Introduction to Gnosticism and Alternative Christian Theories

By Chad Dupuis
Tagged in Internal Arts and Theory

The following article is the result of a research project I did within the religious studies program at the University of Arizona in 2000. As acupuncture and the martial arts come from eastern philosophical viewpoints, many westerners have to learn to assimilate these foreign ideas into our world-view before we can enact them. This can often be a complex process for us.

Because of my work in the area of oriental medicine, and due to relatively recent findings of texts in the field of gnosticism, I began an exploration of Gnostic philosophy. Without generalizing too much, the gnostic views provide an almost eastern edge, so to speak, to our judeo-christian western philosophy. For people trying to makes heads and tails out of the two world views, then, the information from the gnostic texts known as the Nag Hammadhi can be useful in bridging the gaps.

December 15th, 2000
Reli 499: Independent Study
University of Arizona, Religious Studies Department

For as long as we have had knowledge of the many spiritual traditions we have always had the access to become aware of the many men and women who take on a certain vigor in their spiritual pursuits. These men and women, regardless of tradition, can well be called the spiritual elite. You will find them in the desert, forests, mountains, in more organized institutions such as monasteries and cathedrals and in less outstanding circumstances as your neighbor or perhaps your closest friend. These are the people who set aside the pursuits of the majority and instead concentrate on something that they feel is much deeper. Setting aside those pursuits which increase our worldly desires and concerns, they devote themselves in pursuit of a knowledge that will liberate them from the confines of the human condition. The result can be for their own good or to be of better service to their fellow human beings. The culmination can happen in this life, in lives to follow or after death. The path can be one of the million forms of meditation, prayer and/or ascetic practices. They may develop certain powers along the way, or not. They may help spread what they have learned to others, or not. They will most certainly not all agree, although certain concepts will arise from their teachings which point to a common law. Of these many men and women from the many traditions, the followers of a widespread mostly Christian movement called Gnosticism have produced some remarkable scriptures which can help to guide us who choose to listen to a deeper understanding of our own being.

As with all religions, there is an incredible amount of diversity within what has come to be known as Gnosticism. And to begin this paper by seemingly categorizing all Gnostics as members of the spiritual elite would be ridiculous. While there are many surveys of the Gnostic "religion" my intent here is to bring to the forefront, in a non-confrontational way, some of the depth I see in the Gnostic scriptures which I feel can be helpful to everyone from atheists to Catholic monks, from pure-land Buddhists to Rastafarians. While I will be discussing many specifics of the Gnostic "religion" my intent will be to bring out those teachings which fall into the category of being universally applicable, or as close to it as possible. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost is that, as a primarily Christian sect, Gnosticism can provide westerners an arguably more eastern view of their own traditions. Gnosticism forces upon its adherents a path and provides a seemingly obtainable goal that is perhaps more akin to the Buddhist, Taoist and Indian enlightenment which many westerners have been finding solace in. Secondly, the origins, scriptures and meanings of the Gnostic texts is a hotly contested debate; which as a non-"specialist" I can play little or no part in. Finally, the Gnostic scriptures provide us with just one more chance to expand how we view ourselves and the world around us; and this, in my opinion, is an extremely important function.

What, then, is Gnosticism? This, as I have stated, is a hotly debated issue. Before this century Gnosticism was considered by most to be one of the many "heretical" Christian sects which sprung up during the first few centuries of the Christian era. These sects, all coming to their own varied conclusions of what is truly the "Christian" religion, had a common thread outside of their being contenders to the established Catholic Church. One of the foremost scholars of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, in his book "The Gnostic Religion" describes the common traits of these numerous Christian sects:

...all of these currents have in some way to do with salvation... all of them exhibit an exceedingly transcendent conception of God and in connection with it an equally transcendent and other-worldly goal of salvation... they maintain a radial dualism of realms of being - God and the world, spirit and matter, soul and body, light and darkness, good and evil, life and death... the general religion of the period is a dualistic transcendent religion of salvation (31-32).

