Carl Jung and Gnosticism
This is an ongoing series that elaborates the ideas in my book God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion, with more material posted at www.GodReconsidered.com, as well as interviews featured on the AeonByte podcast www.thegodabovegod.com (past ones can be found by searching Youtube “scott s. smith aeonbyte”).
The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung—best-known to the general public for popularizing a host of terms like collective unconscious, synchronicity, and extrovert/introvert—has long been associated with Gnosticism. As I explained in the first iteration of this blog on the topic, this was a movement in the first centuries of Christianity that took a more mystical approach than that which became the Catholic Church, the faction christened as the official version by the semi-pagan Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea, Turkey, in 325 A.D. We need to take a brief detour into defining this spiritual path to understand how Jung might be considered a Gnostic in a distinctly modern sense.
Reviewing the Essence of Classical Gnosticism
There has been a debate about how to define Gnosticism because the ancient sects, so-labeled by historians of religion, differed in important details in their philosophies and practices. But they had more in common as alternatives to mainstream Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, so I believe the term is useful to indicate an important division right at the start of the new religion. There are a few ideas that most of these groups shared, the first being an awareness of the divine spark within, a direct connection to the True God, and at the same time, an alienation from the divine in our earthly embodiment. Sometimes this “gnosis,” or insight into the great truths about human existence, came in a dramatic mystical experience. More often then and now, this has come about through long-term study and prayer.
Most ancient Gnostics were also to varying degrees dualists: they believed that the creator of this world was not the True or High God, but the Demiurge, a “half-creator,” who emerged as the result of a cosmic accident in their mythology (involving his mother, Sophia, “the wisdom of God,” seeking more knowledge than she should have). The Demiurge presented himself to mortals as the god of this world to be worshipped, often identified by ancient Gnostics as identical to the Jehovah of the Old Testament. He and his minions, the demonic archons, are in a struggle with the forces of light, the aeons, who are more powerful than angels, but neither side has the ability to prevail (a shamanistic understanding of the Greater Reality). This could be due to a structural aspect of reality that intervention into this material dimension is difficult for both sides or it could be that this is like a radiation zone for spirits (evidence from so-called alien abductions seems to support these ideas, as I argued in blog 6).
The High God is the grand intelligence responsible for the basic laws of the universe, yet is beyond the material world, a being who is not all-powerful in this realm, but who has agents who are sent to help us. Whether one thinks of this True God as a personal being or an impersonal force, prayers can be directed to it, with the exact mechanism for how answers are given being beyond our mortal understanding.
All of this may sound like just another religion that you can take on faith or choose to ridicule, according to your inclinations. Yet the deeper I studied world religions, the more I came to believe this was the only philosophy that provided a rational explanation for our existential predicament. I have written extensively about history and know that no loving God would have created a world with so much suffering by all creatures for the 500 million years of evolution, ending with the brief appearance of humankind.
Consider the truths that one would have to accept to embrace any traditional monotheistic religion:
°God created us, but somehow doesn’t bear any responsibility for the genetics and social environment that largely determine our personalities.
°He waved a magic wand that gave us “free will,” despite the evidence of these strong influences, and sends us to heaven or hell based on what we believe and do.
°The purpose of life is to show we can live according to God’s will, even though 25-50% of those born throughout history died in infancy and most of the 108 billion who ever lived have had short lives and very limited ability to find out what “the truth” might be other than their local religious tradition.
°There has always been disproportional suffering compared with what sinners deserve, such as civilians killed in war, children who die of starvation, and victims of disease epidemics and natural disasters. For those who believe what happens is due to karma, everyone murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust was simply receiving the natural result of their misdeeds in prior lives and those killed by the 2004 tsunami must have all needed their karmic debts settled for this life in the same way at about the same moment (see the Appendix to this blog below).
°There are good reasons why mankind was allowed to muddle along for most of history without understanding the best way to grow food, the fact that so many diseases are caused by germs and viruses, or the technology that would make life easier (electricity, canning, pasteurization, telephones, heating/air conditioning, etc.).
°There is a good reason why almost all of our time is spent commuting and working, eating, playing, and sleeping (as opposed to spiritual pursuits). For that matter, our spiritual progress is apparently dependent on getting that degree in accounting or forensic pathology (if earth life is somehow supposed to contribute to our eternal purpose).
