Category Archives: overview

Making Paradigm Shift our Religion

One way to look at what was going on during the period of antiquity is to say that civilization was going through a major paradigm shift.  But this is the way we, with the benefit of terminology like “paradigm shift” at our disposal, are able to understand what was happening at the time, looking back at the historical and archaeological record in retrospect.  Those living through it and expressing it in their writings struggled to put into words the changes they were witnessing.

One obvious change is that notions of justice had changed over the centuries.  Much of the Law and the Prophets (what Christians call the Old Testament) conceptualize justice as a collective national concern.  When the prophets complained that the nation was failing to do “what is right in the eyes of the Lord,” they were concerned less with the conduct of individuals and more with the collective actions of the nation as a whole — but with perhaps some direct scrutiny directed at members of the ruling class.  With the identity of the nation tied in with that of the king, it was presented as just that the Lord should punish the entire nation for the misdeeds of the king or the upper class.

For example, one of the more puzzling passages (to modern readers) concerns the census ordered by King David.  The purpose of the census was likely to know how large of an army he could raise.  The passage begins with this: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah'” (1 Samuel 24:1).  Even over the objections of his military commander, David ordered the army to conduct a census of his kingdom.  In response, the Lord gives David a choice of three punishments:

[T]he word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?  (2 Samuel 24:11-13)

David chose the pestilence, and 70,000 people died in a plague.  The sin is pretty clearly attributed to David, but it is the nation who bore the retribution, and, if we are to believe this version of events, the whole thing was a set-up by the Lord.  (The version of this story in 1 Chronicles 21 attributes the original inspiration to Satan, not the Lord, but that doesn’t blunt much the criticism we might level at the unfairness of punishing thousands of innocent people for the sin of another.)

If this sounds overly harsh and unfair to modern readers, it must be said that it sounded that way to most of the readers of antiquity as well. They dedicated a lot of energy struggling to find a way to reconcile their own ideas of fairness, and their vision of God as a just and fair Lord, with the desire to maintain fidelity with their scripture as it had been written.

By the period we call antiquity, Jewish doctrine did not much resemble the ancient set of views which had produced the older scripture.  A lot had happened over the centuries.  Conquering empires had swept over the area, from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and finally Thrace and then Rome, and each had left their cultural mark on the region.  The influence of Hellenistic and Roman culture was particularly profound, at least in the time of antiquity, because it was the most recent.  Views had changed so much that it was a struggle at that point to maintain the principle that ancient scripture was their primary source document.  For example, most Jews of the time lived outside of Judaea and did not even speak or read Hebrew.  Just living in the Diaspora, away from the Temple, forced a lot of concessions.  A lot of legends had been adopted as beliefs which had not been recorded in ancient scripture — how were those to be treated?

The most obvious way to bridge this gap was to write commentary about scripture.  This commentary was generally welcome, and came to have almost the same level of authority as scripture itself.  But it also produced new forms of tension because not everyone accepted the newer writings as authoritative — and also, as time passed, these newer writings became just as out of touch with the times as original scripture itself, forcing even more commentary to be written.

Some of the commentary explored a new approach to interpreting scripture in a less literal way, arguing that where a literal interpretation comes up short, a metaphorical one may do.  One notable innovator in this regard was Philo of Alexandria, who offered an attempt at drawing together Jewish doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy and Egyptian mysticism.  Another innovator was Hillel.

Others held views that had shifted so much they could no longer work with even these forms of reconciliation.  They objected to the parties in power, both in the temple and in the palace.  They objected to what they had been taught about right and wrong.  They objected to the social obligations placed on them by family and employers.  And when these objections became widely-held enough to reach a critical mass, they birthed new social movements.

Apocalypticism is a form of radical theology that expresses a powerful yearning for a new social order.  It is tempting to argue that it is more political than religious, but this would neither be fair nor accurate.  The problem is that when apocalyptic scripture is read by people of later generations, we too have shifted in our thinking and would (probably) not express political ideas in the same way, so it is all too easy for the political dimension to be overlooked or glossed over.

