Tag Archives: apokatastasis

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 Gospel of Truth, 2: apokatastasis and stillness

For the name of the gospel is the manifestation of hope, since that is the discovery of those who seek him, because the All sought him from whom it had come forth. You see, the All had been inside of him, that illimitable, inconceivable one, who is better than every thought.

The teachings of Valentinus draw heavily from the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. We saw before a passage expanding upon the opening of the Gospel of John, and here is an oblique reference to Colossians 1, especially verses 19-20: “For in him all the fulness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This passage, among many written by Paul, refers to the idea of apokatastasisthe restoration or reconciliation of all things with God. This idea may remind us of the Buddhist notion of bodhichitta or the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam.  Valentinus asserts that since all things once dwelt within his mind, and spring forth from it, so all things seek to return there, to the state of balance and equilibrium which is the genuine cosmic order. And indeed, we find that all things in nature seek equilibrium.  As Meister Eckhart was attributed as saying, “There is nothing in creation so like God as stillness.”

There is a deep contrast between this teaching and that which we find among many of the other Gnostic schools of thought – dualism, the idea that the Platonic “Realm of Forms” is the only true nature and material existence is a curse or trap.  A similar flavor of dualism appears in some schools of mainstream Christian thought as well: for example the Calvinistic idea of total depravity.  Valentinus was familiar with both forms of dualism and rejected both.  As we see in the second paragraph quoted below, he argued that the distinction we think appears to divide one kind of nature from another is really just an error of the mind.  When we’ve reconciled to God’s perspective, we the error fades and we see only that all is of one nature.  If all things will ultimately be reconciled with God, there cannot really be, in a ‘deep’ sense, a fundamental divide of any sort in nature: neither of substance nor of essence.

The ineffability of God is also mentioned here. This is a theme common to all schools of Gnosticism, and it turns out to be of great significance. It is not enough just to say that God is beyond comprehension; God is also beyond description. “Ineffable” means “beyond utterance,” and this means that any descriptions or attributions we make in attempting to describe God must fall short. No one utterance can contain the whole truth. The Gnostics kept this in the forefront of their mind and refused to ever invest themselves fully in one scripture or doctrine. Doctrine was not, was never, to be taken fully literally. In their mythopoeic writings, the many variations of the creation story of Genesis which we find throughout the corpus of Gnostic literature, there is a sense that all sacred notions are being deliberately overturned – for example, they cast the serpent as the savior against a dictatorial creator. It was not that they were casually blasphemous, shocking us just for the heck of it. It was that they understood the dictum, as expressed by those of a different (but related) faith tradition – “If you meet the Buddha you must kill him.” We speak of ‘God’ in an attempt to describe our experiences of the divine presence. But our words, our concepts, must never be mistaken for the real thing.

That is one level on which we might understand what Valentinus meant in the next paragraph.

Ignorance of the Father brought about terror and fear. And terror became dense like a fog, that no one was able to see. Because of this, error became strong. But it worked on its hylic substance vainly, because it did not know the truth. It was in a fashioned form while it was preparing, in power and in beauty, the equivalent of truth. This then, was not a humiliation for him, that illimitable, inconceivable one. For they were as nothing, this terror and this forgetfulness and this figure of falsehood, whereas this established truth is unchanging, unperturbed and completely beautiful.

This theme of error being like a fog through which we cannot see is repeated numerous times, in numerous different ways throughout the Gospel of Truth. “Fashioned form” is particularly key here, because it makes clear that Valentinus is talking about the demiurge. In Valentinian myth, we learn of aions, reflections of the divine who live within the Pleroma and who are all begotten, birthed organically one from another or borne of seeds; and they are described so in contrast to the denizens of the material world, who are all fashioned, or created, as if by hand.

Which brings me to the question I asked at the end of my first post. “Error” prevents us from attuning our minds to the genuine cosmic order – because of terror and fear we are caught up into made-up ideas. The word used later in the Gospel of Truth, as throughout the New Testament, to refer to the process of casting off these errors is metanoia – which is mistranslated as “repentance,” but metanoia is not a word with the same moral overtones. It combines the roots meta, which means “above”, and nous, which means “mind,” and means, therefore, to lift your mind above its present state.