THE CHALLENGES OF THE GNOSTICS

An Adult Discussion Group Presentation at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Lakeland October 9, 2005

By Michael Segers
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Segers All rights reserved

Msegers@Gmail.com Contents Vocabulary The Challenges of the Gnostics Notes on the Gospel of Thomas Web-ography

1

there was not yet a clearly defined Christian orthodoxy or party line. literally. I have no use for any of you reds!” which I am writing here.” As he slapped handcuffs onto the demonstrator. were met by a group opposed to them. they have very different meanings. “I don’t care if you are an uncle communist. in no knowledge of God. no god. A theist believes in a theos.” Actually. not even that She or He or It exists. Heresy refers to beliefs outside the range of orthodoxy.” just as orthodontics refers to “straight teeth. just like the words theist and atheist. to “straight thinking. at the time of 2 . Although they sound alike. while an agnostic believes in a-gnosis. Similarly. Orthodoxy refers. A group of Communists. the direct knowledge of God. while an atheist believes in a-theos. the police began to arrest everyone. “But I am an anti-communist. that we cannot say anything about Him or Her or It.Vocabulary I believe that today more people are familiar with the word agnostic than with the word gnostic. having a demonstration. a policeman said. One demonstrator objected. In the fracas that ensued. a god. a gnostic believes in gnosis. that is.

In his allegory of the cave (in The A great Platonist once Republic). who was a dualist. from it and casts shadows on the wall. of what they did or did not believe. All things are either physical or spiritual. around and asked. I am referring here specifically to a movement that occurred in Christianity mainly in the second and third centuries of the Common Era (100’s and 200’s A. fumbled at his fly. One belief that many of these Gnostic Christians or Christian Gnostics subscribed to was the belief in the dualism of existence. a philosopher) can escape from and. says. the physical or material world is corrupt. beyond the belief in salvation by knowledge of God and of self. it is difficult to make generalizations. turned the cave to tell us what is up there or. as is “If your fly and what is back of it do not exist. visible. which teaches that the man responded.).” the the Kabbalah. it is lectured to a group of as if we are in a cave.D. even lead us out. “Uh. one young man paused at We don’t see reality. physical world simply provides youngwhy did you care?” “then us images and codes of the true 3 . While this may seem alien to us. while the spiritual world is good.” shadows. outright evil. sir. only the the lectern to remark. someone (since The lecturer turned a philosopher is telling this story. Moreover. in our human existence.” Manicheanism is also dualistic. the cave. he around. zipped. largely dying out by the Council of Nicea in the fourth century. only the light that shines in At the end of the session. your fly is open. Since Gnostics put such emphasis upon direct personal knowledge of God. chained so that undergraduates on the we cannot even see the entrance of immateriality of the material. One of the seminal thinkers in the Western tradition is Plato. Sometimes. annoyed.The Challenges of the Gnostics Gnosticism is a spiritual path that has been seen throughout history in many settings. dualism seems to be a fundamental part of human thought. with some oversimplification. “Why did you say that? My fly was possibly.

For the Gnostics. I hear. Joshua ben Joseph (“son of Joseph”). however. I do not believe that this is a call for ritual nudity (like that of the Dukhobers) but rather a suggestion that the body is a set of old clothes impeding the spirit. which. “Who do men say that I am?” We can come up with two answers to that question that are totally at odds with each other. so I’m going to be stuck through eternity in a short. it is recorded that Jesus asked his disciples.reality. or not to be trusted. it is possible to refer. God—in traditional Christian teaching—took on human flesh in the incarnation (the in-meat-ation or enfleshment). God created the material world and all that is in it. there is no soul that is going to fly heavenward in a lacy gown. Some New-Agers even claim to see some sort of dualism at work in quantum physics.” Some Christian thinkers. God doesn’t make junk. the Christ was a divine or spiritual principle. it became corrupt by human sin. Christianity demands the resurrection of the physical body. insubstantial. Although many Christians seem to regard the material world as somehow wrong. Moreover. So. a Jewish teacher or rabbi.” 4 . as far as we know. have argued that although God’s original creation was good. In Christianity. a great ethical teacher. First. there is the answer that Jesus is a physical being. who. that is not fundamental Christian doctrine. on the other hand.” Jesus (Greek) or Joshua (Hebrew) is the name of the historical person. According to a plaque I’ve seen in several Christian homes. fat body with bad eyes? Some good news that is!) Who is Jesus/Christ? In the canonical (New Testament) Gospels. One Gnostic text has Jesus telling his disciples to cast off their clothes and trample them. in his early thirties. and in the Mass (according to Catholic teaching) the material bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. a good man. depending upon the beliefs under consideration to “Jesus and the Christ” or “Jesus or the Christ” or “Jesus the Christ. got into trouble with the Note: The word Christ like the word Buddha (“the enlighted one”) is not a name but a title. (Gee. and nothing more. in this discussion. The Gnostics taught that we are souls trapped in physical bodies. “I’m OK. Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew) means “the anointed one. amuses physicists.