Christianity and Gnosticism were apocalyptic movements, and it is not possible to fully make sense of their teachings without considering their political underpinnings.  To go even further, I would argue that these doctrines do not even make much sense taken in the absence of their political underpinnings.

So to say, as many do, that Gnostics equated “the Jewish God” with the chief archon is an oversimplification that misses the goal.  Gnostic doctrine was an expression of a paradigm shift that occurred within the milieu of Hellenistic Judaism.  And the idea, basically, was this: that the God we worship is not the Lord described by the Law and the Prophets.  They expressed their objections within the cultural milieu that was their heritage.  Many of them combined this with the doctrine of antinomianism, the rejection of the Law as divine.

The Christians, for their part, developed a theory of “supersessionism” which taught that Jesus ushered in a new, superior covenant that replaced the old one.  The idea is an attempt to have it both ways — they wanted to maintain the authority of the Law and the Prophets while at the same time claiming that they no longer held.  So, they claimed that the requirements of the Law had all been “fulfilled,” thus making way for a new covenant.

What makes this a difficult topic is that later generations of Gnostics and Christians came to faith within a Christian cultural milieu instead of a Jewish one.  They were no longer dissenters within their own faith tradition, they were critics of a different tradition.  Because of this and the long history of anti-Semitic oppression and violence which followed, it is impossible now to discuss Christian or Gnostic theology without acknowledging that these doctrines have long outlived their usefulness.  And today, they are symptoms of the very problem that the Christians and Gnostics were seeking to solve: they reflect an outdated way of thinking, but we are stuck with them because of the level of authority with which we embue doctrine and scripture.

In a way, doctrine and scripture themselves are our demiurge.  They provide for us a simulacrum of an ideal for which we can strive, one just correct enough for us to start to understand what the ideal would look like, but which is itself merely a worldly artifact, brought into being by human hands and based on a reflection of spirit of which we have seen fleeting glances.

Escaping Fate by Rising Through the Heavens

Continuing the overview series… the Gnostic schools pretty much universally believed in the idea of fate or predestination.  Some even believed in astrology, the notion that planetary patterns reflect patterns in human lives here on Earth.  Here’s the twist, though: they were convinced that fate was evil and that part of our quest for salvation involved learning how to thwart it.

In the Gnostic mythos, fate was part of the trap the archons set for human spirit.  From the Secret Book of John:

[T]he Chief Ruler knew that [the human beings, after the Mother awakened their thinking] surpassed him in the excellence of their wisdom. He wanted to restrict their plan for he was ignorant. He did not understand [that] they were wiser than he. He made a plan with his powers.  They begot Fate and they bound the gods of heaven and angels and demons and human beings with measures and seasons and times in order to keep them all in its fetter—for it was lord over them all.

The Secret Book of John lists 12 archons, including the chief archon, Yaldabaoth; and further names seven “glories” who were appointed by Yaldabaoth to rule over the heavens, and also over the days of the week.

The seven heavens are of course the orbital spheres of the seven then-known planets.  The idea of reading one’s fate in the stars likely came to the middle east by way of Babylon, where it was brought to Egypt by the conquest of the Babylonian Empire.  Much of the Western innovation in astronomical research during the period of antiquity took place in Egypt and northern Africa.  Claudius Ptolemy, whose famous work the Almagest expounded his famous geocentric system, published his work around the same time as the development of the Gnostic myth about fate and astrology.

With fate seen as a trap set by the archons, the Gnostics sought a way to overcome it.  The notion of becoming free of the material fetter became also a myth of cosmic ascension — of rising spiritually through the seven heavens, overcoming each archon one by one and passing on into the next realm.  Beyond the seven planetary spheres was one last obstacle, the eighth heaven with its sphere of fixed stars, which included the twelve signs of the zodiac. These too were ruled by the archons. Beyond the eighth heaven was the Empyrian Realm, a realm of light and fire, which was said to be the dwelling place of the Father.  In Ptolemy’s myth this was the realm of the Prime Mover, the one responsible for keeping the heavenly bodies in motion.

