Against the Falsely So-Called Gnostiticism

by Jimmy Akin

in Other Religions

Longtime readers of this blog may know that I don’t like the word "cult," at least as it is commonly used (i.e., bad religious group). The reason that I don’t like it is that, although every "cult researcher" will try to formulate a definition of what a cult is, these definitions invariably include elements that are (a) arbitrary (e.g., if you don’t believe in sola fide, you’re a cult), (b) objectively unverifiable (e.g., saying that a group is "too" this or "too" that, which makes it a matter of opinion), or (c) applied selectively to groups that the user doesn’t like but not to groups that he does (e.g., did you know that those Christians are supposed to be willing to give up their lives rather than deny the founder of their group? and that they’re supposed to believe all of his teachings? and that he’s God? How cultlike!).

In the end, I find that using the term "cult" (in the "bad religious group") sense adds more heat than light. It just starts arguments over who is or is not a cult, stirs up bad feelings, and in general distracts from a discussion of the merits or demerits of whatever religion is under consideration.

As far as I can tell, the word "cult" in its colloquial sense is just a term of contempt used to refer to religions that one doesn’t like. "Cult" = "religious group I don’t like," esp. "smaller, newer religious group I don’t like."

(BTW, yes, I know all about its other, historical, positive use, but that’s not the usage I’m concerned with here.)

Another term I don’t like–but that is often used in "cult studies" is "mind control." This is a scare word introduced by "cult researchers" to refer to what historically has been referred to by the word "persuasion."

But we can go into those topics in more detail another time.

I’m writing today to talk about another word that is commonly misused: "Gnosticism."

Today I was reading the excellent publication Catholic World Report, which is very much worth reading, and I recommend that you subscribe if you haven’t (SUBSCRIBE HERE).

As readers may know, I get almost all of my information electronically these days, and so for me to actually read a print publication says something very special about it. Catholic World Report is one of a handfull that I even bother with, so it’s quite special indeed.

And the July 2008 issue has a very nice article on Reiki by Anna Abbott (whose name has the interesting quality of having all of the consonants doubled, making it very easy to spell; kudos to her parents and ancestors!).

The article is quite well done, and I especially like the way Anna uses a particular passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to show the incompatibility of Reiki with Catholic practice (it’s paragraph 2117, in case you’re wondering), and I’d highly encourage you to get the July issue just to read this article.

But it does have one part about which I have concerns. That comes when the article states:

Reiki appears to be a form of Gnosticism. Its practitioners assert "secret" knowledge, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Reiki practitioner in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at one of the "power symbols"–which bears an uncanny resemblance to the musical treble clef–she perceived it differently than I did because she’s initiated.

After the first sentence, my spidey sense was going off, because, unfortunately, it is very common for writers in the religious press to label things as being "Gnostic" or as "Gnosticism" when, in fact, they are totally unrelated to the historical heresy of that name. As soon as someone claims something modern to be Gnosticism, I cringe, because it’s usually wrong.

The second sentence doesn’t improve my confidence level. It appears to be justifying the claim that Reiki is Gnosticism based on the fact that "its practitioners assert ‘secret’ knowledge."

This is not enough. All kinds of people claim secret knowledge–or at least knowledge that other people don’t have. That doesn’t make them Gnostics.

I think the root of the problem may be that historical Gnosticism was a pluriform heresy that didn’t have just a single set of beliefs. As a result, it is difficult to say "This is what a Gnostic believed" in the same way that it is hard to say "This is what a New Ager believes" or even "This is what a Protestant believes." There was no single, official statement of Gnostic belief–no Catechism of the Gnostic Church–any more than there is an official Catechism of the New Age Movement or an official Catechism of the Protestant Church.

To really say what Gnostics taught, you have to note that certain ideas were characteristic of different Gnostic groups but that not all Gnostic groups shared them. You have to do the same thing with the New Age Movement and Protestantism, too, since they also are doctrinally diverse groups that have certain common characteristics among their different branches but do not have a single, official position on their distinctives (e.g., not all New Agers believe in reincarnation, and not all Protestants understand sola fide or sola scriptura the same way).

Talking about what makes someone a Gnostic thus involves a decent bit of hard work and historical research, and many authors trying to do that work encounter oversimplifications of what Gnosticism was.

Often, rather than describing in detail the content of Gnostic thought, authors will oversimplify and try to explain what a Gnostic was by focusing on the name "Gnostic."

It’s easy to point out that the name is based on "gnosis," which was one of the Greek words for knowledge–which, back then wasn’t really secret either because the Gnostics talked and wrote all about it–and the Church Fathers critiqued it! (What was secret was not the content of the knowledge but more the way it had allegedly been preserved from Jesus’ time.)

Merely claiming to have knowledge that other people don’t have doesn’t make you a Gnostic. Christians claim that. We call that knowledge "revelation."

