Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy: Getting Rid of Anthropomorphism

Unfortunately, all too many people–not all of them official members of any church–view God much this way; that is, as a great big white-bearded white guy in the sky who goes about doing things–such as creating snakes–in much the same manner we do.

That so many in the 21st Century in a First World country still hold such literalistic beliefs is astonishing.  I say “literalistic” and not “primitive”, since they are not necessarily hallmarks of pre-modern thought.  The oldest creation account in Egyptian mythology, for example, far from the literalism and anthropomorphism of God rolling clay to form a world or the things in it,  has the craftsman god Ptah creating the other gods and the cosmos from his heart and his word (from here):

The gods who came into being in Ptah:

Ptah-on-the-great-throne ——-.

Ptah-Nun, the father who [made] Atum.

Ptah-Naunet, the mother who bore Atum.

Ptah-the-Great is heart and tongue of the Nine [Gods].

[Ptah] —— who bore the gods.

[Ptah] —— who bore the gods.

[Ptah] ——-.

[Ptah] —— Nefertem at the nose of Re every day.

There took shape in the heart, there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave [life] to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah.

Later on, in Greece, the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes criticized the attempts of craftsmen to portray the gods in human form, famously saying

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black;
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

He went on from this to posit “One god, greatest among gods and humans,
like mortals neither in form nor in thought.”

Hindu and Daoist thought are famously abstract, positing the Ultimate Reality, Brahman in Hinduism and the Dao (Tao) in Daoism as completely beyond all qualifiers, properties, and conceptions.  Divinity may be manifested in the plethora of Hindu deities or the Daoist “ten thousand things”, but in itself it is totally transcendent and inscrutable.

In any case, as I’ve discussed before, the ancient Semitic religions seem to have been more concrete and less abstract than many contemporary religions, and that inheritance shows in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which are prone, in varying degrees, to anthropormorphizing God.  All realize in principle that God is nothing like a human, of course.  In the Kabbalistic strains of Judaism, God as such is Ein Soph (the Limitless) and is beyond all attributes and categories.  Eastern Orthodox Christianity says that God is totally unknowable in His essence, and can be known only through His energies (His interactions with the world).  Islam has historically anthropomorphized God less than the other Abrahamic faiths, and insists on His total transcendence.  Nevertheless, there is the ever-present danger of making God out to be too much like us.

Of course, I’d be the first to assert that there is an opposite error of abstracting God too much.  We believe that He has created us (through straight creation or emanation) and has some kind of interaction with us; thus, he’s not a pure abstraction like the Force of Star Wars.  Within His infinity are the capacity to know, think, love, etc.; and we perceive this of Him in His interactions with us.  We just have to be careful to remember, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, that all these descriptors of God apply by way of analogy to Him.  He lives, but not biologically like we do; He loves, but not as we do; He doesn’t even exist in the same mode or sense in which we do.

Gnosticism generally was better at this than orthodoxy.  Gnostic thought was adamant that the True God, the God of Christ (as opposed to Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge or Creator God of the Old Testament), was completely transcendent, completely unlike this lower material world, totally incomprehensible.  Describing the One (God) the  Sethian Gnostic text The Apocryphon of John (from here) says,

The One rules all. Nothing has authority over it.
It is the God.
It is Father of everything,
Holy One
The invisible one over everything.
It is uncontaminated
Pure light no eye can bear to look within.

The One is the Invisible Spirit.
It is not right to think of it as a God or as like God.
It is more than just God.

Nothing is above it.
Nothing rules it.
Since everything exists within it
It does not exist within anything.
Since it is not dependent on anything
It is eternal.

It is absolutely complete and so needs nothing.
It is utterly perfect
Light.

The One is without boundaries
Nothing exists outside of it to border it
The One cannot be investigated
Nothing exists apart from it to investigate it
The One cannot be measured
Nothing exists external to it to measure it

The One cannot be seen
For no one can envision it
The One is eternal
For it exists forever
The One is inconceivable
For no one can comprehend it
The One is indescribable
For no one can put any words to it.

The One is infinite light
Purity
Holiness
Stainless,

The One is incomprehensible
Perfectly free from corruption.
Not “perfect”
Not “blessed”
Not “divine”
But superior to such concepts.
Neither physical nor unphysical
Neither immense nor infinitesimal
It is impossible to specify in quantity or quality
For it is beyond knowledge.

The One is not a being among other beings
It is vastly superior
But it is not “superior.”

It is outside of realms of being and time
For whatever is within realms of being was created
And whatever is within time had time allotted to it
The One receives nothing from anything.
It simply apprehends itself in its own perfect light

The One is majestic.
The One is measureless majesty

Chief of all Realms
Producing all realms

Light
Producing light

Life
Producing life

Blessedness
Producing blessedness

Knowledge
Producing knowledge

Good
Producing goodness

Mercy
Producing mercy

Generous
Producing generosity

[It does not “possess” these things.]

It gives forth light beyond measure, beyond comprehension.

[What can I say?]

His realm is eternal, peaceful, silent, resting, before everything.
He is the head of every realm sustaining each of them through goodness.

He is also, as can be seen, merciful, generous, and so on, having personal characteristic insofar as He can be understood by us; but He is still completely Other, better referred to as It than He, in fact.

Now, once more, I’m not denying any personal traits in God, though it’s probably better to think of Him/Her/It as transpersonal, rather than personal. Gnostics, as noted, agree in attributing goodness, mercy, and so on to God; and insofar as Christ takes on some type of human likeness to bring the light of God to us, he can be said to manifest God in a personal way.  Still, they seem to have been a bit more careful in keeping these characteristics as manifested separate from God as such.  The only orthodox Christians who have come close to being as effective in this respect are the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, who in my view have preserved a lot of things wherein the Western Churches have gone off track.

Learning to view God less anthropomorphically is something I think the orthodox would do well to learn from the Gnostics; and it is one thing that, properly understood and implemented, would be a great point of commonality for them.  Certainly, I think learning to view God without anthropomorphizing would aid in greater tolerance on the part of Christians, both towards other religions and those within the fold not like themselves (or the supposed ideal of themselves); and I think it would be a greater sign of philosophical and spiritual maturity for us to be able to do so.

Posted on 01/10/2012, in Christianity, Gnosticism, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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