by  Carl Pfluger

"Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32



Well, not all Gnostics were Christians -- and certainly most Christians have never been Gnostic! -- but there is at least a considerable area of overlap, because most of our information about Gnosticism, historically speaking, and most of our sources for that information, comes from within the context of early Christianity: from the arguments conducted within that polymorphous "Jesus Movement" of the Roman Empire in its attempt to achieve some sort of theological self-definition and self-understanding. Among the 4 Gospels which have come down to us as "canonical," John's is the one with the stongest Gnostic tendency and spirit: not least because he so often goes on at length about "Spirit" and "Truth," "Knowledge" and "Freedom." (By contrast, the Synoptic Gospels -- Mark, Matthew, and Luke -- seem much more concerned about Power and Authority, as is Paul.) And so it seems fitting to begin this exercise with the above quotation from John. But we should never forget, either, that "Truth" always has an inevitably subjective component: as John also recognized when, in his narrative of Jesus' climactic confrontation with the Powers of this World, he made Pilate say, "What is truth?"

At least one route to truth is by way of memory. Many Gnostics (here following Plato) made much of the idea that all knowledge (gnosis) is really a kind of memory: recollecting one's true self from the oblivion of this world, and recalling it back to what it had been in some primordial Eternity before the Beginning of All Things, back before we all were thrown into this fallen world of time and space, causality and contingency, of powers, principalities, dominations, and all such "archons," rulers or angels. This theme (of knowledge as a "reminding" of something that we already know) has been resonating in me ever since Johnes invited me to this Symposium. Why? Because Johnes' invitation -- and my personal re-acquaintance with him after a hiatus of 30 years -- has brought back to me many themes and concerns which I had "forgotten" for a while, but which he has now again reminded me of. In Gnostic/Platonic imagination, one might even say that it has brought me back to myself -- or at least to some significant part of myself. And so I take this liberty, this opportunity, to review some of those themes, in my own quirkily personal and informal manner, to recall to myself (and to anyone else who may be interested) just what it is that I think makes Gnosticism so perennially fascinating. Why is it, e.g., that I (who am generally as secular a humanist as any still extant in these Apocalypse-ridden times) can find that complex of ideas, feelings, aspirations and intuitions which we call "Gnosticism" so strongly returning to my attention? What is "Gnosticism" anyway, and why should anyone care about it?


As a noun, the word "Gnosticism" dates only from the 17th century, when antiquarian-minded theologians of the post-Reformation period began reopening some of the arguments which had agitated the first few centuries of the Christian Era. In the writings of some of the "Church Fathers" (especially in Irenaeus, Origen, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius) they read about some early "heretics" whose opinions were described as "gnostic," because they had (so the "Fathers" alleged, with great expressions of self-righteous indignation) preferred "knowledge" [gnosis] to "faith" [pistis] as the truest way to salvation, to the freedom of the soul. Considering that one of the seminal Gnostic texts (the Pistis Sophia) unites wisdom with faith in its very title, one may suspect that this contrast is, to say the least, a bit overstated; but that's the way it is with most polemical arguments, isn't it? The standard histories of the Church tend to write the story of Christianity as a struggle between "Orthodoxy" (quaintly imagined to be, somehow, one and the same at all times) and a series of "heresies," which have from time to time dashed themselves against the Rock of Saint Peter. One of the first scholarly treatments of Gnosticism that I ever read was in a book by some Jesuit (whose name I have mercifully forgotten) titled something like, Major Heresies of the Christian Church. Each heresy was allotted one chapter, and Gnosticism was Chapter 2. (It tells us something about the procedure of such writers that the "heresy" which gave its name to Chapter 1 was : "Judaism!")

One may surely feel provoked, in such an atmosphere, to ask: whose faith, what knowledge, whose freedom, and salvation from what? (or: from whom?) And by what standard of authority is anyone designated as "orthodox" or "heretical?" Such questions have hardly disappeared from Christianity; at most, they have been covered up, during long periods of orthodox ascendancy, only to emerge with greater force under the stimulus of such 20th-century rediscoveries as the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag-Hammadi codices.