°God is omniscient and therefore he is letting each human play out what he already knows will happen. That’s why some Christians have believed in predestination: if nothing can happen that cannot be foreseen by God, then everything is pre-programmed and cannot be altered. So God knew he was creating a world of vast suffering and did it anyway (perhaps he was lonely and bored, since nothing can
°The same can be said of karma: in order for anyone’s debt to be paid from a prior life, the universe would have to be completely mechanical and predictable for each person (karma taking the place of the all-wise, always-just God). To work out correctly for one individual, everyone else’s karma or free will and all natural accidents would need to be controlled. Otherwise, the chaos of material reality would kill and maim those who are supposed to have their karma filled in other ways. Of course, all this is an impossibility, but advocates of absolute divine foreknowledge and the justice of karma fail to understand the holes in their simplistic logic (for the record, some Gnostics believed in reincarnation, other did not—those who did had dietary and ritualistic ways to improve their chances of not returning, but in my opinion, the notion that re-embodiment would lead to enlightenment is fundamentally flawed).
But wouldn’t it be a better alternative to grand metaphysical theories simply be atheism? Atheism would explain why humanity has had so much suffering: it’s just the result of evolution. But the problem with the modern atheist movement is that it has confused disbelief in God with philosophical materialism: the insistence that no rational person can accept the idea of the so-called paranormal. Skeptics militantly disbelieve any evidence for something like extra sensory perception, which means they should excommunicate the atheist Sigmund Freud, since he reported having many telepathic experiences with patients. My first three chapters in the book and blog 4 on the evidence for afterlife have shown why this rigid religion of irrational rationalism is just as blind as other faiths.
I did not find Gnosticism for a long time after a very disquieting mystical experience in 1989, followed by a vision of the heavenly realms five months later. I went on a search to try to find some answers, deeply studying the philosophical options, traveling to shrines around the world, participating in numerous religious rituals, talking with leaders and ordinary practitioners of the major faiths, reading their scriptures and interpreters, investigating claims of the supernatural, and talking with experts. In 2005, I discovered Gnosticism and in 2014 wrote about my spiritual journey in the book, adding to the material with each blog post (all unusually long; previously, these were on Huffingtonpost, but it ended its role as a major blog platform in Jan. 2017). The prior iteration, No. 7, has the link to the others (this last was unique in that it focused only on one prominent modern Gnostic’s ideas and experiences, but I thought readers would find it interesting while I was working on this one; all my blogs are also posted at the top of the Facebook Forum on my website):
The Visionary Origins of Jungian Psychology
Much of ancient Gnostic metaphysics might seem not to have obvious connections with Jung’s ideas about the nature of reality, mankind’s place in it, or how to become a whole person. Yet we know his psychology and philosophy were rooted in mystical encounters with Gnostic figures.
A majority of Jungian psychoanalysts have tried to distance themselves from his association with any kind of mysticism, helped in this effort by Jung’s frequent attempts to disown the label. However, as Gary Lachman argues in his recent reassessment, Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, his comments can’t be taken at face value:
In 1957, Jung, then in his eighties, remarked that “Everyone who says that I am a mystic is just an idiot.” By this time, this would have included quite a few people, not the least of whom was Sigmund Freud…It was the “mystical” nature of Jung’s first major work, Symbols of Transformation, that precipitated Jung’s break with the founder of psychoanalysis in 1912…
But…from the beginning, Jung was enthralled by…what we have come to call the paranormal…at a time when for the most part science had relegated the idea of any immaterial or spiritual reality to the intellectual dustbin. ..Jung seemed to be of two minds about the supernatural: a public one that wanted to understand it “scientifically,” and a private one that acknowledged ghosts, visions, and premonitions as part of the essential mystery of life.
Why would he deny having more than a detached scientific interest in such things? Clearly, he was concerned about his reputation among peers. That’s why only those in his closest circle of colleagues were aware of the startling fact that his innovations in psychology came out of a series of visionary experiences from 1913 to 1917, involving interactions with “the dead” and “sermons” composed he first claimed by the Gnostic sage Basilides and later changed to Philemon, who was known in mortal life as the Gnostic magician Simon Magus (who gets a bad rap in the New Testament, which was compiled by the enemies of the Gnostics).