Even claiming that you should act on this knowledge that other people don’t have in order to be saved isn’t Gnosticism. Christians claim that, too.

You can even have knowledge that you don’t share with outsiders. That doesn’t make you a Gnostic. That just makes you secretive.

What was distinctive about the Ghostics was not that they claimed to have knowledge that others didn’t, it was not that they thought you should act on their knowledge in order for things to go well for you, and it wasn’t that they were in some measure secretive.

That describes every organized group of humans in world history!

Every group thinks that it has, if not the master key to the universe, at least a piece of knowledge that is true and that not everybody shares. Every group thinks that this knowledge should be acted upon in some way (even if it is by sitting passively by while Cthulhu eats up the world, in hopes of being eaten last). And every group has privileged or proprietary information that it doesn’t share with just anybody (like what the local pastor’s credit card number is, for example).

What made the Gnostics Gnostics was the content of their belief system–their views about God and the world and death and life and how to be saved and what salvation means.

READ ABOUT IT HERE.

If a modern author wants to declare a modern thing to be "Gnosticism," he needs to show more than that a movement claims to have some sort of privileged information that should be acted upon. Every diet book salesman claims that.

Instead, one must be prepared to show that the modern thing–whatever it is–has multiple (not just one or a few) points of contact with the content of the beliefs of the historical Gnostics.

And the article on Reiki doesn’t provide that.

Neither does the fact that a particular Reiki practitioner may say that a symbol means something different to her than to a noninitiate. Christians have had their own symbols historically, like the Chi-Rho and the Ichthus and, most of all, the Cross, that mean something different to them than to outsiders. In fact, during the age of persecutions, some of these symbols were used precisely because outsiders didn’t know or didn’t always know what they meant.

As part of my apologetic discipline, whenever I read claims about another religion, I try to turn it around and see if the same claims could be made about my own religion. It’s a way of being fair to other religions and weeding out unjust arguments against them (and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like the terms "cult" and "mind control" in their contemporary senses, because the definitions offered for them frequently are so vague that they can be turned around and applied to Christianity, evangelization, and apologetics).

So let’s take a look at how the paragraph quoted above might be rephrased:

Christianity appears to be a form of Gnosticism. Its practitioners assert "secret" knowledge that other religions don’t have, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Christian in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at the Cross–one of the Christian "power symbols"–which bears an uncanny resemblance to the letter "t"–she perceived it differently than I did because she’s a Christian.

I wouldn’t think that this establishes that Christianity is Gnosticism, and so I don’t think that the paragraph as originally quoted establishes Reiki as Gnosticism.

I’m no expert in Reiki, but from what I have read about it, it doesn’t seem that Reiki practitioners have an elaborate cosmogony or message of how to have things go right for you after death that reads like the Nag Hammadi manuscripts with the names changed.

So I don’t, from my own knowledge, see Reiki as Gnosticism. Instead, I see it as a bunch of New Age snake oil that engenders superstitious beliefs about a mystical life/energy field for which there is no scientific evidence and that in its healing efforts combines the placebo effect with the facts that it is pleasant to relax and be touched by another person.

To conclude, the article on Reiki in the July issue of Catholic World Report is a good article, and I’d encourage you to read it. It’s only the three sentences dealing with Gnosticism that I find unpersuasive.

My compliments to the author!

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{ 66 comments }

joe P. July 9, 2008 at 6:33 am

I have been guilty of oversimplifying the term. Your explanation was excellent. I have learned much today. Thanks.
One small pedantic note: I believe you added a ‘ti’ to gnosticism in the title–maybe your admiration for the Ms. Abbott’s name predisposed you to this. I only bring this up because I wouldn’t want this trifling human error to detract from the sophisticated critical analysis you present.

Tim J. July 9, 2008 at 6:44 am

Guilty!
I have often referred to certain combox trolls as being “gnostic” in their outlook, usually in response to their tendency to act as if words have no real meaning, but are only “gateways” to some deeper or higher consciousness (for them, that is).
To them, it’s only benighted fools that labor under the delusion that words mean things. The whole, “that’s *your* truth” schtick.
I was tossing the word around without much thought, but should have known better. Then again, you do have modern individuals who call themselves Gnostics, but aren’t (much like the modern “pagans” who have no historical knowledge at all of real pagan worship) and that complicates things further.
I’ll have to think of another word for these trolls who use words, not to define or explain, but to weasel around every definition or explanation.

LJ July 9, 2008 at 7:16 am

That is why we read what you have to offer Jimmy Akin; for your intellectual clarity and integrity.
Thanks for an excellent reminder. I have tried to plow through Irenaeus, Against Heresies, wherein he counters the specific beliefs of certain Gnostics (I believe that is what they were) and I have to say it is heavy going, at least for me.
Put it this way, if my salvation depended on knowing and understanding the complicated belief systems that Irenaeus refutes, I would have given up a long time ago and bought an express ticket straight to perdition.

