An ancient modern confusion
A primer on the heresy of Gnosticism
by Ken Myers
Strictly speaking, gnosticism is a movement that emerged or coalesced in the first two centuries of the Christian era. The church fathers of the second and third centuries (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, and Tertullian) all show great concern with the gross errors of gnosticism, and many New Testament scholars believe that Paul is confronting a proto-gnostic heresy in Colossians (hence his insistence that in Christ all things were created), and that John's Gospel (the Word was made flesh) and the Johannine epistles contain material intended to battle a way of explaining Christ's ministry that devalues (or denies) the reality of the Incarnation and the goodness of the material world. Moreover, the healing miracles of Jesus, which, far from delivering people from bodily existence, restored a measure of goodness to the material aspects of their lives.
Gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge, and gnosticism is so named because of the centrality of knowledge in its understanding of salvation. One reason that modern culture has been called gnostic is because of the assumption (focused in the centrality of scientific knowledge in our culture) that knowledge will liberate us from all our suffering.
Ancient Near East historian Edwin Yamauchi, author of Pre-Christian Gnosticism:A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1973), wrote the entry on Gnosticism for the first edition of the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. In that essay, Yamauchi writes:
In Gnostic systems there is an ontological dualism—an opposition between an ineffable, transcendent God and an ignorant, obtuse demiurge (often a caricature of the OT Jehovah), who is the creator of the cosmos. [Christians who seem to believe that the 'God of the Old Testament' and Jesus are somehow distinct or at odds are essentially accepting Gnostic assumptions, characteristic of the first great heretic Marcion] In some systems the creation of the material world results from the fall of Sophia. [Note that it is Creation that causes the moral crisis, not the Fall!] The material creation is viewed as evil. Sparks of divinity, however, have been encapsuled in the bodies of certain pneumatics destined for salvation. These pneumatics [i.e., spiritual ones] are ignorant of their celestial origins. God sends down to them a redeemer, often a docetic Christ [i.e., not an incarnate Christ], who brings them salvation in the form of a secret gnosis. Thus awakened, the pneumatics escape from their fleshly bodies at death and traverse the planetary spheres of hostile demons and are reunited with the deity. Since salvation is not dependent upon behavior but upon the knowledge of an innate pneumatic nature [that is, awareness that deep down, you are really God!], some Gnostics manifested extremely libertine behavior. They held that they were 'pearls' who could not be sullied by any external 'mud.' On the other hand, many Gnostics took a radically ascetic attitude toward marriage, deeming the creation of woman the origin of evil and the procreation of children but the multiplication of souls in bondage to the powers of darkness.
An essay by Dr. Yamauchi entitled Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in Recent Debate is available on-line at http://www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_gnosticism_yamauchi.html.
Back in 1997, we featured (on volume 25 of what was then called the Mars Hill Tapes) two interviews in which I discussed gnosticism more explicitly. On that tape, we played part of a TV commercial for internet access that spoke of a place where people communicate mind to mind, a place where there is no race, no genders, no age or infirmities. Only minds. Utopia? someone asks. No, we're warmly assured. The Internet, where minds, doors and lives open up.
There was a gnostic appeal in this commercial for Internet access services. The Internet, we were assured, was a dreamy, perfect (if virtual) place because it is purely mental. There are no bodies. But is a place without bodies really a good place? On gnostic terms, it is indeed.
Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that the Creation is good, but fallen, that God took human flesh without sin, and that we all await eagerly the resurrection of our bodies. The church is called alternatively the Body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ, both metaphors rooted in materiality. The people of God are defined and sustained by baptism, a dramatic in-body experience, and by sharing in a meal of body and blood.
All this physicality is repulsive to gnostics, whether ancient or modern. As I said above, the gnostic alternative to Christian orthodoxy, an alternative which despises bodily existence, seems to be the perennial theological error, perpetually attractive even to devout Christian believers. It is, after all, comforting to believe that an innocent, endlessly interesting, and powerful self is buried within us, awaiting liberation when we abandon our space-time containers. It is appealing to believe that our perfection requires no repentance, merely some act of detaching. The dream of pure consciousness, life as bug-free software without dust-collecting hardware. No age, no genders, only minds.
In his 1992 book The American Religion, literary critic Harold Bloom observed that gnostic assumptions and desires have colored much of American religious experience and expression, even some of its most apparently Christian forms. In the pragmatic and experiential faith defined by the Second Great Awakening, Bloom finds something very much akin to gnosticism. What was missing in all this quite private luminosity, he writes, was simply most of historic Christianity. Bloom continues, I hasten to add that I am celebrating, not deploring, when I make that observation. Harold Bloom, best known for his celebrated work in literary criticism, is, it turns out, a professing gnostic, of the most serious sort, as his 1996 book Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (Riverhead Books) made very clear. The last chapter in the book is, in Bloom's own terms, a gnostic Sermon, it amounts to a gnostic altar call.
In Bloom's reading, gnostic seeds have found fertile soil in North America. The ideas of inner divinity and of power and salvation through knowledge are quite at home here. Whereas ancient gnosticism was a system for elites, American gnosticism is popular with the masses.
In his book Bloom follows traditional gnostic belief by speaking of creation and fall as identical, isolating an important difference between orthodox Christian belief and a gnostic understanding. For gnostics, existence in space and time is a tragic decline from what we could be enjoying as part of the godhead. Where Genesis 1 shows an almighty Creator pronouncing a benediction on what He has called into being, in gnosticism, the Supreme Deity can have no interest in the corrupt trifle of Creation. As Philip Lee has summarized it (in his book Against the Protestant Gnostics), The ancient gnostic, looking at the world through despairing eyes, saw matter in terms of decay, place in terms of limitation, time in terms of death. In light of this tragic vision, the logical conclusion seemed to be that the cosmos itself—matter, place, time, change, body, and everything seen, heard, touched or smelled—must have been a colossal error.
Here's a passage from Harold Bloom's Omens of Millennium: In the Gnostic view, the God of the organized Western faiths is an imposter, no matter what name he assumes. His act of usurpation masked itself by renaming the original Fullness as the Abyss, or chaos, and by obscenely naming the Fall into division as the Creation. A divine degradation presents itself as a benign act, Gnosticism begins in the repudiation of this act, and in the knowledge that freedom depends upon a return to what preceded the Creation-Fall. Now we are forlorn, suffering from homesickness and dread, most frequently called 'depression.' Yet from a Gnostic perspective, our trauma is shock, having been thrown, we are stunned, and being victims of the lie, we forget what it is that we know. Knowledge ultimately is of the oldest part of your own deepest self, and that is knowledge of the best of your self. The Creation could not alter that best part, a spark in you even now is healed, original, pure. This spark is also a seed, and from it springs the unwavering Gnosis, which makes us free of what most men and women go on calling God, though the angel they worship as God is a poor ruin, dehumanized.
Philip Lee's helpful book Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford University Pres, 1987) contains some very helpful analysis of ancient gnostic beliefs and how their equivalents are found in modern Protestantism. Lee points out that one of gnosticism's most basic assumptions is the tragedy that anything was ever created. This highlights the distinctiveness of the Christian belief that God made something that was not God, and it was still good.
As Lee observes, for the gnostic (a word he uses in lower case), The material world itself is the result of a cosmic faux pas, a temporary disorder. . . . The ancient gnostic, looking at the world through despairing eyes, saw matter in terms of decay, place in terms of limitation, time in terms of death. In light of this tragic vision, the logical conclusion seemed to be that the cosmos itself—matter, place, time, change, body, and everything seen, heard, touched or smelled—must have been a colossal error. [p. 8] And so, The gnostic escape, in the last analysis, is an attempt to escape from everything except the self. [p. 9f.]
Note that modernity has been often described as elevating the self to the center of the moral universe. Sociologist Daniel Bell has argued that the dominant theme that characterizes the modern mentality is The rejection of a revealed order or natural order, and the substitution of the individual—the ego, the self—as the lodestar of consciousness. What we have here is the social reversal of the Copernican revolution: if our planet is no longer the center of the physical universe and our earthly habitat is diminished in the horizons of nature, the ego/self takes the throne as the center of the moral universe, making itself the arbiter of all decisions. There are no doubts about the moral authority of the self, that is simply taken as a given. The only question is what constitutes fulfillment of the self. [Resolving the Contradictions of Modernity and Modernism (Society: March/April 1990, pp. 43-50)]
If indeed modernity has crafted for us a culture of narcissism, a society in which universally high self-esteem matters more than honoring the order God has established in Creation, then we live in a society that has much in common with gnosticism.
Philip Lee also observes that gnostics, in addition to distancing God from creation, had to distance Christ from human flesh. Valentinus spoke of Christ passing through the Virgin Mary as 'through a canal.' Christ himself is credited with a body which is nonterrestrial: It was by his unremitting self-denial in all things that Jesus attained to Godship, he ate and drank in a peculiar manner, without any waste. The power of continence was so great in him that his food did not decay in him, for he himself was without decay. [p. 17]
Because nothing is quite so earthy (or quite so supportive of continuing earthiness) as sexuality, it is not hard to understand why the gnostics did everything they could to interpret Holy Writ in an antisexual way. Some of their allegorizing efforts in this regard are mind-boggling. The Jordan River, for example, symbolized sexual intercourse. Both Joshua and Jesus, they claimed, were able to interrupt its flow—Joshua temporarily when he crossed over dry-shod with the children of Israel and Jesus permanently at his baptism. Jesus' baptism in the Jordan symbolized the beginning of a type of birth which would make carnal begetting obsolete. Once Christ is able to introduce a new form of birth, there is then hope for an end to this dreadful error called cosmos. [p. 18]
As further evidence of the antisexual bias of gnosticism, Lee cites The Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, which ends with these words: Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her, in order 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.' [Lee, p. 138] Somehow Dan Brown missed this passage in his effort in The Da Vinci Code to divinize Mary Magdalen as the focal point of the sacred feminine.
There have been in the past few decades many efforts to resurrect gnostic beliefs as an alternative to historic Christian teaching. Some of those efforts are discussed in The Rebirth of Gnosticism: The Secret Path to Self-salvation, which is chapter 8 in James A. Herrick's fine book, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (InterVarsity Press, 2003). See also Carl A. Raschke's The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness (Nelson-Hall, 1980). Studies of ancient gnosticism include the classic work The Gnostic Religion (Beacon, 1963) by Hans Jonas. A more recent book by Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (HarperSanFrancisco, 1987) is regarded as a worthy successor.
More significant than the explicit and self-confessed gnostics are those gnostic leanings in modern and postmodern culture, and the writers who have discussed this theme are legion. The gnostic desires evident in our love of technology is discussed in Erik Davis's TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony Books). Excerpts from his book are on-line at: http://www.techgnosis.com/techgnosis/tgexcerpts.html.
The influence of gnostic ideas on the thought of Carl Jung is explored in the article "Jungians and Gnostics" by Jeffrey Burke Satinover, available online. See also Satinover's book The Empty Self: C. G. Jung and the Gnostic Transformation of Modern Identity (Hamewith Books, 1996).