As Stephan Hoeller explained in The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, it was common for Christian and Jewish authors to claim they were written by a revered leader of the past to give them stature, and in some cases they may have believed they were inspired by that individual, hence the apocryphal biblical literature and the Kabbalah.
The Sermons thus have two authors, as it were: Jung, the Swiss scribe, and Basilides, the Alexandrian prophet. ..One of Jung’s most creative disciples, Marie-Louise von Franz, pointed out (in her splendid work, C.G. Jung: His Myth in Our Time) that Jung recognized himself as deeply related to the figure of Merlin, the archetypal magician of the Arthurian and Grail mythos. ..Who or what Jung truly was may indeed remain a secret forever. ..He confronted Freudian reductionism, with its dreary preoccupation with infantile functions and sexual repression. He challenged political ideologies of both left and right, which arrogated to themselves permission to dwarf the individual within the Behemoth structures of state and government. His teachings brought the light of imagination, the renewing power of creativity, of romance and existential courage and joy to numberless weary and heart-hungry men and women seeking meaning.
During this period when he was having these encounters at night, he maintained a full schedule, seeing an average of five patients a day, lecturing, and even serving as Swiss army officer during World War I. Sonu Shamdasani, who translated and interpreted Jung’s diaries about this period and into the 1930s, published in 2009 as The Red Book: Liber Novus, remarked that Jung was “deliberately evoking a fantasy in a waking state, then entering into it as into a drama….He recalled that his scientific question was to see what took place when he switched off consciousness. The example of dreams indicated the existence of background activity, and he wanted to give this a possibility of emerging, just as one does when taking mescaline.”
Jung told his close associate Aniela Jaffe that this was “the most important time of my life—everything else is to be derived from this. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me.”
A privately-printed brochure with the Sermons was published in German in 1916 and in English in the 1920s, and circulated mostly among his associates. Only after his death were these included in the German and British editions of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, edited by Jaffe, in 1961, but not in the initial American version until later that year, when they appeared in the appendix.
The Red Book was held under lock and key by the Jung family for fear it would be damaging to his professional reputation, but Shamdasani convinced them that since parts of it were already in circulation, it would be better to have the entire text for context and commentary. It made clear that Jung’s interactions with the “archetypal world” (a realm of images and themes of great power, often found in religious art and mythology) were far more extensive than had been known during his lifetime. To many students of Jung, this sounds like the borderland between the psychological and supernatural. Hoeller has given a series of lectures about The Red Book, which can be found at www.BCrecordings.net.
Dr. Lance Owens reprinted Alfred Ribi’s The Search for Roots: C.G. Jung and the Tradition, and wrote in the foreword about a stunning aspect of Jung’s visions: his primary “ghostly guide” called himself Philemon, but eventually revealed that he was in mortal life known as Simon Magus of Samaria, the first Gnostic leader who can be identified as a historical person. He’s dissed as a fake magician in the New Testament, but scholars have shown that the text is so full of contradictions that it was clearly not written by reliable eyewitnesses and has been interpreted in the light of Christian dogmas that were developed later (this is the subject of chapter 7 in my book and blog 5).
Hoeller, in an interview with Miguel Conner in Other Voices of Gnosticism, commented that:
Philemon is practically a savior figure, a very, very numinous being…a sort of successor to Jesus…And on the opposing page of the picture of Philemon [in The Red Book] is a huge feminine figure with a partially veiled face, who stands in a temple-like structure…full of people…and then Jung has an inscription, mostly in Latin, on the border, which says, “The wisdom of God.” So there is Sophia and the implication is that she had gone away, but she is coming back.
So did Jung think these visions were purely psychological experiences? In a recent lecture, Hoeller stated, “Jung realized that these experiences came from beyond himself, not just from some unusual part of himself, but through his psyche. Yet there is a portion of God within the human and this is where historical Christianity went wrong, that it just concentrated on the external savior and didn’t really address itself to the God within.”