Inocencio July 9, 2008 at 7:57 am

Tim J.
How about some form of clintonesque? C-troll?
clintonesque

Having Clinton-like qualities. In matters of speech, to parse the English language so painfully at a direct question as to avoid responsibility for your own actions. In matters of conduct, to be more interested in #1, instead of the greater good.

Take care and God bless,
Inocencio
J+M+J

Brian Walden July 9, 2008 at 8:21 am

Very enlightening post, I’ve often used the word gnosticism incorrectly.
One tangent that I thought of when you were mentioning catechisms. What if Protestant communions or New Age communions (or any other group) tried to put together a catechism (e.g. a universal Anglican, or Southern Baptist, or United Churches of Christ catechism)? I don’t think they’d be able to do it, they’d crumble amidst all the fighting over doctrine. That helps me to realize just how amazing our catechism and our Church is. Thanks be to God!

Rosemarie July 9, 2008 at 8:24 am

+J.M.J+
I’ve sometimes compared the conspiracy-theory mentality to Gnosticism on other forums, but I was careful to note that it’s more like a secularized parallel to the “salvation comes through secret knowledge” mentality. Conspiracy-theorists are not Gnostics per se, as in believers in Sophia and the demiurge, etc.
As for Reiki, I haven’t read the article in question but hope to do so. A few months ago I was reading up on Reiki on the Internet, and found some practitioners claiming that the Reiki most commonly practiced in the West is not what its founder, Mikao Usui, intended. For instance, the now-common encouragement that students seek a “spirit guide” was apparently added later by New Age enthusiasts; it was not originally part of Reiki as Usui taught and intended it.
I found that interesting because it seems one of the major criticisms Christians bring against Reiki is the whole “spirit guide” thing, which is obviously extremely dangerous, essentially an invitation to demonic oppression, even possession! That deserves to be criticized, but what about the rest of the practice? Hopefully the CWR article will go beyond that and critique Reiki more thoroughly.
In Jesu et Maria,

Tim J. July 9, 2008 at 8:36 am

Let me just add that it was really cool to see a nice, long post from Jimmy when I got here. That’s good stuff.

Mike July 9, 2008 at 9:04 am

fifth page returned when I google the word ‘ghostics’. Just giving you a bad time ;-)

Scott W. July 9, 2008 at 9:26 am

If it’s just secret knowledge for a select few, then esoteric seems like a better word. In my RCIA I was annoyed that some Catholic teaches were tucked away and our instructor would not say what would happen in a certain rite (to get the experience). I made the point that Catholicism is, and should always be, exoteric–when someone asks about something sincerely, you tell them plainly as best you can.

Kevin J Jones July 9, 2008 at 10:14 am

One of my complaints about heresy-hunters is that they sometimes try to turn what is often a manifestation of a vice into a manifestation of a body of intellectual beliefs.
An Evangelical friend of mine was wondering how Christian monasticism, with its withdrawal from the world, could avoid being “gnostic.” I suggested to him a particular danger of the monastic life was not a heresy, but rather the sin of spiritual pride.
So too, I worry we treat, say, relativism too intellectually. Obviously it is intellectually incoherent, but people don’t believe in it for its coherence but rather for its self-justifying uses. There, the problem is often in the will rather than the reason.

Sleeping Beastly July 9, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Tim,
You wrote
I have often referred to certain combox trolls as being “gnostic” in their outlook, usually in response to their tendency to act as if words have no real meaning, but are only “gateways” to some deeper or higher consciousness (for them, that is).
As a language nerd, I have to say that words don’t have any objective meaning, but are rather given meaning by consensus. The definition of a word belongs to the people who use it, which is why definitions frequently change over time.
This is not to say that people don’t frequently abuse language to deceive or confuse. The important thing to remember is that just because the symbols we can use for things can be changed, the nature of the things themselves is not thereby changed as well. For instance, just because we have stretched the definition of the word “marriage” we have not thereby stretched the nature of marriage itself.

Sleeping Beastly July 9, 2008 at 1:07 pm

Kevin wrote
So too, I worry we treat, say, relativism too intellectually. Obviously it is intellectually incoherent, but people don’t believe in it for its coherence but rather for its self-justifying uses. There, the problem is often in the will rather than the reason.
True, although I think most people have at least a subconscious grasp of logic, and can be talked out of certain thoughts, even if they were tricked into them to begin with.

ES July 9, 2008 at 3:13 pm

THANK YOU for this post.
A key point which I feel you could have stated more plainly: The “gnosis” Gnosticism is, in its name, referring to is not secret knowledge possessed by the Gnostics but rather the personal, mystical knowledge one attains that “enlightens” one.

