There’s a tension hidden in the metaphors and imagery used in the Gospel of Truth, and it regards the meaning of the metaphor of “error.” Throughout the text, “hylic substance” — matter, in other words — is said to be from a swirling “fog of error” which grew so thick it could take on form. Presumably the people of Valentinus’ time were unaware of how clouds of matter in space slowly condense over time into stars and planets, but the idea is similar. The obvious implication of equating matter with error is that the material universe is an illusion, which is a doctrine classically associated with Gnosticism.
But there’s another way to interpret the Gospel of Truth’s narrative about error, and I lean towards this being the “real” underlying meaning: that error taking on substance is a metaphor for the process by which concepts can get in the way of understanding our experiences, especially mystical experiences which can defy description.
The term “hypostasis” has numerous meanings, but we can use it here to refer to a process that happens within discourse over the course of decades. It starts with one writer or speaker, struggling to come up with a way to describe a particularly profound experience or realization. He or she chooses a term, knowing that it comes up a bit short, but which can be made to accommodate the thought being communicated. The problem is that religious experience often defies easily being matched with categories or notions or concepts that were designed to describe “things” in the real world and “events” which happen to those “things.” So the community agrees by convention to use, say, the word “wisdom” (sophia) to refer to one aspect of an ineffable experience.
The next generation comes along, and see this word sophia closely associated with something that affected the authors or speakers profoundly. They don’t have the benefit of the actual shared experience which triggered the start of this discourse, a particular circumstance that has now become a part of history. Their experience is of a community that has always used the word sophia to refer to a particular part of their experience. Add to this that the next generation may even have their own, separate sets of ineffable experiences that they choose to associate with this word. But the problem is clear: religious discourse is a giant game of ‘telephone’ played over centuries.
The further in time a religious community is from the initial experience which led them to gather together the particular set of ideas they use to describe what happened to them, the more profoundly the original meaning is lost. In that absence, a new meaning starts to form around the word sophia, and a “goddess,” Sophia, is born. By this time all you have at the center of your religious community is a set of ideas — the pneuma, the spiritual breath that permeated the original experience, is absent.
At the same time, though, the solution is not to sweep away the edifice. That edifice is necessary because it does provide a vocabulary which we might then use to describe our experiences with the divine. Without the edifice it is not possible to reconstruct the steps which led to the initial experience in the first place. We need a shared or cultural atlas of the mind in order to put these experiences into perspective.
The Gnostic program, then, was not to sweep everything off the table, but to make you aware, as much as possible, that religious doctrine is a set of tools. And not just religious doctrine, but philosophy or discourse in general. The key when using it to describe ones experiences of the divine presence is to make them work for you — not to let them control your expectations or box in your mind. And of the errors one can make, where the Gnostics were concerned, one of the deepest is to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrine.
For evidence, consider in itself the reality of the Nag Hammadi library: 13 codices of mostly Gnostic writing from various schools, times, and places. There are at least a dozen different versions of the creation myth among these texts alone. These texts give different names for the aions, different names for the archons. They differ on just about every point of morality or doctrine. They are not the collective product of a community that believed deeply in the literal truth of what they had written. But these texts must have served some purpose, or they would not have been maintained.
Perhaps each text in the library was the product of a different school who believed in the literal truth of its own scripture. Maybe: but this leads to the question of who would have gathered all these various contradictory texts into volumes together?
Perhaps the collector was an opponent of heresy who had collected them in order to refute them. Maybe: but what opponent of heresy would have stolen off into the desert to hide these texts in order to protect them from discovery by the literal-minded Church who intended to destroy them? (Besides, as James Robinson pointed out in the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, the scribal margin notes belie the idea that they were collected by an opponent.)
The very existence of the Nag Hammadi library is astounding in this regard. But it is not just the juxtaposition of contradictory scriptures in one library that leads us to the conclusion above: it is the conduct of the Gnostics themselves in their own congregations, as reported by their opponents. Elaine Pagels cited Tertullian’s indignance at the way the Gnostics conducted their ceremonies as an example of the church’s outrage — expressing dismay that they took turns in the role of priest or bishop, while denying that the bishops appointed by the church had any special authority.
It is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally — even pagans, if any happen to come… They share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics…. (Tertullian, quoted in The Gnostic Gospels, p. 42)
We can begin to form an idea of what wisdom was spoken among the initiates in the Valentinian gatherings. Recall in Matthew 13 that when Jesus was alone with the disciples, he gave them an explanation for the meaning of the parable of the sower along with a justification for speaking in parables in the first place: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'”
The parables in the gospels, and even the many numerous parables in the Gospel of Truth – and there are many – are considered by the Valentinians to be “rehearsal” for the teaching that Christian doctrine itself is a parable.
We begin to understand now the role of the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus sought to develop the spiritual themes he found common to Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism as it existed before him, and Christianity, gathering them in a format that would be easily understandable to Christians, but also easily digestible in the light of the revelation that the entire doctrine is a parable. The experience can not be communicated directly; it has to occur as a transformation in the way you view something you have been contemplating. So the Gospel of Truth presents the Christian doctrine in familiar terms, but in a form designed to make it easier to make the leap from believing in it to understanding it as a grand metaphor. The pivot is one’s relationship with the Father.
When someone calls your name, it brings about a sudden change in your conscious state. Valentinus used this as a metaphor for the experience of metanoia:
If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he replies, and he turns toward him who called him and he ascends to him and he knows what he is called. Since he has knowledge, he does the will of him who called him. He desires to please him and he finds rest. He receives a certain name. He who thus is going to have knowledge knows whence he came and whither he is going. He knows it as a person who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and having come to himself, has restored what is his own.