Comparing Jung’s Ideas With Gnostic Philosophy
In a lecture by Owens http://gnosis.org/gnostic-jung/Jung-and-Gnosis.html, he cites Jung’s 1957 statement that his study of alchemy (misunderstood as an attempt to turn base metal into gold, rather than a process of personal transformation) made him realize there was a direct connection between the Gnostics and his psychology of the unconscious. Based on a new reading of primary source documents, Dr. Owens illustrates how Jung embedded the ancient motifs of Gnostic mythology in Liber Novus, and then traces the ways in which Gnostic mythology permeated Jung’s subsequent life work.
In 1952, the Dutch scholar Dr. Gilles Quispel, with financing from Jung, acquired the first codex available for academic study among the cache that had been discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It was named Codex I or the Jung Codex, which Quispel translated and presented to Jung, but was repatriated to Egypt in 1975 (Jung died in 1961). Owens wrote:
Over the years, Ribi worked methodically through each of the some 50 Gnostic texts recovered at Nag Hammadi, analyzing the translations in various languages, noting key words, concepts and recurring themes…His study extended to Gnostic material that Jung had read, and to a careful examination of the usages Jung made of this material. Eventually, Ribi established that Jung had understood the core of Gnostic tradition very well, despite his lacking the supplementary material from Nag Hammadi.
Professor Craig Chalquist of Pacifica Graduate Institute did a detailed study of the relationship of Gnostic ideas and the concepts in Jung’s depth psychology, including the aeons being Jungian archetypes, the collective unconscious as the aeon-filled realm of the Pleroma, the pursuit of wholeness by Gnostics as similar to Jung’s individuation process, and the psyche being situated between spirit and matter: http://www.chalquist.com/jung&gnostics.html
Hoeller calls Jung a type of modern Gnostic, once one strips the ancient tradition of archaic influences. Some of the parallels he sees between the core Gnostic ideas and Jung’s conclusions:
1. There is a spiritual part of the human psyche that is more than personal.
2. This carries on an active dialogue with the personal element through symbols.
3. The symbols reveal a path from the cause of our existential predicament to a light-filled future.
4. The soul is blinded by powers that are projections and unconscious compulsions (one of these is the alienated human ego, which acts in a way similar to the Demiurge; Jung also wrote Answer to Job, which interprets the biblical book as showing the evil side of God).
5. Our alienated consciousness needs to be fully confronted to make progress.
6. Progress comes from contemplating wholeness or the Pleroma.
7. Evidence of our connection to the divine comes in dreams, visions, and creative experiences.
8. Our goal should be integrated wholeness, rather than moral perfection.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber understood what Jung was asserting and attacked him. Commented Owens:
Buber’s assault and the publication of an evasive response from Jung undoubtedly dampened public discussion of Gnosis within the Jungian community over subsequent years. Following Jung’s death, the analytical community…progressively became the primary custodians and propagators of Jung’s work…The persistent and troubling issue was whether Jung’s psychology would be viewed as a spiritual discipline or as a clinically validated therapy. There was obviously no professional profit in nominating Jung as a Gnostic prophet…Culturally and professionally, it remains problematic to associate a school of clinical psychology with a widely anathematized heresy intimately entangled in the origins of Christianity.
The question, though, remains: is there an actual dimension where our souls survive after death or are all seemingly paranormal experiences really all in our minds? Hoeller suggests that the supernatural and archtetypal explanations are just different ways of looking at the same phenomena. I would add that we should not get too hung up on the details, since our mortal ability to know the full truth about anything is very limited. We should accept that all philosophies reflect a different part of the cosmic elephant the seers are sensing and we should be very patient for apparent paradoxes to be resolved.
I did argue in blog 2, however, that there is plenty of evidence that this reality is not an illusion or the creation of each individual’s mind (for starters, telescopes record an expanding universe, without human observation). If we accept the evidence for biological evolution and that spirits dwell in our bodies, then a purely psychological explanation for our existence and experiences does not seem adequate. We truly exist and not just in our minds!
It also seems to me very unlikely that the thousands of atheists who have witnessed the so-called Virgin Mary apparitions were seeing others’ projections of their beliefs (there are even impressive photos; if we apply the philosophic principle of Occam’s razor, they are more likely to have been of a supernatural being than a collective projection or hallucination). In chapter 3 of my book and blog 4, I presented compelling evidence that our souls survive death and some of the dead are able to continue to interact with the living. It seems unlikely to me that such encounters are always imaginary, that we must simply assume the extreme reductionist definition of the soul as a personification of an archetype, as some Jungians would argue.