Astronomical myth played a central role in Christian doctrine from the beginning.  Recall, for example, that three kings from east (legend says from Babylon, which is the realm where the first western astrology was developed) followed a star to find the birthplace of Jesus.  Throughout his ministry Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and his ‘heavenly Father’ (as distinct from his worldly or mundane father).  And finally, Jesus was lifted up into heaven to be with his Father.

Cosmic ascension is, therefore, a symbol for union with God that goes back to the very roots of Christian doctrine.  It is reminiscent of the ascension of Enoch.  Visions of being transported to heaven and shown around abound in Christian mystical literature, Gnostic and otherwise.  See for example the Apocalypse of Paul, which purports to describe the vision of heaven Paul was given during his conversion event on the road to Damascus.  The endurance of this tradition is demonstrated by the similar visions described by Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso.

At least one sect developed this into an extremely elaborate system of ritual magic recorded in the Books of Ieou (or IAO).  This book describes 30 heavenly aeons through which the ascendant must pass, each one governed by three archons, who must be challenged.  The ascendant uses a particular sign and grasps a numerical glyph in his or her hand while demonstrating authority over the archons.

When you come out of the body and you reach the first of the aeons, and the archons of that aeon arrive before you, seal yourselves with this seal.  Say its name Zozeze — say it one time only.  Grasp this pebble with both your hands: 1119.  … Say these protective spells also: ‘Retreat Proteth, Persomphon, Chous, archons of the first aeon, for I invoke Eaza Zeozaz Zozeoz.’  Whenever the archons … hear these names, they will be very afraid… and flee leftward to the west while you journey on up.  (Ancient Christian Magic, p. 67; translated by Richard Smith)

The Key Is The Mind

When I wrote my last post, my intention was to start a series of posts summarizing the heart of the Gnostic way of looking at the world.  The idea at the heart of Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has a bit of divinity within us.  But this idea alone took various schools in completely different directions, depending on their overall outlook.  Gnosticism defies easy description or the inclination to get to the bottom line.

Another theme common to all of the Gnostic sects focus on the importance of the mind, of thought, and of rationality.  We’ve already discussed metanoia at length – the process of raising up the mind – and many of the aions have names which are some form of the word Nous/Noia, the Greek word for ‘mind’ or ‘thought’.  In the Gnostic creation myth, the first act of the Father is to contemplate.  As described in the Secret Book of John:

His aeon is indestructible, being in a state of tranquility, at rest in silence. … (It is) the one who knows Itself alone in the light-water that surrounds It, which is the spring of living water, the light which is full of purity. In every way It perceived Its own image, seeing It in the pure light-water which surrounds It.

We might here imagine the mind of the Father, a sole Oneness in the cosmos, surrounded by reflective water in all directions, looking out in all directions and seeing only himself.  It’s a bit reminiscent of the spirit of God reflecting in the waters at the beginning of Genesis 1.

And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All. It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Pronoia of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible, she who is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect aeon of the glory.

Pronoia is a Greek word meaning “first thought.”  These events are still occurring within a mind: the Father in perfect stillness and silence, contemplating his reflection in the luminescent water; the first thought being articulated and becoming distinguished from the Father’s prior state of contemplation.

The creation of Barbelo, the First Thought of the Father, parallels the creation of Sophia as depicted in Proverbs 8:21-32: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.. … I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”

Pronoia acts as the Father’s mouth, speaking forth words as the Father contemplates them and then passes them into her mind.  There is a hint perhaps of sexual parentage here, especially in the image of the Father’s offspring being birthed by Pronoia the Mother as she speaks his words aloud.  The Father and Pronoia exist as a syzygy, a union of two beings into one.

The word given form by being spoken is Logos, from whom, the myth tells us, the rest of the cosmos was given order and form.