In laymen's terms, then, we have the conclusion that Gnosticism sprung from an underlying movement of people towards something that is beyond ordinary existence, something more. This is hardly a new idea and is common to one degree or another to all religions.

The name "Gnosticism" is derived from the Greek word for knowledge - gnosis. It is this "knowledge" then, which provides us with salvation, or perhaps the key to salvation. But just what are the teachings of Gnosticism? Up until this century most sources of the Gnostic teachings that we have had to explore were the anti-Gnostic statements of the Catholic Church, in particular Bishop Ireaneus. These are unreliable for many, mostly obvious reasons. First and foremost, is that a religion which relies on internal/personal knowledge is probably not best expressed in written terms to begin with, but especially by those who are looking for heretical or non-established ways of thinking. Many of us have probably heard the famous saying by the semi-mythical Lao-Tzu in his "Tao Te Ching" that, "the way that can be told is not the eternal Way; the name that can be named is not the eternal Name (1)." This understanding most certainly applies here. This is not to say that Gnosticism as a religion can only be understood personally and therefore all their teachings are subjective and not to be taken literally. The Gnostics definitely have, as we shall see, their own myths which are different (sometimes purposely so) from the established views of the Catholic Church. This is merely to point out that writings can be made for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes they may have been meant for one person only, sometimes to create controversy, sometimes to share a personal understanding. Whatever the reason, it is crucial for those interested in the depths of religion to look a little deeper than most with an open mind. If you want to find faults and inconsistencies in the study of religious ideas you will; if you want to find something that you can benefit from you can do that as well.

Much of the misinformation surrounding Gnosticism and its teachings has been alleviated by a few remarkable discoveries. During the 20th century many original Gnostic texts were found in Turfan, Turkey (1902-1914), Medinet Madi, Egypt (1930) and in Nag Hammadi, Egypt (1945-1948) (Rudolph 1). Of these finds, it is the one in Nag Hammadi which provides the background information for an entirely new and more reliable survey of what Gnosticism and its teachings are. It is the Nag Hammadi library, as the findings are now called, which began a rebirth of the study of Gnostic thought and provided us with knowledge that lead to an ever widening understanding of the depth and breadth of the Gnostic movement.

As I stated before, many people considered the Gnostic movement just another "heretical" sect of Christianity. With the new information provided by these discoveries and the increase in study and research surrounding it, this view had to be enlarged. Now, again, this area is an extremely contested one. Scholars and others who have researched Gnosticism have presented us with just about every view possible concerning the origins of Gnosticism. Everything from the belief that these texts truly contain teachings from Jesus that are outside of the commonly accepted scriptures to the belief of Edward Conze (a British Buddhist scholar) that some Gnostics were in contact with Buddhist missionaries who provided them with a more "eastern" approach to the teachings of Christianity (Pagels xxi). While there is a breadth of answers to the question of origin, the discussion tends to be centered around whether or not Gnosticism was a pre-Christian movement. Wilhelm Bousset, a New Testament scholar, as quoted in Elaine Pagels wonderful book entitled "The Gnostic Gospels" describes his view as such:

Gnosticism is first of all a pre-Christian movement which had roots in itself. It is therefore to be understood in its own terms, and not as an offshoot or byproduct of the Christian religion (xxx).

And for every pre-Christian scholar there is one that says it is a Catholic heresy, or based in Jewish thought, or Zorastrian thought or Indian thought, etc. Part of the problem is, as with Christianity itself, or most other religions for that matter, there is no one thing which comprises all that there is to be said within that religion. Within modern-day Christianity we have Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics and on and on. Same is true with what has come to be known as Gnosticism. At least within Christianity one can turn to the Bible as a common source. Now, nobody will actually agree what the Bible says or how it is to be applied or what it means, but it is there. With Gnosticism we don't, as of yet, have this. We have a piles of semi-readable text fragments, historical conjecture and scholarly debate and opinion. Bernard McGinn in his "Foundations of Mysticism" offers some valuable advice to us when he states that to "reduce Gnosticism to a search for its origins would be to negate the originality and power of its vision (90)."

