Mystical Tradition: Lecture 14 – Gnosticism

Dr. Johnson (Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam) offered an entire lesson on the Gnostics and my notes barely touch on all he covered.  But I found the following to be especially interesting…

Not much is known about the Gnostics.  There is a wide variety and diversity of compositions attributed to them with the only single unifying element being “revelation”.  We don’t know if there was an actual Gnostic community or not.  We don’t know why these compositions were written or who was reading them or what their purpose was.  What is most important about Gnosticism is how it helped shape early Christianity through the orthodox response to it.  The Patristic authors (“Church Fathers”) of Christianity, in response to Gnosticism, created a public, historical, exoteric religious tradition…

  • a closed cannon of scripture (Old & New Testaments) were the only texts allowed to be studied.
  • a rule of faith/creed was established.
  • a public apostolic succession of bishops as guarantor of faithful teaching was established.

Interestingly, the early Church Fathers’ main objection to Gnosticism was that it was a philosophical sect, but this appears to be untrue based on the Gnostic literature now available to us.  Very little of the extensive collection found at the Nag Hammadi library contains philosophical writings.  It is likely that the early Church Fathers (Iranaeus, Tertullian, etc.)  were creating Gnosticism according to their own interpretation of Gnosticism, not according to what it actually was.  Yet, the early Church was shaped, in large part, as a reaction to this understanding of Gnosticism.  What’s ironic is that the Christian tradition, handed down to us by the early Church fathers, became increasingly philosophical.

In Gnosticism, the body and community is not viewed as particularly important.  It is the salvation of the individual, through revelatory knowledge, that is the primary connecting thread of the literature.  Beyond that, the literature varies significantly.

Tao Te Ching and the Gnostic Myth of Creation

I’m no expert in either the Tao te Ching or Gnosticism although I have read several translations of the Tao te Ching and have gotten through most of the Gnostic gospels. But I haven’t studied either of them. It seems apparent, however, that both have at their core, the idea that rather than God being in opposition to evil, God (the Tao) transcends both good and evil. (In Gnosticism, the creator God is considered to be flawed and is not to be confused with the transcendent God.)

As I’ve been discussing, we’re so used to taking everything as factual truths in the West that we have lost our sense of imagination and so have difficulty relating to the myths of ancient cultures. Myths were not written as factual truths, they were written as a symbolic means to explain man’s relationship to the cosmos. With all of our scientific understanding and need for facts to believe something as truth, we can barely understand what these myths meant to them and tend to write them off as rediculous or non-important. Or worse, we adhere to them as literal truths.

I’ve written that I hold to a panentheistic view of Christianity rather than a monotheistic one because I just can’t figure out what to do with evil in monotheism. I can’t make it work. To think that evil will be wiped out by good just seems the perfect set-up for religious wars and hatred of the “good” against the “evil”. (President Bush uses the word evil all the time about the terrorists. And the terrorists teach that the U.S is evil.)

The problem of evil is a really big problem. Not just philosophically, but how it plays out in the world. We want to get rid of what we think is bad. And there are whole religions just waiting for a savior to come and wipe that out for them. The “evil doers” will be hurting and we (the good, of course) will be rejoicing because it’s finally been proven that we believed in the “right” thing and they in the wrong thing. Our good will triumph over their evil. The only problem is those we see as evil think it’s the other way around – that we’ll be hurting and they will be rejoicing because they believe their good will triumph over our evil. It never ends.

Gnosticism has an interesting way of soling this problem of evil. Gnosticism is not a religion. It is simply the philosophy of salvation through knowledge. This philosophy shows up in a lot of different religions. The Persian form tends to be very dualistic. The Platonistic form is more about transcendence. Manichaaeism adopted the dualistic Persian form, and Christianity adopted the Platonistic form. (Manichaeism believed there was a battle between the spiritual and material realm. This aescetic dualism is often associated with Gnosticism but this is a false association. Gnosticism did not view flesh as evil, but rather as further away from the transcendent God than the spirit.)

I wrote this back in 2002 for an Ancient Spiritualities class. I’m not sure exactly where this Gnostic creation myth came from, but I really like it because it is from early Christianity and ties in so well with world religions from completely different areas. I especially noticed similarities with the Tao te Ching.

(Try looking at the True Ultimate Transcendent God as Tao, The Only Begotten (son/daughter) as Ch’i, the aspects of the Only Begotten (Aeons) as Ying/Yang, and the aspects of the Aeons (humanity, the universe, and all of the material realm) as the ten thousand things. I’ve paraphrased quite a bit, but hopefully it will make sense!)

The Gnostic Myth of Creation:

The True Ultimate Transcendent God wished to know himself. And so through self-limitation, acquired self-knowledge. This self knowledge is known as the Only Begotten (Mind/Truth). The Only Begotten was the comprehensible (Ch’i) aspect of the incomprehensible (Tao).

In order to know itself better, the Only Begotten began emanating aspects of itself in masculine/feminine pairs known as Aeons (Ying/Yang). These Aeons longed to know the father/mother (transcendent God).

Sophia (Wisdom) was assigned the task of finding the transcendent God. Agitation began to grow at not being able to do so until it gained power and clouded the Only Begotten (mind/truth).

Sophia had made the error of not going through the son in order to know the father (or through the daughter in order to know the mother). Because truth was clouded by the power of Agitation, Sophia substituted beauty and from beauty, she emanated a being of flawed consciousness known as the creator God. From this creator God came the material realm which was created in the flawed image of the creator.

Human beings and the universe and all that is material are aspects of the creator God who is an aspect of Sophia (Wisdom) who is an aspect of the Only Begotten (comprehensible) aspect of the ultimate Transcendent God (incomprehensible).

Human beings ARE the ultimate transcendent God, but because we were created in the error of the Aeons we remain human because we have forgotten that we must first go through the only begotten son (fullness) to get to the father (emptiness).

And this is why Christ, a unification of ALL of the aspects of the Only Begotten – Love, Beauty, Wisdom, Understanding, Justice…… was created and made manifest to save humanity from the error.

From the Tao Te Ching #42

The Tao gave birth to Ch’i,

Ch’i gave birth to Ying Yang,

Ying Yang gave birth to trinity,

Trinity gave birth to the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.

They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue;

and yet these are the designations which the noble ones use for themselves.

So it is that some things are increased by being diminished,

and others are diminished by being increased.

What other men (thus) teach, I also teach.

The violent and strong do not die their natural death.

Another Translation:

The Tao begot one.

One begot two.

Two begot three.

And three begot the ten thousand things.

The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.

They achieve harmony by combining these forces.

Men hate to be “orphaned,” “widowed,” or “worthless,” But this is how kings and lords describe themselves.

For one gains by losing and loses by gaining.

What others teach, I also teach;

that is:

A violent man will die a violent death!

This will be the essence of my teaching.