Gnosticism: what is it? 8

Gnosticism, with a capital G, is a system of religious belief. It is derived from the word gnosis, the Greek for knowledge. “Gnosticism” implies the possession of a particular sort of knowledge, a kind that needs no objective proof, but exists to the knower as an absolute, incontrovertible certainty. It arises by instinct, by private experience. To Gnostics, inner certainty is the sole source and authentication of their religious belief.

Gnosis is the opposite of doubt. It eludes enquiry, defies rational argument. Science demands objective proofs and practices doubt through experiment. Gnosis neither seeks nor offers proof. In this sense, Gnosis and Science scorn each other. They are two different ways of knowing: by intuition the one, by reason the other. Many European languages (Greek-descended or Greek-influenced) recognize two different ways of “knowing” by having different words for them. In French, for instance, “connaitre” and “savoir”; in German, “kennen” and “wissen“. In “connaitre” and “kennen” the Greek root “gnosis” can be seen, as in the English word “know”. The English word, however, does for both senses: being acquainted with directly (“I know him”, “Je le connais”), and being aware of, having learnt (“I know Euclidean geometry”, “Je sais la géométrie euclidienne”).

A Gnostic system was an elaboration of instinctual belief as direct knowledge. Doctrine and practice were taught just as they are in the “revealed” religions. Some Gnostic teachers established schools of thought, their successors carrying on their teaching, though often altering details of vision or ritual. Some started in the tradition of one or another school but came to be so far at variance with the founders that they broke away and launched sects of their own, which in turn could develop into new schools and traditions.

Founders of Gnostic sects described each his own vision of heaven and earth, prescribed each his own rites. But  though they varied and became numerous, all the sects had enough in common for them to be grouped together as “Gnostic”, and the term has a set of special connotations. The name is particularly applied to a category of sects that arose in the first and second centuries CE, a few of them to last for hundreds of years; and also to sects of similar theology and practices that appeared in the Middle Ages.

Most of them shared these beliefs: –

That this world is evil: all of it, every material thing. Every flower, every tree, every blade of grass, every fruit, every stream, the land and the ocean, every bird, fish, insect, animal is evil. Every human being is base, vile, made of filth. And as an evil creation has to be the work of an evil creator, he who made and rules this world is an Evil God (or, in a minority of systems, a God who is not outright evil but yet not very nice, being a stickler for justice).

But, the Gnostic believed, there is something in this world which is not evil, and that is his knowledge itself. And since an evil god can only create evil things, this knowledge cannot come from the creator of this world. There has to be another source, another god who has nothing to do with this vile world, but exists outside and beyond it, and is good. The Good God is the Primary Source, pure Being, the One. Only good can come from Him.

Yet Evil exists. How did it come into existence? To answer this question, the Gnostics chart a family tree of divine beings: a theogony. At the summit is pure Being, the Source, which is purely Good. From the Source descend “hypostases”, beings whose degree of divinity diminishes the further they are from the Source. Each lesser being receives from the one immediately above him a portion of his divinity, and passes on a portion of what he receives to the one below him. From being to being descending, goodness diminishes with each diminishing degree of divinity. The goodness runs out before the divinity, however, and the lowest god receives none of it. He has the divine power to create, but no good to put into his creation. So what he makes is evil. He is the creator of this evil world and all that dwells therein. He is often named Ialdabaoth, and is comparable to the “demiurge” (demiurgos) of Greek philosophy: the divine artisan or smith who takes everlasting Matter and shapes it into the things of our world. In many Gnostic systems he is identified with the God of the Jews.

And yet something of the good, a miniscule spark of the Good itself, did come into human beings (or at least some of them), to remain deep within them, trapped inside their vile bodies throughout their lives on this earth until finally it is released when they die. But how did it come into human beings? It could not have come from the evil creator of this world – it was not his to give. It came, the Gnostics said, directly from the Source. It is a gift from the Highest, it belongs to Him, and to Him it will at last return, to be again one with the One. And for the time that people have to endure life in this world, by that spark they may know the good, and the layered heavens full of immortal beings, and the Supreme God Up There.

Up there the One is at a distance immeasurably remote; but within the Gnostic, He is intimately close. And the Gnostic knows that He will at last redeem – take back – the vital spark.

