Gnosticism

I had not intended to spend much time researching or writing about Gnosticism.  But the subject just keeps coming up in my studies of early Christianity.  I have been learning more about the Gnostics, and just completed Stephan A. Hoeller’s book:  Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.

Hoeller is a proponent of Gnostic thought, so his book needs to be considered in that light.  However, it is well researched and well written.  It contains a great deal of information as well as extensive philosophical (spiritual) discussion.  I won’t be able to cover all the topics here, but I will share the main points that stood out for me.

A religious cosmology is a belief system’s underlying understanding of the origin, history and ultimate fate of the physical and spiritual cosmos (universe).   Even though the Gnostics are often described as Christian, their cosmology is very different from that of any other branch of Christianity.   Compare the Gnostic principles quoted below from Hoeller’s book with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God and His creation:

“1- There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

2- The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

3- One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).”

Hoeller goes on to explain more about Gnostic dualism — that humans have an outer aspect that is the handiwork of the inferior creators, and an inner aspect that is a “fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity”.  There is also a discussion of Sophia, the personification of wisdom in divine feminine form, who participated in the creation of the world.

What struck me most about all this was not only how different the basic spiritual concepts are, but that there is never any reference to how or why they are believed to be true.  There is no reference to divine revelation or prophets or scriptures or any other authoritative source.  The Gnostics apparently just “know” by their own internal experience.  However, it is only fair to point out that Gnostics do not claim that their knowledge is objective and based on observable fact, but is more based on gaining understanding through myth and allegory.

The final point that I found to be significant is that the Gnostics view Jesus as the greatest Messenger of Light sent to us from the “ultimate unity” in order to impart to mankind the gnostic mysteries and instruct us in the way of gnosis.  They believe that salvation comes from that gnosis, apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection or our personal faith.  The bottom line is that Gnostics revere Jesus as a teacher, but in general do not align with either the Jewish scriptures or with the teachings of the apostles.  I would not include them under the broadest of “Christian” umbrellas, their own claims notwithstanding.

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Footnote:  The Gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, etc.) claim that the apostles did receive secret gnostic teachings from Jesus.  These writings include many alleged sayings of Jesus that are not in the four canonical gospels, but even there I do not find any basis for the divergent Gnostic cosmology described above.

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The Cathars

Many religious groups have come and gone through the ages.  Some have been clearly Christian, many were obviously not, and some have been far enough on the fringes of Christianity to be rejected by mainstream believers.  One such fringe group was called the Cathars.

The Cathar religious movement flourished in southwestern Europe in the 11th through 13th centuries.  Although its adherents called themselves “Good Men” or “Good Christians”, they came to be known as Cathars (from the Greek word for “pure”).  They did not have church buildings, but they did have a religious structure including bishops and deacons.  Pentecost was a main festival for them because the Cathars were very devoted to the Holy Spirit.  For the most part, the Cathars were pacifists who lived lives devoted to spiritual practice and religious service, and who got along well with their Roman Catholic neighbors.

The issue with the Cathars was that their beliefs included strong dualistic and gnostic elements which were highly offensive to the Roman Catholic Church.  There were some attempts by the Church to send missionaries to “convert” the Cathars, but those attempts met with little success.  Ultimately, Pope Alexander III anathematized the Cathars in 1179.  The Albigensian Crusade was launched against them soon after.  This was the only crusade ever authorized by the Church against other Christians.  The Cathars were persecuted and massacred, and then the Inquisition was set up specifically to hunt them down and exterminate them.  After they were wiped out in their main regions in France some survived for a time in Italy.  There were probably some secret groups elsewhere in Europe as well, but there is no more history of them after the 13th century.

What was so offensive to the organized church that they would literally declare war on the Cathars?  It was gnosticism, which had been preached against as far back as the original apostles.  Stay tuned for my next post in which I will share my research on gnosticism.