Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gnosticism Unmasked: The Religion That Never Was

In his book Psychonaut (1987), Chaos Magic theorist Peter J Carroll says the Gnostics were ‘true anarchists of the spirit’. For Carroll, Gnosticism represents a unique theology of revolt, a subversive doctrine of anti-morality and radical cosmological value-reversal. Gnosticism is presented as an integral belief system incorporating techniques of either libertinism or asceticism to implement a quasi-magical, esoteric programme. These ‘spiritual anarchists’ were, he claims, such a threat to the religious status quo (‘the black order of hierarchical Christianity’) that, unsurprisingly, they were violently suppressed by the authorities. Such, in a nutshell, is one of the many common perceptions of the phenomenon of Gnosticism, or the ‘Gnostic Religion’.

Both among the general public and the intelligentsia interest in this subject peaked in the years following the Second World War. In fact there is the possibility that what is commonly called ‘Gnosticism’ is – in the light of the insuperable obstacles encountered by researchers in the field – a product of the mid-twentieth century. It is a cultural artefact of the modern age with hardly any connection to the religious beliefs of late antiquity, a ‘Procrustean paradigm’ (Williams) obscuring the true dynamics behind textual sources.

Prior to 1945 this assemblage of belief systems and sects was approached mainly from the viewpoint of the early Christian heresiologists (Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, Pseudo-Tertullian, Epiphanius of Salamis) whose writings, naturally, condemned ‘Gnostics’ as heretics: believers in irrational, blasphemous teachings – perversions of ‘true’ faith.

As the nineteenth century progressed scholars became more concerned with the simplistic exercise of symbol derivation – tracing the inheritance of motifs and symbols in art and literature across various cultures and time zones – and aside from the speculations of occultists, Gnosticism was of interest only in these contexts.

The occult approach to the subject may be exemplified by Crowley’s book The Vision and The Voice (written 1900-1909) as it draws upon the system of personified Aeons (the thirty Aethyrs) found in the Angelic works of Dr John Dee. This was a magical-spiritual system indirectly derived from ancient sources considered ‘gnostic’ or, more likely, Neo-Platonic. Other esoteric interpretations of Gnosticism abound in the occult community, while Neo-Gnostic churches with their roots in the nineteenth century, such as that founded by the Patriarch Synesius (Fabre des Essarts), still flourish in various forms today.

In the late nineteen fifties the study of Gnosticism attracted attention among a wider readership, partly due to the seminal study Les Livres secrets des Gnostiques d’Egypte (1958) by French expert Jean Doresse. But it was The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (1958, 1963) by Hans Jonas that probably did more than any other work to cement the image of the ‘revolutionary’ gnostic vision in the popular consciousness and the developing anti-establishment counter-culture.

Jonas surveyed many relevant belief systems from a phenomenological perspective and codified many influential themes and motifs. Also, he linked the gnostic corpus to the pervasive notion of social crisis and made telling comparisons with Existentialism. For many, the allure of ‘secret books’, ‘hidden knowledge’, ‘the alien god’ and antinomian, anti-cosmic pessimism proved irresistible. It is this complex of psycho-spiritual ideas that crystallised the idea of ‘Gnosticism’ as many understand the term today. Perhaps the secret books of the gnostic sects, like the Necronomicon of H P Lovecraft and its many spin-offs, hold the keys to ancient mysteries and new, perhaps terrible, readings of human destiny.

When faced with teleological crisis, disruptive social change or political disaster the fearful imagination retreats into the murky underworld of the collective unconscious, the theological undergrowth of unorthodox speculation. The apparently ‘counter-traditional’ nature of supposed ‘gnostic’ belief systems presents the onlooker with a rich vein of appropriate symbolism. Here is a dark and anguished picture of the cosmos – a universe created by inimical powers. This identification gave rise to what some exasperated experts have referred to as a ‘menu of clich├ęs’, the inflation of a jargon term – Gnosticism – into a fashionable category. A category that soon became so all-inclusive as to prove a hindrance to understanding.

Richard Smith and Ioan Culianu have listed the wide-ranging use of the term Gnosticism in modern times. Thus we find the term applied to the poetry and prophetic books of William Blake, Moby Dick, the psychology of Jung, Communism, Nazism and Existentialism. Albert Camus claimed that the Marquis de Sade was a Gnostic. The philosophy of Hegel as been defined as ‘gnostic’ along with Psychoanalysis, Marxism, James Joyce, Yeats, Kafka and the novels of Herman Hesse, to name but a few movements and authors swept up into the ‘gnostic’ stew. Even more recently ‘gnostic’ motifs and images have surfaced in the lyrics of musician Tori Amos who finds that Jesus was a Christian feminist. Some claim that science itself is ‘gnostic’. Culianu came to regard the term as a ‘sick sign’ a bucket term that has come to mean far too much – that is to say nothing at all. Clearly he was right.

