Friday, March 24, 2006

What is Gnosticism?

It's important to know what gnosticism is in order to understand the book The DaVinci Code.

Throughout this series on The Da Vinci Opportunity I have been speaking of Gnosticism. This is necessary because, though The Da Vinci Code doesn't discuss Gnosticism directly, it does draw from Gnostic writings, and it does speak favorably of the gospels generally known as Gnostic. Before I go further in this series, I want to put up a brief overview of Gnosticism.

Read the whole thing.


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the pointer.

I have only two minor nits. One is the standard dictionary definition that gives gnosticism a limited scope in time and place. This is typical of poor quality scholarship on gnosticism.

The other nit is the story of Christ standing by laughing when Jesus is crucified. The story does not portray Jesus as being crucified. Instead, one of his disciples pretending to be Jesus, is crucified in his stead. That's a big discrepancy, but a minor nit.

We don't expect a high calibre of craftsmanship from Roberts.

Ron Ballew said...

Roberts gives a good lay understanding of gnosticism. I would have a few quibbles. Concerning Christ standing by I have not read all of the Nag Hammadi texts so I can't say.(I have read some of them)

The definition of gnosticism limits the movement from the 2-5th centuries (depending on who you read). However gnosticism as a philosophical form, as opposed to a movement is certainly around today. A modern form of gnosticism would be aspects of the Mormon church, and other religious beliefs. Is it gnosticism, no. Does it have gnostic tendencies, absolutely.

For further reading on gnosticism see:

Millard Erickson, systematic theology

Stan Grenz also deals with it in his theology for the community of God.

For a modern interpretation of gnosticism see,
The site follows gnostic beliefs.

There is speculation that gnosticism has its roots in the pre-christian era as opposed to what Harnack called the hellenization of christianity.

Is all this clear? Probably not, gnosticism is complex.

Sophia Sadek said...

Perhaps I should have elaborated. One of the roles of gnostic practice is to cultivate trees of knowledge and trees of life. In fact, texts recently unearthed from ancient Sumeria have a gnostic signature. Gnosticism has been around since before the Fall.

Ron Ballew said...

I hope you are not referring to the fall of humanity. Gnostic (what we would call gnostic writings) date back to 2nd century. The gnostic writings dealt with dualism and the evil of anything of the flesh. Also they referred to aeons and there self propogating until you came to one that was imperfect, and that was Jesus.

Again gnosticism has roots that go further back the 2nd century (especially the mystery religions).
To say that they go back to the fall is a stretch since it is pre-history and we have no writing that goes back that far.

Sophia Sadek said...

Ron, the Sumerian wisdom cycles are prehistoric. They were written in cuniform script on clay tablets. The biblical story of the Fall is an epitome of the Sumerian cycles.

Your description of Valentinian texts refers to a specific gnostic sect. I would not rely on it for a general understanding of gnosticism. Beware of definitions based on externalities. Since gnosticism deals with eternal knowledge, it cannot be understood by studying the literature of a sect that has a limited duration in space and time.

As an aside, the word for "aeon" shows up in hebrew texts as well. Aeon is a Greek word for a universal concept. An aeon typically corresponds to a long astral cycle, such as the period between conjunctions of the planets. Aeons are often referred to in English as "ages."

Ron Ballew said...

If the Sumerian tablets are pre-history how do they exist? Not trying to be facetious but the sumerian texts are also simply another sect. They and some of the babylonian religions had many elements in common along with the mystery religions.

The term aeon is not Hebrew though Hebrew has a word that roughly corresponds. As far as I can remember the septuagint never uses aeon to translate age, and even if it did the meaning would be different. Etymology is a dirty word today in scholarship simply because a word only has "meaning" in its context and time.

"Since gnosticism deals with eternal knowledge, it cannot be understood by studying the literature of a sect that has a limited duration in space and time."

According to this definition gnosticism cannot be understood by any study since we are all limited by space and time. (at least our perceived reality of it.)

Sophia Sadek said...

Your last observation hits the nail on the head. Gnosticism cannot be understood from without. For those within, study is no substitute for experience.

Those who learn from history are destined to repeated it differently. There is a place for study. But in itself, it is no substitute for action. We ultimately learn by doing.

Ron Ballew said...

So you are talking about a radical form of existentialism. While I believe experience is very important, my concern with gnosticism is that ultimately truth is what you experience. This means that there is no ultimate truth if you have never experienced it. Bottom line is there is no truth for all, only truth as I see it. To me this takes individualism way too far. And for the non western person, they would simply scratch there head and laugh at us.

So, What is truth? gnosticism would say, nothing and everything. This is a tautology I cannot except.

Sophia Sadek said...

As an example of experiential truth, consider the entities of the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus. These are real, operative entities. They truly exist. The coin shows up under the pillow. The colored egg shows up in the garden. The fancy wrapped gift shows up under the pine tree.

As parents we experience the other side of that truth. We know what it means to be the agency of childhood delight. Not everyone has that experience.

