Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul
What do Harry Potter, the Star Wars series, The Matrix, Masonry, New Age and the Raelian cult, which claims to have cloned the first baby, have in common?
Their ideological soil. Identical esoteric ideas suf-fuse the novels, the movies, the lodges, the “alternative spirituality” and the cloning “atheistic religion,” and this ideological soil has a name — Gnosticism.
“Gnosticism” is an eerie word whose meaning eludes our minds. I often meet Catholics who have heard the term but have only a foggy idea of what it means. Perhaps Gnosticism itself is foggy.
Yet, whether we understand it or not, Gnosticism may be, at the beginning of the third millennium, the most dangerous enemy to our Christian faith. Notice, I'm not saying Star Wars or Harry Potter is the danger. They provide us with good lessons and fine entertainment. They are just two signs of the power of the real enemy: Gnosticism.
Why? What is Gnosticism?
In one dense but masterful summary, we find the essential aspects of Gnosticism. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II writes:
“A separate issue is the return of ancient Gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age. We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practicing Gnosticism — that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting his word and replacing it with purely human words. Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian.”
Let's examine what the Holy Father is saying about Gnosticism.
First, its nature. Strictly speaking, Gnosticism was an esoteric religious movement of the first centuries A.D., a movement that rivaled Christianity. In a broader sense, it is an esoteric knowledge of higher religious and philosophic truths to be acquired by an elite group. John Paul alludes to the first meaning with the phrase “ancient Gnostic ideas” and to the second as an “attitude of the spirit” that “has always existed side by side with Christianity.”
A Gnostic is one who has gnosis (a Greek word for “knowledge”) — a visionary or mystical “secret knowledge” capable of joining the human being to the divine mystery. Gnostics, the Pope remarked, distort God's word “in the name of a profound knowledge of God.” What is this “knowledge” they claim to have?
The Gnostic worldview is dualistic. Reality consists of two irreducible elements: one good, the spiritual world (the realm of light); and the other evil, matter (the realm of darkness). Two supreme powers or gods oppose each other — the unknowable and inef-fable god, from whom a series of lesser divinities emanated, and the evil god, or demiurge, who produced the universe from foul matter and possesses it with his evil demons.
Man is composed of body, soul and spirit. The spirit is man's true self, a “divine spark,” a portion of the godhead. In a tragic fall, man's true self, or spirit, was thrown into this dark world and imprisoned in each individual's body and soul. The demiurge and the demons keep man's spirit as a slave of the material world, ignorant of his “divine” condition. Hence the need for a spiritual savior, a messiah or “Christ,” to offer redeeming gnosis. This savior is a guide, a master who teaches a few “spiritual” people — the Gnostics — about their true spiritual selves and helps them to wake up from the dream world they live in. The Gnostics would be released from the material world, the non-Gnostics doomed to reincarnation.
What is an example of how these beliefs are embodied in popular stories? Consider the Star Wars movies. There is much good in them. The stories are admirable in many ways. But they are chock-full of Gnosticism.
Star Wars is the clash between the two supreme powers of the universe — “the force” and the “dark side of the force,” which is exploited by the “emperor” (the demiurge) and his demons (Darth Vader, the siths). The Gnostic heroes are the Jedi, who possess the “secret knowledge” of their own spiritual powers; unlike the non-Gnostic, they are able to use “the force” well. Each Jedi has a master, who trains him to acquire this redeeming gnosis. Ben Kenobi, for instance, was for a time the master of Anakin and Luke Skywalker. The greatest spiritual guide in the saga is Yoda, a respected senior member of the Jedi council and a general in the clone wars.
As Christ's followers, we must sort out the good seed from the weeds (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). I propose a distinction between the Gnostic values and its philosophy.
Gnostics promote, without a doubt, positive values. They draw a clear-cut separation between good and evil, stress man's spiritual dimension, instill high and noble ideals, foster courage and concern for others, respect nature, reject materialism and often reject hedonism, too.
Part One of Two.
The second part of this series will examine Gnosticism in contemporary culture and give tips on how to spot it.
Such values shine like pearls in an age of moral relativism that thirsts for gain, the ephemeral, the hedonistic. Aren't these some of the virtues and ideas we love in Star Wars and Harry Potter?
The other side of the coin, however, is not so positive. The good values are rooted in a Gnostic philosophical understanding of man, God and the world that is, as the Pope put it, “in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian.” Why?
Note the opposite views. The Christian Creator is love — a Trinity of persons who wants to establish with us a personal relationship of love — quite different from that unknowable God, usually conceived, like the Star Wars “force,” as an impersonal energy to be manipulated.
The God of Revelation made everything good — the angels, the world, our body and soul. Evil is not a force of the same rank as God; rather, it springs from angels’ and men's personal free choice. Salvation is offered by God in Christ, man's only redeemer.
Salvation is a grace — a free gift from God that Man can neither deserve nor earn. It is not gnosis, “secret knowledge” we can acquire by ourselves with the help of mere human guides or Christlike figures. In short, the Christian religion is a “dialogue” of love between God and man, not a self-centered “monologue” in which man divinizes himself. That's why John Paul says Gnosticism cannot lead “toward a renewal of religion.”
It distorts God's word, “replacing it with purely human words.”
Then and Now
Finally, the Pope alludes to the historic span and manifestations of this ideology. “Gnosticism,” he says, “never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity ... sometimes taking the shape of philosophical movement but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion.”
Let's look at a few representative Gnostic movements in history.
With the rise of Christianity, ancient esoteric ideas developed into Gnostic syncretism. Thus, in the first centuries A.D., the Apostles and the Church Fathers had to combat several “Christian” Gnostic religious systems, such as those of Cerinthus, Manander, Saturninus, Valentinus, Basilides, Ptolemaeus and the ones contained in the apocryphal gospels: of truth and perfection, and of Judas (Iscariot), Philip and Thomas.
The third-century dualist Mani chaean church or religion spread from Persia throughout the Middle East, China, southern Europe and northern Africa, where the young Augustine temporarily became a convert.
Teachings similar to Manichaeism resurfaced during the Middle Ages in Europe in groups such as the Paulicians (Armenia, seventh century), the Bogomilists (Bulgaria, 10th century), the Cathars or Albigensians (southern France, 12th century), the Jewish Cabala and the metaphysical speculation surrounding alchemy.
Modern times witnessed the resurgence of Gnosticism in philosophical thought — the Enlightenment, Hegel's idealism, some existentialist currents, Nazism, Jungian psychology, the theosophical society and Freemasonry.
More recently, Gnosticism has become popular through successful films and novels, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix. It has also gained followers among the ranks of ordinary people through pseudo-religious “movements,” such as the New Age and the Raelian cult.
These contemporary Gnostic expressions should certainly inspire us in the good values they promote. At the same time, we should be cautious — examine their philosophical background and reject what is incompatible with our Christian faith.
At the beginning of the third millennium we seem to face the same old clash between Christianity and Gnosticism. Both fight to conquer the “soul” of this world — the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures.
For this reason, defeating Gnosticism has become an essential task of the New Evangelization. “Against the spirit of the world,” the Holy Father says in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, “the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul.”
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy in Thornwood, New York, and can be reached at: [email protected].
- March 30-April 5, 2003