The catalyst for the post-war fascination with Gnosticism was the discovery in Upper Egypt in 1945 of the collection of documents known as the Nag Hammadi Library. The ‘discovery’ of ancient manuscripts or inscriptions, arcane messages from a distant age, is itself an evocative event, bringing to mind exotic adventures in far away lands and the exploits of popular heroes like Indiana Jones or Alan Quatermain. In the Introduction to Rider Haggard’s novel She: A History of Adventure (1887) we find a reproduction of a facsimile of the ‘Sherd of Amenartas’, an ancient amphora fragment inscribed with the legend of Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the Arabic Sorceress of the Caves of Kor. The ancient, enigmatic text is a gateway to mystery, adventure and wild imaginings. For many the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts evoked the same ethos.

Reportedly discovered by locals engaged in a melodramatic blood feud the small cache of ancient Coptic texts were unearthed in a red earthenware jar in the caves at Jabal al-Tarif near the town of Nag Hammadi. This library comprised thirteen codices (twelve intact and one surviving only in a few pages) and eventually became the property of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. This collection comprises the largest single surviving set of Coptic translations of original Greek devotional works dating from the 2nd or 3rd Century or possibly earlier. Each codex contains a number of tracts, some anthologies more wide-ranging than others. For example Codex I (known as the Jung Foundation Codex) contains five tractates while Codex VI contains eight works, including the famous ‘voice of the revealer’ paradox poem Thunder, Perfect Mind. On the other hand Codex X contains only one work and Codex VIII merely two. One item The Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John is included several times and seems to be the most popular and respected tractate in the collection.

The entire library soon became popularly known as The Gnostic Gospels – unfortunately not one of the 52 tractates in the entire collection mentions the word gnostikos/gnostikoi (or the Coptic equivalent of that Greek term) even once. How very odd – very odd indeed!

Even among the sects anathematised by heresiologists close analysis shows that it is virtually impossible to identify any group of believers who actually used ‘Gnostic’ as a label of self-definition. Although the sects use a variety of nomenclature, including Pneumatics, Seed, Elect, Race of Seth, Race of the Perfect Human and Immovable Race the name ‘Gnostic’ is not among those used by devotees. In any case there is a need to distinguish between ‘Gnosticism’ and ‘gnosis’. The term ‘gnosis’ can refer to any mode of mystical knowledge, whereas the term ‘Gnosticism’ implies a generalised unity, some form of coherent, established, historical movement, system or religious organisation. Gnosticism means The Gnostic Religion, an entity for which ‘there is no evidence and against which there is much,’ to quote Michael Allen Williams. The idea of specialised mystical knowledge (‘gnosis’) as a factor defining a particular set of believers is widespread among many different religions – it is a very broad term of little analytical value.

The provenance of the collection remains a matter of speculation. One should draw a distinction between the possible custodians of the Codices and their producers. Williams speculates that the books may have been produced by fourth century Egyptian monks interested in examining questions of divinity and spiritual techniques for attaining transcendence of the created order. The writers of these scriptures would, at the time of composition, have found nothing un-Christian about the contents of the tractates. However the diversity of the contents has given rise to conflicting theories about the ownership and purpose of the collection. Possibilities include a particular sect of unknown designation; a heresiological resource used to refute unorthodox arguments; a haphazard collection maintained as general reading matter before the imposition of strict orthodoxy in biblical literature by Bishop Athanasius (in the year 367).

The codices fall into four rough groupings comprising items from the Corpus Hermeticum, part of Plato’s Republic and two other sets: ‘demiurgical’ texts and ‘non-demiurgical’ texts – among the latter there are items on the subject of Baptism and the Eucharist.

This brief survey highlights the particular group of texts defined as ‘demiurgical’, or to be precise ‘biblical demiurgical’. It is the demiurgical myth pattern that emerges as a particular type of revelation tradition within the Codices of interest to researchers concerned with the issue of ‘Gnosticism’. It might appear that these tractates indicate a religious innovation in the context of orthodox Christian teaching, and this might indeed be the case. However one must be clear on two points: firstly that all these texts are within the sphere of Judaic Scriptural exegesis, and secondly, that the demiurgical idea is not unique to Judaism, Christianity or an emerging new doctrine of ‘Gnosticism’. In fact the myth pattern is an import from older philosophical traditions, specifically from Platonism.

The main source of the demiurgic myth is Plato’s dialogue Timaeus (circa 448 BC).

