“Kant” Revisited: Gnosticism

Welp, I was hoping to have something new posted over Thanksgiving weekend, but that plan failed miserably. Instead, we’re getting a flashback from my failed podcast “My Life With Kant”. This is actually two episodes put into one post. Additionally, since I don’t currently have access to a computer, everything is being posted through my phone. As a result, this post will look like shit because I don’t edit or spellcheck. Apologies. Enjoy! image.pngI’ve discussed my religious education in the past, and how, even though I reject most of what I learned, it still provoked me to think about the larger issues that we face in this life. Without my education, I never would have been interested in philosophy, most likely at least. But when we think of Christianity today, even though there are many different sects, there seems to be a common notion about it that we can all agree upon. Christ died for our salvation. That we can all agree upon, or I assume most denominations can agree upon that. However, throughout most of Christian history, there seems to be a dogma that casts a shadow over the believers. To many, Christianity isn’t an internal struggle for one’s own soul, even though it is for many others. But the internal world isn’t as important as how you live externally. Do you go to church? Do you give to your church? Do you pray? Do you act according to how the Bible tells you to act? If you answer yes, then for many that would make you Christian. But most don’t consider the gravity of salvation. Christians would tell you, or at least the one’s that I know, that if you don’t accept salvation then you’re damned to hell. For eternity! That’s an extremely heavy idea! But we take these ideas for granted in the modern world. I’ve always been interested in early Christianity. Think about the time immediately after Christ, would those followers have the same interpretation of Jesus’s teachings as we do? There was a lot of religious ferment during that era, and I imagine not long after the crucifixion, there was probably a lot of different people saying a lot of different things. However, the only interpretation that most people remember today is that of the Apostle Paul. His version of Christianity won out. But what were some of those other interpretations. Gnosticism is quite an expansive description. It doesn’t really explain a single sect of early Christianity, but rather it encompasses a multitude of them. Gnostics were searching for salvation for sure, but they were seeking it through knowledge. They were more concerned with the internal soul of mankind, rather than through any sort of external salvation. The work that I’m drawing upon is Stephan A Hoeller’s ‘Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.” He states that the monotheistic religions focus on the faith, or emphasizes the ‘I believe’. The Gnostics by contrast seemed more interested in obtaining knowledge that can liberate one out of the existence of the material world. Now it’s not hard to imagine how some of this might dive into mysticism of sorts, so I’m going to try to separate the mystical parts from the philosophical ones because Gnosticism has influenced a great deal of thinkers, to include Carl Jung and…So while most other religions were perfectly content with whatever sort of experiences their spiritual forefathers had, the general aim of Gnosticism was to get to the heart of understanding behind these experiences. So the individual believer can undergo a gnosis of their own and add to that understanding, and not have to rely on a priest or other ordained being to achieve greater knowledge. So while contemporary Christianity might emphasis phrases in the Bible, Gnosticism doesn’t rely on any sort of documentation, although there are infamously many Gnostic texts which contradict many of the claims made by the canonical Bible. The Gnostic Texts seem to indicate that the human soul is just an extension of the larger Divinity, however as Hoeller explains, we are existentially separated from it. And of course, when we say existentially, we can think of typical Nietzscheian themes like finding meaning, loneliness, etc. To many, this may sound like typical Eastern Religious thinking. So this line of thinking embraces the human condition, and the meaning that it seeks, as opposed to denying it like we find in typical Monotheistic religions. But perhaps one of the more interesting things about Gnostic thought is that it doesn’t take the perception that the world was created perfectly, and humans, through the perversion of dark spirits, caused it to be flawed. Instead, the world is seen as inheritably perfect. This is again, where existentialism is often compared to Gnosticism. The world is a dark place and we seek to escape from it. But the only way to escape it is by denying the material world, and the body that keeps our inner consciousness, or soul, imprisoned inside, and finally rise to a new spiritual realm. And of course, This would differ considerably from that of other monotheistic religions of the time, which insisted that man fell from grace and was in need of salvation. Humanity was therefore to blame. Instead, in the Gnostic tradition, God is more or less the owner and the initiator of the Universe, but other powers came to shape it. On its surface, it seems that Gnostic thought embraces a dualistic approach towards human beings. Our bodies are products of nature, but our souls are an extended part of the Divine. As stated before, in order to find union with the Divine, we have to deny our material selves. Therefore, we have to find salvation through knowledge of the spiritual realm. Even though the denial of the material realm is quite prevalent in Gnostic thought, there still has to be an embracement of life itself. Additionally, having Divine knowledge would require one to act morally. However, there are no set rules when it comes to ethical behavior. If one was committed to moral considerations, and understood the knowledge behind them, then their actions would reflect that character. But it doesn’t appear that the Gnostics took scripture as being literal. In fact, Hoeller points out that they found Adam and Eve to represent the psyche, where thinking and emotions originate, and spirit which is the transcendental