A key difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism is that Christianity has traditionally affirmed that the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus are one and the same, whereas Gnosticism has traditionally asserted that the two are different beings altogether, envisioning YHWH as a self-deluded Demiurge who sits well below the Father in the divine pecking order. This is why you’ll find esoteric interpretations of the Song of Songs from Christian mystics, who consider the Old Testament scripture, but never from Gnostics, who don’t.
This cartoon of baby Jesus walking on water at bath time reminds me of some of the fanciful stories from the Infancy Gospels of the Gnostics, which were later recounted in the Quran. In them the young Jesus comes across as very precocious.
This evening I find myself mulling over the future of Gnosticism. Haven’t heard many noises from that scene lately, not since the publishing of The Gospel of Judas by the National Geographic Society back in 2006, and Google Trends shows a downward slide ever since.
Could it be that Gnosticism, after a decade or so in the limelight, is drifting into obscurity once again? That the Nag Hammadi Library and its Gnostic Gospels is becoming “occult” once more in the literal sense of the word?
I suppose one test is whether we’ll see yet another Gnostic-inspired Jesus Conspiracy this Easter, or whether some other source of anti-Christian skepticism will be drawn from. I’m suspecting the latter, but we’ll see.
Personally I suspect the popular attraction with Gnosticism was that it repackaged Jesus as a messageless messenger. This “lost” and reconstructed Jesus was not the key to all mysteries, he was the mystery of mysteries, ready to reflect consumers desires.
However, as I’ve said before, the problem with eclecticism is that it has no staying power. When everyone is busy deconstructing and reinventing their own traditions, there is no ancient tradition to pass on to others. This is where the Jesus Seminar failed. The only thing they could really agree on is who Jesus was not, not on who he was. This is why I think Christian Mysticism will thrive long after Gnosticism is forgotton. It’s grounded in tradition and community rather than imagination and individualism.
Many people who are frustrated with orthodox Christianity, at least in the form they’re familiar with, turn to Gnosticism as a way of seekingout deeper spiritual experience.
And when they do this, they often speak of the shift in polarised terms, as a turning from exotericism to esotericism, from institutionalism to inner life, from religion to spirituality. Why, only last night I read this: “…well from what i know Orthodox Christianity doesn’t agree with Gnosticism because they often have different views on what happened to Jesus and his teachings. Gnosticism has a more mystical approach to things and orthodox doesn’t like it.”
But I don’t buy into that metanarrative so easily. In response to that comment, I said “It’s misleading to put the difference down to ‘Gnosticism has a more mystical approach to things and orthodox doesn’t like it.’ Because the fact of the matter is there are many varieties of orthodox / non-Gnostic mysticism within Christianity. So you’re statement only holds true for some streams of Christianity at best, not all.”
I highlight this because I think it’s important to sort between false and genuine differences at this point. There are differences between Christianity and Gnosticism, but it’s not in the mysticism.
Tom Wright speaks on Gnosticism, Christianity and the differences between them.
- Which one was more world affirming?
- Which one was more politically subversive?
Related articles on Gnosicism
One of the ironies of contemporary spirituality is surely the popularity of the Gnostic gospels amongst those seeking a more human, down to earth Jesus, for the Jesus of the Gnostics is far more alien and inhuman than the Jesus of the New Testament.
Do I exaggerate?
Consider this flashback episode from The Acts of John:
…. Sometimes when I meant to touch him [Jesus], I met with a material and solid body; but at other times when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, as if it did not exist at all … And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint, whether it appeared on the ground (for I saw him as it were raised up from the earth), and I never saw it. (§ 93)
The closest the New Testament gospels come to this are the transfiguration and walking on water accounts, neither of which affirm an immaterial Jesus. And even the appearance accounts (which are post- not pre- resurrection) don’t go as far.
So, contemporary interest in the Gnostic gospels has long been a puzzle for me. To be honest I wondered how much of the interest was due to ignorance about what the Gnostic gospels actual said.
But Epstein’s article on Post-Atheism has helped me clarify some of my thoughts. In essence I sense that what is happening is that the “obvious” mythological character of the Gnostic gospels creates a plausibility structure for treating the New Testament as “obviously” mythological as well. This facilitates not only the “demythologization” of Jesus for those who find the miraculous objectionable; it also facilitates alternative myth validation for those seeking a more “inclusive” and consumer friendly Jesus.
In such fashion, Jesus becomes a messenger without a message. He is stripped of his revelatory power and becomes, himself, the deepest of mysteries. Intellectual honesty requires us to profess agnosticism about the historical Jesus; assurance becomes heretical; God remains unknown; all that remains is Jesus the mythological mirror of the human soul.
In my wanderings this week I came across a drawing entitled, "The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus" by artist Wade Smith.
It has a very trippy dreamscape feel about it which I found quite appealing but it raises the age old question of which Jesus are we actually talking about? The Jesus of ancient tradition or the Jesus of latter day speculation? Is the Jesus we are talking about a real person or just a projection screen for our personal fantasies?
I think this is an important question to answer as a fantasy Jesus lacks the power to challenge us in our fantasies.
Today, on Good Friday, I am reminded that crucifixion, death, is as real as it gets.