Sunday, January 7, 2007

What does a Gnostic know?

"The word gnosis (from the Greek word for knowledge, γνώσις) refers to a form of spiritual knowledge that is more commonly familiar to people as enlightenment." As I have been reading about the gnostic traditions in the early formation of Christianity there is an amazing contemporary aspect to its development. In this article on Valentinus by Stephen A. Hoeller, first published in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 1), it presented something about a different type of ignorance that caught my eye.

Who was this Valentinus and where did he come from? Valentinus "was born in Africa, probably within the territory of the ancient city of Carthage, around or before 100 A.D. He was educated in Alexandria and in the prime of his years transferred his residence to Rome, where he achieved a high degree of prominence in the Christian community between 135 and 160 A.D. Tertullian wrote that Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome and that he lost the election by a rather narrow margin."

In the view of Valentinus, it wasn't intellectual ignorance that created "wrongness" in the world, it was ignorance of the spirit. The great difference in the gnostic view of the world and the view of what we now call the orthodox view was in WHERE "wrongness" dwelled. They both agreed that "somewhere, somehow, the fabric of being at the existential level of human functioning has lost its integrity." The orthodox view came to believe that the "wrongness" was due to Adam's disobedience and sin in the human being. "This means, that all evil, discomfort, and terror in our lives and in history are somehow our fault."

"Valentinus, in opposition to this guilt-ridden view of life, held that the above-noted defect is not the result of our wrongdoing, but is inherent in the system of existence wherein we live and move and have our being. Moreover, by postulating that creation itself is lacking in integrity, Valentinus not only removes the weight of personal and collective guilt from our shoulders but also points to the redemptive potential resident in the soul of every human being."

In my experience, guilt has not been very effective in changing who I am. It may temporarily alter my behavior, most times against my desire, but I have never sensed any true transformation. Clues to how Valentinus viewed this process can be found in the quote from Valnetinus in Irenaeus' work against heresies.

"Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible; nor is it psychical, for even the soul is a product of the defect and it is a lodging to the spirit: pneumatic (spiritual) therefore also must be redemption itself. Through Gnosis, then, is redeemed the inner, spiritual man: so that to us suffices the Gnosis of universal being: and this is the true redemption." (Adv. Haer. I. 21,4)

Another way to put the idea of salvation is that we can be saved from the illusion of this world through the knowledge or gnosis or awakening of the spirit. "The ignorance of the agencies that create the false system is thus undone and rectified by the spiritual Gnosis of the human being. The defect can be removed from being by Gnosis. There is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a need for a blind belief in a vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus. We don't need to be saved; we need to be transformed by Gnosis. The wrong-headedness, perversity, obtuseness, and malignancy of the existential condition of humanity can be changed into a glorious image of the fullness of being. This is done not by guilt, shame, and an eternal saviour but by the activation of the redemptive potential of self-knowledge."

Parallels to this idea can be found in some of Jesus' words. In Luke 17:20,21 we can read...

"Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

Or in John 3:4-6

Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."

Or in Mark 12:33,34

"To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

What is this Kingdom of God that can come within us? What if Jesus was teaching a form of gnosis?

Stephen Hoeller continues...

"The Gnostic contention is that both the world and humanity are sick. The sickness of the world and its equivalent human illness both have one common root: ignorance. We ignore the authentic values of life and substitute unauthentic ones for them. The unauthentic values are for the most part either physical or of the mind. We believe that we need things (such as money, symbols of power and prestige, physical pleasures) in order to be happy or whole. Similarly we fall in love with the ideas and abstractions of our minds. (The rigidities and the hardness of our lives are always due to our excessive attachment to abstract concepts and precepts.) The sickness of materialism was called hyleticism (worship of matter) by the Gnostics, while the sickness of abstract intellectualism and moralizing was known as psychism (worship of the mind-emotional soul). The true role of the facilitators of wholeness in this world, among whom Jesus occupied the place of honor, is that they can exorcise these sicknesses by bringing knowledge of the pneuma (spirit) to the soul and mind."

Paul even reflects this in this quote from Romans 12:2 "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

So how do we transform the spirit? How do we renew the mind and the soul? How do we enter into the Kingdom of God? Gnostic beliefs and traditions seem to offer an alternate insight into this process. This is something that I believe is important to explore.

"What is this pneuma, this spirit, which alone brings Gnosis and healing to the sickness of human nature? We cannot truly say what it is, but we can indicate what it does. It has been said that the spirit bloweth where it listeth. It brings flexibility, existential courage of life. By way of the healing agency of pneuma, the soul ceases to be fascinated and confined by things and ideas and thus it can address itself to life. The obsession of the human psyche with the importance of the material world and/or of the abstract intellectual and moral world is the sickness from which the great saviours of humanity redeem us. The obsessive state of material and mental attachments is thus replaced by spiritual freedom; the unauthentic values of the former are made to give way to the authentic ones brought by the spirit."

It would interesting to know more about Valentinus and I will close with one last quote from Stephen Hoeller...

"Valentinus, the Gnostic who almost became pope, was thus the only man who could have succeeded in gaining a form of permanent positive recognition for the Gnostic approach to the message of Christ. The fact that circumstances and the increasing floodtide of a regressive pseudo-orthodoxy caused his efforts to fail must be reckoned among the greatest tragedies of the history of Christianity."

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