Jr. again. which dismisses both as heresy. he was laughing at the trick he had played on all of those who thought he was dying: I saw him seemingly being seized by them. For the orthodox. we can answer that the Christ is purely spiritual. Jesus is fully human. O Lord? That it is you yourself whom they take. the Christ pulls some sort of switch so that a man is actually crucified. not the un-crucifiable Christ but Simon. if the Christ is only spirit. (And isn’t it a shame that so many of those who call themselves his followers seem to have forgotten his example and teachings?) Second. no suffering. there can be no blood. an image. glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?" .authorities. so that we can all attain atonement (at-one-ment) with God. so what? How is his death any different from the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. no sacrifice. we might say a hologram. (Can you nail a spirit to a cross? Can a spirit bleed?) The Gnostics offered a vision of a non-material Christ who did not suffer and die on the cross. but a mother who is a virgin. If Jesus were just a good person and great teacher who got killed. And… he still lives… in our memory. born of a human mother. something that appears to have three dimensions but is as insubstantial as the light of which it is formed. not tainted by material existence. since he is also fully spiritual. then. And I said "What do I see. conceived of the Holy Spirit. and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one.? But. In fact.) As radically different as these answers are. when Simon of Cyrene carries the cross of Jesus (nowadays. for the example he set us and for the teachings he gave us. so much so that those who thought they saw him actually saw just a fantasy. (Today.The Apocalypse of Peter In one terrible Gnostic story. Orthodox Christians (such as Mel Gibson) demand blood and suffering in a sacrifice extreme enough to overcome the sin and death of every human being. just someone who had taken his family out to a nice afternoon of 5 . scholars believe that it was just the horizontal crossbar). they are both at odds with orthodox Christianity. and was brutally executed.

the bishops and their church provide a direct historical link to the basic mysteries of the Christian faith. family-friendly entertainment was hard to find—and ended up being in the wrongest place at the wrongest time imaginable. the church refuted the Gnostics. go forth and pass them on. (Once again. since a bishop’s hands are physical. just your Bible (another material object). who had had the hands of Jesus laid upon him. but at the time. who… This may seem odd to us. the laying on of hands by a teacher was a sort of graduation ceremony or certification. in case two of them do not have legitimate successions). One can find ecclesiastical family trees that show that the current bishop had the hands of a previous bishop laid upon him. priests.) Let’s fast forward over a thousand years to the time of the Protestant Reformation. (In some non-Roman autocephalous catholic traditions. who later laid their hands upon their disciples. Christianity shows its material side. groups of bishops may lay hands upon each other… just to be sure. a previous bishop who had the hands of a previous bishop laid upon him… all the way back to one of the apostles. By emphasizing the historical nature of the succession of bishops (none of whom were Gnostic). and there has been some discussion about whether a bishop whose hands had been amputated could participate in the consecration of a bishop.) And so. . by the way.crucifixion—good. apostolic succession) to our own time. free. 6 You have completed my teachings. You did not need bishops. This succession continues from the time of the apostles (hence. Martin Luther proclaimed that all that was necessary for learning the way to salvation was to be alone in your room with your Bible. The Gnostics may have something to do with this. when the bishops are consecrated by the laying on of hands (by three bishops. now. since they claimed to have a tradition that reached back to the time when the Christ was appearing on earth. How do you know? What are your sources for authority? Catholic tradition reminds us that Jesus laid his hands upon his disciples. or churches.

few people could afford any library at all).) 7 . do you suppose. I have the potential within myself to attain true knowledge. Let’s speculate that an ancient Gnostic finds himself in the 21st century. with its investment in this corrupt. One evening. (Again. or himself. lost in darkness and ignorance. various twelve-step groups. his alley cat rescued from the pound. acres and acres of paved parking. an audio recording studio. and an annual budget in the millions of dollars. a video production studio. (Personal aside: the Gnostics always seem a little snobbish to me. How do you attain salvation? The Gnostics believe that Christ came to teach. As they look through my books. But. and his thrift shop wardrobe. historical connection (bishops or Bible) to revelation. Athanasius has condemned. Their most important library is within themselves. a Christian weight loss program. still with a small library. I don’t imagine Gnostic roosters crow very much. He reads in the newspaper an article about a mega-church with several thousand members. We attain salvation not through faith but through knowledge.” The Gnostics used the image of the rooster. Who. a Christian rock group. there is a knock at the door. but few can “wake up. a Christian family center. and so they take them away. they are shocked to see some books that St. They do not even need their own books. material world. about ten thousand members. a Christian rap group. because as a Gnostic. some three hundred staff members. It is the COPs (Christian Orthodox Patrol). which cannot be contained in any book.Let’s imagine now that I am an ancient Gnostic.) The Gnostics say that many are intoxicated. with his direct knowledge of God? Gnostics do not need a material. not to suffer. complete with heated swimming pool. He looks at his little old laptop computer. he thinks is winning? The mega-church. since it is in PDF files on CDroms. happy with my little library (since in those times. Have I really lost anything? No. not everyone can receive the teachings. the first to see and proclaim the light of day.

