Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gnosticism, Afterlife, and Beyond

Have you ever had the feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the doctrine of the religion you’ve been practicing your entire life? I, for one, can answer ‘yes’ to that question. Originally it was more the question: why does the Holy Bible have so many inconsistencies? Later, it became: why are the only women in the Scriptures mothers or temptresses? Then, it became: why does everyone go to hell if they haven’t had the opportunity to know and accept Jesus as Savior? And later: Why does everything seem to boil down to motivation by fear? Slowly over time, I began to see organized religion, and specifically the “church” to be a means of power and control. It made sense that the most efficient way of controlling large populations of peoples was by fear. Not all people understand or agree with higher modes of reasoning and decision-making, but everyone absorbs the concept, and Christianity has particularly gruesome depictions, of burning in hell for eternity. So I started questioning my religion’s doctrine, but thankfully not my spirituality. Luckily, I’ve had enough personal experiences with miraculous events that I know with every fiber of my being that God exists. Perhaps it is that internal knowledge or faith that pushes me to search for religious and/or philosophical ideas that are more in line with what I intrinsically know about God. This course on the exploration of various cultural, historical and religious views of the existence of an afterlife gave me an amazing amount of food for thought along this same vein. When I first heard of Gnostic Christianity and the concept of the Sacred Feminine, well I just had to find out more and what better way than as my creative project for this course!

Before I go jumping into an analysis of the views on the afterlife held by Gnostics, it makes sense to frame this into a context of Gnosticism as a whole, its history, its sects, its influences, its beliefs, its critics, its champions, its place within the study of world religion and even a psychological slant (ala C. G. Jung). Okay, so I only have 10-12 pages and that sounds more like a textbook, but in actuality I hope to touch upon all of these things, ever so briefly.

A primary purpose of any major religion, in my opinion, seems to be to provide human beings with a purpose, a reason for being, hope that there is meaning for what happens to us in this life, and that there is something after this life as well. In fact, “nearly every major world religion, whether mono- or polytheistic, whether Eastern or Western, affirms the continuity of life after death” [1]. So I’m guessing I’m on to something here.

Major world religions, while extremely diverse in beliefs and practices, usually have a few common themes. They usually have some sort of explanation for: how we were created, who is/are the deity, why we exist, how we attain salvation (aka. life after death), along with a means of passing along this belief structure to others, whether by written work, symbols, oral traditions, ceremonies, or other practices and events. Another interesting tidbit I stumbled upon is that “mysticism appears in all the world religions” [2]. Mysticism has etymology to the Greek term myein, i.e., “closing the eyes” [3] and can be loosely defined as a practice that looks within oneself to find oneness with the divine [4]. Hmmm, so where exactly am I going with this? Oneness can have many names depending upon the religion: Union (Christianity), Nirvana (Buddhism), Moksha (Hinduism), Irfan (Islam) [5], or Gnosis (Gnosticism). Ah hah! See, I wasn’t going off on a tangent! The really cool thing is to see an analysis I found of some world religions and their associated mysticisms:
Dogmatic Religion:
Mystical Compensation:
Gnostic Christianity
Natural Science
Quantum Physics
Predominant Principle: Logos
Predominant Principle: Eros [6].

And because mysticism is all about finding the divine within oneself, just imagine how that might threaten the clerics, priests or other such castes (of the non-mystic variety), with their value and purpose in knowing how to guide their followers toward salvation, when salvation might actually be found from within ones own being! Talk about being out of a job so-to-speak. So is it any wonder why a developing non-mystic religious group may want to challenge, discredit, or even try to do away with the concepts, or even an entire sect of mystic believers such as these? And if a religion was quite successful at stamping out its competition (mystic and non-mystic alike) in this manner, it stands to reason that they might have a chance of becoming a “mainstream” religious movement. Hmmm, that sounds sort of scary now, doesn’t it?