There was a time when people were persecuted for teaching the truth. Of course, the Church doesn't call it truth. They call it heresy. Not everyone can experience the truth because the Church teaches them to reject the truth.

May you too experience the freedom of knowing the truth.

Ron Ballew said...

The tooth fairy is real? Just because a quarter appears doesn't mean its true. Again by this definition there is no truth. You can use experience to justify whatever you want.

You say the church has persecuted, you actually don't know that unless you have experienced it (see where experience gets us). True (here's that word) christianity does not persecute. Islam on the other hand, they'll kill you. I know very un pc of me.

What is truth, i would say it is a person and His name is Jesus. Truth is a relationship that really does need to be experienced. It is not some esoteric wisdom (sophia) rather it is relationship.

So you see i do believe in experience, just not in the way you use it.

Anonymous said...

Karol says:

As Ron’s wife, I have been watching this blog interchange. However, the analogy for the toothfairy, Easter bunny, and Santa Claus has made me feel, “I have to say something here.”

Sophia I have some nits for you with some elaborations regarding each one because it appears that in the instances when you do not have answers to Ron’s questions or counters to his statements, they are ignored and some other issue is pulled out, with questions left hanging, unanswered, for gnosticism as being the TRUTH. The following is a running commentary of my nits regarding your blog entries.

Please keep in mind that I am an English teacher by training and experience and I proofread and typed all of Ron’s papers for his two masters degrees. The combination has made me a nitpicker of gargantuan proportions.

1) Sumarian tablets cannot be pre-history since the very nature of pre-history means pre-writing. You make a statement that the Sumarian wisdom cycles are pre-history. How can we know what was or wasn’t in pre-history?

Those who have studied the Bible and Theology formally know that much of the Pentateuch is pre-history, oral tradition written down. However, the Bible as a historical document regarding names and places is being proven over and over as more archeological evidence comes to light as being accurate. For example, King Solomon’s stables were stated to have 4,000 stalls and 12,000 chariot horses in I Kings 4:26. Many people involved in archeology believed that this could not be possible until the stables were found and guess what, it was large enough to hold 12,000 horses. The city of Ur (where Abraham came from) has now been to have been a major city and had a major library. These are just two examples of historical proof. Due to the Roman Empire’s rule and their records of what we now call Israel at the time of Christ, we have documentation that proves Jesus was a real historical person.

Historical proof of the accuracy of oral tradition and eye-witness accounts only proves that Solomon had 12,000 horses and there are documents outside the Bible that prove the existence of many biblical figures. However, regarding much of the first five books of the Bible, including the creation account, there is no proof. Within the church, Christians often get in the argument about whether the Genesis account of creation was in 6 literal days or 6 time periods. I choose not to enter into that particular argument. My reason is that no one can validate either claim as true. However, I believe in God. I believe that the universe was created by God out of nothing. The God I believe in has creative powers that are so vast, we cannot comprehend them. Whether God chose to create in 6 days or 6 time periods is immaterial to me. The God I believe in created time as we know it and exists outside human time. There is no proof I can offer for this claim. Christianity, by its very nature, requires a leap of faith. There are bits of historical proof that help it to be easier to make that leap of faith.

The advanced math involved in the laws of physics now point to the requirement of a creator/architect/designer of the universe. I do not pretend to understand this higher math; I only know that it proves there is a higher being. My choice has been to take the Christian God as that higher being whom math and science reveal to exist.

2) “Gnosticism deals with eternal knowledge, it cannot be understood by studying the literature of a sect that has a limited duration in space and time.” This is a direct quote from you. By the very nature of this statement, gnosticism cannot be understood by anyone from any time period because every human being who has ever lived was bound by a limited duration of space and time. Any reference to anything such as the “Valentinian texts” are bound by space and time. Any gnostic writing is from a sect from a particular time and place. When I take this statement to its logical conclusion, there is no eternal or absolute truth within gnosticism. Christianity has many denominations, sects, and branches. I have no problem with that.

3) Then there is the blog which states, “Gnosticism cannot be understood from without. For those within, study is no substitute for experience…We ultimately learn by doing.”

According to this, truth can only be experienced. It cannot be studied. Since my experiences differ from anyone else’s, my truth is different from the truth anyone else experiences or has ever experienced. By this definition, I infer that there is no absolute standard of truth in the sect/branch/denomination of gnosticism to which you ascribe. If one has never experienced absolute truth, then one doesn’t get to have it. Such a radical arbitrary individual existential existence can only even be concocted in an individualistic culture such as our own.

As a Christian, this means to me, the end of a society with set parameters of right and wrong. There is no absolute standard of what is right or wrong, only the experience of the individual and what he or she deems to be true or right/wrong. I, as the daughter of a retired police captain, shake at this notion.

3) In another blog, you state, “As an example of experiential truth, consider the entities of the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus. These are real, operative entities. They truly exist. The coin shows up under the pillow. The colored egg shows up in the garden. The fancy wrapped gift shows up under the pine tree. As parents, we experience the other side of that truth. We know what it means to be the agency of childhood delight. Not everyone has that experience.”