The Masked Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:22 pm

I don’t do subscriptions over the internet, so I cannot judge anything about the content of the article :(
I did want to comment on the use of the word, Gnosticism, as used by Anna Abbott (AA). As Jimmy points out, when she writes:
Reiki appears to be a form of Gnosticism.
AA is quite wrong, as she is making a specific reference to a specific historical heresy.
She then goes on to explain why she thinks so:
Its practitioners assert “secret” knowledge, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Reiki practitioner in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at one of the “power symbols”–which bears an uncanny resemblance to the musical treble clef–she perceived it differently than I did because she’s initiated.
This is not Gnosticism. As Jimmy points out, if she wants to use the word Gnostic with capital letters:
Instead, one must be prepared to show that the modern thing–whatever it is–has multiple (not just one or a few) points of contact with the content of the beliefs of the historical Gnostics.
I must, however, cut the woman some slack, at least in spirit, if not in practice. This is because of a phenomenon called semantic drift or linguistic drift, which happen to be subjects I am intimately familiar with because of research I am currently doing.
Many words broaden their meanings over time (it is called linguistic broadening) to include any exemplar of a given region of a semantic field. Band-Aids and Scotch Tape, for instance, used to be capitalized and specific referents to commercial products, but linguistic broadening has allowed these names to be attached to objects (and even concepts) that have mere peripheral references to the attributes of the actual objects (sticky medical coverings and sticky cellophane).
I submit that the same thing has happened in common parlance, with the term gnosticism. Obviously, when used with a capital letter, it refers to the heresy and one must assume that all of the attributes in the associative field connected with the heresy are being referred to.
What is an associative or semantic field? It is the group of proximal and remote relationships surrounding a linguistic object. For instance, the word, “fret,” is in the semantic field of “guitar”. The sign (semiote),”fret,” is also present in the semantic field for kidnap, because a parent who is worried was, once upon a time, thought to vibrate with worry like a plucked and stopped guitar string. The original reference to guitars (or violins) was lost, but the broadened concept of “fret” meaning to worry has remained.
I submit that the same has happened with the word, gnostic. The actual heresy involved esoteric knowledge and belief that tried to connect itself with Christianity (a pre-existing system of belief), but a type of semantic broadening to refer to societies claiming higher spiritual (not mere diet book) knowledge that is attached to some sort of indoctrination has enough referents to trigger an association with the original Gnosticism (capital letters) to the point where the use of the term with small letters should be allowed in everyday speech, I think. At worst, the adjective, “gnostic-like.” might be allowed because some of the concepts behind the original heresy are just too usefully referred to by the term to restrict its meaning only and exactly to the heresy, itself.
If AA had written:
Reiki appears to be gnostic-like.
I would not have any real problem. Of course, she would then have to describe what aspects of it were similar to Gnosticism and which were different, which would have made for a clearer analysis. This would have been preferable to having the readers infer that Gnosticism simply depended on hidden knowledge.
So, I submit that we should not abandon the use of the term gnostic (small letters) altogether, just be clearer in showing what aspects of the real Gnosticism are being referred to – is it the hidden knowledge; is it the dualism; is it the teaching form?
Calling a combox troller a gnostic, with a little explanation for why this might be appropriate, I think, is fine. Calling someone a gnostic simply because they refuse to accept common understandings of terms, but only want to use esoteric or personalist definitions actually was a part of the Gnostic heresy, but it is a really subtle concept which would probably be lost on the person being referred to.
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:23 pm

italics, off
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:25 pm

oops. Two opening italics mark-ups. This time , for sure?
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:29 pm

“Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit our of my hat? Again? That trick never works!”
Are italics off, now?
Cringe… sorry, all.
The chicken

The Masked Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:30 pm

Help, someone! I’m drowning in italics…
The Chicken

The Sorry, Non-italicized Chicken July 9, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Sorry, all. One little slash makes all the difference.
The Chicken

SDG July 9, 2008 at 4:40 pm

So, I submit that we should not abandon the use of the term gnostic (small letters) altogether, just be clearer in showing what aspects of the real Gnosticism are being referred to – is it the hidden knowledge; is it the dualism; is it the teaching form?

Calling a combox troller a gnostic, with a little explanation for why this might be appropriate, I think, is fine. Calling someone a gnostic simply because they refuse to accept common understandings of terms, but only want to use esoteric or personalist definitions actually was a part of the Gnostic heresy, but it is a really subtle concept which would probably be lost on the person being referred to.