Early Christianity had a ton of different sects with any number of different beliefs, including reincarnation. “A church council was required to settle the matter some centuries [my emphasis] into the development of “orthodox” Christianity (Fifth General Council, 553, in condemning Origen’s doctrine of pre-existing souls)” [7]. So you see, Christianity was not always so organized and standardized and “mainstream”, as we know it to be today. What separated Gnostic Christianity from the other developing Christian sects of the time were these four factors:
  • Novel beliefs about God(s), the Bible, Jesus, and the world that differ from other sects
  • Tolerance of different Gnostic and non-Gnostic religious beliefs
  • Lack of discrimination against women (Jesus and Paul did too, but other Christian belief systems started to oppress women in later generations)
  • A belief that salvation is achieved through relational and experiential knowledge. [8]

DeConick coined a term, normation, defined as “the process whereby one religious tradition asserts its superiority over others, particularly laying claim to being ‘the’ orthodox tradition, while others are considered to be lesser, defective, or downright errant” [10]. If normation is occurring right now with the Roman Catholic Church and other current religious sects like Protestantism and the Orthodox Catholic Church, it stands to reason that normation is something that has been happening throughout Christianity. In those early years Gnostic Christians were (through normation) eventually deemed heretics. Nearly successful attempts were made to completely wipe the Gnostic movement and its literature from history via Catholic heresy hunters and the Roman Army [11].

Gnosticism has historically had a vast variety of sects with different beliefs and traditions. Persian Gnosticism (the oldest forms of Gnosticism) includes Manichaeism and Mandaeism (which survives intact today mostly in the Iraq/Iran region). Syrian-Egyptian Gnosticism includes Sethian, Thomasine, Valentinian, Bardaisan, and Basilidean sects. Early Gnosticism includes Ophites, Marcionism, Cainites, Cerinthus, Carpocratians, and Borborites. Medieval Gnosticism includes Paulicianism, Tondraikanism, Bogomilism, Catharism, and the Bosnian Church [12] [15]. There isn’t enough room in my report to explore the specifics about each one of these sect nor the specifics about the religious leaders/champions for which they are named, yet I wanted to show the general volume and variety of the Gnostic movement historically. Gnosticism as a whole is considered a syncretistic religion combining elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyption, Greek, Syrian, Judaism, Christianity, as well as astrology [13].

With only a few exceptions such as Mandaeism, Gnosticism that survived the religious inquisitions of that time did so in secrecy so as to prevent further persecution [14]. This is perhaps a contributing factor explaining why Gnosticism is often associated with the term ‘secret knowledge’. “Because the Gnostics were labeled as heretics, it became a crime to be in possession of any of their texts. Many of the Gnostic scriptures were burned. [18]”

Since most Gnostic literature was destroyed, the majority of what we knew about ancient Gnosticism was inferred from the writings of Christian heresiologists, like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertuliian, and Hippolytus, where great investment was made in writing extensive attacks again the Gnostics. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that someone trying to discredit another would be wholly concerned with accuracy and objectivity in terms of the facts about their self-perceived enemy. [16]

However, this lack of objective historical information changes drastically in 1945 when the Nag Hummadi texts (and a subsequent text was discovered in the 1970s) were discovered inside a large clay jar buried in the sand in Egypt. Thirteen codices survived, made up of 51 works, a total of 1153 pages. Six works were duplicates of already known texts, 6 others were duplicates within this library itself, and 41 were new, previously unknown works, not all of which were Gnostic or Christian but many of which were. The texts were originally written in Greek and this library was comprised of Coptic translated copies of those original works. It’s estimated the works were buried circa 365 CE (some business documents were also in the jar), and was apparently hidden for safe-keeping during a religious purge. [17] [11]

What we have now with these discovered texts is a wealth of information about the religious structure of the early Gnostic movement, including creation and salvation concepts, deity descriptions, and detailed investigation into the ways Gnostic Christians were different from and interacted with other religious and Christian sects of the time. It is clear that Gnositcism helped shape the dogma of mainstream Christianity, even if only by forcing other Christian sects to clearly delineate where they were different from the Gnostic Christian sects as part of their normation strategies. [19] [22]

So now we get into the juicy stuff. What is gnosis? Gnosis is Greek for ‘knowledge.’ But, this is not the kind of ‘brainy’ knowledge that we typically talk about. This is a knowledge that isn’t taught, but a knowledge that is experienced. Someone cannot ‘teach’ you intellectually what heat feels like, or what cold feels like, or what it is to hear or see or smell or love. You simply have to experience ‘it’ to have that kind of knowledge. In the same way, gnosis is experiential knowledge of a divine nature. This folds into the previously presented idea of mysticism. Gnosis is enlightenment; an awakening; oneness with the divine. To have gnosis is to know God, to have experienced God. This is not something that can be learned intellectually. And, it is not a passive knowledge but is knowledge that redeems. It requires many things to attain this salvation. Those “things” and what is experienced differ from sect to sect, as do many of the beliefs and practices.