One of the few things more or less clear (and seemingly agreed on all sides) is that "Orthodoxy" has always constructed itself, and defined itself, by drawing boundary lines against some opponent: some "heterodoxy" or "heresy." Well, suppose we consider some etymologies here. "Orthodoxy" means "right opinion" (or "straight thinking"), and "heterodoxy" merely means any "other" thinking, or opinion. But "heresy" always comes to us with more of a charge: an emotional charge, at least, and all too often, a legal charge as well. "Heresy" comes, in fact, from the Greek word for "choice." By definition, therefore, heresy seeks to exercise that freedom of choice which orthodoxy always strives to deny. And this is one of Gnosticism's strongest appeals, even to a modern mind entirely foreign to its mythical and metaphysical presuppositions. Gnosticism, like all heresies, is at least the work of people who tried to work things out for themselves, rather than submitting tamely to the "Authorities;" to such authorities, e.g., as Bishop Eusebius, that "Father" of Ecclesiastical History (and one of Constantine's tame intellectuals) whose slavish affirmation of "Apostolic Succession" (which seems to have been his preferred substitute for thinking and experience) did not save his own Arianism from being condemned as heretical when other dynasts succeeded Constantine.

So, if one of the problems with the "orthodox" tradition is its quasi-mechanical reductionism, appropriate enough to the bureacratic state of the late Roman Empire (follow the proper channels, and grace will flow to you automatically through the episcopal hierarchy, just as the Emperor's favor will flow to you through his diocesan organizations), Gnosticism calls to us as a prototype of religious and/or spiritual insurgency -- one might even say, of insurrection, if not (necessarily) of resurrection. Perhaps the most striking instance of that insurgency appears in the Gnostic treatment of Biblical mythology. Most Gnostic teachers read the first chapters of Genesis -- presumably drawing on other mythic traditions as well -- so as to present the Serpent, not as "the Devil", but as a much more positive character: indeed, as the very embodiment of wisdom and truth. Yahweh, on the other hand, was presented as an arrogant, jealous, and insecure blusterer, whose claim to being the Creator put him in the embarrassing position of being responsible for this whole ungodly mess which we know by our experience (if only we have the strength to face it) to be the reality of this our material world. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that this reading of Genesis is hardly more fantastic, nor any less literal, than are the readings offered by our latter-day "Fundamentalists.") And this their style of reading strongly in their Judaeo-Christian materials (or of "strongly misreading" them, as Harold Bloom would have it) might even give the Gnostics a claim to be regarded as almost a species of proto-Nietschean critics -- if only for the boldness with which they re-evaluated the stories, and the values, which they had been presented with by their predecessors. . . . But perhaps all that would take us too far afield, and the time has now come for me to offer my own quick and dirty "Definition" of Gnosticism, which would be:


Does that "definition" raise rather more questions than it answers? -- Well, good! I have tried to frame it as broadly as possible -- and in a transparently updated language, employing terms redolent of such modern concerns as "Deep Ecology" and science fiction -- so as to open, not to close, some of the questions I see as the most salient in any discussion of the ongoing dialogue between Gnosticism(s) and any of the more tame & "orthodox" of religious traditions. I mean , e.g., such questions as:

All such questions resonate in our experience on at least two more-or-less distinct levels: (1) emotional/aesthetic, and (2) intellectual/moral. (And I suppose the attempt to integrate these two levels is at least one of the things we mean -- or ought to mean -- by "Philosophy", or by "Enlightenment.") "Gnosticism" (or, more precisely, a plurality of the Gnostic/Gnosticizing teachers active in the early Christian period) did offer some strongly opinionated answers to all these questions; but the questions themselves, somehow, remain more vital than any of their mythologically conditioned "answers."


