure pleasure” will not rouse us from this metaphysical nightmare. The threefold promise of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection may.
Many argue with same truth in it, however, the established Christianity, that affirmed the threefold promise is merely a cultural construction: it is in fact ‘the greatest marketing sucess a a religion viewed as a product’ or in a Jungian sense a clever use of collective archetypes some of them of Egyptian origin.
The Pauline faction, being both moralistic and power-hungry, desorted the “Christian legend” to launch history’s most successful project of mass mind-control and cultural hegemony. Meanwhile, Christ’s potentially human life with the Magdalene, had to be suppressed; his identification with Yahweh gave the project its trump card. Small bands of dissenters, however, preserved the truth – until Rom – East and West stamped them out.
Pagels, a professor at Princeton, has devoted her career to the writings of these noble Gnostic underdogs, most of which have only been re-discovered beginning in the 1940s. 2006, Pagels proclaimed that the newly found Gospel of Judas would continue “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.”
Among their most ‘diverse’ elements, Pagels observes, is a vaguely Eastern strain: “the ‘living Jesus’…speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans.” Whereas “Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator,” such that “God is wholly other,” Pagel proffers “the secret of gnosis” with more than a hint of Jung’s individation: “self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are
identical.” Jesus, no savior, is a mere “guide” showing us the way to a “spiritual understanding” rendering leader and follower “equal—even identical.”. I have written about individuation and the Self here. Gnosis is non-creedal; indeed, the events recounted in the Christian canon are anything but literally true. Belief in the Virgin Birth is an “error,” says the Gospel of Philip, and Christ’s resurrection is metaphorical: “he rose up first and [then] died.”
Self-actualization is just the beginning. Some Gnostics could even be read as bring back the supressed female spirituality – wise women. Valentinians, for example, drank not Christ’s blood in their sacraments, but a mother-spirit’s. Salvation was through “Immortal Androgynous Man”; in the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, his “female name is…‘All-Begettress Sophia’ [Wisdom].” The divine narrator of The Thunder, Perfect Mind frequently adopts a feminine voice; Sophia resurfaces as the self-awareness of a depersonalized One in the Secret Book of John, where Jesus also calls himself “Mother”. There’s a Gospel of Mary with the Magdalene as the favorite disciple, and in Philip Jesus kisses her, leaving the other disciples scandalized, or perhaps jealous. Indeed Sects devoted to these traditions were more inclusive to women and even had priestesses. So Gnostics look almost like looking for their anima (and animus).
The most exhaustive (and hostile) commentary on the early Gnostics comes from St. Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyon. On some points he confirms the popular account of their liberal practices in his condemnation of them. Gnostics would “yield themselves up to the lusts of the flesh with the utmost greediness, maintaining that carnal things should be allowed to the carnal nature, while spiritual things are provided for the spiritual.” Carpocratics even claimed that salvation demanded the experience of everything, and rather than storing up treasure in, say, virtue, it was sexual experiences they were keenest on collecting. But so what? “God,” at any rate, “does not greatly regard such matters.”
Today such a statement is hardly controversial. But the bishop levels other charges – manipulation, brainwashing, adultery, polygamy, intimidation – some of which sound like the very cultish practices we do still condemn. They also sound like charges that some pro-Gnostic writers bring against orthodox churches.
To be fair, Irenaeus is polemical in its purpose to stamp Gnosticism out. But the texts of the Gnostics themselves confirm his account more than not. Their value of women, for example, turns out to be very inconsistent. In the Gospel of Thomas, Simon demands of his guru, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Instead of reprimanding him, Jesus reassures him: “I shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” In a number of texts, “the bondage of femaleness” must be shed for “the salvation of maleness”; even metaphorical interpretations do not celebrate differences, but only obliterate them.
In fact, no one should be comfortable in any human body. Elsewhere in Thomas, Christ says that soul, flesh, and body are each “wretched.” Matter, Christ tells Mary, will all be destroyed. The Secret Book of John consistently refers to the body as a “prison” that degrades the soul, trapping it in cycles of transmigration and reincarnation so long as it lacks salvific gnosis. For Carpocratics, this belief justified the pursuit of carnal knowledge; for others, the harshest asceticism. If they were sometimes ascetics and sometimes aesthetes, it was because the body didn’t matter: anything could be justified or condemned, and almost everything was, depending on what magnified ‘light’. A sort of Gnostic dualism about the texts exists today: the bad is from the Orthodox patriarchy, whereas the good is Gnostic cafeteria ethics, wich maps well onto today’s conventional narrative.