Earlier, I mentioned the four factors that distinguish Gnostic Christianity from other Christian sects. The novel beliefs, religious tolerance, feminine equality, and gnosis are defining parts of this religious movement for most sects. I kind of feel like I’ve just grabbed on to the tail of the bull right now, but, here we go!

‘Novel beliefs in terms of Christianity’ is an understatement. There are significant differences from mainstream Christianity and all its major religious components: how we were created, who is/are the deity, why we exist, how we attain salvation (aka. life after death), views of women, the world, sin, evil, Satan, Heaven, Hell, angels and the list goes on.

Now, granted, not all Gnosticism is Christian. But what I’ll be exploring here is primarily Gnostic Christianity as this was the focus of most of the research material I was able to find, but I’ll touch on Gnostic variations when I can.

Let’s start with: “In the beginning…”, shall we? The story of creation or cosmogony is a huge part of any major religion. Hold on to your seat. According to Gnostic scripture, a false god, the demiurge, created earth and all it’s life forms. And in so doing, the world was created imperfectly as a result. Different Gnostic sects have different understandings of the nature and intent of the demiurge (was he evil/Satan, or was he simply ignorant, being unaware of the True God). But all sects agree that the false god trapped spirits into bodies of flesh, creating Adam and Eve, again imperfectly. Gnostics believe that we were not born into original sin, but into ignorance of who we are and how we got here, via a false god that doesn’t want us to know he is not the True God, and that our purpose is to attain gnosis so that we might join back with the spiritual beings to which we belong, with God, once again. [20] [23] [26]

In some sects, the false god is seen as a Lower God while the True God is seen as the High God [22]. This Lower God was created by Sophia (we’ll get to her in a moment), and is, depending upon sect, called Yaldabooth, Ialdaoath, Jaldaboath, Sakla, Samael and in some sects is also Jehovah, the god of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Yikes! I always wondered why God seemed to have a split personality between the Old Testament and the New Testament…high-minded and forgiving one moment and hell, fire, and brimstone the next! Go figure.

So Adam and Eve, all of mankind, was created not in Gods image but in the image of a false god that intended that humans worship him for eternity. The Tree of Knowledge, in Gnostic dogma, does not bring forth knowledge of original sin, but brings forth knowledge of the false god, which is why they are warned to not eat of it. In some sects, the serpent is actually a hero for convincing Eve to eat the apple and learn the truth of human existence, being trapped in a material body by a false god which is not the natural state of the spirit, that he is not the only god, and ultimately that a True God exists. In those sects the serpent is seen as a liberator instead of a seducer. [21] [23]

Sophia is probably one of the most complicated topics that I’ve encountered in my research. Sometimes she’s referred to as an angel created by the True God, and sometimes she is not created by God but exists independent of God, thus being equal to and a counterpart of God. In other cases, she is said to have split into a Lower God and a High God. I am suggesting that all of these discrepancies are related to beliefs from different Gnostic sects but it is possible that I simply had a faulty understanding of the concept of Sophia. In most Gnostic sects, the True God is described as a dyad, both masculine and feminine so it’s a bit confusing for me. In all cases Sophia is considered an aeon, that is part of the Pleroma. Yes, I know I sound like I’m speaking Greek here. An aeon is an eternal being (Jesus is an intermediary aeon), often referred to as an angel, and in some sects archons are also aeons (the demiurge is an archon in some sects and a lower god in others). Archons appear to also be eternal beings but not of the True God and not of the Pleroma, and it is the demiurge and his archons that control earth. The Pleroma is the totality of all that is regarded in our understanding of ‘divine’ and is occupied by spiritual beings that self-emanated from the Pleroma. I like to equate the Pleroma to Heaven. The Pleroma is viewed in Gnostic Scripture as aspects of God, who can only be partially understood through the Pleroma. All aeons have a name (some of them several) and they all have a feminine aeon counterpart. The aeon called Wisdom has the feminine counterpart called Sophia also regarded as Wisdom. Now as I mentioned before, this is probably only believed by some sects, so I apologize. Sophia separated from the Pleroma to emanate the demiurge and thus also created earth without consent of the Father. This caused Sophia’s fall from grace, which is interpreted differently by various sects. Sophia is still regarded by Gnostics as the bride of Christ and the female counterpart to God at least within some sects. Through Sophia’s redemption through Christ, her redemption is the central drama of the universe. Gnostics equate Sophia to the human spirit, the divine spark within every human being. Some readings infer that some sects believe the divine spark is not in all human beings but only some, or that at least not all human beings are ready/able to achieve gnosis, and different categories of human beings in this regard exist in different sects' belief structures. Jesus and Sophia were sent out from the Pleroma to bring humanity gnosis (to recover the lost knowledge of the divine origins of humanity) and in so doing reunite humanity with the Pleroma. [23] [24] [25] [26]