The term demiurge (demiourgos) means ‘producer’, ‘workman’ or ‘creator’. In Timaeus the demiurge is the creator of the visible, material world – the sensible, mundane universe made from the four elements. That the material universe is a copy of an ideal universe existing only in the realm of Ideas or Forms, is an essential point of the Platonic mythic pattern. The Timaeus pattern is an example of cosmogenesis of the emanationist type. In this kind of system, by virtue of its secondary status, the ‘real’ world of human beings is already perceived as a degraded mode of existence, a downward emanation from a purer form of spiritual being.

However this kind of hierarchy also extends to the entities that inhabit the lower world. The demiurge created not only the Soul of the World, but also the stars and a caste of ‘lower gods’. It is these lower gods who are responsible for the creation of the mortal bodies of men, although the demiurge is thought responsible for their immortal souls.

In later antiquity this scheme was subject to vast elaboration and, as in the original Platonic system, the demiurge was differentiated from the ultimate principle of Good, a moral category closely associated with the Ideal Universe of Forms. Greek Christians and Jewish scholars influenced by Neo-Platonism and other aspects of Greek thought soon identified the demiourgos as the Creator God of Genesis. This is the origin of the biblical demiurgic tradition, a mode of Judaeo-Christian theological speculation that over time has given rise to the idea of ‘Gnosticism’. This analysis would exclude other religions or sects that promoted a dualistic vision – thus Manichaeans and Mandeans are not to be classed as ‘Gnostics’. While ‘classic gnostic’ works such as The Apocryphon of John should properly be seen as variations of the Judaic scriptural tradition, not a separate religion with a unique ‘revolutionary’ or ‘anarchic’ attitude. The two distinguishing features being (1) a distinction between the ‘ultimate’ transcendent deity (‘God’) and the Creator God of the Bible and (2) the theme of a message of reawakening (salvation) sent from the higher realm. This higher realm is clearly a variant of the Platonic ideal realm of Forms, later vulgarised in the familiar notion of a celestial Heaven.

Given that the terminology associated with ‘Biblical Demiurgy’ is a more viable and clear than that associated with ‘Gnosticism’ some experts argue that this category provides the only fruitful avenue for further research. One can but agree with this assumption, even if it spells the end of a romantic love affair with a fictional anti-establishment religion.

It remains to examine the motivations, if not the origins, of this variant tradition within Judaeo-Christian speculation.

The particular character of Biblical Demiurgical myths derives from moral preoccupations. Salvation ideology is above all an ideology of moral purity. The notion of ‘evil’ is therefore, not only central to the redemptive ethic typical of the Christian tradition (and all other puritan moral doctrines world-wide), it is also a notoriously difficult concept to integrate into a framework determined by a supernatural principle of ultimate Goodness.

The difficulties arising from the problem of evil and other anomalies or peculiarities in scripture (anthropomorphic characterisations of the deity, for example) account for the particular character of the Biblical Demiurgical constellation of mythic systems. It is strenuous attempts to deal with these concerns of Theodicy, sometimes in the face of satire and criticism from non-Jews and non-Christians that lead to the innovations enshrined in some of the Nag Hammadi Codices.

Michael Allen Williams draws attention to elements of Genesis that were well known as problem features of the scripture. For example, in Gen 1:26 the creator is referred to in the plural (“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”). Other stories, such as the Sin of Adam and Eve (the Paradise story); the Descent of the ‘Sons of God’; The Flood story and related tales of The Tower of Babel or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (similar to the Platonic myth of Atlantis), all presented problems of exegesis. Innovative mythmakers constructed elaborate scenarios to account for the anthropomorphism and perceived moral difficulties of these texts.

If the very notion of jealous or angry deity worked against the idea of transcendent spiritual serenity, the Platonic demiurge provided a very convenient solution. Clearly the creator of ‘this world’ of sin and suffering was not an omnipotent, all seeing, Supreme Being incapable of evil, but the work of a ‘lower’ emanation or entity in the role of ‘creator’. Classic ‘gnostic’ texts are typical of this kind of early Christian hermeneutic speculation, giving rise in the natural course of events to sects and sub-sects later condemned as heretics. Modern commentators who seek to present ‘Gnosticism’ as a pessimistic ‘anticosmic’ religion of revolt with a special essence that sets it apart from the mainstream are clinging to a distorted caricature vision – despite their diversity and variation all the original ‘gnostic’ texts known to us are, in fact, Christian. There never was a distinctive unified counter-traditional religion of revolt known to its adherents as ‘Gnosticism’.

