Gnosticism: God Beyond God

“The names of worldly things are utterly deceptive, for they turn the heart from what is real to what is unreal. Whoever hears the word god thinks not of what is real but rather of what is unreal. So also with the words father, son, holy spirit, life, light, resurrection, church, and all the rest, people do not think of what is real but of what is unreal, [though] the words refer to what is real. The words [that are] heard belong to this world. [Do not be] deceived. If words belonged to the eternal realm, they would never be pronounced in this world, nor would they designate worldly things. They would refer to what is in the eternal realm.”  (The Gospel of Philip 53:24-34)

Many people I know have issues with the judgmental, violent, punishing, angry, jealous (oh, but, He loves you) God of the Old Testament . light withinInterestingly enough, the early Christian sect called the gnostics did, too. They felt that there was a disconnect between the God that Jesus was preaching and teaching about, and the God of the Old Testament. So, they devised a way to make sense of that God.  They named the god of the OT a demiurge (literally, creator) and said this was a lower God. The God Jesus proclaimed was a higher, transcendent God. Valentinus, one of the greatest gnostic teachers, explained this a little more metaphorically, basically saying that there is a difference between the popular images of God (master, king, lord, etc) and what the image represents.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

For gnostics, gnosis was recognizing how people become entrapped by the names and images, and then rising above that to a connection with the God beyond.

Well, this got the gnostics in lots of trouble, because the orthodox Christians said there was only one God. Period. The Old Testament god was the same God of Jesus. In addition, they believed that this one God had given all power and authority on earth to the bishops, priests and deacons. Bishop Clement (90 – 100 CE) went so far as to say that if one was guilty of insubordination to these leaders, that was the same as being insubordinate to God, and it was punishable by the death penalty.

For gnostics, the orthodox had been brainwashed, distracted, fooled by this lower god and couldn’t see beyond. There was no way Gnostics would follow or worship a lower god or bishops who were blindly serving that demiurge.

In 325, the Nicene Creed  was constructed, reflecting the church’s response to this heresy: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

For centuries now, our imaginations and theological understanding of God has been limited by this language and we have been warned not to question God or the church (because if you questioned, you were being insubordinate to the church and so also being insubordinate to God).

And, yet, mysticism in all the major religions has sought to free us from this semantic construct of the Divine. When we can get beyond the God of names and images, when we can remember who we are as a part of the Divine whole, when we allow for the expansion of our mind and hearts, then we will once again achieve knowing, gnosis.

Below are quotes and commentary from the mystical traditions of Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There is much we have forgotten, much that has been deliberately hidden from us, much to be reclaimed.



Islamic Sufism

“The teachings of the Sufis suggest that there is a deeper, more profound pulse and flow operating in creation that we move to. All traditions recognize an eternal ebb and flow that is intimately connected with the breath. When we bring a conscious connection to this inner tide we connect with the Whole.” ~ Coleman Barks, The Illuminated Rumi

Jewish Kabbalism

“An impoverished person thinks that God is an old man with white hair, sitting on a wondrous throne of fire that glitters with countless sparks, as the Bible states: “The Ancient-of-Days sits, the hair on his head like clean fleece, his throne–flames of fire.” Imagining this and similar fantasies, the fool corporealizes God. He falls into one of the traps that destroy faith. His awe of God is limited by his imagination. But if you are enlightened, you know God’s oneness; you know that the divine is devoid of bodily categories — these can never be applied to God.” ~ Rabbi Moshe Cordovero


“In the beginning there was Existence alone – One only, without a second. He, the One, thought to himself: Let me be many, let me grow forth. Thus out of himself he projected the universe, and having projected out of himself the universe, he entered into every being. All that is has its self in him alone. Of all things he is the subtle essence. He is the truth. He is the Self. And that, … THAT ART THOU.” (Chandogya Upanishad) 

The Question of Resurrection

As we continue our look at the gnostic writings, here is the scoop on early Christianity’s stance on the resurrection of Christ. apostolic successionThe orthodox church held that the resurrection of Jesus literally happened and the twelve original apostles were the special recipients of his bodily resurrection visitations. Peter was the most special of all, having been the first of the twelve to experience the risen Christ (never mind the women, and especially Mary Magdalene, who were the first to see him in three of the gospels), and so was considered chosen by Jesus to be the first pope.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Being one of the twelve apostles, and one of the original witnesses of the risen Christ, were the criteria for Christian authority. Anyone outside of this circle had no authority to experience God, to interpret scripture, to proclaim anything outside of the bounds of what the twelve were teaching. This set the stage for apostolic success, the doctrine that all popes follow in succession of Peter, and all ordained priests and deacons are ordained by someone who has been ordained by the pope. One did not question what this line of authority teaches, and one did not seek to connect directly with God, but went through the priest or saint as an intermediary.