consciousness. Adam represented the psyche, and Eve, the spirit. So the Gnostics tend to take a more positive view towards woman than what other religions would have been doing. These teachings were developed during a time when there was also a considerable amount of intellectual thought. So it would have to appeal to those who were well read in the works of the Greek Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. To some, the works of the Old Testament were seen as nothing more than myths, and were treated as such. But to the Gnostics, it wasn’t the stories themselves that were important, but the knowledge and insights that were contained within them. When we read history, and we see who influenced who, and how so and so’s actions ended up creating a whole series of events that led to present day, I always wonder who the most important person in history was. And it doesn’t matter what you believe, but you have to admit, Jesus Christ has to be up there. I know that creating lists trying determine who the top 100 most important people of all time were, is sort of dumb. Because everyone is playing their part in history, whether or not we’re aware of it. If you take one of us out, history would look completely different, if not immediately, then a 100 years from now. But for entertainment’s sake, let’s go ahead and create a list of the most important people in history. For my money, Jesus Christ would definitely have to be number 1. There may be some difference between what I say and what someone else says, but he would definitely end up in the top 3. And what’s weird is, outside of the Gospels, there’s absolutely no other document that describes His life. Probably out of every figure in the top 100, He’s the one we know the least about. And even if you’re one of those people that denies that Jesus Christ existed, even as a fictional character, He’s still the most important person in history. I mean, something happened. Someone got crucified, and that event would forever change the course of history. But because we know so little about Christ’s actual life and teachings, outside of the Gospels, we can almost project whatever perceptions onto Him that we want. If we look back to the few hundred years immediately after the Crucifixion, we find that there are completely different interpretations of Jesus’s life than what we find today. I left off in the last episode on chapter 5 of Stephan A Hoeller’s book “Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.” And this chapter addresses the Gnostic Christ. And it appears that the Gnostics viewed Jesus as an inspirational figure, and not necessarily as an authoritarian one. And of course, ancient Gnostic texts were never considered canon, nevertheless, a few of their ideas might have slipped into the New Testament. The Gospel of John appears to be somewhat influenced by Gnostic thinking, but an example that Hoeller provides is from the Book of Mark, which I believe was written 30 or 40 years after the Crucifixion, but it’s the parable of the wheat and tares. And as Hoeller explains, because the book explains it better than I can, but it says: “A man sows good wheat seed in his field, but later finds that an enemy has sown weeds among the wheat. When the workers ask if they should pull the weeds out, the farmer tells them to allow both wheat and weeds to grow until the time of the harvest, when the two can be more easily separated.” Hoeller would go on to explain, quote: “According to Gnostic teaching, the world is a mixture of the seeds of light and of darkness. Though it is impossible to distinguish between them now, in the fullness of time, they will separate naturally, as ordained.” End quote. So who knows what influenced what. Who knows if the writings in the Gospel of Mark would later influence Gnostic thought, or if Gnostic thought influenced the Gospel of Mark. But it’s clear that there are different interpretations. One of which, is that Jesus was a Gnostic Teacher, although their basis for this doesn’t appear to be based on anything in the New Testament. As where we view Christ today as being the salvation of our Souls, Gnostic tradition would have placed more emphasis on Jesus being a liberator of our material existence. According to Hoeller, this could be found in the Gospel of Thomas. So in this text, Jesus seems to downplay the Divine aspects of His teachings, and focuses on our attachment to the material world. He also doesn’t want humanity to be focused on the more dogmatic aspects of religion, and instead wants us to focus on our journey from ignorance to knowledge. And an important verse that’s provided here is the saying “Be passers by”. So I guess that’s not all that different from the teachings that we all learned in Sunday School. It’s a saying similar to “Turn the Other Cheek.”, in that Jesus seems to be promoting a more passive (for a lack of a better word) way of life. But through this interpretation, I can’t help but think of Socrates or the Stoics. I mean, you gotta remember, that Greek philosophy was already established by this time, so it would have had to exercised a degree of influence in this world, especially since they were governed by the Romans. But, at any rate, Jesus would seem to promote a minimal lifestyle. One that didn’t emphasize the external material world, but instead focuses on internal development. So Jesus is very much a Sage. And by the way, I don’t think that this view is all that different, or shouldn’t be all that different, from Contemporary Christianity. This is why, I’m assuming, that the Gnostic Jesus would probably reject the Great Commission, or whatever that doctrine is called where every Christian must go out into the world preaching the Word. Preaching the Word, or enthusiastically stating the new insights that you’ve gained from reading about Jesus Christ is cool, but what does it matter if someone has a different takeaway. That’s why Gnostic Jesus is more concerned with you and your journey, rather than you and your relation to someone else’s journey. ANYWAYS…But even to the Gnostics, Jesus was still a Savior. If you took His message, and understood it, then your soul is liberated through the Gnosis, or the Knowledge that you gained. At least according to Hoeller.

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