To successfully explore the vision of the Gnostics we will have to begin by identifying some of the basic ideas common to the majority of groups within Gnosticism. According to Bernard McGinn, most Gnostic thought will fall into three basic categories (91). First, Gnosticism contains a dualistic world-view. Second, Gnosticism considers our soul (or some part of it) innately divine. Third, we can obtain salvation through gnosis. It is by looking at these three elements that we can come to some synthesis of the vast breadth and depth of Gnostic thought.

Dualism, according to the "New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia," is a concept that "has been used to denote the religious or theological system which would explain the universe as the outcome of two eternally opposed and coexisting principles, conceived as good and evil, light and darkness, or some other form of conflicting powers (Maher 1)." In the Gnostic texts we will find that they do, for the most part, provide a dualistic framework from which to view the world. Lance Owens in his introduction to the on-line edition of the Nag Hammadi library sums up the breadth of Gnostic views quite well. He states:  The Gnostics called this (the beginning) "uncreated self" the divine seed, the pearl, the spark of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light. And this seed of intellect was the self-same substance of God, it was man's authentic reality; it was the glory of humankind and the divine alike. If woman or man truly came to gnosis of this spark, she understood that she was truly free: Not contingent, not a conception of sin, not a flawed crust of flesh, but the stuff of God, and the conduit of God's immanent realization. There was always a paradoxical cognizance of duality in experiencing this "self-within-a-self". How could it not be paradoxical: By all rational perception, man clearly was not God, and yet in essential truth, was Godly. This conundrum was a Gnostic mystery, and its knowing was their greatest treasure (Owens 1).

It is important to note that the God of this passage is an uncreated immaterial something which was before anything material as opposed to the Christian God which created this world. According to the Gnostic view, this world and the creative forces behind it, including God, are evil or at the least unenlightened. Hence we have matter and all of those things which cause us suffering: desires, attachments, limited viewpoints, etc. It is by surpassing this level of reality that we may obtain salvation.

In the Nag Hammadi library a wonderful text entitled "On the Origin of the World" provides us with some more myths to explore the Gnostic views of creation. The author begins with a rather bold statement:

Seeing that everybody, gods of the world and mankind, says that nothing existed prior to chaos, I in distinction to them shall demonstrate that they are all mistaken, because they are not acquainted with the origin of chaos, nor with its root (Smith 172).

Chaos here is referring to the creation of this world - or the beginning of the biblical accounts of creation. The Catholic Church holds that nothing existed prior to God and "he" created the world; this writing refutes that view directly. The Gnostics were looking for an answer to a question that is not well answered in Christianity: If God is essentially pure and good and we are made in his image where does evil come from? The Gnostics attempt an answer to this question by discussing the events which led up to the creation of matter, the god of this world and us.

It is the view of the author of "On the Origin of the World" in particular, and Gnostics in general that our world arises out of ignorance and negative emotions, in particular jealousy. As it is impossible to go into any detail on the creation accounts of the Gnostics, the addressing of some key points will have to suffice. The Christian God is thought to have come from a long running split from the eternal realm. This split begins with the arising of Sophia or what can be termed wisdom from the eternal realm. It is this self-willed wisdom which begins a creation process (out of jealously) of which the God of the Christians, this world and us are the result. Thus from the very beginning not only do we not know our true origins, as we are separated from the eternal realms by Wisdom, neither does God. This results in the conclusion that both God and man are essentially impure in the sense that neither of us has a true understanding (gnosis) of our nature.

It is this type of dualistic view that the Catholic Church abhors. According to Michael Maher, "Christianity rejected all forms of a dual origin of the world which erected matter, or evil, or any other principle into a second eternal being coexistent with God (1)." More importantly for our pursuit though, is that this dualistic view is one that is quite possibly misunderstood as nihilistic when taken apart from the full picture of the Gnostics. The second of our three key points to address is that Gnosticism considers our soul (or some part of it) innately divine. This adds to the dualistic framework a pantheistic view. Pantheism is a term used to define the broadly represented concept that God and the universe are one. The term is well represented by the Indian concepts of the divine which comprise the notion that the essential nature of everybody and everything is God. The importance of this is that while dualism can be seen as nihilistic, this pantheistic view adds a sense of optimism to our condition outside of relying completely on the will of a creator god or being in an eternal negative state without hope.

