Beneath Belief

As I mentioned in my last entry, there’s been an explosion of interest in gnostic gospels in the past ten years or so. This interest is surprising because all of these gospels–even the Gospel of Thomas–were written much later than the canonical Scriptures. (Paul’s letters and the Acts of the Apostles were written in the 50s and 60s; the Gospel of Thomas was probably written in the second century). Their claim to tell us anything of the historical Jesus is therefore doubtful.

If the gnostic gospels are useless as history, then their popularity must attributed to their timeless spiritual truths. But this too is doubtful, for, as I will argue, they pose a number of spiritual problems, especially for the modern reader. (I’ll briefly discuss five, though I think the problems are legion). I too was once fascinated with gnosticism, before its problems became apparent to me, so I’ll offer my own experience as an example of why it might appeal to some people.

1. Material World

Gnosticism teaches that the material world, including the human body, is evil. This belief can lead to a certain sort of freedom–after all, if the body is unrelated to the soul, if it is no more important than any other substance in the world, like Krispy Kreme doughnuts or spiders, then it doesn’t really matter what we do with it. Bring on the orgies and the self-abuse! But, as Pope Benedict XVI writes, “This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body” (Deus caritas est 5).

Christianity teaches that a human being is a mysterious intersection of body and soul, which is something we experience for ourselves in our daily lives. We know that spiritual struggles or disorders can harm our bodies, as in psychosomatic illnesses, and that falling in love manifests itself in sensations like “butterflies in the stomach.” We also know that our bodily actions have spiritual significance–that prostrating ourselves can affect humility, for instance. This is why God enters into communion with us by means of physical signs such as bread or water or the sacrament of marriage. To deny or condemn our bodies is to mutilate ourselves, to become only half-human.

Modern-day gnostics, cognizant of how damaging this literally Manichean attitude is, argue that matter itself is not the problem–our illusions and false perceptions about matter are the problem. This is not, however, a traditional gnostic teaching. Read Augustine’s experiences with a gnostic sect, and you’ll quickly see that they really did think matter was evil. So if I’m being naive by interpreting the texts literally rather than discerning the hidden meaning, well, so are most gnostics, because that’s what most of them did too.

2. Women

Their rejection of the material world also leads the gnostics to reject women. Women, as they perpetuate the species through their bodies, are usually seen as more primordial and carnal than the male sex. Therefore dualistic religions like gnosticism, which teach hatred of the body, tend in practice to be anti-woman. Thus Jesus says of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Thomas: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (114). The Testimony of Truth says that John the Baptist “knew that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end.” In the gnostic worldview, women must divest themselves of what makes them uniquely women and become abstract, purely rational, sterile in every sense of the word.

Gnostics will point out that their gospels portray women as teachers, leaders, and disciples. Yes, and so do the canonical Gospels. The Virgin Mary was the greatest human being who ever lived, and a model for all humanity. Mary Magdalene was the first person to know the truth of the Resurrection. Mary of Bethany chose “the better half” and therefore showed all Christians how to contemplate Christ. The feminine roles in the Bible are not at all inferior to those in the gnostic gospels.

3. Cosmology

In order to explain how a good God could create the evil material world, gnostics have recourse to woefully cluttered creation stories in which God (or Sophia) creates multiple spirit-beings, one of which is eventually responsible for the creation of matter. Consider just a snippet from the creation story in the Gospel of Judas:

Adamas was in the first luminous cloud that no angel has ever seen among all those called ‘God.’ He [49] […] that […] the image […] and after the likeness of [this] angel.

He made the incorruptible [generation] of Seth appear […] the twelve […] the twentyfour […]. He made seventy-two luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in

accordance with the will of the Spirit. The seventy-two luminaries themselves made three hundred sixty luminaries appear in the incorruptible generation, in accordance with the will of the Spirit, that their number should be five for each.The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [50] [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.

These stories fall far short of the Genesis account (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,'”), which was admired even by the pagan author Longinus for its sublimity. They may be intellectually interesting, in the same way that a fantasy author’s detailed “world-building” can be interesting, but they lack a sense of spiritual awe. Even as allegory, they’re pretty poor stuff.

4. Elitism

Perhaps because its theology is so complicated, gnosticism has never pretended to offer salvation to all–only to a select few who can understand its teachings. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas only learns the truth as a private revelation from Jesus: “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” The Gospel of Thomas declares itself to be the “secret words” spoken by Jesus to his closest companions. These secret teachings have no place in Jewish tradition: according to the gnostics, the Jews worship an evil god, a demiurge. In the words of the Testimony of Truth, the Pharisees serve “the errant desire of the angels and the demons.”

It may be very romantic–not to mention flattering–to imagine oneself as infinitely wiser than one’s fellows, as the keeper of an esoteric knowledge. But it is ultimately lonely. Acquiring salvation through one’s solitary efforts, liberating oneself from all personal attachments, denies the messiness and neediness and passion that’s at the root of the human condition.

5. Suffering

Christianity offers no pat answer to the problem of suffering. In the Christian faith, there are manifold reasons for suffering–the fallen nature of the world; the choices we make of our own free will; the need to cleanse us of our pride; the workings of the devil. But, regardless of why we suffer, we can at least find solace in a God who shared in our suffering through the Cross. Gnostic Christianity offers no such solace. As Jesus says in the First Apocalypse of James, “Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm.” Valentinus taught that Christ was a spirit who descended on the man Jesus and departed before the crucifixion. Thus the gnostic God abandons man to his suffering–or rather, only beknighted, unenlightened fools suffer (they suffer because they have not realized their true nature), so why should we concern ourselves with them?

Given all these faults, why so much fascination with the gnostic texts?

I can’t speculate too much about other people’s reasons, but I can at least speak from my own experience. When I first began to feel drawn to Christianity, I had been living the secular humanist dream for a while: attending graduate school in a cool, liberal city; living far away from my hometown and family; casually sampling the food of small, embattled ethnic groups unknown even to most geography teachers; going on dates with men I had carefully vetted for their ability to talk about Terence Malick and farmers’ markets and music festivals (you know, the essential things in life). Even as I began to withdraw from this life, and to read the Bible and pray, I kept my distance from organized religion: God, I thank thee I am not like those other Christians–the kind who live in the South and are totally backwards on the whole same-sex marriage issue and, worst of all, believe in the Bible naively! During my conversion, I never mourned the physical comforts I would have to give up, but I clung to an even more sinful worldly comfort–that of my own self-image as a sophisticated, enlightened person.

During this time, I read lots of gnostic texts, as well as a lot of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrmann. But I never received much spiritual nourishment from them–except for a couple of good lines in the Gospel of Thomas, and also some quotes they had lifted from the canonical Scriptures, like “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). I was driven to these texts not because I loved them, but because I loved the Jesus in the canonical gospels that I was also reading at the time. I felt that if I just kept reading and meditating on the non-canonical gospels, I would find the Jesus I loved so much, but spouting the enlightened and ecumenical dogmas that I wanted to hear.

Well, it never happened. The true Jesus never showed up in those texts. Instead, they showed me a Jesus short on compassion but long on incomprehensible diatribes about the archons. And, as noted above, the “enlightened” dogmas never showed up either. So the gnostic texts were pretty much the worst of both worlds. Eventually I just had to give myself entirely to Jesus and His church, giving up my own attachments and pre-conceived notions of what I wanted to find in the Bible.

Essentially, then, I was interested in the gnostic texts because I loved Jesus but was afraid to become Christian. Therefore, when I see other people interested in those texts, I take heart that a soul is feeling moved towards Jesus, even if it’s taking a long and winding road to get there.

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