This analogy of the truth of gnosticism through experience only simply proves that the “truth” of gnosticism is as illusory as the truth of the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, and Santa Claus. What we know to be true through experience might not actually be true because of our limited experience in space and time. Ultimatley, the truth that any one individual experiences is as illusory as the tooth fairy, Easter bunny or Santa Claus. That is what that analogy means to me.

In the responses you have had to Ron’s blog, I have seen no “proof’ of the truth of gnosticism that can be logically determined by the “facts.” Christians, on the other hand, will tell you that to believe in Christ, a leap of faith is required. Many arguments about the existence of a creator are being put to rest via math and science. Much of the Bible can be relied upon to be accurate as a historical document. However, that belief in the Bible as something more once again requires that leap of faith.

The pivotal belief that separates Christianity from any other religion or belief system is that Christians have the God who did it for us. There is not a list of things we must accomplish, find or do. We must only admit that we are not capable of saving ourselves and acknowledge that we need Christ, the revealed truth, to be our savior. The set of guidelines of how to live and what is right and wrong are set out in the Bible, God’s love letter to humanity. For Christians, there is absolute truth in Christ. We all have the exact same truth with an absolute standard for everyone.

Hell is a dirty word today both inside and outside the church. While, I do not personally necessarily believe in the literal fire and brimstone, I do believe that there is a place in which we can be eternally separated from God. That, for me, would truly be hell. Christians do not all agree about the nature of hell or heaven. I believe that the Bible is trying to portray that heaven will not necessarily be paved with streets of gold, but rather, heaven will be the best of the best of the best and hell will be the worst of the worst of the worst regarding the very nature or ontology (state of being) regarding how we spend our eternal existence.

4) In another blog, you state, “May you too experience the freedom of knowing the truth.” Whose truth, your truth? Truth is bigger than the experience of one individual. Truth, by its very nature, must always be true. I see nothing of absolute truth in gnosticism upon which I would be content to rest my existence, either temporal or eternal. It appears that if I merely disagree with you, then, I cannot know the truth. However, by your very definition of truth being experienced by doing, my truth through my own individual experience is just as valid as your truth through your own individual experience. “Experience” then, as a single human obtains it, is always clouded by emotion and limited scope and has nits in it that cannot be logically explained. I need something bigger to believe in than the life experience of a single woman typing a blog about gnosticism’s truth. I rest my existence upon this absolute truth and have my need for something bigger fulfilled. Mentally, spiritually, and physically do I rest in peace through Christ, in whom I have entrusted my eternal destination.

You have limited scope and understanding of the nature of truth and existence, as do I and every other person who has ever walked the face of the earth. For an individual to believe that they possess eternal absolute truth through their own individual experience is the height of arrogance blended with a lack of comprehension about the largeness and vastness of truth. I am not big enough to get the absolute truth on my own, I am not that smart. No one is that smart. That is why I say you are simultaneously both arrogant and have a lack of comprehension regarding the size of the very nature of truth.

This is not intended to be a personal attack, but rather a stream of consciousness blog regarding what I believe about the nature of truth. However, it was a counter to what I perceive as many nits of unacceptable size regarding truth in your statements and claims.

My belief in Christ requires a leap of faith that cannot be reasoned out. I freely admit that my belief system requires “a willing suspension of disbelief” to quote Samuel Coleridge, the poet. It is time that you admit that gnosticism requires its own “willing suspension of disbelief” if you are to continue to believe what you believe with opened eyes. What each individual believes, at some point, requires a leap of faith in something or someone. God help you if that belief is in any way related to your own mind’s powers or your own limited abilities and intelligence.

Many people think that Christianity is the easy way out because we are “saved” by someone other than ourselves. However, acceptance of Christ is just the beginning of the journey. True Christians, through their relationships with Christ, desire to become more like him: sinless. To anger without sinning (i.e. doing damage to another that is verbal, physical, or emotional) is one of our goals. That is a lifelong goal that no one ever reaches, but can be in the process of improving ourselves through the assistance of something larger than ourselves. We also want the biblical “fruit of the Spirit” of: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galations 5:22) to develop inside ourselves through the assistance, once again, of someone bigger than ourselves. Matthew 7:16 states, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” It sounds like you have run across what I call “religious people” as opposed to true Christians. Religious people are often judgemental and harsh. True Christians want to show God’s love to others and the popular saying, “What would Jesus do?” is what drives us.

It does not, however, stop me from evaluating information as it comes to me and evaluating it for usefulness or truth. That is what I did here, my personal evaluation (running commentary) of the information you blogged regarding gnosticism. I countered it, not to be mean, but rather to present another truth that I believe to be the absolute truth. I cannot let what I believe to be such untruth go out to “blogland” and stay silent without countering it. You see, the very nature of Christianity requires that we take eternal existence seriously and want others to take spiritual eternal existence seriously also. For Christians, the very nature of what is true, what is truth, is tied to that eternal existence.