Thanks, Chicken, I completely agree with the above, with the caveat that our usual “gnostic troll” Laura/B’Art/B’ert/Glinda/etc. is more than sufficiently bright and well-read to grok the nuances of Gnostic/gnostic distinctions. In this case at least, I find the designation “gnostic troll” more helpful than not, though Jimmy’s excellent points are well taken.
P.S. When I want to be sure of ending a combox run of bold or ital, I use multiple redundancies:
Bold: </b></b></strong></strong>
Ital: </i></i></em></em>

Mary July 9, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Humm. I generally use it to mean several things: not merely knowledge, but esoteric knowledge (as Scott points out); salvation through knowledge; elitism; and contempt for the material world. (The Gnostics thought the Old Testament was the teaching of the evil Creator, and the New the teaching of the good true God, who sent Jesus to save us from the Creator.)
The times it got really ludricrous was the newsgroup where I repeatedly clashed with a self-proclaimed Gnostic who objected strenuously whenever I brought up the commonest beliefs of Gnosticism, on the grounds that that was they believed two thousand years ago, not now.

TJ July 9, 2008 at 9:01 pm

Playing Devil’s Advocate – does anyone else believe that there is a purpose in the fact that language is always changing and so often we talk past one another. That possibly it’s God’s way of redirecting us – that God is leading us away from these words and pulling us towards more important Godly concerns. Maybe there is more behind the limitation of some words than meets our ears (as far as it concerns God).

Rosemarie July 10, 2008 at 7:38 am

+J.M.J+
>>>I must, however, cut the woman some slack, at least in spirit, if not in practice. This is because of a phenomenon called semantic drift or linguistic drift, which happen to be subjects I am intimately familiar with because of research I am currently doing.
I think a good example of linguistic drift is the word “fundamentalist.” It was coined only about a century ago, to describe a form of conservative Protestantism that adhered to certain “fundamental” Christian doctrines (which liberal Christianity tends to water down or deny). It has since been applied more broadly, so we now hear people talk about “Muslim fundamentalism,” “Jewish fundamentalism” (aka Orthodox Judaism), “Catholic fundamentalism” (either for traditionalists or even for any orthodox Catholic), “Mormon fundamentalism,” even sometimes “atheistic fundamentalism”!
This is a definite case of a specific term being used more broadly, and over a relatively short period of time. (Of course, it is primarily used as a “slur” by people who don’t agree with the strong, committed religious beliefs of those they use it against.) So I guess the same may be happening with “gnostic,” too, though I agree that it would be best to spell it with a lower-case “g” if referring to something other than the classical Gnostic heresy.
In Jesu et Maria,

Landrew July 10, 2008 at 7:48 am

Jimmy is most likely completely correct with his description of the misuse of the word “Gnostic”.
However, it seems incorrect to say that Christianity can be described as having some “secret” knowledge just because some Christians might have some information of some type which is not for public consumption. A Christian can work in the pentagon and have knowledge of top secret war plans that he is not allowed to divulge. That does not mean that there are beliefs or practices that concern salvation that are secret or hidden. We are after all supposed to shout it from the rooftops.

Tim Powers July 10, 2008 at 12:01 pm

I’ve always thought the main characteristic of Gnosticism was the idea that only spirit is good, and all matter is bad — I believe the Manichaeans and Albigensians even went so far as to say that reproduction was bad, and that the best thing a person could do was to starve to death.
And I’ve seen a bit of this Gnostic perspective show up in a lot of Evangelical Protestant Christians. Not the sex-is-bad extreme, but the idea that physical stuff is, if not bad, at least superfluous, a potentially dangerous distraction. Sacraments can’t be important because they involve matter — water, bread, wine, oil — and God would surely never require plain filthy _stuff_ in His dealings with us. And saved people can sin without imperilling their salvation because their sins are only “carnal,” i.e. having to do with matter. (Which doesn’t matter.)

The Masked Chicken July 10, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Dear Tim Powers,
Gnosticism was dualistic and it gave rise to Albigensianism later near the beginning of the second millennium. The two heresies have somewhat different deep content, however.
A related sort of dualism would show up in other forms, such as internal vs. external revelation in later heresies, such as Anabaptism and Quietism. Many dualistic types of heresies make a distinction between the old Aristotelian/Platonic types – the sensory and testable vs. the hidden (private) and pre-existent.
One wonders if these sorts of dualistic splits is not one result of the Fall.
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken July 10, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Corrected:
One wonders if these sorts of dualistic splits are not one result of the Fall.
The Chicken

Residentem July 10, 2008 at 2:44 pm

possibly it’s God’s way of redirecting us…
One wonders if these sorts of dualistic splits are not one result of the Fall.

Genesis 11: The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words… [T]hey said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men had built. Then the LORD said: “If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says.” … That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.

Mary July 10, 2008 at 6:38 pm

yes, Gnostics maintained that the material was evil. Witness the evil of the Creator God in their teachings, and that they held the Serpent in Eden was sent by the good God in order to lure Adam and Eve from obedience to the evil Creator God.
They also held that Jesus did not have a real, material body, and looked differently to everyone who looked at him.
At least some of them did. I have no statistics on how widespread these beliefs were. 0:)
Manichaeans are generally treated as a distinct group, though they are definitely related.
Ironically enough, Gnostics frequently were very lax in sexual matters. Once you have declared all sexuality is bad, you don’t have an escape from sin — so why bother to marry? It wouldn’t make your act innocent.

