Gnosticism

Some folks act as if they think physical reality is bad and having a body is icky. The notion’s ‘Biblical,’ sort of.

Galatians 5:19 through 21 call bad ideas like licentiousness, hatreds and idolatry “works of the flesh.” With a little paraphrasing, I could claim that 1 Corinthians 3:3 says jealousy and rivalry are “of the flesh.” Romans 8:3 mentions “sinful flesh.”

Taking those verses, ignoring Genesis 1:31, Psalms 84:3, Ecclesiastes 2:2425 and two millennia of Catholic teaching, and I might see loathing physical reality as an option. But not, I think, a reasonable one. (October 8, 2017)

“Spiritual” isn’t necessarily good or bad. Neither is having a body. What matters is what I decide, how I use my reason and will. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 17041707, 1730, 18521869)

I see sin as acting against reason, truth, and right conscience. (Catechism, 18491850)

Any creature with free will can do that. (February 4, 2018; November 6, 2016)

Satan was and is pure spirit, with no body at all; which didn’t keep the spiritual creature from sinning on an epic scale. (Catechism, 328330, 385395)

Philosophers and Fame


(From Dustin Dewynne, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Seeing reality as two things, dualism. Or one thing, monism.)

Materialism/physicalism and idealism are, in a way, two sides of the same coin. Both beliefs see reality as basically one thing. Like quite a few other views, materialism and idealism go back at least to what Jaspers called the Axial Age. (April 15, 2018)

Idealism assumes that consciousness, or something else immaterial, is the most basic part of reality. Plato may be the best-known idealist philosopher. He wasn’t alone. Anaxagoras said that nous, intellect, came first. Aristotle had pretty much the same view.1

Time passed, Anaxagoras didn’t get noticed nearly as much as the other two, and some European scholars got overly-excited about Aristotle in the 1200s. (November 5, 2017)

Meanwhile, folks kept refurbishing and repackaging Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about ideals and forms.

Versions with a Christian spin started popping up during the first century AD. They’ve been endemic ever since.

One of the earliest headliners was Valentinus. He taught in Alexandria and set up a school in Rome. That was in the second century AD.

Saint Valentine is a different person and got killed for being a Christian. He wasn’t the first, or last, to decide truth is more important than this life.

Valentinus, the fellow with a school, enjoyed considerable success. So did Valnetinianism, an intriguing alternative to Christianity.

Valentinianism was a big deal in the 2nd century, not so much later.

St. Irenaeus called the Valentinian school “he legomene gnostike haeresis:” “the heresy called Learned (Gnostic),” “the sect called Learned,” or something like that.

Henry More coined the word “Gnosticism” in the 17th century. He was talking about a particular variation of Valentinus-style ideas. The name caught on as a handy label for that sort of anti-materialism.

“Gnosticism” comes from Ancient Greek γνωστικός/gnostikos, “having knowledge.” I think Gnostic beliefs were at least partly inspired by Plato’s theory of forms; but they’re not quite idealism, Platonic or otherwise.

Unlike idealism — and materialism — Gnosticism doesn’t necessarily say that everything’s basically one thing. I gather that a Gnostic might see physical reality as real: but not nice.

Each variation of Gnosticism was and is unique, but they agree in seeing physical reality as something to shun. That’s an enormous over-simplification.

Exclusivity Appeals

‘Secret knowledge’ seems to be another popular feature in Gnostic beliefs.2

I see the same exclusivity appeals in ‘learn ancient secrets’ advertisements. Saw, actually. It’s been a long time since I’ve run into that sort of thing in a magazine.

Selling the sizzle, not the steak, is effective advertising. I’ve heard that Elmer Wheeler said it in the 1920s. Advertising goes back at least to the Song Dynasty. And that’s another topic.

I suspect sizzle helps sell my culture’s chronic End Times prognostications. They arguably give believers opportunities to see themselves as part of the cognoscente.

I don’t take assorted ‘ancient knowledge’ and Rapture claims seriously.

Their effect on folks who believe them is another matter. So are impressions made on folks who see others getting duped. I think deliberately distorting truth is a serious violation of trust. (Catechism, 2468, 2486)

Deliberately presenting fiction as fact is a problem. Presenting fiction as fiction — I’ll get back to that.

Gnostic notions and fizzling End Times predictions have been around for centuries. Millennia. Details vary, which isn’t surprising.

