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.
Recently I’ve been posting on Apostolic Succession and church history in general. I thought about putting those posts under “Religious Miscellany“; but those posts are more general in nature, and cover religions other than Christianity. I decided it would be worthwhile to add a new index for such posts, which are more specifically about Christianity, the Church, and church history. Therefore, though I’ve written quite a lot about religion here over the years, this will be my most focused and specific index on religious matters. Enjoy!
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
There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems. There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes. To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.
Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things. Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down. Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.
This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity. This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety. Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism. I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism. In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category. This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.
The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular. Thus, we will look at them first. Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course. However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below. We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.
To which I can answer only, “Beats me.” I do think that looking at the question in the title of this post is of relevance in our discussion of the Fall of Man, for reasons that we’ll soon see. I want to do a bit more detailed followup to this, and to take an interlude before we go on to look at the fall and salvation of bodiless intelligences.
I’ll start by explicitly saying that when I say “the world” I mean the material cosmos. I’ll also specify that the question of God’s motives is posed in the context of “little-o” orthodox Christianity. In Gnosticism, after all, the question, “Why did God make the world” is meaningless, since in the Gnostic view He didn’t. Rather, the material cosmos is a chop-job made by the ignorant and/or maleficent Demiurge. In the system of Evagrius Ponticus, which we’ve also looked at, the question is meaningful, but it has a clear answer: God made the world as a sort of rehabilitation clinic for the fallen spirits (angels, humans, and demons) through which they would eventually be re-integrated to the realm of God.
Here we talked about the creation of the material world and embodied intelligences (us) by God. Over here we looked at how truly free creatures must be created at a certain “distance” from God’s perfection, with the (probably inevitable) corollary that at least some, if not most, of them will fall away to one degree or another. Let us now start connecting these two threads and see where this leads us.
First, it is worth pointing out a slight nuance in the concept of the Fall. To the orthodox, the Fall of mankind came after embodiment. That is, humans were originally created as embodied souls. Since humans were, in this narrative, primordially innocent, there was thus nothing “wrong” with embodiment. Had the Fall not occurred, humans would have lived embodied lives in innocent perfection. Embodiment is a feature, not a bug, so to speak. The Fall distorted the relationship of body and soul; but that relationship in and of itself is fundamentally good. It is also important to point out that in this model, we don’t have a body; that is, we are not actually a spirit that just inhabits a corporeal form. Rather, we are a body; or better, we are a holistic combination of body and soul making up one single hypostasis (person).
C. S. Lewis puts it in somewhat mystical language in Chapter 14 of The Great Divorce:
I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking up on it. And on the table were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimickry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in the world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.
Thus the body and the soul are in a sense different manifestations of the same thing, merely seeming different (puppet vs. giant) because of our perception of time.
In the Gnostic mythos, the body, along with the rest of the material cosmos, is created by the evil and/or ignorant Demiurge, who makes it as a sort of imperfect, Bizarro-world copy of the dimly perceived Pleroma (the perfect spiritual world of the Aeons, the angelic intelligences created by God). Thus, embodiment is a bad thing, as the material world itself is a bad thing, at best a pale reflection of the true Good, at worst a cesspit of suffering and limitation. Some versions of the Gnostic mythos posit embodiment as a theft of the Light–the spiritual essence that comes from the Pleroma–by the Demiurge and his Archons; in some versions, Sophia (the Aeon whose sin led to the existence of the Demiurge in the first place) deliberately “seeds” the human body with the Light, as a long-term “time bomb” that will defeat the Demiurge and ultimately bring about the end of the material cosmos. In this reading, embodiment is a good thing for the goal it will ultimately achieve; but it is still bad for us at the present. Our goal is to escape embodiment and return to the Pleroma.
Thus, the Gnostic perspective holds embodiment to happen after the Fall, or perhaps to be a sort of Fall itself; and the antagonism of the spirit and the body is not an accident, but it is baked into the cake, so to speak. We are not a body-soul amalgam, as in orthodoxy, but a soul–our true self–which is unfortunately connected to a body (or possibly many bodies–some forms of Gnosticism posit reincarnation) as a result of the entrapment of the Light in matter.