It is this pantheistic aspect which begins to bring us closer to the depth of the Gnostic view and its applications. If there is a part of us that is innately divine, then it can be assumed that we have the tools necessary to realize that part and to, for lack of a better term, be it. Jesus is quoted in the "Gospel of Thomas" as saying:

If those who lead you say to you, 'See, the kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty (Smith 126).

He continues by stating that he will "give what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind (128)." These words point us to a reality that is outside of what is commonly accepted. A view that is outside of anything capable by the human mind and its sensory organs, thus promoting the idea that we have access to other ways of thinking or relating than on a material level.

As we are now beginning to delve into the Gnostic works available to us, it is important that we are aware of the debate surrounding the authorship of the texts. Many of the texts contain names such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary and Acts of John. It is likely that John, Mary and others did not write the texts. Many of the texts include what are purported to be quotes of Jesus. Here again, it is possible that Jesus did not say these exact words. In my opinion, for spiritual understanding, it is less important who wrote the texts and what part of it are actual quotes or personal understandings. If we consider that the Gnostic writers had a decent intent in mind and were writing to bring us closer to a spiritual understanding, then we can listen to what they were trying to expound with an open mind. Many of it will seem foreign and perhaps even ridiculous. The incredibly orthodox, but extremely valuable, "New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia" quotes J.P. Arendzen as saying that the Gnostic texts are "best described as a stupefying roar of bombast occasionally interrupted by a few words of real sublimity (1)." While I wouldn't go that far, it is interesting to note that even the most ardent of critics cannot completely disregard the knowledge of the Gnostic writers. What is considered Orthodox happened over time and at the expense of the loss of many other writings and viewpoints. This exploration is a tremendous opportunity to explore different views of our western traditions. Thus, we have the ability now to look over the texts not only as historical representations of what many people thought of as the true teachings of Christianity, but as teachings which will point to aspects of the spiritual life which many may find valuable regardless of spiritual tradition.

Keeping the questions of authenticity in mind, we may continue our exploration of Gnosticism by beginning to examine the third of our three key points; namely, that salvation is attained through knowledge (gnosis). Here again it is difficult to find a consensus outside of general viewpoints as to what exactly happens when one obtains salvation or the means thereby. It is fairly clear that this salvation, at least on a personal level, is more akin to eastern ideas of enlightenment in that it can happen right here, right now, in this world. While individual knowledge is a key point in Gnosticism the teachings also guide us past that and bring in notions of the ultimate end of all ignorance, or universal salvation. According to J.P. Arendzen,

Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul; it is a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before the flaw in the sphere of the Aeons brought matter into existence and imprisoned some part of the Divine Light into the evil Hyle. This setting free of the light sparks is the process of salvation; when all light shall have left the Hyle, it will be burnt up, destroyed (1).

Notions of universal salvation as well as other concepts that cannot even remotely be tested until they happen, however, are not where the jewels of Gnostic thought will be found. The cosmology, creation myths, redemption stories, and myths surrounding the end of time as we know it are very interesting. And, as a spiritual follower of a certain path, it is important to examine those views more carefully and ascertain whether or not you can subscribe to them, or at least have faith that they are valid. My point here, however, is not to cause a rebirth of Gnosticism and have Gnostic churches spring up on every corner, which incidentally (as might be expected) has already happened with the creation of such groups as the Gnostic order of Christ and The Ecclesia Gnostica churches in the United States. My point is to bring out some of the knowledge of the Gnostics that will be of value to the majority of people.

For people who act with little or no examination of their lives, the causes of suffering remain a mystery. For many people, however, the suffering inherent in this world is obvious and with some probing into their existence most come to a realization that they are a contributing factor in the creation of it. Many people will begin to see how they flavor the world with their own viewpoints and personalities, with their needs and mental states. It is these types of obscurations, whatever their primordial cause, that keep us from living full lives. And it is to surpass this level of gut reaction living common to the majority of people that is the focal point of Gnostic salvation and indeed many spiritual seekers.

Jesus is quoted in the "Book of Thomas the Contender" as saying, "for he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all (Turner 1)." In another passage found in the "Apocryphon of James" Jesus states, "if you consider how long the world existed before you, and how long it will exist after you, you will find that your life is one single day, and your sufferings one single hour (Williams 1)." The first passage points out that we must obtain knowledge of who, what and where we are in order to be free of the obscurations which derive from following our passions, desires and all of those things many consider human nature. The second passage gives us a different view of time, a larger view, which gives us the space to freely question our place in the world. It is this type of extended view which allows the Gnostics and other spiritual seekers to accept the hardships of restraining their passions, for example, in pursuit of a higher knowledge. Once you come to some realization of just how insignificant you are in the whole scheme of things there is a remarkable freedom from which one may enter the pursuit of gnosis.

One of the critiques of Gnosticism is that it is a dualistic religion with nihilistic tendencies. This is a similar critique used many times against Buddhism. Both, to the uneducated eye, seem nihilistic. We discussed earlier some of the ways in which this view is not valid. Now, however, we can begin to see how that type of view, while appearing nihilistic, can be used to foster the determination and single-pointed focus required in the pursuit of Gnosis. That view, whether or not it represents reality, provides the freedom necessary to follow the path of Gnosis. It is at this state where we begin to cross the line between what is commonly accepted as reality and other perspectives. It may seem nihilistic; but this is true only in relation to your perspective. If the goal is to set aside material pursuits and human desires to obtain a Gnosis which then allows you to act freely and purposively without the interference of your own agenda then it is not nihilistic, rather, it is very positive and life affirming.

Contemplate for a moment the words of Christ in the "Gospel of Thomas," "love your brother like your soul, guard him like the pupil of your eye (Lambdin 1)." This is an extremely intense statement. The wording is of particular importance here. The related Orthodox quotation goes along the lines of "love your neighbor as yourself." But guarding someone like the pupil of your eye brings up the notion of intense vigilance which is at the heart of the pursuit of Gnosis. Just think for a few moments on how difficult this would be in our current state. We have a hard enough time just trying to accommodate people without putting aside our own agendas. However, guarding someone as you do the "pupil of your eye" requires something far and beyond the current abilities of many of us. To reach the state where this is possible is at the heart of the "salvation" of Gnosticism.

To begin the attainment of such gnosis we must think about what we are. What is this body, this world? What does it mean to have this pile of cells which rolls around sensing things, looking for this and that, likes and dislikes, etc. What really are we? We take a multitude of things for granted which may or may not be true. In the quote from the Gospel of Thomas above where Jesus states that "the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you (Smith 126)" he is trying to enlarge our world-view. Jesus also states in the same text that the kingdom will "not come by waiting for it; it will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is' or 'There it is;' rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth and men do not see it (Smith 138)." Thus, it is clear that there is something beyond what most of us recognize as reality.

The Gnostics, as Kurt Rudolph points out, "were not aiming at any ideal philosophical knowledge nor any knowledge of an intellectual or theoretical kind, but a knowledge which had at the same time a liberating and redeeming effect (55)." This knowledge was something that would have to be experienced by the person to understand it. It could not be written down as such, nor could it be understood without personal sacrifice. This is where both the glory and destruction of Gnosticism lie. On the one hand, Gnosticism is in many ways a religion of mystics who come to a full realization of the world and then do their best to put it into words. The problem, of course, arises when all of their words do not match up, particularly with what the Catholic Church considers reality. How many Christian mystics have shared the same fate as the Gnostics? Origen, St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart for example, have all at one time or another either been excommunicated or at the least reprimanded by the Church for their views. It is those views which came from the development of a personal relationship with the divine that the Orthodox establishment was so critical of.

The Gnostics were critiqued for being both too open and too closed as a religious institution. They were open, not only in the sense of their personal writings as described above, but on their inclusion of women, and their distrust of hierarchy. The Gnostics were organized in a fashion which in many ways was directly opposite the Catholic Church. To begin, with they included women in most, if not all, functions. Secondly, at meetings, some of the groups would simply draw lots to decide who would be the bishop, priest, etc. for that particular service (Pagels 41-42). Tertullian, as quoted in Elaine Pagels book the Gnostic Gospels, states:

How frivolous, how worldly, how merely human it is, without seriousness, without authority, without discipline, as fits their faith! To begin with, it is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally - even pagans, if any happen to come. They also share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics, if they meet together to storm the citadel of the only one truth.  All of them are arrogant all offer you gnosis (42)!

On the other hand, Gnostics were considered a closed society of spiritual elitists. Both are valid critiques for many of the Gnostic groups and the basis for the validity lies in the nature of and path to gnosis.

We have established that the attainment of Gnosis is a personal endeavor. People can guide you to it, but they cannot create an understanding for you. Thus, what need is there of a hierarchy in the rote rituals of being a Christian? It is undoubtedly true that there may be people of higher attainment than yourself, but that is of little value to you outside of being taught by them personally or in speeches or writings. The Church, then, could be open to all and allow all to be participants in worshipping the divine, whatever their view of it. On the same token, while the doors may be open, it is only through hard work that you will attain anything; so it is still closed in that sense to many people. It is undoubtedly true that there were many Gnostics of high attainment from which the many writings we have available to us likely came. And it is also undoubtedly true that those who were on the path of Gnosis venerated these individuals and devoted themselves to learning from them in hopes of attaining a personal gnosis. However, for the vast majority of people who will not give the task this type of devotion there is little use to have some man on a high chair giving random sermons on topics that have to be watered down to accommodate the broad collection of people. Sure it may happen, but it is doubtful that a general public teaching would be enough to open the door of gnosis. At the heart of gnosis lies the conviction to challenge all that we consider reality and to go beyond average human concerns.

Since the attainment of gnosis brings one to an understanding which, according to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, is something that "no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind" it is clear that the realization will have to happen through ones own effort above and beyond contributing factors as guidance from a spiritual master or grace of a higher being. There is an account in the "Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth" text from the Nag Hammadi library where a spiritual master is helping his student realize one of the higher levels of realities. This account shows the importance of a guide in the pursuit of Gnosis which contradicts one of the critiques the Catholic Church presented as described above. The following quote is after the student has had a direct realization for himself. His teacher states:

Let us embrace each other affectionately, my son. Rejoice over this! For already from them the power, which is light, is coming to us. For I see! I see indescribable depths. How shall I tell you, my son? [...] from the [...] the places. How shall I describe the universe? I am Mind, and I see another Mind, the one that moves the soul! I see the one that moves me from pure forgetfulness. You give me power! I see myself! I want to speak! Fear restrains me. I have found the beginning of the power that is above all powers, the one that has no beginning. I see a fountain bubbling with life. I have said, my son, that I am Mind. I have seen! Language is not able to reveal this. For the entire eighth, my son, and the souls that are in it, and the angels, sing a hymn in silence. And I, Mind, understand (Parrott 1).

The phrases "Angels singing in silence," "the one that has no beginning," "I am Mind," and "Language is not able to reveal this" are of particular importance here. They make it clear that there isn't necessarily a set path to Gnosis and that even when one attains it, it is not clear how to express it to others or even to what value an attempt of expression would be to other people. Thus, the Gnostics were people who devoted themselves to an attainment which would grant them a freedom of mind that is inexpressible.

This attainment then, is a sort of freedom from the human condition that only comes after much difficult work with or without the assistance of others who have already come to a complete understanding. What this salvatio



Introduction to Gnosticism and Alternative Christian Theories

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Authored by: Chad Dupuis on 1 September 2007

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