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Ten Things Religious Pundits Need To Know About Gnosticism
by Jordan Stratford
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Saturday, April 22, 2006
The following article is reprinted in its entirety with kind permission from the author, Father Jordan Stratford of the Apostolic Johannite Church, Ecclesia Gnostica in Nova Albion. Any questions or comments on this article, please address directly to Father Jordan, firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his Gnostic blog egina.blogspot.com
"We don't need to take the Gospel of Judas / Thomas / Mary seriously, because unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it wasn't written in the first century, wasn't written by eyewitnesses and is not historically true. It was written by an elitist world-hating sect called the Gnostics who were rejected by early Christians as heretics. Gnostics preached that the flesh was evil, and salvation was only available to a select few who had secret magical knowledge, or gnosis." ~Every bible "expert" in the western world in the last three weeks.
I've read variations on this spiel at least twenty times this month. The problem is that this summation of Gnosticism is entirely false, and in many cases known by its proponents as false; this is bearing false witness.
1) Gnosticism is not a heretical sect of Christianity
Gnosticism is a distinct, pre-Christian religion. Its roots are in Alexandria in Egypt, about 2200 years ago, where a "café-society" of Greek-speaking and educated Jews were syncretizing the myths of the ancient world with Judaism and classical Greek philosophy.
These communities and their ideas greatly influenced Christianity as it later emerged. As Christianity struggled in its first four centuries to distinguish itself from the pagan world, it slowly began to reject some of these Gnostic influences. But most of the people who still favoured these ideas considered themselves devout Christians, not heretics.
Let us not forget that the most common topic in the New Testament—more common than the power of love or redemption or the sacrifice of the cross or even the divinity of Jesus—is that "other Christians are getting it wrong". Paul condemns James as a heretic. Jesus refers to Peter as "Satan".
2) Gnosticism is a lot like Buddhism
Because of Gnosticism's insistence on personal responsibility and ethics, its emphasis on singular prayer, the practice of compassion, detachment from materialism and the striving for enlightenment, it has been called "the Buddhism of the West". The similarities between Gnosticism and Mahayana Buddhism are so strong it has been speculated that there may have been ongoing contact between the two religions.
3) The Gnostic Scriptures are, for the most part, contemporary with Christian canon
None of the four canonical Gospels were written in the first century. Mark was not written by Mark, nor Luke written by Luke. John was written in two distinct phases, the first of which showed significant Gnostic elements, and the latter a retraction and condemnation of those elements. These were based on first century oral traditions which varied greatly from region to region, but did not exist in written form until at least 100 years after the events they describe. Paul is the only first century Christian writer we have, and much of his writings were edited centuries later into the form we have today.
The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is contemporary with the later half of John, and there is some evidence to support that John's later editors were familiar with Thomas. The scriptural authors of the second century were reaching for meaning, using their interpretation what they had heard, their intuition, their creativity, and their yearning for G@d.
4) Gnostics do not hate the physical world
Gnostic scripture frequently invokes favourably the beauty and power of the natural world; the symbolism of pregnancy, midwifery, childbirth, newborns, storms and ripe crops are frequently employed by Gnostic authors. Gnostics do not view the flesh as evil, but rather as temporary when contrasted with the immortality of the soul—a view shared by most if not all Christians.
What Gnostics reject is not the earth, but the system: the artificial world of injustice, prejudice, institutionalization and materialism.
5) Gnostics do not repudiate salvation through Grace
The role of Grace, and of the Holy Spirit, is of paramount importance to the Gnostics. Where Gnosticism differs from Christianity is that Gnosticism says that "blind faith" does not grant salvation. To be saved from the forces of deception and ignorance (maya in Buddhist parlance) one must attain enlightenment: the direct experiential intimacy with G@d that is gnosis. This experience is the birthright of every aware human person.
6) Gnosticism is not elitist
Do Christians distinguish between the saved and the unsaved? Is this elitism? Gnostic teachings frequently reinforce the idea that liberation via gnosis is available to everyone; that such distinction is a matter of reclaiming birthright, of intent, choice, and effort. In fact, Gnostic theology tends to support the idea of apokatastasis, of universal salvation.
7) Gnosticism is not Utopian.
There is nothing in Gnostic scripture to support the idea that Gnostics wish to make "heaven on earth" from human efforts, and no connection whatsoever between Gnosticism and the reshaping of society; neither from fascism nor socialism. There is no "immanentizing the eschaton" in Gnosticism: Rather, this idea is the hallmark of millennialist Christianity.
8) Most basic tenets of Gnosticism are supported by Christian scripture
In fact there is a litany of Christian saints who are blatantly Gnostic; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Joan of Arc all described in detail the integrity of their experience of gnosis.
Paul says "The Kingdom of G@d is within you" which is probably the best single summation of Gnostic theology. Jesus says "My kingdom is not of this world" (Jn 18:36).
9) Gnosticism serves as a bridge between world religions
Gnosticism stands at the crossroads of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, representing a common ground. Historically Gnosticism influenced Judaism in the development of Kabala, and Islam in the development of Sufism; it both encouraged and challenged Christianity through its early centuries and contributed profoundly to Christian theology and identity.
10) Gnostic churches are thriving
Gnostics across North America and Europe gather weekly for prayer and Eucharist in forms very similar to orthodox liturgy. We derive inspiration from the Old and New Testaments, and also from Nag Hammadi scripture such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Thunder: Perfect Mind. A vital and growing Gnostic ekklesia is serving in charities, missions and hospitals; writing, crafting, debating and working in coffeehouses and dozens of parishes around the world. Most Gnostics consider themselves Christian, their churches constituting the Body of Christ. Other Gnostics gravitate to the symbolism and traditions of the Divine Feminine in her aspect as Sophia ("wisdom"), the Shekhina ("presence"), and the Holy Spirit.
Despite book-burnings, despite the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition, despite schlock-populism, and despite inane castigations from self-appointed pundits, we are still here; still praying, celebrating, exploring, and asking. Still Knowing.