Gnosticism. Some of Its Beliefs, Practices and Continued Influences in the World. Part III
Reincarnation was a commonly held belief among the Gnostics. They believed that the spirit was a prisoner of the body. Unless it was able to escape the bonds of the material world, the spirit would find itself trapped again after death. Reincarnation prevented us from becoming what we should be. Because our bodies are grown in the womb, women were seen as being more connected to the material world and its evil ruler than men. To such Gnostics, femininity represented the materialistic principle and masculinity the spiritualistic. We all contain elements of both in ourselves. For us to be saved, they believed that we must reject all that is feminine within. Thus the Gospel of Thomas, in very telling passage which demonstrates its Gnostic origins, it is said that Mary can be saved if and when she abandons all that is feminine in herself and become masculine:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”
Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” — Gospel of Thomas 104 in The Nag Hammadi Library. 3rd ed. Ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990).
While this sentimentality might seem to make it impossible for women to hold positions of authority within Gnostic circles, the reverse is true. “One of Tertullian’s prime targets, the heretic Marcion, had, in fact, scandalized his orthodox contemporaries by appointing women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops. The gnostic teacher Marcellina traveled to Rome to represent the Carpocratian group, which claimed to have received secret teachings from Mary, Salome, and Martha,” Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 72. What matters is the spirit. The spirit is the same in men and women. One’s exterior gender does not have to dictate who one is; while the feminine principle tends to dominate those who happened to be women, it is clear that they could deny their femininity, their ties to their material selves, and as such become like men.
While looking at the influences of Gnosticism throughout history, it must be recognized that not all of its influences have always been malign. Not everything they said was completely wrong. As with most heresies, Gnosticism often emphasized aspects of truth while ignoring or rejecting the rest. Some elements of Gnostic thought were capable of being adapted to Christian thought. But the adaptation had to be done very carefully; any error which remained after the adaptation had a way of making itself known and leading people back into heresy. Thus, there are clear lines of development between the asceticism of early Gnosticism with monasticism in Egypt. Christians recognized that some ascetic groups, such as the Encratites, were closer to the truth than others. St Hippolytus suggested that it was a grave hubris which prevented from them full admission into the Church. He believed that their theological views on God were closer to the truth than many other Gnostics. “Others, however, styling themselves Encratites acknowledge some things concerning God and Christ in like manner with the Church. In respect, however, of their mode of life, they pass their days inflated with pride. The suppose that by meats they magnify themselves, while abstaining from animal food, (and) being water-drinkers, and forbidding to marry, and devoting themselves during the remainder of life to habits of asceticism. But persons of this description are estimated Cynics rather than Christians, inasmuch as they do not attend to the words spoken against them through the Apostle Paul,” St Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, ANF5 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), VIII-XIII.
Clearly there was a difference between the Gnostics and later orthodox monks and nuns. Christian monasticism practiced similar activities as their Gnostic counterparts, but their goal was different: they desired to purify their flesh so that it could become a suitable temple for God. Yet, as with all monastic groups, the experiences of one could be discussed and understood by the other. Early monks had the examples of their Gnostic predecessors before them, and looked to their methods and achievements as a way to grasp their own spiritual progress. It was no accident that caused the majority of Gnostic texts to be preserved in Coptic, written down by those living in the deserts of Egypt. Indeed, it is clear that these monks were looking for the true gnosis. Alexandrian theology and spirituality as found in writers such as St Clement and Origen served as the basis for their quest. Sadly, many of these monks ended up saying things which were very close to the Gnostic rejection of the body. “Abba Daniel also said, ‘The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened, and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened,” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 52.
While what Abba Daniel said could barely be justified, it is easy to use what he and others like him said as a justification for a new kind of rejection of the body. And this is what we see happening in some monastic communities. They knew that they could not outright condemn the body, because Christianity proclaimed it had a place with us in the eschaton. Instead, they claimed that the body will be transformed and become a “spiritual body.” The resurrection of the flesh, which had confused learned pagans, was simply tossed aside in one theological stroke. For support of their view, they revised and reinterpreted many of Origen’s theological speculations, turning his guesswork into irrefutable fact. Evagrian monasticism could be seen as the combination of Origen’s wildest fancies with principles founded in ascetic forms of Gnosticism. Because of his connections with the Cappadocians, Evagrius became a highly recognized monastic authority whose ideas were having a major influence in Christendom. Justinian’s confrontation with the so-called Origenists (disciples of Evagrian thought) was a rehashing of the ancient battle Christianity had with Gnosticism. Of course, one can argue against the underhanded way Justinian engaged this new spiritual battle (interpolating texts to an ecumenical council is never a good thing to do), but one cannot deny that it helped correct eastern monasticism and prevent it from becoming outright Gnostic as it could have done without any intervention.