Mary July 10, 2008 at 6:50 pm

Humm. come to think of it, sexual laxity might have been more Manchinean than Gnostic. I’m not sure.

Margaret July 11, 2008 at 11:26 am

This is very interesting. Some of us use gnostic as a synonym for esoteric, others of us (like myself) use it as a synonymn for dualistic, when really it’s bigger than either of these terms in isolation.
And come to think of it, the gibberish Dan Brown was spouting in the Da Vinci nonsense was both esoteric and dualistic, yet still bore little resemblance to the actual, historic Gnosticism.
Any other loose synonyms floating around out there?? :-)

Mary July 11, 2008 at 3:41 pm

Manichee. 0:)

Sophia Sadek July 11, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Thanks for the posting.
Your argument about every group having its own cache of esoteric knowledge is quite on the mark. One of the big differences between the ancient Gnostics and Christians is the Christian bent towards belief rather than knowledge. This is reflected in the creed wars of the middle period of Christianity. Christians didn’t battle over knowledge or over what was true, but over which beliefs were acceptable and which beliefs were considered pernicious. At one point or another, all beliefs became persecuted by one sect or another.
But then, you probably already know all that.

Rosemarie July 11, 2008 at 4:33 pm

+J.M.J+
I’ve heard that one major difference between Gnostics and Christians was that Gnostics believed in self-salvation by Gnosis (secret knowledge) while Christians believe in salvation by the grace of God through the Sacraments.
In Jesu et Maria,

bill912 July 11, 2008 at 11:02 pm

“Christians didn’t battle…over what was true.”
Christians love Him Who is Truth Itself.
“…all beliefs became persecuted by one sect or another.
“But then, you probably already know all that.”
I don’t. But I can usually recognize prejudice masquerading as knowledge.

TimPowers July 12, 2008 at 10:41 am

Sophia, you say, “Christians didn’t battle over knowledge or over what was true, but over which beliefs were acceptable and which beliefs were considered pernicious.”
But there was no “this rather than that” to it. The beliefs they considered “acceptable” were the ones they believed were the true story, and the ones they considered “pernicious” were the ones they believed were dangerous inaccuracies.
I condone the idea that “Drinking gasoline is dangerous” not because it’s an acceptable belief (though it is), but rather because I believe it’s true.

Richard July 13, 2008 at 12:31 am

Oh, man. It’s a good sized post by Jimmy on a theological issue. Reminds me of the good old days a couple years back when we got treated to one of these like every other day. The logic and delivery is so pure, so clear. I feel like I have just been treated to a mental spa – better yet, a dip in a crystal clear natural pool I have stumbled upon after wandering tracklessly through a awkward, gnarled old forest for weeks without relief. I slide effortlessly into this clear pool up to the point where my eyes are level just level with right above the surface and I resolve to soak myself in the pure water of Jimmy’s thinking until every last fiber of being is statiated with its force and clarity.

Matheus F. Ticiani July 13, 2008 at 8:26 pm

Reminds me of the good old days a couple years back when we got treated to one of these like every other day.

Dear Richard
I miss those days also…And I’m mesmerized by the very dramatic and poetic way in which you wrote the rest of your comment…

Sophia Sadek July 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

Rosemarie,
I don’t know what your source was for self-salvation through gnosis. I believe it was Pelagius who was persecuted for espousing self-salvation. I seriously doubt that gnosis can be achieved on one’s own. Certainly, secret knowledge is only available to people who have been initiated into a group who maintain the secrets. Consider the stories in the Gospels of Jesus instructing the apostles in esoteric knowledge.
Bill,
To put Truth on a pedestal and idolize it does a disservice to both Truth and the individual who practices the idolization.
As for the history of the persecution of various sects, it makes fascinating historical reading.
Tim,
One of the key “beliefs” is far from the gasoline drinking analogy. It has to do with the use of the technical jargon of consubstantiality in the creed. It became a “big lie” belief that was obviously false to those who knew the meaning of the word. To those who weren’t familiar with the jargon, it represented an injection of extra-biblical lingo into the apostle’s creed. It would be more like being asked to believe that gasoline should be called heptane, rather than octane.

bill912 July 14, 2008 at 3:44 pm

May God have mercy on you.

bill912 July 14, 2008 at 3:47 pm

May God have mercy on you.

Mary July 14, 2008 at 5:48 pm

I don’t know what your source was for self-salvation through gnosis. . . . I seriously doubt that gnosis can be achieved on one’s own. (ellipses mine)
The Gnostics, perhaps?
And whatever you doubt, the Gnostics need not have doubted.

