Gnostic Thoughts

Starting this past Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve been reading The Gnostics by David Brakke, Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity by Birger Pearson, and Voices of Gnosticism, an anthology of interviews with scholars of Gnosticism, edited by Miguel Connor.  For the last year, I’ve been periodically reading The Secret Revelation of John, Karen King’s study of the Sethian scripture The Apopcrypon of John.  Alongside this, I’ve been re-reading some of the so-called Gnostic Gospels and related scripture, such as the aforementioned Apocryphon of John, The Gospel of ThomasThe Thunder, Perfect Mind (the basis of the above short directed by Jordan and Ridley Scott), the Tripartite Tractate, and others.  I have been running an ongoing series, Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy, in which I’ve been comparing little-o orthodox Christian thought and Gnostic Christian thought, towards the purpose of seeing what insights can be derived from each, and to what extent the two can be harmonized.  Given this, and the relatively heavy reading in Gnosticism I’ve been doing of late, I thought it would be worthwhile to post a few thoughts I’ve had in this regard.  Nothing systematic; just some thoughts and impressions.

First, over here I said, “None of the schools that we call “Gnostic” ever, as far as we know, used the term of themselves.”  After reading Brakke’s book, I retract this.  He argues, persuasively, in my view, that the school known to modern scholars as Sethians did, in fact, use the term of themselves.  Briefly, he points out that “gnostic” (gnōstikos) was, in the first couple Christian centuries, a positive term, which some of those later considered orthodox (what Brakke calls the “proto-orthodox”) used of themselves.  Brakke argues that Irenaeus, the first to refer to his theological opponents as “gnostics”, would hardly have used a positive term for a group he so roundly condemned, unless they actually used it of themselves.  Irenaeus, in fact, rather snarkily calls their teaching “so-called gnosis”–recall, that though his famous work is usually referred to simply as Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), it’s full title is On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis.  This seems to me a cogent argument.  Brakke goes on to note that of all the groups Irenaeus attacks, there is only one whom he describes as “Gnostic”, and that these, based on his description of their beliefs, is most likely those that we now call Sethians.  This is the group that produced, among other scriptures, The Apocryphon of John, The Trimorphic Protennoia, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.

Second, I’ve concluded that most Sethian literature is…well, pretty freaky.  I have to say that the complex mythologies of multiple layers of being, excruciatingly complicated (and often contradictory) lists of Aeons and Archons, creation stories that catalogue in minute detail the archontic creators of each body part, and (as April DeConick points out) a veritable obsession with astrology simply do not do it for me.  As I read scholarly works on the background of Gnosticism, I can see to some extent what the authors of these works had in mind.  Nevertheless, to me it is much more the Gnostic worldview, as I described it here, than its mythos, that speaks to me.

Third, I think that, contra the narrative one often hears these days about the open, tolerant, feminist, visionary Gnostics vs. the intolerant, repressive, misogynist, dictatorial orthodox, there was plenty of elitism and looking down at others, too.  The Gospel of Judas as fiercely polemical against the orthodox as anything any orthodox theologian ever wrote against the Gnostics.  The orthodox–at least, an awful lot of them–were convinced that the vast majority of humanity would burn in Hell forever; a view that is still not rare.  The Gnostics–at least, an awful lot of them–thought that a whole category of humans–perhaps the majority–is what they called “hylic” humans and in essence lacked souls.  In a sense, with no spark of the Divine, they were literally “talking monkeys” doomed to perish utterly at death.  Yes, hatred of one’s ideological opponents and a conviction that most people are worthy of destruction can be found in spades on both sides.

Fourth, the Gnostic scripture that appeals most to me is the Gospel of Thomas.  I am, of course, aware that there is considerable debate as to whether Thomas can be properly characterized as Gnostic at all.  Regardless of how one wants to classify it, I find it to be very interesting, inspiring, and consoling.  The serenity, mysticism, and almost Zen-like quality of the sayings are very much appealing to me.  Views on the date of composition and the authenticity of the logia in Thomas once more sharply vary.  I’m inclined to think that, by and large, they do go back to Christ himself.  In any case, there is the combination of serenity and longing for release from this world–the fundamental Gnostic insight I spoke of earlier, whether or not Thomas is “Gnostic”–which strikes a chord in me.  The more poetical Gnostic works such as The Pearl or The Thunder, Perfect Mind, have aspects of these qualities as well, at least as I read them.

Finally, I think my reading has clarified that I am essentially content with my current status.  That is, I belong to and actively participate in, orthodox–specifically Catholic–Christianity, and feel no need to change that.  On the other hand, I believe there is much that is life-giving and inspirational, and much from which I can learn, in the Gnostic scriptures and in seeing things from a Gnostic perspective.  In a sense, that’s the idea of the whole “Gnostic Orthodoxy” project–to try to have the best of both worlds in a way that has integrity, rather than simple rejection of one or the other, or of mindless, mish-mash syncretism of the bad sort.  Not always easy; but worth the try.

Part of the series Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy.

Posted on 07/12/2014, in Christianity, Gnosticism, religion, scripture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The first time I read through the Gospel of Thomas was breathtaking. Some of it was nearly identical to the corresponding Gospels sayings. Some of the sayings, though new to me, sounded like something I would expect Jesus to say. Others were from my perspective at that time “weird.” As to the question of when it was written, I’d say it wasn’t so much written as compiled. Over half the sayings are essentially the same as in the Gospels. So it would make sense that some of the other sayings could have been as old or older. The form of the Gospel of Thomas conserves the sayings form that scholars had hypothesized of early Christian writers. The Gospel of John is the only gospel in which Thomas has a speaking role and he is placed in an admirable light there. He was willing to go die with Jesus. The Gospel of John is making a play for the Thomas style Christians it seems. So the provenance of that style of Christianity if not the Gospel of Thomas was as early as about 100 CE. I find value in reading it and go back to it from time to time.

  1. Pingback: Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy: Index | The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

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