First century Rome, 11th century Paris and 21st century Los Angeles were and are centers of culture and influence. But they’re not identical.

Human nature doesn’t change. Not that I can see. Cultures are constantly changing. No competent publicist would ignore a target audience’s current perceptions.

I haven’t seen ‘ancient secrets’ ads in magazines recently. Maybe too many folks started thinking. Or maybe ‘truth in advertising’ regulations caught up with them. Or, more likely, I’m not browsing through the same sort of periodicals now.

‘Secret knowledge’ isn’t Gnosticism’s only attractive feature. I get the impression that denouncing physical reality is a cornerstone of faith for many folks, Gnostic and otherwise.

Being Human

I’ve encountered incandescent Christians of the fire and brimstone ilk raging against “works of the flesh.”

I don’t doubt that they’re sincere. The same goes for Carrie Nation and the “Reefer Madness” set. But I’m sure they’re wrong. (July 10, 2016)

Having a body isn’t a problem. How I decide to see my body, and how I act, can be. But being human, being a body and soul, is how God makes us. (Catechism, 362379, 992, 22882291, 23312336)

I’m okay with that. Even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t see complaining about God’s design aesthetic as a good idea. I hope I’d have that much sense.

The notion that being physical isn’t nice may play well to folks of fastidious spiritual tastes.

Maybe believing “the Word became flesh,” as John 1:14 says, doesn’t feel sufficiently ‘spiritual.’ But believing that the Son of God is human and divine comes with being a Catholic. (Catechism, 285, 456478, 517)

So does acknowledging that I’m human. I like understanding things, but see wisdom in recognizing limits. How the Incarnation works is beyond me. God is infinite, transcending time and space. Fully understanding God won’t happen. Learning what I can? That’s a good idea. (February 25, 2018; August 20, 2017; June 16, 2017)

Christian-themed Gnosticism probably has roots in Judeo-Christian traditions, Platonism and Neoplatonism. Or Neopythagoreanism, Persian and Hindi traditions, Zurvanite and Zoroastrian beliefs, and Buddhism. Or maybe all of those. Or something else.

There’s not, putting it mildly, a consensus.3

Knowledge and Choice

“To follow knowledge like a sinking star…” is my Google Plus tagline. I might look like someone who’d become a Gnostic. Maybe I would. But it’s not likely.

I like knowledge, a lot. I also enjoy flights of fancy. But confusing what’s real and what’s a product of human imagination doesn’t make sense.

Neither does ignoring realities because I don’t like them, or believing that a figment of imagination is real.

I can continue being a Catholic. Or I can believe that Jesus isn’t or couldn’t be human. Not both. I have to pick one or the other. (Catechism, 285, 465)

I’ve got free will, so in principle I could change my mind about what I think is true. But deciding to stop being a Catholic is about as improbable as it gets. I like being a Catholic, know why I joined, and keep finding more reasons to stay with the Church.

Cool Names

Being a Catholic doesn’t keep me from seeing what’s appealing in Gnosticism. Appealing to someone with my tastes and interests, anyway.

Like that diagram. It’s from a book published in 1826, Jacques Matter’s “Histoire critique du Gnosticisme.”

It’s the Plérome de Valentin, showing how Valentinianism viewed reality.

Valentinian’s version of reality has entities with cool names like le Père, la Pensée and des éons.

If I was reading about it in English, they’d be the Father, the Thought and the Aeons.

If that sounds like some alternative liturgies you’ve run into, I’m not surprised. Like I said, Gnostic notions have been popping up for about two millennia: repackaged but recognizably Gnostic. The New Age4 brand was popular recently. Still is, in some circles.

I like cool names and imaginative alternate realities. But I don’t see a point in believing something because it’s cool, or because it’s kinda now and kinda wow.

Or impressively ancient.

And I know enough of what’s happened and what we’ve thought over the last few millennia to realize that many New Age ideas, for example, aren’t all that new. Some only go back a few centuries, at most. And that’s yet another topic.

Sub-Creation

I’ve known folks who don’t like fiction because “it’s not true.” Or dismiss myth for the same reason.

I wouldn’t try forcing them to read “Through the Looking Glass.”

Or avoid a tale of Líf and Lífþrasir riding out Ragnarök by hiding in Yggdrasil because it’s not science or history.