Writing of his sister Trudi’s death, Jung once said, a decade before his known visions started, “What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it.” Lachman notes, “Jung does not tell us how he knows.” Apparently, he was not simply a mystic, but someone whose mission was to shake up the reductionist modern world by providing new ways to understand the Greater Reality.
One other aspect of Jung’s personal beliefs that relate to Christianity is that although he came from a family of pastors and Protestantism deemphasizes religious ritual, he believed that the Eucharist of bread and wine had powerful symbolism that could help individual transformation (listen to any of Hoeller’s lectures on this on BCrecordings.net and see Jung’s long essay “Transformation Symboloism in the Mass”).
Jungian Analytical Psychotherapy
I would like to wrap up this discussion with a look at the basic concepts of Jung’s psychology and how they might apply in psychotherapy. My own therapist was actually a neo-Freudian (no psychoanalyst now accepts all of his original theories). Yet he told me he used Jungian dream interpretation because it was clearly far superior to Freud’s theories. I was always astounded when I would report a dream that was mystifying to me, yet he could instantly interpret it in a way that I realized should have been obvious. This process helped transform my life during the dark period, as I searched for a new spiritual path. This and daily meditation also dramatically increased my synchronicities, those “meaningful coincidences,” which I’ve discussed in interviews.
Jungian therapy has tended to appeal to those who are not your stereotypical troubled patients suffering from serious mental or emotional problems, but rather those who are relatively successful and happy who are seeking more fulfillment. Jung defined the concept of personality types from which the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was developed. Some of his other ideas that are used in therapy per Robin Robertson’s Beginner’s Guide to Jungian Psychology:
*Archetype: cognitive constants that help determine our knowledge of reality.
*Complex: associations of words with images that are emotionally charged, such as “father.”
*Anima: the unconscious feminine of a man; Animus: the unconscious masculine of a woman.
*Shadow: the repressed aspects of the personality, including those considered negative, which often appear in dreams.
*Individuation: the process of integrating the conscious and unconscious, aiming for self-actualization or fulfillment and balance.
*Self: the psyche’s central archetype which imposes wholeness and order, acting as “the god within.”
A Los Angeles Jungian therapist and associate of Hoeller, Judy Richardson, has lectured about Jung to various organizations. She says that in addition to dream interpretation, analysts use “active imagination,” encouraging clients to deeply relax and let both the personal and collective unconscious bring up vivid images, without allowing the conscious mind to “explain” them. By reporting on changes in this visualization of an object or scene, the unconscious can reveal things it wants to become conscious. Clients are also encouraged to engage in any kind of creative activity that relates to their personal goals, such as taking a trip or creating a piece of art. Richardson says she will comment on what the patient says and then ask, “What comes up for you in response to what I said?”
“Both artist and Gnostic share certain predispositions: the same avenues to self-expression, the same attitudes of rebellion,” said Richardson. “To be Gnostic is to succumb to an inclination of the spirit more poetical than philosophical or religious. The early Gnostics used myth and symbol as avenues to self-remembering.”
A New Age version of Jung’s ideas was embraced by the counter culture of the 1960s and ‘70s. He even appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band along with the images of other unorthodox heroes, like Albert Einstein, Mae West, Hindu guru Sri Mahavatar Babaji, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Marlene Dietrich, and Lewis Carroll (Jung is in the top row, seventh from the left, between W.C. Fields and Edgar Allen Poe).
One contribution of Jung to social betterment was his indirect influence on Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Jung treated Wilson’s friend Rowland Hazard III for alcoholism, but after seeing little progress, he advised Hazard that he had heard of a cure for seemingly hopeless cases through spiritual experiences. This became a fundamental part of the 12 Steps of AA and related programs.
A forthcoming book by a Jungian therapist in Bakersfield, Calif., Dr. Joseph Lancaster, Gnostic Pneumatherapy: Links Between Gnosticism and Ancient Healing Traditions www.gnosticpneumatherapy.com, hopes to encourage other therapists to present patients with a framework for approaching their personal process as if they were going through an initiation into a modern mystery religion. This would take them beyond an effort to simply function better on a daily basis, aiming towards a goal of an enlightened life.