Did the Gnostics believe in such “redemption” for everyone? The answer to that is not easy to find. Some Gnostics knew that the minuscule spark of the divine was in all human beings. But others – an apparent majority – knew, with equal conviction, that it was the property of only a privileged few.

These few, in most systems, were the true Gnostics. They were also called Illuminati, or Pneumatics (meaning that the Spirit or Pneuma was in them).

Those who had not discovered the spark within them but might yet – being disciples of the Pneumatics, observing the rites and rules of the faith, and showing themselves to be a cut above the rest – were called Psychics (those with a Soul).

The masses of the unillumined were called the Hylics (those consisting only of Matter). Hylics were nothing but vile clay, the stuff of which this base world is made. They were of the earth earthy. This was their world, the only one to which they belonged and to which they were tied forever, in life and in death. They worshipped the God who made it. They mistakenly believed him and his creation to be good.

The Illuminati, and possibly the aspiring Psychics, held that they were strangers in this world. As long as they sojourned on earth they must remain hostile to it. The reversal of values that their creeds propounded – whatever most mortals saw as morally good being evil and vice versa – made them rebels born. As the enemies of God the Creator, it was their holy duty to defy him and scorn all his works.

Having two Gods, Gnosticism was dualistic. In most of the sects in the Roman Empire, and later in medieval Europe, the Evil God that created this world was an inferior power to the Good God. In others – chiefly those whose geographical origins lay further East, in Persian Zoroastrianism with its twin gods of Good and Evil – the Second God was equal (or nearly) in status and power to the First.

Most Gnostic sects from the second century on were Christian in the sense that they included Christ in their theogonies, as messenger or Son sent to earth by the True God, with a redemptive role to perform in the divinely decreed drama of human history. There is nothing about their creeds which makes them more or less absurd than other Christianities, including Catholicism and the Protestant denominations – or more or less than any religion whatsoever.


Jillian Becker    March 3, 2013


We have posted outlines of several Gnostic creeds and histories, and will post some more. See: How a rich shipowner affected Christianity, January 2, 2010 (on Marcion); Erotic religion, January 24, 2010 (on Carpocrates and Epiphanes); The father of all heresy, February 23, 2010 (on Simon Magus); Yezidis and Mandeans, April 4, 2010; Mani and Manicheism, May 9, 2010; Hot in the land of Hum, October 14, 2010 (on the Bugomils); Valentinus, February 14, 2011; The heretics of Languedoc, May 1, 2011 (on the Cathars).

On Zoroastrianism see Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009.

No joy please, we’re Muslims 6

Islam fears fun.

To humorless puritan Muslims, laughter and joy are decadent Western vices.

The Ayatollah Khomeini declared:

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.”

Here’s a story about the Iranian mullahs trying to put a stop to joyful celebration – and not succeeding.

Chahārshanbe-Sūri (“Wednesday feast”) is an ancient Persian festival whose origins lie in the Achaemenid era of Persia’s civilisation (549-330 bce) and its successors, when Zoroastrian beliefs were strong. [See our post, Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra, May 26, 2009.] By tradition it is celebrated on the last Wednesday night before nowrooz (Iran’s new year) in mid-March. It is a jubilant collective moment for Iranians in the country and among diaspora communities across the world. In Iran itself, people gather in streets and back-alleys to make bonfires and (in the case of the younger and more adventurous) jump over them; set off firecrackers; play music, dance and sing; and enjoy special foods and the joys of conviviality. In the life-affirming Chahārshanbe-Sūri, modern Iranians each year take the fire that was at the heart of the Zoroastrians’ sense of their world and their collective self-definition, and make it the centrepiece of their own modern ritual.

This year, the approach to the Chahārshanbe-Sūri – which fell on 16 March 2010 – was of a different character to any in the country’s history. Iran’s doctrinal regime politicised the ritual and made it an object of official fear. A campaign to discourage people from joining the celebrations began when the head of the national police warned parents to prevent their children from going out, and continued with plans by the state-run television to show popular movies to keep youngsters indoors. Then, the authorities deployed security forces (including basij militias armed with guns and batons) in the streets and around the strategic locations of Iran’s major cities. The campaign culminated in the issuing by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of an unprecedented fatwa that castigated the ritual as both “irrational” and in Islamic terms “illegitimate” (gheir shar‘i).