I don’t know about you but Sophia and all that surrounds her confuses me to no end!

So thinking this through, we have a divine spark/spirit inside our bodies that wants to get back to God and the other spiritual beings in the Pleroma. This can be seen essentially as the reason people in all of history have gone around searching for the meaning of life, and how to find answers to the questions that their spirits keep asking, that our collective unconscious knows something that we are still searching for consciously, the unfulfilled part within us that we try to fill with worldly things: food, money, pleasure, success, religion and the like. But all we’re really searching for, all our spirit is really trying to do, is get back home to the Pleroma, to God. So once we figure out how to find the Pleroma, how to join with all the rest of the spiritual beings there, we will be fulfilled and no longer search for fulfillment in things external to ourselves. Now I have to say I like the sound of that. It’s sort of attaining heaven on earth. And without gnosis, you could say that we’re in a kind of hell on earth, being separated from the Pleroma trapped in a material form. So, if we’ve attained gnosis while we’re alive, when we die, we’d have no problem joining the Pleroma permanently. How cool is that, no more anxiety about death or dying! Even more interesting though is the idea that during life, there is an inner sanctity to shelter you from the chaotic changing world. Having that inner connection would allow one to have much less anxiety about the temporal nature of our material existence. [30] [32]

There is often the concept of dualism within Gnostic sects; although, monistic Gnostic sects also exist. Dualism refers to the existence of two opposing and independent divine entities that may be equal in force or one entity may be superior. This is the good and evil concept. Sometimes they are equal and sometimes good is superior to evil. In monistic sects, only the True God is divine, and the demiurge is not considered a god. [27]

In terms of the world, Gnostic Scripture does not contain anything equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Gnostics believe that the spirit within will instruct you on how you are to conduct yourself on earth and that such commandments are only of value to bring order, maintain social groups and to ensure societal harmony. [28] [29]

Okay, on to religious tolerance of other sects and religions. Basically, this is not complete religious tolerance but it certainly is more tolerant than mainstream Christianity. Gnostics have historically been syncretistic belief systems that pick up attributes from the various religions and sects around them and in that way they are tolerant. Gnostics are also often accepting of other mystic and/or wisdom traditions and are in that way also practicing religious tolerance. Although not found in my research, I imagine that Gnostics are also tolerant of other religions in terms of their beliefs that gnosis is a personal experience and that one’s Gnostic experience with God does not necessarily match that of others’ experiences and that the instructions provided by the inner spirit may differ in how the religion is practiced and interpreted, thus there is no one ‘right’ way of attaining enlightenment. Also, solitary practitioners of Gnosticism are accepted freely. Different renditions of Gnostic scripture exist for different sects which is also accepted. [13] [29]

The third factor was the lack of female discrimination. I must admit, women’s equality was a very attention grabbing point for me as a female as it is something rarely seen in religion or history. To see females as equals in a historic Christian sect was amazing to me. The capacity for women to enter into cleric roles (in some sects) is found in Gnostic scripture. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute but instead one of Jesus’ innermost disciples, a spiritual master, the apostle to the apostles, and second only to Jesus in status. Many Gnostic texts were written by or attributed to females. Gnostics often also have male and female images of God (not all sects). Theologians speculate that women were treated as equals or nearly close to equals within their religious society. [23] [31]