This tie between Gnosticism and monasticism did not end in the patristic era. Time and again, zealous devotion to asceticism has a tendency to reawaken the sleeping giant of world renunciation. Each time this happened, the Church and her authorities had to remind the religious the goodness of creation. While the way we exist in the world needs to be transformed, the world is not to be despised. Great pride exists in those who think they can overcome the world and leave it entirely behind. They are a part of the world, and they are meant to be a part of it. God created the world. He wants us to enjoy it. While its alluring beauty can tempt us, it is just as wrong to reject the world as it is to idolize it. Thus, St Francis of Assisi was capable of viewing the world as a wonderful work of God, and his praises of God always showed his appreciation for all God’s creation. His desire for poverty was not because he despised the world, but because he loved it. He wanted to be free to enjoy it; he understood that no human being could truly possess it, since everything belonged to God. But some Franciscan Spiritualists, demanding strict observance of his rule, did not understand the point of Francis’ poverty, and turned Francis’ means for preserving the integrity of the earth upside-down. Francis’ freedom from the demands of the world became the foundation of a legalistic labor which ended up rejecting the good things of the world. Such a fruit, whenever it is found, is justly rejected by the Church.
While these aspects of Gnostic thought are clearly temptations for those engaged in the religious life, it would be wrong to think “ascetic” forms of Gnosticism only influenced those practicing the religious life. Perhaps the clearest example of the continued influence of Gnostic thought in the Middle Ages can be found in the teachings of those who were labeled as the Cathars. Not all Cathars believed in the same exact doctrines, but they shared a world view which united them together: the earth was the domain of the devil, and all who held worldly authority (including those in the Church) were followers of evil. “Some of them taught that God had been the original Creator of the elements of the world, while others attributed their creation to the devil; but they agreed that the devil had divided the elements and was their lord,” Jaroslav Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600 – 1300)(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 239. This led them completely to the Gnostic rejection of the material world. Only those who could become absolutely pure in thought and deed could overcome the world and be liberated. There were two classes of Cathars: the elite spiritual leaders (perfecti), and the common believers (credentes). The perfecti were the ones who lived the true Christian life and were the only ones who were actually saved, while the believers prepared themselves so that one day they could be chosen to become one of the perfecti, if not in this life, then in a life to come. The perfecti chose those who were to be among their own; once chosen, one was given a special anointing which led to their salvation. Since only the perfecti could chose who would become one of their own and only the perfecti could anoint someone to become one of their own, the Cathars claimed it was proof that they were the true Church and held apostolic succession. But once one became one of the perfecti, life was governed by strict rules. They were to be ascetics. The credentes were required to never kill, never to take oaths, and they were encouraged to follow, as much as they could, the higher ways of the perfecti celibates. Of course, as with all explicit Gnosticism, Cathar Christology tended to be docetical and their spiritual life unsacramental. All that could be done to overcome the world and its influences had to be done.
After the reformation, we can see extreme ascetic rigorism constantly affecting various aspects of Christian thought, such as with the Puritans or Jansenists, although it has yet to be as thoroughgoing or as widespread as was found in the Cathars. Perhaps the most interesting explicit manifestation of this way of life was found in the American Shaker communities. According to their teachings, men and women are both made in the image of God; Christ represented the masculine image of God, and Ann Lee, their prophet and founder, was the second coming of Christ who represented God’s feminine side. Since her coming into the world, believers were required to join in their communitarian society (which was required to exist as a manifestation of the kingdom of heaven in the world in opposition to normal ways of the world). Since in heaven there is “neither marriage nor giving into marriage,” virginal purity was to be kept, and the institution of marriage was rejected. Indeed, they interpreted all sexuality as sin, and Adam’s fall came from his sexual activity. While their lifestyle was very simple and clean, they made money by the production of arts and crafts, and recruited new members into their society by adopting orphans and raising them to become new members of their community.
Despite the luxurious, self-gratifying lifestyle many people live out today, we are living at a time where this kind of Gnosticism can easily return to the world and become more mainstream than at any other point of history. While Hegel’s eschatology is off, and must not be taken as absolute, he was right in saying that world views often arise in opposition to one another, with new theories being made to completely overturn its successor. We live in a time when such revolutions take place quicker and faster. It is not difficult to see that there is a general discontent, by people of all religious and political positions, with the way things are in the world today. The libertine ways of democratic freedom and laissez-faire capitalism have not created the happy society. In a world devoid of meaning, there is slowly, but surely, a developing undercurrent of self-hatred, the kind which can be seen in how we treat our bodies. How many men and women, especially women, look to their body with horror, and overwork it in exercises and fasts to try to create some illusionary, unnatural end? How many others abuse their bodies through excessive tattoos or body piercings? How many men or women appreciate the differences of the genders? How many others believe that a common human nature means gender differentiation is illusionary and based upon external accidents which can be overcome? Even among the Christians, how many of them truly appreciate the sanctity of the body and its place in eternal life? The sexual revolution, with all of its promises of self-gratification, is also being seen through by more and more people. And yet, as the same time, the institution of marriage is constantly being questioned and derided. Unless Christians step up their commitment to the world and to its sanctity, we are ripe for a social revolution which will follow the same ideas which were used to create the Gnostic rigorism of the past. But this is not the only kind of Gnostic threat which is with us today.