It didn’t work. As ever, millions of Iranians poured into their neighbourhoods to observe the national “calendar custom”. Many of them responded to the state’s politicisation of Chahārshanbe-Sūri by using the occasion to express their own defiance of the clerical regime, chanting slogans and songs of resistance. In Tehran, fifty people were arrested after clashing with the police and basij vigilantes. …

The suspicion of puritan Islamists towards many public expressions of human pleasure has been evident since the foundation of the regime in 1979. Any occasion of festivity and spontaneous life – informal gatherings at street-corners, concerts and sporting contests, student parties and even bustling shopping-malls – is regarded by Islamist zealots with profound disdain. In this context, Khamenei’s fatwa seeks to give a new doctrinal form to this larger paradigm of disparagement.

The zealots’ opposition even reaches into private and individual expressions of festivity. The many videos posted by Iranians of their Chahārshanbe-Sūri celebrations (and protests) onto the web includes a shocking attack by the police and basij on a late-night indoor private party in a Tehran neighbourhood on 16 March 2010. It shows the security agents dragging a screaming woman into custody – spreading terror among everyday citizens doing what people in normal countries do and take for granted across the world: having fun.

In its attitude to everyday enjoyment, the Iranian regime has …  much in common with fellow-Islamist states or movements such as Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan. There may be variations in what is regarded as “un-Islamic” (television, dance and even kite-flying in the latter case), but the mindset is the same.

The fear of enjoyment is a singular feature of these Islamist states and movements, whose doctrinal models are unable to accommodate expressive behaviours that are at the heart of human life: even including playfulness, laughter, and displays of fashion. These power-driven forces seek to reinforce their case by depicting such behaviours as part of a “western cultural invasion”

Posted under Iran, Islam, Muslims, Totalitarianism, tyranny by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, June 30, 2010

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Thus, more or less, spake Zarathustra 2

[Introductory note: As we are having a very interesting discussion on our post below, Christianity: an indictment, we thought we would add to the interest by reminding those of our readers who know, and informing those  who don’t, about Zoroastrianism. Certain similarities between  its myths and those of Christianity provide fuel for thought.]

Zarathustra founded a very interesting religion. He really did exist. He was born somewhere in Iran, probably between 1700 and 1500 BCE. Along with some ancient accounts of his life that do not strain credulity too far, a collection of poetic sayings called the Gathas, which are authoritatively ascribed to him, are all that is known.

But the great spin-doctor Legend has filled out his story with a set of anecdotes, not all of them reserved for him alone. Among them are these:

· He was born of a virgin.

· All nature rejoiced at his birth.

· He laughed at the moment he was born.

· For a certain period as a young man he withdrew to live alone on a wild mountain, meditating on righteousness, conversing with angels, growing in knowledge and wisdom, until he was ready to descend and teach a new faith.

· A tempter came to him and tried to bribe him to give up his faith, but Zarathustra scorned him, and the evil one was defeated.

·He experienced a vision of divinity as he emerged from a river in which he had been ritually purified.

· His life was ended by an act of cruel murder.

· Three thousand years after his death, a son procreated by his own seed will be the ultimate Saviour of mankind.

Zarathustra was never held to be a god, only the prophet of the one true God revealed through him. This, his monotheism (as it is called despite some reasons for cavilling, which we shall come to), was a new idea in Iran. The old religion of Iran – that is to say, the Aryan folk-religion – was a polytheistic cult, the same as that of the Aryans of India. (The words ‘Aryan’ and ‘Iranian’ have the same derivation.) Zarathustra’s new religion, which we call Zoroastrianism after the Greeks, who transcribed its founder’s name as Zoroaster, retained some of the old forms of worship. He also preserved but revolutionised some of the old beliefs by – astonishingly perhaps – inverting their moral significance. Thus he declared the former good spirits, the deva, to be evil; and the former evil spirits, the asura, to be good. The Iranian form of the Indian asura was ahura. Zarathustra’s one true God himself bore the title of ahura: he was Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, or the Lord Wisdom.

The existence of good and evil powers, however they were named, was the most important idea that Zarathustra’s new religion took over from the old. But there was also in the old cult a seed of another, related, idea which through Zarathustra’s teaching was to become in time a world-changing religious concept: that humanity has a necessary part to play in the cosmic drama of divine creation.