APPENDIX to Blog 8:
“GNOSIS AT THE TIME OF DISASTER: A MEDITATION ON THE EARTHQUAKE-TSUNAMI CATASTROPHE OF DECEMBER 26, 2004” by Stephan Hoeller
I’ve been attaching insightful experiences and views of other Gnostics to the end of my blogs to spread awareness of our living spiritual path. This is from an article in Jan. 5, 2005 by the lead bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica.
One the day after Christmas of last year, a gigantic earthquake accompanied by a tsunami took the lives of thus far over 150,000 human beings in an area extending from Indonesia to Somalia. A natural catastrophe of unique scope visited humanity, and causes us to reflect on its possible meaning and implications. Questions are being raised by people of many faiths and of none. Most of these may be summed up in one word: “Why?” In this brief meditation, we shall indicate some answers to this question that might be offered from the vantage point of the Gnostic tradition.
In addition to the overall question there are observations and interpretations forthcoming from many quarters. Let us outline some of these here:
1) The Literalist Religious perspective: The disaster is God’s Will. The purpose behind this will is in all likelihood none other than punishment. The wrathful and punitive Deity of this religiosity has been offended by various sins of humanity and thus came to visit a frightful retribution upon the sinners.
2) The Literalist Quasi-Secularist perspective: “When people cease to believe in God,” said Chesterton, “they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” Some of this “anything” appears in our days as the earth, nature, the ecosystem, the planet. Voices are being heard that proclaim that we have “wounded the earth,” “broken mother earth’s bones,” and that disaster is the reaction of earth to the injuries inflicted on her by humans. While the wrathful deity is replaced here by the wrathful earth, the result is identical to the one advanced by literalist religion: we are being punished for our sins.
3) The Inscrutability and Mystery perspective: “God works in mysterious ways.” So declares this school of thought. “His designs are inscrutable.” The implications of this perspective often lead to the belief that such terrible events mysteriously serve God’s good ends. In this view, evil is but good masquerading in an unpleasant disguise.
4) The Naturalistic-Cosmic perspective inherited from the philosophy of the Enlightenment: This view declares that we live in a Newtonian clockwork cosmos wherein the principle of mechanical equilibrium predominates. Whenever this equilibrium is upset by circumstances of whatever provenance, a readjustment takes place, of which an earthquake is an example. The destruction of human and other kinds of life resulting from such adjustments is in the nature of incidental results, a sort of cosmic “collateral damage.”
5) The Westernized adaptation of the notion of karma: This perspective, which was first popularized in the 19th Century and has thus been incorporated into much New Age teaching, holds that “perfect justice rules the world,” and this justice is administered by the law of karma. Thus, the individual karma of the victims would in some mysterious way be synchronized and joined to the karma of the nations and continents affected and somehow all of this would be just and good. One can detect in this perspective elements of perspectives 3 and 4 of our list.
What then is the specifically Gnostic perspective? The Gnostic tradition agrees with various authors who have suggested that there are three propositions that cannot be made to co-exist. They are:
–God is all-powerful and all-knowing.
–God is all good.
–Terrible things happen.
Thus, an all-powerful and all-knowing God could let terrible things, of the nature of the recent catastrophe, happen, but then He could not be good. On the other hand, a good God might have to let such horrors take place, but then He could not be all-powerful or all-knowing. In addition, a God who would visit such and similar disasters on His children would be not only not good, but a veritable fiend, the prototype of all monstrously abusive parents. That great figure of our culture, Harold Bloom, expressed this well:
If you can accept a God who coexists with death camps, schizophrenia, and AIDS, yet remains all-powerful and somehow benign, then you have faith, and you have accepted the Covenant with Yahweh…If you know yourself as having an affinity with the alien, or stranger God, cut off from this world, then you are a Gnostic… (Omens of Millennium, p. 252)
The Gnostic world view declares (using Bloom’s words) that the Godhead envisioned is indeed alien, a stranger by virtue of the fact that the world and the inhabitants of the world have become alienated from their Source, Who is God. This Source is benevolent and perfect in a spiritual sense, but owing to alienation does not exercise direct control over the world, wherein lesser spiritual beings and deities hold dominion. Thus the evils and catastrophic events in the world are in no way the result of the intentions of the true and good God. Punitive and malign intentions may at times manifest in cosmic and terrestrial events, but these are the products of the lesser deities involved with creation and its operations. Punitive and malign intentions may at times manifest in cosmic and terrestrial events, but these are the products of the lesser deities involved with creation and its operations.