Gnostic Christians believed that the resurrection of Jesus was metaphorical and symbolic. To be dead was to be spiritually dead, to be caught up in the material world, to be driven by one’s ego, to be disconnected from the Divine, love and compassion. Resurrection, on the other hand, was to be spiritually alive:

[Resurrection] is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness. For imperishability descends upon the perishable; the light flows down upon the darkness, swallowing it up; and the [divine fullness] fills up the deficiency… (Treatise on Resurrection)

To the gnostics, the spiritual path was to seek resurrection, and once one experienced it, their first-hand knowledge of the Divine served as the only religious/spiritual authority they needed. They believed that God didn’t stop speaking once Jesus ascended. The spirit of the Living God continued to speak in a myriad of different ways, and so, they believed, certainly spirituality should evolve over time. You can see how “the Church” might frown on this.

Personally, I believe that whether one takes the resurrection literally or figuratively is not the point. I believe the most important part of this is for our individual experiences of the Divine to be validated and valued. The Catholic Church has told us that ultimate authority lies in the pope and the priests. Protestants have told us that ultimate authority lies in the Bible, and that there is no question that the Bible can’t answer. But, for those of us who have known that the Divine is to be found within, that God is still speaking, and that we should be evolving spiritually, can rejoice at having the affirmation from early Christians who felt the same way.



Gnosticism: Christianity’s Loss

“And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.” Jesus said, “Let one who seeks gnostic gospelsnot stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all.” (The Gospel of Thomas 1&2)

For the better part of 2,000 years we’ve been led to believe that Christianity took the best of a small number of writings and made them our Bible, canonized them, made them the authoritative, beyond reproach, text for our faith and practice. We’ve also been led to believe that early Christianity was much purer, simpler than what it has morphed into. And, I daresay, we’ve been led to believe that any other writings that were not canonized simply had nothing spiritually valid in them.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

All of these things are wrong, and we are only beginning to realize how wrong as study and research into the Gnostic Gospels has progressed in the last 30 years. Because of the discovery of these texts, we now know that there were many, many other writings circulating in early Christianity. In fact, one scholar has postulated that it is likely that we have lost 85% of early Christian literature, and that is only the literature that we are aware of! Also, we now realize that early Christianity wasn’t pure and simple, but very diverse and complex.

With the research and study done on these text, a broader picture of Christianity is being painted, more wisdom is coming to light, other paths are being illuminated. Now, I may be naive, but I would think that the churches would be excited about these finds, that they would be introducing them to their congregations. I would think that we, as Christians, would be studying to see what new, exciting things we could learn. But, clearly this has not been the case.

We, however, are a very curious community. And, so, we will embark on an exploratory journey of the gnostic gospels over the course of three weeks. We begin with a brief introduction.

“Gnosis” means “to know”, hence a “gnostic” is someone who believed they had special knowledge, and direct experience of the divine. Scholars had some awareness of these “gnostics” for a long time, but only through what their critics said about them. By the fourth century the gnostic gospels (as we know them now) were considered heretical and it was a criminal offense to be in possession of them. Many, many of the non-canonical writings were destroyed. It was only with a chance discovery in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, that 52 texts came to light and finally gave us a glimpse into the theology, practices and stories of the various gnostic communities. These codices date around 350-400 CE, but come from originals that could have been as early or earlier than the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It would be mistaken of us to assume that all gnostics thought alike; however, there seem to be some consistent themes:

  • Self-knowledge is knowledge of God; God is within
  • Jesus was a spiritual guide, not a god
  • God as Mother and Father
  • Jesus speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not sin and repentance
  • Focus on knowing/enlightenment, not sin/salvation
  • Resurrection was symbolic
  • Authority in God and personal experience of the Divine (not church or church hierarchy)
  • Evil is internal emotional distress, not violence against others

It seems like when gnosticism was forced underground, or destroyed, that we lost a piece (or pieces) of the Christian puzzle. Some of these pieces appear to directly answer some of the spiritual questions of our day, so perhaps this is the right time for these documents to come to light. In the words of the Gospel of Thomas, Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds.”