Thursday, August 11, 2011

Religion Friday: Gnosticism

In the early (ok, and recent) days of the Church, there were lots of interpretations of what it meant to be Christian. Lots of sects sprouted up that attached Christianity to a belief system or culture that already existed. As the orthodox church (not to be confused with the later Eastern Orthodox) gained power, these groups disappeared. One group that I’ve always heard about but never really known about are the Gnostics.

Gnosticism (from the Greek word meaning “knowledge”) existed before Christianity, but many early Christians adopted a Gnostic view of their faith. They drew these beliefs from a series of 2nd century writings (including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary) that were not recognized by the orthodox church. References to the Gnostic Gospels is where I heard about the Gnostics. (The selection of the canon should be its own post.)

So first, Gnosticism in general. It was seen in Greek traditions as well as Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Gnostics believed there is a pure, spiritual world and an unclean, material world. God exists but will never be known and is not involved in humans’ lives. How did fit with Christianity? In the Gnostic version of creation, Wisdom sought to know the unknowable God, and her yearning for this created a Demiurge. The Demiurge knew nothing of the unknowable God and, mistaking himself for God, created the material world. The following stories of the Old Testament referring to God are really referring to the Demiurge. To the Gnostics, knowledge of this mistake and renouncing the physical for the spiritual was the key to salvation. Jesus had this knowledge and passed it on to others.

Different groups interpreted how to do this differently. Study and figuring it out yourself was key, so there were bound to be different interpretations. The orthodox church, though open to mysticism, called the Gnostics heretics. The Gnostic belief of renouncing what they saw as the Demiurge and others saw as the true God, they were bound to be targeted as a heretical group. The presumption of “secret” knowledge about God didn’t help either. The attack against them was not an attack against knowledge, but an attack on a belief of the spiritual realm that contradicted the orthodox.

The Gnostics had a belief transferred from the existing culture, not one actually rooted in Christianity. On the surface, combining knowledge and spiritual seeking together seems like a great idea. Yearning to open our minds to the realm we can’t see and can’t know seems to be a staple of religion. But the Gnostics claimed to have secret knowledge of the spiritual, and they separated it so much from creation that they couldn’t appreciate anything material, or find sacred in the material world. While I love being caught up in my head most days, the Gnostics took it to an extreme, at least for a faith that is all about God physically entering the material world.

[The Gnostic cross is a well-known symbol for Christian Gnosticism, but as the Gnostics were never an organized group, there was never one representitive symbol. Some variations include the Gnostic cross sitting on top of a regular cross or a snake eating its tail forming the circle.]

Next Friday: Catholicism

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