Well, it seems that my time has come. I have held off writing a piece about gnosticism for some time, but the laziness of this particular Saturday leavs me no option. Enjoy, then, these words.
The traditional descrption of gnosticism as a sect or offshoot either of Christianity or other ancient religions of the Near East is a little misleading. Gnosticism, like the Roman Empire, seems to have marched everywhere in its day, incorporating bits that it liked and finding other established powers arrayed in battle against it. It encompasses, especially today, a very diverse set of belief structures, rites, and rituals.
Gnosticism is known to us from the testimony of many ancient authorities. The early Christian writer Irenaeus wrote a good deal about it and how it was a perversion, and Porphyry notes how his master Plotinus found it distasteful despite many similarities to his own system of thought, Neoplatonism.
While it is now generally conceded that Gnosticism has its roots deep in pre-Christian history, it burst to prominence around the time of Christ. This was a period of great intellectual and religious ferment, both in Judaism and nascent Christianity. Rome itself was importing new gods faster than it could build temples. In this environment, many offshoots of established religions gained wide followings. But gnosticism was instead a general belief system that appropriated a good deal of Christian thought, then bounced off on its own trajectory.
And now for some general words on this general belief system:
- All that exists owes its existence to an all-powerful god who cannot be fathomed by human thought.
- This god does not actually "do" anything, as such actions would be considered a mar to his perfection. In this way he is very similar to the Neoplatonists' conception of "The One."
- As a result of god's radiant power, a lesser class of beings has come into existence. These are generally known as "aeons," though you can think of them as angels if you like. They live in the light of god's radiance, a place known as the pleroma (from the Greek word for "fullness").
- Through a series of actions that differ depending on what specific belief system you follow, a freak aeon was created. His name varies, but early Gnostic literature tends to refer to him as Yaldabaoth. He is also called "Saklas," the blind god, because he is insane.
- The creation of Yaldabaoth results in a rupture of the pleroma. In this rupture, the material world is created, and Yaldabaoth creates a race of servants, known as archons, to help him rule over it.
- In this effort, he also creates man as a race of slaves. But he is thwarted: man becomes imbued with the light-fragments of the pleroma, and thus may know his true heavenly identity.
- Those who know (have "gnosis") of the provenance of their souls may, upon their deaths, ascend to the pleroma and reunite with god. Because of this, Yaldabaoth is constantly working to ensure that mankind forgets or ignores its heavenly birthright.
This is a brief summary of the points that would have been familiar to Valentinian Gnostics (a popular sect in the early centuries of Christianity), but they disguse an even more basic set of gnostic truths:
- There is an all-powerful god, and being in his presence (in the pleroma) would bring bliss; but because he is perfect, he can't really care about you.
- There is a power that does care about you, but he wants to make sure you stay in the dark, so to speak, about your soul's ability to escape the material world.
- Your gnostic mission, should you choose to accept it, is to come to grips with the two facts above so that, upon your death, you can accurately navigate your soul back to the place it belongs.
These, of course, are not new ideas (nor were they then), but they have a certain appeal to everyone. This is not all there is, and bad stuff happens to you because someone is out to get you. And you don't have to do a whole hell of a lot to get out of this material world hell: just know--really know that this is not all there is.
So what role does Jesus play in all this? Well, it turns out that he is the savior, sent from the pleroma by the aeons to remind humanity of its true nature. The Christians, however, have generally manipulated his message in order to fit these revelations into the standard god-fomula of Judaism. The problem is that the god of the Old Testament, the angry and vengeful god, is Yaldabaoth. By continuing along these doctrinal lines, say gnostics, Christians have fallen back into the false worship of Yaldabaoth.
You may ask, "So what do I have to do to become a gnostic?" Well, the answer is just be one. All you have to do is convince yourself that this world is false, and suddenly Yaldabaoth will have no real power over you. Oh sure, he may decide to kill you in some gruesome way, but as long as you don't revert to another belief system in your moments of pain and anguish, you'll be OK. In fact, Yaldabaoth may choose not to kill you at all, instead waiting for the point at which that old doubt creeps back into your mind.
But be warned: ascension into the pleroma is far from guaranteed. Escaping from this material world may only be the first step. In the gnostic document known as "The Dialog of the Savior," Jesus himself doubts his ability to ascend without being distracted along the way. If you don't make it, your soul may be recycled into a new body down here.
I know all of this sounds much like a religion I made up to pass the time on a lazy Saturday. But the items above have been taken directly from such gnostic works as The Apocryphon of John and The Tripartite Tractate, only two of many works discovered in 1945 at a site in Egypt known as Nag Hammadi.
Gnosticism has waxed and waned in cycles over the past two thousand years. It was generally wiped out in the Mediterranean world by the ascendance of orthodox Christianity, though a strain has persisted among the Mandeans of Iraq. A version flared up during the middle ages and sparked the Albigensian crusade. Gnostic thought greatly influenced Enlightenment thought and has been a common theme in literature since then. The Matrix is blatantly gnostic, but so is Blade Runner. Gnosticism is all around you, if you choose to look.
My advice: read the third chapter of the book of Genesis and ask yourself the following question:
What if the snake was telling the truth?