I would summarize the fundamental Gnostic mythos thus: We are all prisoners, whose first duty is to escape. Our prison is this world, whose Creator is, at best, an ignorant and incompetent bungler, an inferior angel whose ambition got the better of him; or, at worst, a primordial spirit of absolute evil and darkness. The former view is represented by the Gnostic systems most closely related to Judaism and Christianity (Valentinian, e.g.); the latter by those more closely connected to Iranian (Zoroastrian) dualism, of which the strongest example is, of course, Manicheanism. [With the Manicheans, we come as close as anyone has ever come to a Gnostic "orthodoxy" -- certainly to a Gnostic Church -- which established its own hierarchy, and which gave the strongest expression known to me of the feeling that the "evil" side of a generalized dualism must be identified with the world of matter, and of sensual experience.]

Well, as I said, that is the mythic statement of the Gnostic "case." It does cry out for some "translation."

It seems pretty clear to me that, at least at some emotional level, we all vibrate to some of these strings. We all feel, sometimes, a kind of all-pervasive homesickness, or something of what the Existentialists called Angst . We all feel, sometimes, that we must have "fallen into" this world, if only because we so often feel something in ourselves trying to "rise above" it, to "emerge" from it. We feel (as the mathematician & biologist J.B.S. Haldane put it so poignantly) that "the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose." Haldane was a Marxist, and therefore (at least "officially") not a religious believer; but that remark evokes something of the same sense of our being strangers in the world that Hans Jonas identified as the essence of Gosticism when he characterized it as "the Message of the Alien God." Even (or maybe, "especially") in the officially de-sacralized world of the past couple of centuries, Gnosticism offers us a language, a vocabulary, in which to express the profound discontent we often feel with ourselves, with our bodies, with our world. To some extent, therefore, Gnosticism really may be seen as a form of self-recognition. And recognizing such truths about ourselves may be the first step toward healing their psychic wounds, toward freeing ourselves from the hold they have on us in our most dreadful moments. As John makes Jesus say, "the truth shall make you free." Yes, all religions, and all philosophies may do something like this, sometimes; but insofar as they do, I suggest, they all verge on Gnosticism: on that rebellious sense that somehow we do know better than do all those established teachers, and orthodox "authorities," who are always trying to dominate us -- and then to make us "confess" that it all is for the best, in this best of possible worlds.

Those last considerations also point us beyond the "merely" emotional/aesthetic dimension, and into the realm of more generalized intellectual/moral/philosophical argument: specifically, into the arguments about theodicy, the attempts by the orthodox to "justify the ways of God to Man" -- most often, by denying (or at least minimizing) the reality of the sufferings we can see all around us. Nikolai Berdyayev (a Christian existentialist in the Russian Orthodox tradition) said that the only argument for atheism that he ever found persuasive was the argument from theodicy: it was impossible to believe that the world we experience could be the Creation of a God who was both all-powerful and all-good. [I seem to recall that Berdyayev, like other Christian existentialists, was sometimes accused of quasi-Gnostic tendencies.] Gnosticism, then, may be seen as the most profound, or at least the most passionate, of protests ever raised against the sort of compulsory optimism which has most often been demanded by the most oppressive of orthodoxies. It is the cri de coeur that, if there is a God of this world, he must be at least as guilty, or at least as crazy, as we are. In that sense, it even finds an echo in Voltaire, whom we usually associate with a very different moment of "Enlightenment." Candide is very much a protest against that sort of compulsory "optimism;" as Candide himself says (in Chapter 6), "If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what are the others like?" And I think it's also worth mentioning that in Chapter 20, the world-weary philosopher Martin, who so often serves as Voltaire's mouthpiece, describes himself as a "Manichean." ("When I cast an eye on this globe," he says, ". . . I cannot help thinking that God has abandoned it to some malignant being.")

-- Well, no doubt it would be stretching things too far to claim Voltaire as a full member of the Gnostic Brotherhood of the Illuminati (if there ever has been such thing, which question would open up a whole new cluster of mare's-nests!) -- but he does remind us that, as Johnes said when he invited me to this event, the subject does draw out the most unexpected people!

19 May 2001

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