Tag Archives: ethics

Mercy and Judgment in Pistis Sophia

Pistis Sophia is a late Gnostic text, typically dated in the 3rd to 4th Century CE.  Largely it is known to us from a Coptic edition in the Askew Codex.  It is long and somewhat impenetrable to casual reading.

Pistis Sophia is an apocalypse telling of both the beginning and the end of the world; and as we find in most texts of that genre it spends no small amount of time describing what will happen to people’s souls after the final judgment.  Like most Gnostic texts, Pistis Sophia describes human souls as being trapped by the Archons in a cycle of reincarnation.  There are some interesting similarities to the Tibetan Buddhist text Bardo Thodol (“Liberation by Hearing in the Liminality”), and also to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

As in Bardo Thodol, right after death the human soul has a chance to be freed from the cycle of reincarnation.  If the person while alive was baptized, followed the purifications (Pistis Sophia advocated a life of abstinence), and carried out the necessary instructions upon death, they would be well-equipped to grasp that opportunity and rise up “like an arrow” beyond the obstacles of fate and fear.  Also as in Bardo Thodol, the unprepared also had a chance at liberation, but they had to be lucky enough to hear and understand liberatory prayers spoken by someone who had received the proper instruction.

Pistis Sophia, like most Christian apocalyptic texts, proscribes the judgment of souls, but in describing the fate of souls its tone is much more merciful than we encounter in  mainstream Christian scripture.  The details of the fate of souls borrow heavily from Greek and Egyptian notions of the afterlife.

Upon death, the human soul is said to fall into the company of “receivers,” of whom there are several classes having varying levels of friendliness towards the soul.  Those who lead  ethical lives, regardless of their beliefs or instruction in the Gnostic mysteries, fall into the company of friendlier receivers who first “spend three days circling with it in all the creatures of the world” (ch. 103).  They then guide the soul through different regions of the underworld (Amente and Chaos, of Egyptian and Greek myth) where they are judged but do not suffer greatly.  They are made to drink from a cup of forgetfulness, and finally the soul is led back to be born into a new body, and whether they are assigned a good destiny or bad one reflects their conduct in the previous life.

Those who led less ethical lives do not fare as pleasantly.  They are taken up by “retributive” receivers who usher them through the realms of judgment, where they are punished by the Archons according to the wickedness of their actions in life.  A “wise fire” purifies them by burning away the worst parts of them.  (Baptism involving fire was not literally practiced by Gnostics – as far as we know – but they referred to the inner initiatory rituals as “fire baptism” to distinguish them from the water baptism that was open to everyone.) Finally they are brought before Barbelo, the Virgin of Light, who assigns a new fate for them based on their actions in the previous life.

Those who have been initiated in the Gnostic mysteries are said to be able to offer help to the souls of the departed.  They can recite prayers over the corpse in hopes that the spirit will hear it and follow instructions that may help them rise up beyond the spheres of fate that trap the human soul on Earth.  They can also offer prayers to the Virgin of Light on their behalf, so that she will give them a more merciful assignment in the next life.

For a few souls who led especially wicked lives on Earth – or Gnostic initiates who slide back repeatedly into immoral behavior – a particularly terrifying fate awaits.  They are taken to the Outer Darkness – the same Outer Darkness which Jesus described in the Gospels as a “place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.”  Unlike popular depictions of Hell as a place of fire and brimstone, the Outer Darkness is described, like the deepest level of Hell Dante’s Inferno, as a place of terrible, freezing cold.  There, the souls of the wicked will be frozen until the end of the world, at which time they will cease to exist.

There is no eternal suffering in this depiction of Hell.  And redemption is open to even the Archons or demons too, if they should repent.  Several of the Gnostic texts, including Pistis Sophia, Hypostasis of the Archons, and the Secret Book of John, describe a role given to a repentant Archon named Sabaoth.

I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that it is hard to reconcile ancient apocryphal texts proscribing harsh or even infinite punishment for wrongdoers with modern ideas of justice.  Pistis Sophia addresses this problem directly.  The section of the text which deals with judgment ends with Jesus assuring the disciples that the holy Mysteries will be more merciful in their judgment than any human.  Citing examples of cases where people commit many sins “deserving of death” but who are then given mercy by earthly kings or judges, he claims that even more merciful will be the Mysteries.

To illustrate his point, Jesus brings before Peter (in order to test him) a woman who had transgressed three times after repenting and being baptized. He instructs Peter to “perform the mystery which cutteth off the souls from the inheritances of the Light.”  Peter demurs:

When then the Saviour had said this, Peter said: “My Lord, let her yet this time, that we may give her the higher mysteries; and if she is fit, then hast thou let her inherit the Light-kingdom, but if she is not fit, then hast thou [to] cut her off from the Light-kingdom.”

When then Peter had said this, the Saviour knew that Peter was compassionate as he and forgiving. (Pistis Sophia, Chapter 122)

The choice of Peter in this parable is notable, because throughout the Gnostic texts, Peter is depicted as being particularly hot-tempered, misogynistic, and quick to judgment.  Even Peter can not bear to be the one who cuts this woman out of salvation, when faced with actually doing so.   The point is made: God must be even more merciful than Peter.

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.