I use images. By hearing ye shall hear. Surely these teachings were wrong.There is an unusual passage in the canonical Gospels. 12For whosoever hath. and said unto him. and seeing ye shall see. struggle to understand the truth behind the stories of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of the body. and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not. and shall not understand. perhaps even parables to get a point across. With the Gnostics’ distrust of matter–“just the facts. and fakers. Orthodox Christians had trouble with this. to find the spiritual meaning back of the text. from him shall be taken away even that he hath. neither do they understand. which was a sort of southern California of its day. But. Many Gnostic teachers hailed from Alexandria. but there are those Christians who will never accept such speculation. one that is worth looking at in full: And the disciples came. it is doubtful that they read even their own texts literally. 8 . stories. they were shocked. in which the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. without accepting the literal truth of those events. but Jesus has a surprising explanation. 13Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not. flakes. with quite an assortment of offbeat religions. – Matthew 13 10 Make of this passage what you will. Many educated Christians today. Why speakest thou unto them in parables? 11He answered and said unto them. and hearing they hear not. ma’am”– and their conviction that there is a higher knowledge that most of us do not see. symbolically. which saith. but to them it is not given. to him shall be given. it gives us a hint about reading Gnostic texts. examples. and shall not perceive. Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. they were wrong only if they were taken literally. As a teacher. and that was not to read a text literally but to read it mythologically. fads. There was one tendency among many Alexandrian teachers. 14And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias. Egypt. When they read Gnostic texts with their lush imagery and sometimes wild mythology.

which we lost by losing their tradition in the Church. So. Instead. which is. two stories. among other things. obviously. overemotional. is their view of the role of women. The creator god of the Old Testament. wrote the Saint James Bible in his own blood and in our English. What is the greatest gift of the Gnostics? Probably the greatest single gift from the Gnostics.Such differences in the ways of reading are still very much with us today in the opening years of the twenty-first century of the Common Era. no more. that the Gnostics were wrong. He did not say five days or seven days or three thousand fifty-six days. second-rate beings. entwined – we are told God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them in six days. He said that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. is a bad god. because it was six days. 9 . Gnostics honor women as the manifestation of Wisdom. the personification of divine wisdom. because he created all this corrupt matter. no one knows how long those days are. because all matter was created by God. Do you know why? Why? Well. when our Lord and Savior. women are not considered frail. That is allegorical. And there are other books and more gods. more visions and images and myths that are not true in themselves but that communicate truths. Let us consider a biblical scholar and a country preacher talking about the opening of the book of Genesis: In this story – actually. There is a spiritual being in Gnostic thinking called Sophia. Brethren and sistern. since It was His Own Daddy. we need to look at the greater meaning of the story. And Sophia is feminine. no less. Gnostic books cannot be read literally. and He should know what He was talking about. Some books teach that there are two gods or many gods. Rather than be concerned with the details. Jesus Christ.

In some Gnostic texts. an ancient clay jar was discovered that was full of books (not scrolls) that made up a library of ancient Gnostic texts.) How do we know about the Gnostics? For most of the history of the Christian Church. (The library of an earlier Jewish sect. Martin Luther King. Two amazing points about this novel (aside from its having apparently established permanent residence on The New York Times Best Seller List) is. first. most knowledge of the Gnostics was found in the works of those “patristic” writers (“fathers” of the Church) who sought to refute them. Ireneus’s Against the Heresies. near an Egyptian village called Nag Hammadi. It was as if all that we knew about Dr. Jr. Dan Brown did not make any of this stuff up.Just as there is some connection between the Christ and the physical person Jesus. some that had never before been known. In 1945. Some folks just never learn more than one way of reading. so is there a connection between Sophia and Miriam of Magdala (Mary Magdalene).. Second. as if it were historical. I wore my Leonardo da Vinci necktie. a fiction. as if it were an attack upon their faith. The traditions he recounts in his book are authentic. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. there is an explicit association of Jesus and Mary. most notably in St. (Irrelevant aside: in recognition of the novel. we seem to have dropped into the middle of a certain best-selling novel. known as the Dead Sea or Qumran Scrolls was discovered about 10 . Jesus “used to kiss her often on her mouth. orthodox Christians are reading and complaining about this novel. which makes no presumption of being anything but an entertainment. According to the Gospel of Philip.” Somehow. was what was contained in his FBI files.