Tom July 14, 2008 at 7:32 pm

I guess I’m guilty as well. But please help.
I’ve been under the impression that the core of gnosticism was the idea of “salvation via esoteric knowledge”, that all that rubbish about pleromas and demiurges was adopted because they had to cobble together some teachings to pass off.
Notice that many Protestants believe that there is knowledge that one must have in order to attain salvation (I was once one of them). But if a person can’t possibly attain salvation unless someone tells him about Jesus, then that information is in fact esoteric knowledge that is available only to elect individuals – thus, my conclusion that many Protestants have adopted the main idea at the core of gnosticism.
So if I can’t validly refer to it as gnoticism….what is it?

Richard July 14, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Thanks, Matheus. I sort of purposefully overdid on the loquaciousness, but still with the intent to make the point of how pleased I am. PAX

TimPowers July 15, 2008 at 12:38 am

Hello, Sophia!
I’m not sure I follow. By “consubstantial” you mean the belief that Christ and the Father have the same substance, “not only specifically but also numerically; the essence of the Father and the Son is one, sole essence” (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology) — right? Or as Christ put it, “I and my Father are one.”
I don’t see that that’s a “big lie,” or “obviously false.” It’s clearly not “extra-biblical lingo,” since John records Christ as saying it flat out. It’s hard to grasp, certainly — but I think we must expect statements about the nature of God to be a bit hard to grasp sometimes! Imagine trying to describe a Gothic cathedral to Mr. A. Square of Flatland (If you recall that book by Edwin Abbott)! (I can just hear Mr. Square: “Flying buttresses is contrary to reason — obviously a meaningless bit of jargon!”)

Mary July 15, 2008 at 5:34 pm

So if I can’t validly refer to it as gnoticism….what is it?
Esotericism? Elitism?
The problem is, will your listeners know what the word means? If not, you may want expand on the matter.

Sophia Sadek July 16, 2008 at 3:44 pm

Tim,
The term “consubstantial” or “homoousion” is a technical term. It is different than saying “I and my father are one.” To be of the same essence implies being of the same persona. That is, no distinction can be made between the individuals of the paternal and filial entities. Either there is one entity, or there are two entities. If there is only one entity, there cannot be a trinity of entities. If there is a trinity of entities, they cannot be called the same entity.

bill912 July 16, 2008 at 3:51 pm

3 Persons, one in Being. My finite mind cannot come close to fully comprehending the concept, but God is not limited by my limitations.

The Masked Chicken July 16, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Dear Sophia,
You wrote:
The term “consubstantial” or “homoousion” is a technical term. It is different than saying “I and my father are one.”
Consubstantial is a technical term in the sense that it summarizes a complex, mysterious situation in a single word. Consubstantial relates to the word, “one,” in the sentence, “I and my father are one,” but the word and the sentence do not include the same total reference set. This is easy to prove because consubstantial refers to Christ only in his divinity, but the sentence is spoken by a Christ in his manhood and the word, “one,” does not refer to this. “One” does not mean that there is a human Father out there who created the universe, even though there is a human son, who did. If the Father and Jesus were truly one in every essence, then there have to be a fusion of human persons, as well, resulting in Jesus being his own Father.
Clearly, there is one mode of activity in Christ (he does not heal as a divine or as a man, he simply heals), but there are two essences: one human, the other divine. Now, activity or mode of being relates to personhood, so since Jesus is not his own Father, the activity of his Father must be separate (although, because of perichoresis, united).
Since there is only one human member of the Godhead, for Jesus to speak of someone apart from himself as God (the Father), implies another person. The hypostatic union requires this.
The problem, here, is that you are thinking in only either material terms of in spiritual terms. Jesus is both God and man and so his essence must take into account both. God, the Father’s essence does not have to, since he does not have a human essence.
Thus, your statement:
That is, no distinction can be made between the individuals of the paternal and filial entities.
Does not hold specifically for God because his essence is not either human or divine. It is both.
That having been said, the more important question, theologically, is what defines personhood and what defines nature or essence? You assume that nature gives rise to personhood, but this is not at all clear.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains this in more detail

The Masked Chicken July 16, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Dear Sophia,
Here is a more general link that includes all of St. Thomas’s discussion of the Trinity (see under, “Trinity,” – articles 27 – 43.
The Chicken

Mary July 16, 2008 at 7:35 pm

Either there is one entity, or there are two entities. If there is only one entity, there cannot be a trinity of entities. If there is a trinity of entities, they cannot be called the same entity.

Either there is a particle, or there is a wave. If there is a particle, there cannot be a wave. If there is a wave, it cannot be called a particle.
So, Sophia, is light a wave or a particle?

TimPowers July 17, 2008 at 11:17 am

Mary, very good. The wave-particle nature of light is obviously a gross impossibility, a “big lie” — if considered from our familiar local frames of reference.