When the rituals of worship, such as the sacrifice of beasts, were enacted by the devout of the old cult, the belief was that the mortal creature was thus helping to maintain natural order. Seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night, set in their rhythmic rightness by divine powers, were reinforced by the actions of men, who were its beneficiaries. By pleasing the gods, they were doing themselves good. Along with the desire for good to befall them, went the fear of evil; fear that without demonstration of human gratitude, without supplication and propitiation, the divinities might withdraw from mankind the benefits of the natural order on which their survival depended. Men needed the gods, and had some power to sway them, but the gods did not need men.

Zarathustra endowed mankind with far more power and grandeur. He saw man as the indispensable partner of God in the work of creation. Humanity has an essential role in the realization of the divine scheme – nothing less than saving creation from the destructive power of evil by defeating it utterly and so bringing about the perfection of God’s ultimate ends.

It was perhaps the greatest, certainly one of the most far-reaching of religious ideas: that humanity has a necessary part to play in the cosmic drama of divine creation. It is the very idea of human beings having a purpose in the divine order of the universe. Every one of us has this purpose, set for us by Providence in the Great Scheme of All Things. It is a moral mission. By knowing what is good and acting on that knowledge, we human beings can save God’s universe from destruction by the evil powers. [It is an idea ascribed to Abraham and his progeny too. Abraham predated Zoroaster by – possibly – half a millennium.]

But that very statement gives rise immediately and unavoidably to a confounding question: if the Wise Lord is the one God and sole Source of this world, whence came these evil powers?

It is here that doubt may arise as to whether the word monotheism is strictly applicable to the Zoroastrian religion. For the answer to the question is: from Ahura Mazda’s twin brother, Angra Manya.

The names of the twain evolved into Ormazd and Ahriman. Zoroastrianism itself was to change through the centuries, as all religions do. Later generations brought it nearer to monotheism by recognising a Source beyond and above Ormazd and Ahriman, and the name of the Source, or First Principle, is Zrvana Akarana, Boundless Time. But even so, whether Ormazd and Ahriman were two matching creative Spirits, one Good and one Evil; or the creator God of this world and mankind opposed by a jealous, rebellious, inferior Spirit seems never to have been settled within the faith itself. (Nor within themselves by Judaism or Christianity.)

Zarathustra taught that Ormazd is Life, Light, Truth, Purity. All good comes from him, all order; the laws of nature and the ethical laws by which mankind should live. Ahriman is his antagonist, from whom comes all evil; he is Death, Darkness,Falsehood, Filth. The war between them is the history of the world. Their battlefield is the human soul. And it is for conquest of the human soul that the war is waged. At the end of time, with our human help if we keep our hands clean and our hearts pure by doing and thinking only the good, Ormazd will defeat Ahriman, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth. His Kingdom will come. Darkness will be banished and the sun will shine forever.

Zarathustra believed that the end of time was near. He felt that he had been sent into the world by Ormazd to teach humanity its mission of redemption just before the final battle. He hoped and believed that he and all who followed him would live to witness the victory of the Good and the dawning of the Kingdom.

But the Prophet died with that hope unrealised. Time went on, and still the end of days seemed far off. So new prophecy foretold a future Saviour. Three helpers to salvation would be born, a thousand years apart, and the third would be the Saviour himself. All of them would be the sons of Zarathustra. Their mothers would be virgins, each of whom in her time would bathe in a lake in which the Prophet had deposited his sperm for the purpose of procreating a son. After the third and last son, Shayosh, is born and fulfils his earthly mission, the Kingdom will come. Then will Ormazd vanquish Ahriman and evil be destroyed forever. The dead shall be raised and there will be a Last Judgement.

Every soul will have been judged once before, when the life of the person it belonged to ended in death. Zoroastrianism has a Heaven and Hell (and a Purgatory too, introduced at some later, uncertain stage). When death releases an individual soul it goes to its reward or punishment. Its journey takes it to the Bridge of Judgement where it is met by a personal spirit-conductor to guide it to its destination. The spirit who meets a good soul is beautiful and guides it to Heaven, where it will know only joy in the company of angels and archangels, feasting and singing with them. The spirit who meets a sinful soul is hideous and guides it to the dark underworld ruled by Ahriman, where it will undergo relentless torment. At the first sight of the spirit on the bridge, each human soul instantly knows its fate, for it recognizes the one who has come to meet it: it’s own True Self, made beautiful or ugly by the thoughts, words and deeds of its life.

Posted under Articles, Christianity, Miscellaneous, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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