Furthermore it is quite misleading to see the writings under discussion as a radical departure from the norms of early Christian and Judaic moral thinking. It is only to be expected, given the entrenched misogyny of all faiths based on moral purity, that the source of ‘evil’ in both the Sethian Apocryphon of John and Valentinianism (to cite just two examples) is a feminine principle. It is Sophia (‘Wisdom’) who initiates the degeneration of the emanations of being and disrupts the ‘serenity of the divine world’ (sometimes seen as a ‘household’) by a self-willed act of imaginative projection. Achamoth, offspring of Sophia, a personification of imperfect thinking, is also a feminine principle. In the Valentinian system it is Achamoth who creates the Demiurge, who, in ignorance of the supernal realms claims “I am the lord, and there is no one else…” (Isaiah 45:5). This utterance is as a sign of hubris – even though the demiurge is the Creator, he is still a degraded spiritual entity compared to the ultimate Good, the true God. The Devil, Cosmocrator of the World is created by the Demiurge.

Thus, we see how, by an indirect chain of emanations, the evil principle, the Devil, is a descendent of the only female principle in this patriarchal scheme so compatible with original Platonic thinking. Plato taught that evil men were reincarnated as women.

It is true that various categorisations of higher spiritual principles (such as Barbelo the mediating first-thought or self-image of the supreme entity) are pictured as androgynous – but one can be sure that such an idea simply confirmed the ‘heretical’ nature of these sects in the eyes of the orthodox. Nevertheless the general drift of all these mainly ascetic doctrines conforms to the overall pattern of salvation ideology, an ideology compelled by its own inner logic to assert the debased nature of the sensible world; for, if ‘the world’ is not ‘fallen’ there is no need of salvation.

The levels of emanation and complex strata of lower gods, angels and Aeons simply represent a more baroque variation on the original idea that the ‘real’ world is but a pale imitation (inferior or ‘fallen’) of a higher realm of pure perfection. The notion that evolution implies a continuing distance from the first principle of absolute purity implies that all subsequent phases, or changes, are more debased, more impure than previous phases. This is one of the main tenets of all authoritarian systems – the idea that change is always change for the worse, that tradition is preferable to innovation – one of the main rationales for the suppression of dissent in this particular kind of ideological framework.

This is why Sophia is seen as an ‘unruly’ element, a personification of cosmological perturbation, enemy of stability and harmonious authority. It is an interpretation serving the interests of a patriarchal caste horrified by the disruptive, truly anarchic (chaotic) potential of desire in general and female desire in particular.

At a more fundamental level these pre-orthodox, ‘heretical’ systems oscillate between the twin poles of temporality. Here we find, as one might expect, myths of the past and myths of the future. Myths of the past are creation myths, myths devised to explain or explore issues of origins, meaning and purpose, including the meaning and origin of evil. Myths of the future often derive from the universal notion of ‘deliverance’, sublimated (in the case of ‘Gnosticism’) via the Judaeo-Christian paradigm as the principle of Redemption or Salvation.

Insofar as the ‘gnostic’ beliefs outlined here fail to step beyond these parameters it is clear that the attribution of ‘revolutionary’ attitudes to so-called ‘gnostic’ believers is misleading, just as the notion that ‘Gnostics’ sought to invert interpretative traditions (‘value-reversal’) as a systematic programme of subversion is also misleading. Demiurgical interpretations of scripture represented specific attempts to deal with specific textual issues. These were issues well known as problematic and subject to continuous revision, analysis and scriptural surgery by many philosophers and theologians of the time. Of course, in many cases the church simply explained anomalies by allegory and parable, but others wrongly called ‘Gnostics’ invented alternative cosmologies using the familiar symbolic lexicon of Platonic philosophy in synthesis with Judaic myths and traditions assimilated into Christianity.

The origins and identities of the authors of the Nag Hammadi Codices will probably remain unknown. Behind these shadowy authors one should image a tangled web of complex theological speculation giving rise to multiple mythic innovations. The outcome of this process being the multiplicity of demiurgical interpretations found in the known sources. One thing, however, is quite certain: there was no distinct ‘religion’ or doctrine called ‘Gnosticism’ by its followers and there were no ‘spiritual anarchists’ in late antiquity.

 We can be sure that this idea is a symptom of modern anxiety or anomie, a product of twentieth century pessimism. ‘Gnosticism’ is a modern myth – the myth of a Religion That Never Was.

Select Bibliography

Carroll, Peter J. Liber Null and Psychonaut, Samuel Weiser, 1987
Howatson, M. C. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. OUP, 1997
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Beacon Press, 1958
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. Pelican Books, 1982
Plato. Timaeus. Penguin Books, 1965
Webb, James. The Flight From Reason. Macdonald, 1971
Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking Gnosticism. Princeton University, 1996

Illustration:  The End Of Everything, 2000