Gnosticism, neognosticism and Orthodoxy
A couple of days ago I caught glimpses of a TV programme on Leonardo da Vinci. It had to do with a picture of two babies kissing, and whether it was by him, and if so, whether it showed that he was influenced by Gnosticism. I didn’t follow the arguments closely as I was doing something else at the time, but it reminded me that there seems to be a growing interest in gnosticism in the media, and I got the impression that the people who made that TV programme thought that gnosticism was cool, and wouldn’t it be cool if it could be shown that Leonardo da Vinci was influenced by gnosticism.
Now I’m no fundi on gnosticism, and I’m not particularly interested in it, but I do find it interesting that there seems to be a social tendency, at least in the West, towards a greater interest in gnosticism.
Some 45 years ago I wrote to my cousin and quoted something from the Nag Hammadi documents, which recorded as a saying of Jesus, “Lift the stone and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood and I am there.” My cousin, who was going through a rather puritanical Baptist phase, wrote back asking if those were gnostic documents, and implying that if they were, there could be nothing good about the saying. There seemed to be a great prejudice against anything that might possibly be tainted by gnosticism.
Now the prejudice seems to be the other way. If it’s gnostic, it must be good. Leonardo da Vinci was a great genius, but if he was a gnostic, his genius must be greater still.
As I said, I make no claim to be a fundi on gnosticism, so I defer to the opinion of one who is an acknowledged expert, Elaine Pagels. And I think she got it right in her description of the difference between gnosticism and Orthodox Christianity, and why Orthodox Christianity rejected gnosticism:
Orthodox Christians were concerned – far more than gnostics – with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity’s original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially “good.” The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code, which prohibits physical violation of others – murder, stealing, adultery – in terms of Jesus’ prohibitions against even mental and emotional violence – anger, lust, hatred.
Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth’s plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that “good” creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as “fullness of God” come down into human experience – into bodily experience – to sacralize it (Pagels 1981:174).
Now, on the fifth day of Christmas, one tends to think of the relationship between God and the material world, and that God so loved the material world as to take human flesh and enter it as a man. This is a stumbling block to Jews, folly to the Greeks and blasphemy to Muslims. But it’s what Christians believe.
Pagels did not get everything right in her book. She had some strange ideas about some of the details, such as Orthodox Christian views of St Mary Magdalene (one of the Myrrh-bearing women and Equal-to-the-Apostles, according to the Orthodox). But she got the big picture right on the difference between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism.
Orthodox Christianity, unlike gnosticism, is characterised by ubuntu, humanity.
Christ is born — glorify Him!
Christ is in our midst — He is and always shall be.