Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

  1. Reading The Gnostics by Sean Martin and No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins by Carl B. Smith II. In particular, Martin writes as an insider and sympathizer, advocating gnosticism for the present day and portraying Christianity as its ancient enemy. I encountered a similar sympathy years ago in an edition of the Gospel of Thomas edited by literary critic Harold Bloom, only to discover that he thought gnosticism was a religion for our time! Martin points out the gnostic themes in modern culture, e.g. in the writings of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick or in movies like The Truman Show (one I love to unpick) and The Matrix Trilogy.
  2. Encountering second-century gnosticism once again as I revisit the church fathers for a book I’m writing. In face of figures such as Valentinus, Basilides, and in certain aspects, Marcion, the second-century church’s greatest challenge was to demonstrate to itself and to others how it was distinct, not just from Judaism and polytheism, but also from a quasi-Christian gnosticism. After early entanglement reaching as far back as Simon Magus’ involvement with the apostles in Acts 8:9–25, both what I’m calling orthodox Christianity and gnosticism fought for the right to claim to represent the legacy of Jesus Christ, and the writings of church fathers like Irenaeus and Hippolytus show how close it was.

Let me try to sum up some key tenets of gnosticism. This is mostly off the top of my head, so please forgive any inaccuracies. It’s the general idea.

  • There is a true God right at the top of the ontological tree, virtually inaccessible to ordinary people, truly hidden in transcendent superiority.
  • All that exists really emanates from that God in increasing degrees of inferiority, through a complex hierarchy of demigods often described as ‘powers’ or ‘aeons’.
  • The creator God of the Old Testament (one name given him is Ialdabaoth) is an imposter, presenting himself as if he is the true God, but instead is in reality an inferior and rebellious deity. Even his own creation was a mistake, and his creation of a material world was a misguided attempt to duplicate the true creative work of the high God.
  • Christ is usually represented as a better emanation from the Divine, a ‘true light’ come to break into the darkness of this world and direct people back to the realm of light. In itself, that sounds very Gospel of John, right? So at the boundary, and especially in the earliest days of the church, it was possible to have a thing that could be called ‘Gnostic Christianity’. The concealed watershed between the two really comes in the attitude to the Old Testament, the Israel of the Old Testament, and the God of the Old Testament. If you believe that that triad is bad rather than good, broadly speaking, or fundamentally opposite to New Testament, Church and Christ, you’re more likely to be a gnostic or a Marcionite than a Christian, theologically speaking. (Provocative?)
  • Anything material is bad by nature, and our world’s physicality shows that it is creation gone wrong. Likewise our physical bodies, which are prisons for our spirits until they can escape in spiritual ascent.
  • Salvation is achieved through knowledge, or ‘gnosis’, hence the name of this suite of belief systems. In common with contemplative forms of spirituality, but in a more thoroughly ontological way, the goal is to ascend the hierarchy of being to a kind of reunification with true Deity.
  • The upshot is that you can not only leave most of the ordinary people, the hoi polloi, behind in their fleshly ignorance, but even outstrip the upstart Ialdabaoth and effectively know all that he knows and more.

Hope I have that pretty right. Gnosticism is so splintered and variable in practice that it’s hard to capture it all in one summary. But notice the underlying theme. I’d phrase it like this: through knowledge, you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil, i.e. everything.

That ‘serpent’ in the Garden in Genesis 3 is certainly an enigmatic character, and for his sinister influence there is a restorative counterpart in the snake of Num. 21:8–9, hence the title of Charlesworth’s book, The Good and Evil Serpent. But the temptation in Gen. 3:5 is the best one there is, because there’s nothing we are tempted to covet more than the knowledge that we think we’re denied, unless it’s the power we feel denied. Accept no limits! Rise to any height! No-one can stop you! No-one can tell you what to do. You can in theory learn it all, either legitimately, through a kind of all-conquering science, or by the backdoor means of secret symbols and societies, occult ceremonies, mysticism and magic.

Don’t let that heavenly killjoy tell you what you can and can’t do.

Well, if you can take a tip from a biblical text, Genesis 3 might suggest that unfettered knowledge is not an unmitigated good for a human. And like it or not, there are in fact limits inherent in being human. It’s sheer hubris to imagine otherwise. Heck, we are barely even capable of leaving our home planet without burning enough fuel to power a small town for a year (if it doesn’t self-destruct; I’m talking to you, SpaceX). And it isn’t a big planet, not at all.

So if there are two philosophies that this planet ain’t big enough for the both of, it’s Christianity and gnosticism. I’m suggesting to you that they are, despite periodic attempts to combine them or confusion over where one starts and the other stops, mortal enemies at base. Polar opposites. Both cannot live forever.

Either you and I are gods, or God is God, and we are not.

For my part, I’m cool with that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s