No gnosis?

I wonder how many of us have paused to consider that we might be Gnostics?

Many people have never heard of Gnosticism; some have come across the description “The Gnostic Gospels” to describe the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945; not translated into English until 1975, they have become famous mostly for having the first complete text of the Gospel of Thomas. Others have come across reference to the second century bishop Irenaeus who inveighed against Gnosticism and whose works are now the best source for the contents of many lost “Gnostic” books. Some recall that Simon Magus (mentioned in Acts 8:9-24) was called a Gnostic by Irenaeus and Justin Martyr; others recall that the Albigensians or Cathars who were wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade of 1208-1321 were Christian Gnostics.

So what is Gnosticism?

The roots of Gnosticism seem to lie in Neoplatonic philosophy, in Zoroastrian dualism and in Merkabah mysticism. It is difficult to describe Gnosticism completely accurately, as there have over the last two thousand years and more been many “Gnostic” groups, the traditions of which have varied; some argue that all of these are merely offshoots of a much older secret tradition.

However, classically, Gnosticism had first the characteristic that salvation (or personal fulfilment) comes from esoteric or intuitive knowledge; secret teachings and/or personal revelations. Commonly the esoteric aspect involved the reading of works of scripture using a key to symbolism which unlocked a completely different meaning from that gleaned from a straightforward reading. These concepts are commonly linked to the words “Logos” and “Sophia”. This also led to a tendency to reject central authority in favour of individual understandings.

Secondly it was normally dualist, and postulated a remote “true deity” from which came emanations; a more proximate emanation from that deity, the demiurge, was commonly regarded as the actual creator and was commonly regarded as evil, sometimes identified with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes with the Devil or Satan.

Thirdly, Gnostics were either seriously ascetic or completely self-indulgent; in either case this flowed from a contempt for the irredeemably flawed material world; for them the unseen higher world of spirit was pure and true, the material world was debased and valueless.

Fourthly, Gnostics had a huge tendency to produce extremely variant readings of passages of scripture, sometimes diametrically opposed to the overt reading. This was particularly irritating to the early Church, because Gnostics could nod and agree to things which they actually interpreted completely differently from the expected way. Much as Conservative and Historical-Critical Bible scholars end up with completely different readings…

The works of the New Testament may well already display Gnostic thinking. In particular, Mark refers to keeping teachings secret and to additional secret teachings, the Fourth Gospel starts with a completely emanationist prologue and continues with a theology drawn from Philo of Alexandria with an emphasis on Logos and Sophia. Paul certainly talks of levels of understanding, outer and inner knowledge, and talks of Christ living in him, which plays to concepts of gnosis.

Irenaeus wrote the first major Christian attack on Gnosticism, commonly called “Adversus Haereses”, otherwise “On the detection and overthrow of the so-called Gnosis” in around 180. There have been multiple attacks by the Church since then on people identified as Gnostics – the Valentinians, the Bogomils and the Albigensians are obvious candidates. Most of these have involved major persecution.

Now I have a degree of sympathy for the Gnostics over the ages, not least because the Church has tended to anathematise, kill and massacre them while the alleged Gnostics have normally merely tried to spread their beliefs. Their characterisation of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the evil demiurge is entirely understandable to me; a vengeful and capricious tyrant with no native mercy unless persuaded by prophets of his chosen people is an entirely justifiable natural reading of much of those scriptures, and it seems to me that some relic of that spreads to the Reformed image of a God unable to exercise mercy without the bloody and painful sacrifice (possibly self-sacrifice) of his son and then condemning to eternal torment all those who for whatever reason are unwilling or unable to accept that this is what the true nature of God is.

It is wholly unsurprising to me that this image gives rise to Satanist Gnosticism which sees this God, the God of Christian fundamentalists, as evil incarnate, and the adversary, haSatan or Lucifer the light-bringer, as the true lord to be followed and revered. I understand them, but I cannot be one of them, as I think this image is completely flawed. However, were the fundamentalists to convince me that their vision were true, I would have to be a Satanist. I would have to join the opposition to this tyrannical monster.

However, who now is the Gnostic? It seems to me that all of the Protestant denominations have a Gnostic flavour, as all espouse the individual’s relationship with God, i.e. personal relationship (scripture alone, interpreted by the individual) rather than central authority. Further, the evangelical and Pentecostal strains now prominent emphasise personal experience, which goes further down this path.

None say that scripture is sufficient without external guidance – yes, I know we Protestants supposedly hold to “sola scriptura”, but every Protestant I talk with refers to interpretational authorities against what I consider a natural reading; this is an esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic. Catholics rely on the Pope, who relies on theologians, which is also esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic.

The reinterpretation of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as a mere source of prophecy of Christ is, let’s face it, completely Gnostic – Judaism doesn’t interpret it that way. You need the esoteric key to do that…

The dismissal of the whole of the covenantal relationship with Israel evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures as, effectively, a failed experiment plays to the image of the God of Judaism as a demiurge. OK, it also makes out God to be a lot less than omniscient and omnipotent – rather a bungler, in fact. But then, so does the doctrine of “original sin”, so denigration of the deity is apparently de rigeur in modern conservative Christianity. He seems reduced to something less than God – oh, yes, a demiurge.

Are we, therefore, all Gnostic now?  Well no, I don’t think so. I think historical-critical scholarship makes clear the developing understanding of God in scripture, I think historical-mythological scholarship gives us a better way of interpreting scripture, I think there is no substitute for personal experience of God through the presence of Christ in us, through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us. I think we cannot have anyone else’s experience; you cannot have mine, I cannot have yours. Neither of us can have Pope Francis’.  Or Luther’s, or Calvin’s*.  Or, indeed, that of Jesus.

I think all of us can learn from each others’ experiences as we can translate those into human concepts, into human words. But those words are not the experience, our relationship with God is just that, unmediated (except perhaps in the beginning), direct and transforming.

Let us be transformed together.

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