Sophia Sadek July 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm

Mr. Chicken, Mary, and Tim,
You are all missing out on the actual historical injection of the technical term “homoousion” into the apostle’s creed. You are missing the dynamics of the power struggle of the times. You are also turning to a confused perception of those technical terms as read by Church scholars with a rather poor technical education.
As for the particle/wave concept, it would be like saying that light is particulate in nature because is forms a refraction pattern and that it is a wave because it has an energy quantum. In other words, the analogy is a misunderstanding of the common definitions.
The Thomasine text points to an interesting contradiction that came about when the orthodox back-pedaled on consubstatiality by using the term “hypostasis” to signify the three persons of the trinity. It just so happens that the technical meaning of hypostasis is the same as “ousion.” The orthodox were able to subvert their own consubstantial dogma, but keep the language in the creed to trip up the educated.

bill912 July 17, 2008 at 3:33 pm

May God have mercy on her.

The Masked Chicken July 17, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Dear Sophia,
I am a Ph.D level historian and my specialization in the sciences is quantum and statistical mechanics. You want to try this, again?
The Chicken

Steve Kellmeyer July 17, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I totally agree with Jimmy Akin.
Sadly, Ignatius Press, Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel do not, as their book on the Da Vinci Code labelled Dan Brown’s work “Gnostic” (as did all the Protestant and secular commentators), even though there were essentially no elements of Gnostic theology in the book, apart from a couple of random uses of the word.
Quite a brouhaha over that a couple of years ago.
Nice to see this affirmation, even if it is a little late.

The Masked Chicken July 17, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Dear Sophia,
I am sorry for my last comment, but please, do not assume that the writers here are just easily-led people. We do have some experience. I respect your comments, but when you assert, without proof, that:
You are missing the dynamics of the power struggle of the times. You are also turning to a confused perception of those technical terms as read by Church scholars with a rather poor technical education.
you have gone beyond what is acceptable in discourse. You have no idea what I know about the dynamics of the power struggle of the times. You do not know what Church scholars I have read nor whether or not I have done primary source research. As for quantum mechanics, I am reasonably sure, unless you have a Ph.d in physics that I have more background in the field than you do.
Please, try to be more charitable in your comments. At least use the words, “may” and “possibly” more.
I apologize for chastising you. Perhaps I am in the wrong and, if so, I apologize.
When you want to show that someone is wrong, show, don’t tell. Show us where scholars have misinterpreted the information.
The Chicken

Sleeping Beastly July 17, 2008 at 4:38 pm

Chicken,
Is this you? If so, the puns are awesome. If not, your identity has been stolen- which is harder than it sounds when your victim wears a mask.

The Masked Chicken July 17, 2008 at 4:50 pm

Dear Sleeping Beastly,
No, that’s my long lost brother – you can tell because he pronounces his name, The Masked Chicken, whereas, I pronounce my name, The Masked Chicken – our parents had a limited number of names to choose from. You see, if you knew how most chickens are raised, you would know why our parents wanted to diguise the handsome one :)
Do you think I have a good case for identity theft?
The Chicken

The Masked Chicken July 17, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Beastly,
Those paragraphs from the “other” Masked Chicken sound like they were entries to the Bulwer-Lytton contest .

Sophia Sadek July 19, 2008 at 3:59 pm

Mr. Chicken,
I believe you have tripped on an ambiguously written statement. I refer to the pointer to Thomas’ work on the Trinity. It is the church scholars who lack the technical training in the jargon that is used in the Nicene Creed. This is a very different kind of technical education than we experience today. I’m sure that after you have investigated the power struggles involved in the Nicene Council, you will agree that the insertion of “homoousion” in the Creed was uncalled for.

bill912 July 19, 2008 at 5:27 pm

“…the power struggles involved in the Nicene Council…”
That would be the struggle for Good and against Evil.

Jeff July 20, 2008 at 10:35 pm

How about a Gnarled Gnostic Gnu?

Jordanes July 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm

Sophia the Modalist claimed: To be of the same essence implies being of the same persona.
If you knew what Christianity means by the term “Persona,” you’d not say something so amazingly erroneous. It’s also unmitigated hubris to claim that the Church’s scholars lack the training to understand the Nicene Creed. On the contrary, anyone who would claim that to be of the same essence implies being of the same person is manifestly lacking in the training needed to understand the Nicene Creed.

The Masked Chicken July 23, 2008 at 5:22 am

I’m not sure where to put this, but, apparently, the entire Codex Sinaiticus will be going on-line next year.
The Chicken

bill912 July 24, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Jordanes’ comment reminds me of something I read years ago. In France, in the 19th Century, two people were riding in the same compartment of a train car. One was an old man who was praying the rosary. The other was a young college student. The college student began telling the old man how science had proved religion to be just superstition. He went on and on, while the old man listened politely. Then he offered to send the old man some books that would explain in more detail what he had been expounding. The old man asked the young know-it-all to send him those books and gave him his business card. His address was the French Academy of Science; the old man praying the rosary was Louis Pasteur.

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