Category Archives: Gnosticism
I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek after me.
Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,
and you hearers, hear me.
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, nor your hearing.
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time. Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring.
I am the slave of him who prepared me.
I am the ruler of my offspring.
But he is the one who begot me before the time on a birthday.
And he is my offspring in (due) time,
and my power is from him.
I am the staff of his power in his youth,
and he is the rod of my old age.
And whatever he wills happens to me.
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.
—The Thunder, Perfect Mind, author unknown, translated by George w. MacRae; courtesy of here.
Title and image aside, I have no intention whatsoever of prurience in this post. Rather, I want to discuss an issue that has been bouncing around my mind in thinking about certain common themes in Gnosticism, early Christianity, and modern “new religions”. It occurred to me that a certain framework of viewing these themes might be particularly useful. I’ll get to that framework in just a bit. As to the themes themselves, the main one is indeed sex, or rather accusations of sex. What do I mean by that? Read on!
Very early in Christian history–perhaps during the lifetime of the Apostles, but certainly within less than a century–divisions arose in the early Church. These divisions principally centered around the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, the things he taught, and authority in the Church. One group claimed to hold to authority passed down in an unbroken chain from the Apostles themselves through their successors, the bishops. This group later codified its beliefs in the Nicene Creed. The vast majority of modern Christian Churches–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, most Protestants, and some others–descend from this group. In speaking of the early Church, scholars sometimes refer to this group as the “proto-orthodox”. The proto-orthodox group of Christians stood in opposition to various other groups of “sectarians”, “partisans”, or to use the Greek term, “heretics“.
I’ve been thinking about looking at how the Gnostic mythos is expressed in many contemporary movies. Upon reflection, I realized that despite having written an entire series on Gnosticism, I have never written a post specifically outlining the Gnostic mythos. Some have touched on parts of it; but I’ve never discussed it as a whole. Therefore, I decided to remedy this oversight–hence, the current post.
Of course an expression such as “Gnostic mythos” assumes that there is such a thing as a standardized, “official” Gnostic mythos in the first place. In fact, it has been argued that the term “Gnosticism” itself is problematic at best, and useless at worst. I wouldn’t go as far as that. Nevertheless, it is true that there were a lot of very different groups which are often in modern times lumped together as “Gnostic”, with varying degrees of justification. For the purposes of what I’m going to discuss here, I will specifically look at the mythos of the best-known and most famous Gnostic group, the Sethians. The side benefit of this is that there is evidence, according to scholar David Brakke (which I discussed here) that the Sethians actually used the term “Gnostic” of themselves. I tend to agree with Brakke on this. Thus, by discussing the Sethian mythos, it’s perfectly accurate to describe what I’m doing as discussing the Gnostic mythos.
This post from Reditus perfectly makes the point that I have discussed, but less effectively, in my series on dualism.
A haunting image that has been etched into my mind manifested itself to me in a Russian Orthodox church during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Annunciation. At a certain point during Matins (I won’t bore you with the context too much), the bearded priest stood before the icon of the Annunciation and chanted one of those old leftover ancient Slavonic chants with censer in hand. I am not sure why this made such an impression on me: it was a good hour into the service, and I know little Old Slavonic (I can sort of muddle my way through understanding what is going on.) The priest wore a sky blue phelonion gilded in gold, the robust baritone voice echoed through the church, and the melismatic chant reached back into time and grabbed from it some hidden reality that gleamed like the clouds at dusk…
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Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.
By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.
The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise.
Frequency is of the highest effect.
Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.
Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children—from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn—open-necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them).
It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.
It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand—after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”
–J. R. R. Tolkien, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings, p. 219; courtesy of here.
We discussed the validity and liceity of the Sacraments, particularly Holy Orders, last time, noting that a church may recognize lineages of Apostolic Succession of bishops as having valid Holy Orders despite that lineage being outside that particular church. In short, the Church may recognize a man as a “real” bishop even if he was ordained irregularly. One way this can occur is though schism, pure and simple. That is, a bishop goes rogue and breaks away from the Church, then ordains as many men as he sees fit. Since the bishop was validly ordained in the Church, these ordinations he performs, though illicit and carrying the penalty of automatic excommunication for both the bishop himself and those he ordains, are valid. The men he ordains, in short, are real bishops, full stop.
We saw back here, though, that while some lineages indeed arose through schism (or in some cases, it would be better to say they were maintained despite schism), there are many small independent groups that were formed by individuals with their own ideas about how a sacramental church should be. Often there was no formal schism, and the founders of these groups sought out ordination to gain legitimate Apostolic Succession. How did they manage this? Through the phenomenon, mentioned but not described previously in this series, of wandering bishops.
There are two kinds of people–those who divide people into groups and those who don’t.
There are three kinds of people–those who can count and those who can’t.
Okay, enough with the rimshot-level bad jokes…. I do want to look at a particular way of dividing people into groups, though–three groups, to be precise. I will explain why a little later. The model I’m going to discuss is of Gnostic origin. As regular readers know, I have a certain amount of sympathy for many Gnostic concepts, while remaining (mostly) orthodox myself. I have, in fact, written a series about Gnosticism, to which this post belongs. Many aspects of the Gnostic mythos have passed into contemporary pop culture, with some themes practically becoming tropes; e.g. the dichotomy between the illusory world of appearances and the true world as it is, the control of the world by sinister demiurgic or archontic powers, and the necessity of special knowledge (gnosis) to see the world as it is. The theme I want to look at here is much less frequently discussed in the culture at large, although well-known, if perhaps not widely spoken of, in Gnostic circles.
To set the stage, let us rehearse, in supremely condensed style, the overall thrust of the Gnostic worldview (or “mythos”, which I later discussed at much greater length over here). Generally the Gnostic worldview sees the cosmos in strongly dualistic terms, divided between spirit, which is held to be holy and pure, and matter, which is held to be evil and tainted. The True God–sometimes called the “Alien God”–is purely spiritual, and neither made the material world nor had anything to do with it. His realm consists of the lower beings, pure minds, which the True God emanated from His own essence. The combination of all these beings–usually referred to in Gnostic contexts as “Aeons”, but equivalent to what we’d call “angels”–along with God is the Pleroma–the Fullness.
A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car. I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read. Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas. Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas. I got to the first page and stopped. I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped. The introduction to Thomas says,
The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus. For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.
Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.” “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources. This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.
“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time. They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple. The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005. Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on. Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document. Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples. Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus. Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels. About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. The rest are of unclear origin.
Those of us who are Gnostics believe that all people are ultimately saved and that God always loves us, no matter what we do. These beliefs are true, but they can very easily be simplified and misunderstood. God is never angry with us in the way in which a vengeful human would reject us, but God’s love for us has a dark side and one which we should rightfully fear. God loves us not in a sentimental way which aims at our ease and pleasure but, rather in a way which aims at our highest good and with an intensity which no one, even the highest angels, can understand.
–Edward J. Parkinson, in “Divine Justice: Gnostic Reflections on Some Often Terrifying Realities” at CatholicGnostics.com.; courtesy Wikiquote