Tag Archives: mystery

The Merging of Opposites in Thunder: Perfect Mind

Thunder: Perfect Mind is not like any other text in the Gnostic corpus.  It was written in the first person, and consists of a seemingly endless list of contradictory self-descriptions:

I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.

The narrator is female, but she moves beyond female-centric imagery into the abstract:

I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

Some, including Douglas M. Parrott, one of the principal translators, have compared it to the Isis aretalogies used in Egyptian worship.  An aretalogy is a list or catalog of characteristics used to identify a deity.  For example, the most famous of the Isis aretalogies is this one, which seems to be the work of an Isis mystery cult in Thrace.  It doesn’t bear much resemblance to Thunder: Perfect Mind.  The Isis aretalogy addresses Isis in the second person, and it doesn’t have a similar rhythm at all. But the parallels may provide a clue.

Thunder: Perfect Mind does bear a bit more resemblance to the Sophia aretalogy in Proverbs 8:22-36:

Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil. (Proverbs 8:23-26)

The Sophia monologue was written during the Hellenistic period and exemplifies the Wisdom scripture of the Jewish community in Alexandria.  But even this work is very different.  It is essentially a creation story praising Wisdom, telling a coherent narrative, whereas Thunder: Perfect Mind is simply a mind-boggling array of contradictory assertions.

Merging of opposites is a prominent theme in Gnostic scripture.  Consider this famous passage from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom” (Gospel of Thomas 22)

This in turn can be compared to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, considered one of the foundational writings of alchemy.  Some alchemical writings appear to have been deeply crypto-Gnostic (cf. for example the work of Silberer and Jung), and the alchemical endeavor possibly provided one avenue by which Gnostic ideas were preserved in secret during the years when being in possession of Gnostic writings was a grave offense.

But what purpose could this have served?  Is it simply meant to sound profound while being, simply, nonsense?  Nanna Olsen gave a clue in her conclusion to this essay about Thunder: Perfect Mind:

The text … works to convey meaning not in an informative way, but in a performative one by perpetually deferring, defying, disrupting and destructing meaning, and forcing the reader into insoluble dilemmas, it becomes obvious how the text makes sense.

The key word there is ‘performative.’  The most obvious use of the text is as a ritual script.  Perhaps the goal was invocation, or the literal drawing of divine presence into oneself by prayer and ritual.

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquilli, in their book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, describe an interesting theory based on taking brain images of people having religious experiences.  Ritual, they suggested, induces a state of mystical awe by stimulating both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic faculties in the nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for “fight or flight” by responding to potential threats; speeding the heart and and exciting the amygdala.  The parasympathetic nervous system responds to calming stimuli by slowing the heartbeat and allowing the body to enter a restful state.  Normally either one or the other is active at a time; only an unsual circumstance can trigger both to be active at the same time. Religious ritual accomplishes this, though. Ritual performance involves rhythm and repetition, which tend to calm one down; but they also present the mind with imagery or mysteries that evoke fear or surprise.  The result is that both nervous systems are triggered at the same time and the result can be a profoundly emotional experience.

Even the title of the text alone suggests this juxtaposition: “thunder” alongside “perfect mind.”  The text is intended to be performed, and gives us great insight into what it must have been like to participate in Gnostic worship.

The Gospel of Truth, 4: fruits and hidden mysteries

That is the gospel of him whom they seek, which he has revealed to the perfect through the mercies of the Father as the hidden mystery, Jesus the Christ. Through him he enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.

This paragraph has several oblique references to the writings of Paul. It follows especially closely I Corinthians 2:6-8:

We do speak wisdom (sophia) among the initiates (the mature, teleioi), but not the wisdom of this age or of the archons of this age, who are passing away. But we speak the hidden wisdom (sophia) of God in a mystery, which God ordained before the aions for our glory. None of the archons of this age knew this: had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

This is the translation of the passage given by Elaine Pagels on page 57 of The Gnostic Paul, and I quoted this rather than from a more familiar translation in order to underscore something that may not have been obvious before: Valentinus really was following the words of Paul very closely.

The juxtaposition of the words “hidden,” “mystery” and “teleioi” (“perfect”)are very suggestive, and this brings up a debate which has been going for some time now: over whether or not Paul was the leader of a Hellenistic-style mystery school based on legends he’d heard about Jesus. “Teleioi” was a word used by the members of mystery schools to refer to those who had passed the test (or tests) of ritual initiation and could therefore be trusted to understand a deeper, secret set of teachings.

However, if Paul was not the founder or leader of a mystery school, it’s hard to imagine what else he could have meant.

In fact, what drew the ire of critics like Bishop Irenaeus was not so much the idea of initiation but that the sect of Valentinus sought to undermine the power structure of the church. It was not uncommon for the bishop of a congregation to have been excluded from initiation – creating a situation where lay members of the church claimed to have a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the Christian teaching than their ostensible leaders. There was concern among the bishops that if they allowed this to continue, the Gnostics might undermine the hierarchy of the church.  The Gnostics, for their part, rejected anything that resembled the kind of authority that the archons sought to wield over humanity – seeing everything from the Roman imperial hegemony to the claims of sole authority coming from the organized clergy as reflections of archontic power in human society.  Essentially, the Gnostics were not very good followers. As Kurt Rudolph wrote,

Jewish apocalyptic and esotericism, and the Oriental faith in salvation in the form of mystery religions, also became means of expression of a social protest. Gnosis was without a doubt the most radical voice in this circle. Its rejection of the moral tradition and the visible world of government (including the supernatural) is an attempt to solve the social problems of the time under an unambiguously religious banner… (Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, p. 292).

In the paragraph above, Valentinus conscientiously equated the archons (acting on behalf of “error”) with the worldly authorities who branded Jesus as a criminal and executed him. This blending of worldly and supernatural authorities into a singular image of tyranny was not unique to Valentinus but was common among the Gnostic writings.

The final image here is interesting: Jesus became a “fruit of the knowledge” akin to the fruit Adam and Eve were said to have eaten in the Garden of Eden. But instead of being destroyed by it, those who eat are joyful. This follows upon the example of the Gospel of John and parallels the contrast Paul sought to establish between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. But this has further significance, because later on in the Gospel of Truth we find this: “he who has no root has no fruit either” — building upon the image of the root as I described in my last post, and the ‘organic’ imagery used by the Valentinians to depict the process of emanation from the Father.

This image is also reminiscent of a passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:17-20)

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is typically cited by Christians as a warning against false prophets – among whom they would include the author of the Gospel of Truth.  The Gnostics would say the same right back to their critics, arguing that the “fruits” by which they judged the bishops – who at that point already totally excluded women from the priesthood, just to cite one point of contention – proved their allegiance with the archons rather than with the Father.  See for example chapter 9 of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which depicted through an evocative metaphor the struggles for influence within the early church.  We see therein Peter, representing the church in Rome, vehemently rejecting the witness of Mary after she described a vision from Jesus which disagreed with his beliefs.  Whether or not this scene ‘actually’ played out historically, debates like this, over the participation of women in the clergy, were raging throughout the church.  As they were excluded from participation in the clergy, women found some of the Gnostic movements, such as the Valentinian school, to be more welcoming.

The next post will be my last in this series on the Gospel of Truth, and I’m going to go a bit more “meta” next time.  Previous posts in this series:

salvation like a seed taking root

apokatastasis and stillness

logos and pleroma