The last factor is where the meat and potatoes lie in terms of this course. Attaining gnosis, the understanding of salvation, and the concept of an afterlife are all rolled into this last differentiating point of Gnostic Christianity. As with any religion, salvation belief systems are highly controversial, as they typically state that salvation and eternal life can only be attained by that religion and by their specific set of rules and criteria. In Gnositicism you must first free yourself from the material world, and what this means is that you must shed yourself from not only your obsession with any materialism, but also your ego (namely your fear, guilt and shame as part of being in a physical body). Once you’ve purified yourself from the ego and the trappings of the material existence, you are prepared to begin your inner journey in the search of gnosis. This journey is taken, and gnosis attained through repeated meditation and visions. If a human being does not attain gnosis in their lifetime, or if they are not capable yet of spiritual existence (this refers to the sects that believe that human beings have different groups related to Gnostic capabilities), when they die, they will reincarnate into another human being to continue the spiritual journey toward attainment of gnosis. This reincarnation cycle repeats until the spirit has developed enough that it has reached the point where gnosis can be and is achieved. When gnosis is received, the spirit reunites with the Pleroma, ending the cycle of imprisonment in a physical form. So to Gnostics, Jesus was still the Savior by most sect definitions, but was the liberator from ignorance, not the one that atoned for original sin. It is my understanding that Gnosticism is still an apocalyptic-based faith, but I found very little discussion about the End Time. What was found simply stated that if gnosis had not be attained before the End, then the soul would go to hell for eternity but that hell would be not unlike the existence on earth in which the spirit is cut off from the Pleroma and God. It is interesting to note that much criticism against Gnosticism is raised around the lack of a foundation in the afterlife; when in actuality, Gnostics are talking about the afterlife and heaven whenever they refer to the attainment of gnosis and being one with the Pleroma and God. Just because there is not a physical heavenly end-time body, and just because the idea of reaching heaven prior to death, does not mean that it is not present, discussed and fully expressed. All that it means, from my perspective, is that it is a concept that most mainstream Christian believers have a hard time wrapping their minds around. [33] [34] [23] [29]

And lastly I’d like to discuss Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and their views on the unconscious as they related to Gnosticism. Dr Freud was the first to discuss the concept of the ego and the unconscious in a manner that used empirical study to justify the existence of the unconscious by proving that it impacted the conscious mind. The most common example of this would be the Freudian Slip in which the conscious mind says something other than what it originally intended but what is said is actually in alignment with the unconscious views of the individual. Carl Jung expanded upon Freud’s concept of the unconscious to include both a personal unconscious (equivalent to Frued’s unconscious) and a collective unconscious (haven’t I used that term before?) in which the unconscious is no longer just a composite of repressed/unresolved childhood manifestations, but includes that which is part of the collective mind, known by all, which might be equated to gnosis and the Pleroma if one were so inclined. Now the really cool thing is that Jung was also interested in empirical study like Freud and he too found empirical evidence that the collective unconscious exists. Noted as an example was a psychotic patient of his that had repeating dreams and visions, which incorporated a sun with a tube hanging from it. Jung knew this to be a sun phallus, which is a motif only occurring in the Gilgamesh Epic. The Gilgamesh Epic, however, had not yet been translated into a Western language and so was not something this patient would have any access or knowledge of. And yet the motif continued to appear in the patients dreams and fantasies. Jung attributed these and other similar experiences to the collective unconscious as the patient was consciously unaware of the knowledge, and was also unaware from a personal unconscious perspective, but was still somehow in possession of the knowledge, and sometimes knowledge in great detail, of times and events that the person themselves has no access toward personal knowledge related to the subject matter. Although Jung never went so far as to call the collective unconscious divine, he did associate a patients individuation process as one in which the person finds this collective unconscious within themselves, and that he calls a god-image. The scientist is not at liberty to call it "God", but he also does refer to the ‘pleroma’ when talking about the collective unconscious, so I really think it’s just a hop, skip and jump to calling it divine. But even if the collective unconscious has been/can be proven with empirical study, how does one prove the existence of the divine? Therein lies the rub. [35]

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