In the Valentinian version of the mythos, the prime syzygy is the union of Profundity with Silence; this pair precedes Mind and Truth.  The idea is largely the same; at the root of it all, a mind at rest, in silence, engages in deep reflection.  It is no accident that this also describes the experience of one who performs silent prayer or stillness meditation.  The “little” mind (or microcosmos) of the individual aspiring to union with God is of the same essence as the “big” mind (or macrocosmos) of God, and it is this likeness that makes reunion possible.  And, the Gnostics say, it is the state of silent contemplation in which our individual minds are most like the mind of God, so this is the best state in which to discern truth.

[W]henever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:6

In my last post, I mentioned the Valentinian view that the struggle for error vs. truth takes place primarily in the mind.  It was not their position that the mind is all there is, but merely that within is where the most profound change occurs.

A common concern expressed by those who mistrust the mysticism of “looking within” is that it is too easy to be led astray.  If in the middle of a profoundly touching mystical experience one entertains a fanciful notion, it is too easy to find oneself set on a path away from truth.  Indeed, the Gnostics themselves provide us with material enough to caution us in this regard – some of their writings are very bizarre indeed.  But the answer to this is in the notion of logic.  For example, Paul had this to say about the process:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The word translated “spiritual” is logike, which can also mean discerning with rationality – literally with logic.  It is almost certain he meant that as a reference to Logos, the principle which brings order to the cosmos and to the mind.  “Logic” is of course a cognate of “Logos.”  The discernment which we embark upon should produce results which are rational and which ring true when we consider them in light of the world around us.  Thus we are warned against letting our mind lead us astray by grounding our insights in rationality and experience.  They should lead us into, not away from, a state of proportion and balance.

The next indication that your mind is healing in the right direction is that your actions are more consistently ethical and compassionate.  Both the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, which I quoted above, lead directly from instructions on “logical worship” and “praying in private” to guidelines on ethical behavior.  We find this too in the Gospel of Truth:

Say then in your heart that you are this perfect day and that in you the light which does not fail dwells. Speak concerning the truth to those who seek it and of knowledge to those who, in their error, have committed sin. Make sure-footed those who stumble and stretch forth your hands to the sick. Nourish the hungry and set at ease those who are troubled. … [T]his one, because he is a righteous person, does his works among others. Do the will of the Father, then, for you are from him. For the Father is sweet and his will is good.

God Within Us

The communities and schools of thought that were all lumped together as ‘Gnostic’ have a wide range of different ideas and teachings. Some were misogynistic and preached complete abstinence from all pleasure; others were libertine and gender-egalitarian. But there are a few points of commonality. The most important of those is the teaching that within each of us there is a piece of the divine presence.

In many versions of the myth, our spirits are pieces of a goddess – usually named Sophia – who has been kidnapped by the archons (the rulers of this world) or otherwise fallen under an enchantment and forgotten who she is. The Secret Book of John and the Hypostasis of the Archons are two Gnostic texts with classic renditions of this myth. The tale begins with the archons making a clay statue modeled after the perfect spirits (the aions) of whom they had gotten a glimpse. They can build the clay model but they can’t make it move; the only thing which brings the clay figure to life is when the spirit of Sophia or The Mother is breathed into it. But then, since the clay body now possesses spirit which they themselves don’t have, making it superior even to them, the archons become jealous and seek to trap the spirit by creating the illusion that it lives in a beautiful garden.

This is the tomb of the molded body with which they clothed the human, the fetter of the flesh. He is the primal one who came down and the primal partition. But it is the Thought of the primal light who dwells in him who awakens his thinking. …

The Chief Ruler took him and placed him in paradise, of which he said, ‘It is a delight for him’ but really so that he might deceive him. For their delight is bitter and their beauty is licentious. Their delight is a deception and their tree is iniquity. Their fruit is an incurable poison and their promise is death to him.

This belief, that human beings possess a divine spirit temporarily deceived into forgetting its nature, distinguished the Gnostics from most other Christians of their time, and certainly from all of them since Augustine. It is not compatible with the idea of original sin, or the later idea of total depravity. If there is a part of you that is divine, it is not God that does the work of reconciling you to the divine presence, it is you — and that reconciliation is not the crossing of a great gulf, but merely the cultivating of awareness of that which part of you already knows. If there is a part of you that is divine, then you are not fundamentally broken, but fundamentally okay.

It’s interesting though how different schools of Gnosticism took this idea down different paths of reasoning when it came to morality. One path led in the direction of deep ascetic worldly denial; another led in the path of heady amorality; and a third group took a middle way.

The Thomas Christians compared the physical body to a garment which the soul wears.

Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample them, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” (Gospel of Thomas 37)

The Hymn of the Pearl is another writing preserved by the Thomas Christians, a parable of a prince sent to Earth to retrieve a pearl. But the prince falls under an enchantment. He forgets his royal heritage and lives as a slave to the world’s ruler, wearing only rags. It is only when he is reminded who he is that he is finally able to discard the rags in which he was clothed and complete his task of retrieving the pearl.

Many of the Gnostics took these beliefs to mean that denial of worldly pleasure was the holiest course. They developed a morality of restriction, in which the life of ascetic denial is holy, which leads in predictable directions, such as the hostile misogyny found in later Gnostic writings such as the Exegesis on the Soul.

This text is essentially a commentary on scripture, developing the idea of the reincarnating soul comparing it to a wandering prostitute who couples with many bodies. The tone is misogynistic, which is not surprisingly coupled with a strong moralizing tone and promotion of an ascetic way of life. The text is a little unusual in that draws from the Prophets as well as the New Testament and Homer, but this underscores the syncretic nature of Gnosticism.

As long as she was alone with the father, she was virgin and in form androgynous. But when she fell down into a body and came to this life, then she fell into the hands of many robbers. And the wanton creatures passed her from one to another and […] her. Some made use of her by force, while others did so by seducing her with a gift. In short, they defiled her, and she […] her virginity.

Other Gnostics, such as the libertine Carpocratians, believed that morality of restriction was another way of letting the flesh rule you. None of their writings have survived, but we have a (somewhat polemically described) summary of their beliefs recorded by Bishop Irenaeus:

[T]hey maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular.

The Valentinian school eschewed both extremes, following the argument of Aristotle that every virtue is a rational mean between two vices, which are extremes:

it is possible to fail in many ways … while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult- to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue;

For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect…

For the Valentinians, the archontic prison was much more devious than simply “enclosing spirit in a prison of flesh” — the mind was the starting point and the ending point for their investigations. The mind is the source of error, following fear and and hate and falsehood down pathways of erroneous logic — but is also the source of the solution, capable of following truth and wisdom and applying correct logic. Salvation then depends on learning how to discern error from truth, which is not a kind of wisdom that can be encapsulated in a myth or a set of pithy principles. Any idea or concept can be misused or misapplied or taken to an extreme. One must raise one’s mind above (metanoia) the traps of logic and error.

Because there is only one way to be right and many ways to be wrong, it follows that there is ultimately only one wisdom, and we can see clues of this in many faith traditions. Also, this truth should in every way match what we find in natural observation of the universe. When we investigate nature we should not find patterns there which reflect a different order from the things we believe – or else our beliefs must be mistaken, since truth and nature are reflections of the same cosmic ordering principle — the same Logos.

The difficulty of belonging to a faith tradition was illustrated in the Letter of Ptolemy to Flora, an epistle from one student of Valentinus to another, which namely is this: that in any doctrine, the truth is intertwined with falsehood, and we must contemplate each teaching to ascertain whether it is truly the teaching of Logos or merely that which was written by a man in pursuit of a particular goal.

For if the Law was not ordained by the perfect God himself … nor by the devil…, the legislator must be some one other than these two. In fact, he is the demiurge and maker of this universe and everything in it; and because he is essentially different from these two and is between them, he is rightly given the name, intermediate.

And if the perfect God is good by nature … and if the one who is the opposite nature is evil and wicked, characterized by injustice; then the one situated between the two is neither good nor evil or unjust, but can properly be called just, since he is the arbitrator of the justice which is his.