Avoiding stories because another person won’t or can’t enjoy products of our imaginations is possible. But doesn’t seem reasonable. (July 16, 2017)

Sharing a figment of imagination may not always be a bad idea. I see differences, significant ones, between a storyteller weaving a tale and a con artist selling a version of Victor Lustig’s “money-printing machine”

I also think Tolkien is right about at least one aspect of mythology:

“…This aspect of ‘mythology’ — sub-creation, rather than either representation or symbolic interpretation of the beauties and terrors of the world — is, I think, too little considered….”
(“J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories,” via The Heritage Podcast)

And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.

Other posts that may or may not be related to this one:


1 Philosophers, “isms” and all that:

2 A Saint, A Gnostic, and two “isms:”

3 Gnosticism’s origins, maybe:

4 Mysticism isn’t the problem. Nescience can be:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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5 Responses to Gnosticism

  1. Speaking of secret stuff, I was wondering about the Catholic teachings about secret societies like the Freemasons. I can believe and follow the teachings, but I don’t get it fully yet, I think. And maybe the secret societies’ advertising are also being tricky as usual as well. So yeah.

    Oh, and man, speaking of fiction, I thought about how I view it these days: It’s meant to push us into facing reality better, not push us into running away from reality or even killing ourselves. I think even myths can work the same way as long as we don’t confuse them with true reality. And hey, maybe those people who aren’t into fiction and myths can still be taught and helped out in other ways, so yeah. 🙂

    • 🙂 About mythology, truth, and all that – – – I think much depends on how “truth” gets defined. There’s a rich topic there: which will wait for another time.

      And agreed about fiction (and myth) – – – they can do good, or harm – – – and doing good seems like a better idea.

      About truth – a (Catholic) science editor’s quip, “that reality has layers,” makes sense to me. She also quotes (without citing her source, which I think was a good idea in the circumstances) a Pope: “truth cannot contradict truth.” Science and religion both pursue truth: focusing on different layers of reality. ( http://brendans-island.com/catholic-citizen/repeatable-results-that-arent/#truth2 )

      About Freemasonry: I gather that the problem isn’t what individual Freemasons and Masonic lodges say or do. The Catholic position comes from differences between our view of reality’s nature and masonic views.

      An excessively-short version of my view is that recognizing that someone has good intentions isn’t the same as thinking that the person’s worldview is just like mine. For example, I know enough about Buddhism and Buddhists to realize that folks who follow that belief can be good citizens. But I can’t be a Buddhist and a Catholic at the same time.

      There’s a massive document, released in 1985, discussing the matter. The good news is that it’s online and available in English: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19850223_declaration-masonic_articolo_en.html . The — frustrating? — news is that it’s in academese English.

      • Speaking of which, mythology was a way for people back then to make more sense of how the world works, as far as I know from Comparative Literature classes about the short story and fiction, and the influence of mythology shows that way in today’s fiction, I think. From wild yet believable guessing to calculated yet plausible theorizing, fiction is indeed part of our attempts to understand and even change reality. And man, I remember being surprised when my Professor back there had the Slender Man as an example of a modern myth that tries to explain our fear of strangers…and I guess if we consider hard evidence too hard to find at the moment, we end up making wild guesses until we have something believable, though not necessarily true, huh?

        Still, yeah, truth cannot contradict itself. It’s just complex, and we’re slow on the uptake. Try to break it, and the attacker shall be the one broken upon it, not truth. It makes the statement “Rules are meant to be broken” worth laughing at, I think.

        Hm, I think I’m understanding the doctrine regarding Freemasonry better now. The Freemason sense of reality is more relativistic than I thought, now that I think about it. And considering “fake news” problems today, relativism poses quite a noticeable danger, with the aforementioned “fake news” problems being the most prominent or the gigantic tip of the iceberg. And really, I can see more of the hidden parts of the iceberg even in protesters and in myself, considering how being violent in return, even through just the verbal, seems to be a popular response to the great issues of society. And hey, dialogue is still important, but tolerance and support are still two different things, I guess, and they have a thin line between them. I feel like we get those two mixed up easily, see?

        Still, I think our society is on the way, slowly but surely, to questioning relativism more. These “fake news” issues are likely strong fuel for such discussions, too. Hopefully, people out there who tell other people to just follow their heart and not let others affect them (and man, doesn’t that sound contradictory?) will realize that our hearts aren’t perfect and that independent, and that the good in them comes from God Almighty. So yeah. 🙂

Thanks for taking time to comment!