The world a mistake
But whether Irenaeus is right damming the Gnostic myths and truth-claims the bottom line today is, their cosmology deserves a hearing. What did Gnostics teach about the world’s origins?
The Gnostic story of Creation is begins before Adam and Eve. According to this doctrine, there is an unknowable being called the “True Father.” He created a being called Sophia. It is an impersonal father-principle whose emanations filled the divine pleroma, or spiritual realm, with dyads of sexual, sentient aeons. The most important aeon – of course, it’s the wise Sophia – but because Sophia was forbidden to know the True Father, she became angry and created a monstrous god named Yaldaboath or Yahweh (the most sacred Hebrew name for God) – further in her anguish, matter fell stillborn and formless from her womb. Her torment, “by means of a defect,” produced a scheming demiurge, viler but duller than Plato’s. It then formed the universe, and with it corporeal mankind, from the undesired matter: “material substance had its beginning from ignorance and grief, and fear and bewilderment.” Philip puts it bluntly: “the world came about through a mistake.” Recalling the pre-incarnate, star-riding souls of Plato’s Timaeus, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ says we existed as “drop[s] from Light and Spirit” before being trapped in bodies; it is gnosis that breaks our chains and lets us be subsumed into the same impersonal substance of the father-principle whence our drams of divinity were drawn.
Zeitgeist and Gnostic worldviews
Yet the Zeitgeist and Gnostic worldviews share more than an ill-fitting ethical overlap and a common enemy. For, despite certain peculiarities, their metaphysical dreams of the (new) world unite them. The current world is essentially not good.Who can blame them for this view? Goodness in the material world implies a normativity and an absolute grounding in nature, to which both Gnostics and Zeitgeist are allergic. Out acts in the flesh are irrelevant at the deepest level, since matter is devoid of intrinsic value. The strictest principles we can apply are those of pleasure/pain and that of superiority/harmdoers – individuals perceived attributes. Our refuge is in surregate religion, understood as knowledge, and the sacrosanct orientation of the global will.
Perhaps the newspeak say it best. Alive, the body seems to be what matters. But while the material is denied its intrinsic worth, the mind cannot avoid immaterial experiences like choice and thought: something persists which can say, “What my body is doing is irrelevant.” Our reduction of any life to coperate and economic ressource has really chased us outside of our body, an intellectual and voluntary abstraction of the Ego from itself, the Self. And so, even alive, the body and the soul turns out not to matter.
And it matters even less when wie are in transition from life to death or vice versa. At death, or during pregnancy artifacts might as easily be used as spare parts as be patented. We are quite finished with our bodies when we die, we’re probably finished, period. Almost like the Demiurge (demigurge) starts all over again. In a time, when I have to watch a catholic priest during Chrismas Mass , pacing around the altar, and shouting five times – wir schaffen das (Yes we can), there is almost a perverse comfort in it.
 Irenaeus, Bk V, Ch. IX, 1-2.
 Hypostasis of the Archons, 94:8-19.
 Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. xii. xv-xxiii. avaiable as pdf
 Pagels. “The Gospel Truth.” New York Times. April 8, 2006.
 Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels, pp. xv-xxiii.
 Gospel of Philip 22
 Pagels, Elaine. “The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism.” New York Review of Books. November 22, 1979.
 The Secret Book of John 10 and 3, respectively.
 Gospel of Mary 5:5, Philip 59.
 Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies, Bk. I, Ch. VI, 3.
 Ibid., Bk. I, Ch. XXV, 4; Ch. XXVIII, 2.
 Gospel of Thomas 114.
 First Apocalypse of James 41:15-19; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus, 79, and commentary in Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5.8.44.
 Thomas 84, 87, 112
 Mary 4:22-23.
 Secret Book of John 23, 26; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, Ch. XXV, 4.
 Irenaeus, Book I, Ch. IV, 3.
 Ibid., Bk I, Ch. XVI, 3.
 Ibid., Bk. I, Ch. II, 3.
 Philip 105.
 Wisdom of Jesus Christ (verses unnumbered; p. 118 of the Berlin Gnostic Codex).