and justice for all. not so much their beliefs as the issues they raise that are still with us: personal spiritual freedom in contrast to institutional religion. But. * Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. 11 . the equality in the roles of women and men. then. for some reason. and I cannot see how any program of social justice could develop in the environment of Gnosticism. the further we get from our true calling. being compatible with Gnosticism. although both sets of texts are available in English translation in print and on line. again. For me. I wish to share the seven principals of Unitarian-Universalism. more captured the attention of the public. I do not feel that they have that much to offer me. not. equity and compassion in human relations.) What can we gain from the Gnostics? From my own experience of reading about and reflecting upon the Gnostics. it just don’t get more spiritual than with the Gnostics. * The inherent worth and dignity of every person. my title. is it Gnostic Christians?). * The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. in fact. the more we get involved with it. acknowledging the context of this presentation. “The Challenges of the Gnostics.” hints at what I believe to be the significance of the heritage of the early Christian Gnostics (or. for the Gnostics. I believe. I have rearranged them. * Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. liberty. The material world is corrupt. and so.the same time and. * A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. * The goal of world community with peace. Finally. If you are concerned about spiritual development. even trying to improve it. * Justice. the last four. with the first three. multiple ways of reading and understanding and attaining the truth. they get too spiritual.

org/naghamm/nhl_thomas. If they say to you. But if you will not know yourselves. the kingdom is in the sky.htm The Gospel of Thomas Collection in the Gnostic Society Library http://www. which has been known all along. The text as well as a great deal of information and commentary can be found online at these pages: http://www. at 10:00 a. I have often mentioned that I am not a good UU. The best known and most controversial of the Nag Hammadi texts.com/thomas. some are not).html The Gospel of Thomas . those found in the New Testament). "If those who lead you say to you.earlychristianwritings. One. and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. I hope that the background on the Gnostics in this article.m. articles http://www. and it is outside of you. together with the reading of Thomas by some people before the session will make an actual discussion possible.' then the birds of the sky will precede you. is a collection of stories of the childhood of Jesus (stories not found in the canonical gospels. is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus (some are found in the canonical gospels. however. Rather. There are in fact two different books called the Gospel of Thomas.epix. 'See. 2005.net/~miser17/Thomas. you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." – The Gospel of 12 . the kingdom is inside of you.html Gospel of Thomas Home Page Thomas Jesus said. because I do not believe in the value of discussion just for the sake of discussion. 'It is in the sea. versions.many links.gnosis.The Gospel of Thomas On November 13. I plan to lead a discussion of the Gospel of Thomas in an adult discussion group at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Lakeland.' then the fish will precede you. When you come to know yourselves.gospelthomas.com/ Commentary on each verse of the Gospel of Thomas http://home. then you will become known. This is “our” Gospel of Thomas.

includes Irenaeus.dk/pseudigrapher/gnostic/gnosi. General religion resources http://www.htm Gnostic.org Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 13 . sometimes it has the most information on the topics. Gnostics http://www.htm Non-Canonical Literature from Northwest Nazarene University http://fam-faerch.nnu.” which says it subscribes to the teachings of the Nag Hammadi texts.newadvent. apocrapha.ccel.religioustolerance.org Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://wesley.com/ Early Christian Writings http://www. I .Web-ography I. "Against the Heresies" (complete) http://www. which show the varieties of Gnostic experience today http://www. Although it has a definite bias. gnostic and other scriptures from the world’s religions IV. http://www.org/ “The Apostolic Gnostic Church in America.edu/biblical_studies/noncanon/acts. apocrypha.org/fathers2/ANF-01 Ante-Nicene Fathers. III.gnostic-church.earlychristianwritings.sacred-texts. Vol.cbel.html The Nag Hammadi Library http://www.gnosis. pseudepigrapha.ccel.gnosis.com/gnosticism/ 134 Gnosticism Resources. General Christian resources Don’t be surprised by the inclusion of the Catholic Encyclopedia.org/naghamm/nhl.org The Gnostic Archive (probably the best single source for Gnostic writings) http://www.org/cathen The Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.com Internet Sacred Text Archive http://www.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful