“All knowledge is remembering,” Plato
So just who were the Gnostics?
Well, for starters they weren't one homogenous group. Instead, like Protestantism later (loosely affiliated around a broadly similar theological perspective, standing outside the main body of Christianity, i. e. the Catholic Church), the Gnostics were a disparate group connected by a common belief that knowledge, not faith, or adherence to doctrine, brought salvation. While at the same time presenting an alternative voice to orthodox Christianity.
(Orthodox not to be confused with the Orthodox Church, itself a later break-away from the Catholic Church). Henceforth the orthodox Christians will be known as literalist Christianity.
Around the second and third centuries CE many tensions in the fledgling Christian movement gave rise to schisms: Arianism, Manichaeism, Docetism, to mention just a few. Then in the fourth century, confident in its new power base, the Church began systematically silencing all voices opposed to its central doctrine. Gnosticism was one of the main ones, and was denounced as a heresy at the 325 Synod. Literalist Christianity not only sought to destroy Gnosticism, but went as far as to attempt to wipe out all trace of it.
It resurfaced briefly in the 13th century as the Cathar Movement, only to be ruthlessly crushed under Pope Innocent 111 in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). This time also saw the birth of the Inquisition.
The problem for us is that our knowledge of the Gnostics, and what they really stood for is derived almost entirely from those who wished to eradicate them. So we must proceed with caution. Foremost of their prosecutors was Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon. He accused them of relativism, that is, lacking any real moral compass. Others went further, accusing them of indulging in licentious and depraved sexual acts. Considering the ascetic ethos that informed Gnosticism this seems a tad far-fetched.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945 has thrown new light on the Gnostics. These manuscripts are thought to have originated in the second century CE, and were copies of earlier gospels, purportedly written by the apostles Thomas and Philip, Mary Magdalene, and others. We have no way of knowing if this is true or not. Nor if they were meant to be read factually or allegorically. I suspect the latter.
We must remember Christianity was more fluid in its inception than it is today. In the first centuries there was no fixed liturgy, New Testament, or canonical texts. None of the conventions of what we now know as Christianity had come into being.
The word ‘gnosis’ comes from the Greek, meaning knowledge.
First we must separate information from knowledge. Let me give an example. You may know what horology is the science of clock making. But can you make a clock? You see there’s a whole difference between knowing about something and actually knowing it. True knowing is experience. And this is at the kernel of Gnosticism. It’s not enough to know about salvation, one must have a personal experience of God. The knowledge they speak of enables one to transcend the world of illusion, or impermanence. It’s about awakening the Christ within. In this way it is more like Buddhism or Taoism than literal Christianity.
The Gnostics believed in a God of Love from which everything emanated. However, this God did not create the world. Instead, that was the work of a lesser being known as the Demiurgos, who, perceiving himself alone in the universe came to believe he was god. The myth recounts that the Demiurgos was born of Sophia (Wisdom), but that she conceived him without God, and forthright abandoned him. Having created the world, and the archons (lesser gods) he then entrapped the soul of humanity within his creation. He became, in fact, the god of the Bible.
In some versions of the myth it was the serpent (awareness) that awoke man from his illusory existence, paving the way for the birth of the Christ, and the return to Oneness with the True God. In this way the Gnostics kind of make devils out of the Christian gods. Something which didn’t endear them to their literalist rivals!
Jesus was a central figure for the Gnostics, and was revered along with Seth, the third son of Adam, and the prophet Mani, although they emphasised his teachings rather than the crucifixion. Among other things the Gnostics were accused of denying the divinity of Jesus. But here again we need to tread carefully, for if so, what were they actually saying? That Jesus wasn’t exclusively divine and that all souls share in divinity? This would have gone against literalist doctrine.
In the schema of souls the Hyletics, who believed only in the material world, were at the bottom. Above them were the Psychics. This group were partially awake but still believed God was outside them (most literalist Christians were counted in the Psychics). And finally, at the top of the pyramid stood the Pneumatics. These were the people who had fully awakened to gnosis and were ready to return to Pleroma (the Gnostic term for heaven, which more correctly meant a state of bliss).
However, despite the different layers, the Gnostics did stress that one day everyone would find gnosis, that this was an evolutionary process, and would be reunited with God.
The Gnostics seemed to believe that Jesus imparted two teachings, the one he taught in public and a secret one for the elite (Luke 8:9-10; Paul 2 Cor. 12:2-4; Acts 9:9-10. depending on your interpretation). Personally I’m a bit wary of secret teachings, it can be a way by which people make themselves important, but that’s not to rule it out. Was there an inner coterie even among the apostles? Who knows? It’s probably more accurate to say that some who got the message and others didn’t.
One of the more interesting figures of Gnosticism was a certain Valentinus of Alexandria (c.100-160). A very learned man Valentinus once sought to become Bishop of Rome, but was later excommunicated by the Church for his views!
His variation of the creation myth differs slightly:
He states that the true God (which he called Prior Source) is both male and female, and by the process of emanation forever extends Itself. In its masculine form it is Depth, in its feminine aspect Silence, Grace and Thought. After this it emanated Gnosis (intellect), then Truth (understanding of intellect), and then the aeons, which are ‘states of being’ (kind of like mental states). The feminine is very important in Valentinus’ system; it is the last female aspect, Thought, that gives the universe form. All movement seems to be feminine, all rest masculine. Pleroma is a condition of mind, or Fullness, by contrast the opposite is Deficiency.
His account of creation differs slightly too. He says it was Sophia’s daughter Achamoth that gave birth to the Demiurgos. But Achamoth wasn’t so much a Being, as the Passion of Sophia separated from her and gone awry. In that way the Demiurgos was both subordinate of and a gift to the Pleroma, rather than its enemy.
Hence creation came about to honour the Pleroma, as well as to mirror it (and not as a mistake!)
As Above So Below.
In this way the Demiurgos became more of a surrogate god and his dominion was everything outside the Pleroma. It created our physical form while the Prior Source (the real God) created Permanence, including the human soul. This interpretation has a certain resonance with Plato and the Form of Wisdom.
Creation without knowledge or wisdom can only give birth to aberrant ideas. The psychological nuances of this are manifold, as is the parity with ACIM (the Ego thinks it created the world, and that the son foolishly believes he created the father).
Valentinus’ alteration of the myth does not make the world intrinsically evil, or a ‘mistake’. Instead it’s a natural consequence of the Emanations stretching far from the original Source. In this way it has a certain intellectual rigour and integrity that I like. It’s not so much that the world must be destroyed, or that there is a big war between God and something else. Rather that the “world” or all that is perceived in error, will one day be transformed into the Fullness.
Valentinus seems to bring out the deeper truth that lies behind this mythology, something that the other Gnostics, and of course the literalists failed to do. God is in everything, and even if the material world is an illusion, it still is something, it is the seeing of it, our seeing of it. And, when perception is corrected, it will be transformed.
Let’s forget about mythology for a minute and see this from our individual perspective.
Perceiving ourselves alone we create an insane world without God. We then entrap others in this world, deluding ourselves that we love them, but really demanding that they give us something, love, approval, self-worth; all that we think we are lacking and cannot give ourselves.
The complete nondual series:
Part 2. 5 Ways Christianity Went Wrong.
Part 4. A Little More on Valentinus.
Part 5. Creation by Contemplation.
Part 6. Is Evil a Reality?
Part 7. World Shut Your Mouth.
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