Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Gnostic Gospels, Part 1

Ok, as I said earlier, here's a little basic info on Gnosticism and the Gnostic gospels, as made popular by the Da Vinci Code movie, and various popular books. The main underlying issue is that the Gnostic gospels portray Jesus differently than the canonical Gospels do. People critical of Christian beliefs have seized on this to argue that early Christianity was a theologically diverse movement and the cannon of Scripture was essentially those books arbitrarily chosen by either the bishops or the emperor (choose whichever bad guy is more convenient) to create a false consensus and cement their power. Please remember that I'm not a scholar, and definitely not a scholar of ancient heresy or canonical developments, and be gentle towards any mistakes or omissions. Since this can get really long really quickly, I'll divide it into parts.

To understand the issue, you'll need a little background on Gnosticism. Speaking of "gnosticism" as a unified movement is a little deceptive. It's like speaking of "martial arts" as a unified discipline. It doesn't work, because there are many different subsets, some of which run contrary to others. However, some themes that run consistently throughout the whole of the movement are: the evil of the physical world, the necessity of secret knowledge to escape this world (gnosis, the root word of gnosticism, means knowledge), an impersonal and transcendent creator god, coupled with a dizzying number of levels of inferior spiritual beings.

Basically, Gnostics believed that the god (we'll call him the "one") who created the universe created a bunch of inferior gods. Since he was transcendent and relatively detached from creation, these gods were created by emanations from the one rather than through an active creation process. The process varies a little among Gnostics from period to period and time to time, but essentially, these gods then created other gods, who created other gods, etc. Each lower form of god was less perfect than the next, because he was further away from the one. Somewhere along the line, a god referred to as the demiurge created the physical world. However, since the physical world is as far away from the one as you can get, it is also highly imperfect.

Well, in an attempt to fix the demiurge's mistake, humans were given a spiritual side. It is through this spiritual side that we can gain knowledge and eventually leave this physical world. Fleshly things like sex, food, etc were generally considered evils that clouded one's spiritual side, so most Gnostics lived very austere lives. (To illustrate the diversity of the movement though, some Gnostics basically lived as hedonists. They argued that if only the spiritual matters, then you can do whatever you want with your evil, fleshly body, and it's all ok.) A point to remember is that Gnosticism developed separately from Christianity. No one disputes that. While it's roots are obscure and hard to date, it is at least as old, and maybe a tad older.

So, the question arises, how does one get the special knowledge needed to transcend the world? The answer is that someone has to provide it to you. And here is where things get complicated.