In this position contrary to the Christian tradition? The answer is that while much contemporary theology that calls itself Christian contradicts the Gnostic world view, some of the most venerable ancient theologies of Christendom are in agreement or near-agreement with the Gnostic perspective. Thus we may study the following statements of a theologian of the (Eastern) Orthodox Church, David B. Hart:
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic…, for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long, melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities—spiritual and terrestrial—alien to God. (The Wall Street Journal, Friday, Dec. 31, p. W11)
These words, written especially with the recent great catastrophe in mind, indicate a most wonderful convergence of Gnostic and (Eastern) Orthodox views of the world and its evils. That the orthodox may attribute these conditions to the fall, while the Gnostic regards them as the consequences of the creation of the world by a lesser deity is true enough, but so is the virtual identity of the two visions.
Let us then briefly summarize our response to the five aforementioned perspectives:
The evils and horrors of this disaster (or of any disaster) are not reflective of the will of the true God, Whom Gnostics adore and address in prayer and liturgy. Neither is there even the remotest possibility that such disasters are a punishment meted out by the true God to his children. If there is a malice involved it originates with the lesser deities who in ignorance and wrath manage a good deal of this world. It is even more likely that disasters large and small are simply a part of the imperfect world, the sorrowful reality within which we find ourselves until we are liberated form it by Gnosis.
Neither is there any reason to believe that humankind is receiving some kind of a retribution from the earth, or some deity (Gaia) embodied in the earth. The earth is subject to processes and events that are injuries to it and also the living organisms on it. The earth is a blind creation of blind godlings and thus at times earthly forces blindly destroy those dwelling on this sorrowful planet. The anthropomorphisation of earth and of natural forces in the service of contemporary political agendas is but a regrettable and false mythology of our time.
While ultimate reality is indeed very mysterious and inscrutable when contemplated by our minds, this does not mean that we should use the concept of mystery as a cheap excuse for not facing the evils and grotesque horrors in this world. Once the reality of the imperfect gods creating an imperfect world in their own flawed image becomes evident to us, the mystery and the inscrutability regarding these matters vanishes.
In certain respects the universe may indeed resemble Newton’s well-oiled, machine-like model, but in other respects this image is dated and no longer valid. To the extent that horrible disasters are indeed the results of balancing and adjusting processes in the universe, these processes are part of the malign aspect of creation and of the intentions of the malign masters of creation.
The concept of karma is the mental expression of some very complex and subtle principles that operate in our lives and possibly in the life of the universe as well. If karma is in some way responsible for disasters such as these, that would only explain how such events come about, but it would not truly explain why. Karma is part of the prison system of this world that is ruled over but what might be Gnostically called “warden-archons.” The objective of all yoga and other disciplines of liberation is to be freed from karma. Thus karma should not be used as a contrived “explanation” of the horrors we encounter in disasters.
Thus we are left with the eternal Gnostic realization: Only the liberating insight of Gnosis will ultimately lift us out of a reality where horrors of this kind prevail. In a Gnostic sense, earthly life itself is a disaster. Like so many of the unfortunate men, women, and children who were living or vacationing in areas that were like paradise and were then so cruelly deprived of their lives in the twinkling of an eye, so have we come forth from the Fullness (Pleroma) and have been swept away by a dreadful torrent that carried us far away from the glories and beauty of out true home. Horrible as this realization strikes us, we must balance it with the afore noted recognition: There is a liberating insight, which we call Gnosis, that can reverse the process and take us back to our true dwelling place. In a very true sense, this is really all that matters. And until then, let us treat each other with compassion, let us extend such help and love as we may be able to offer. For while it is beyond our power to change this dark and violent reality, it is within our ability to shed some light on the path upon which we move toward our goal beyond this world.
By Scott S. Smith