G. God, Beliefs, and the Divine cannot be Finalized.
Like the modern theologian, Paul Tillich, they asked the question as he put it: "Is there a "God beyond God?" So in their attempt to define or explain evil, they said there was a more perfect God than the God who quickly created the world -- and whose task is now to judge all the evil on earth. In other words, they believed that interpretation of God to be too small! As God was incomprehensible, the Gospel of Philip asks if not some concepts of God are not "man-made" in order to match special interests? Or as as Tillich asked, maybe there is a God beyond the God-- we create! (Certainly, most have now gotten beyond "the old man upstairs" --well let’s hope!)
And so it can be said that the Gnostics' cosmological views were not limited to one interpretation. They had various myths about creation, God, even other gods--whom, much like angels-- emanated from the one true God, but even their own myths did not agree with each other. Without question, today's science indicates that their myths were at best imaginative and not ultimate truth. But, they never claimed any of their myths were "final" answers.
Gnosis then was not exclusive knowledge of God, but it was a term to encourage a deeper understanding and relationship with Christ. For the Gnostics, the "gnosis" was something one sought much like the Buddhist "nirvana." It didn't make one better than others! It was something that opened one to experience moments of oneness with God through Christ. "Gnosis" gave them deeper insight, not an easy answer. Thus the gnostic style does support those who desire a more spiritual approach for understanding the depth of Christianity as not so much required beliefs but as a faith flowing with Christ.
I. The Popular Charge that all Gnostics believed the Material World was evil can be Challenged
A popular charge against the Gnostics is that they believed human beings and the material world were all evil. Yet just as not all today believe in Augustine's theory of original sin, which says all children are born evil and are born in total depravity, full of sin (well, not my kid), some Gnostics believed the material world was evil-- but not all! In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "That which you have will save you, if you bring it forth from yourselves." So the question has to be asked, if one place we find God is within ourselves, how can all be evil? Further, some Gnostics believed God could be found outside oneself and even in the wonder of the creation. Again, in Thomas, Jesus says, "Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there." At least, that hints that God's spirit can be found in nature, and once again suggests that differing worlds are not just either/or. Although critics have said that Gnostics just believed everything was evil, such a generalization wasn't that simple truth. Even with the Gnostics input, the why, but not the existence of evil, in both nature and humans, remains mysterious and unsolved.
"Rebirth" is the cover for the book The Hidden Messages of Jesus
Wouldn't it have been interesting if both the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas had been allowed in the Bible? At least, the issue of exclusiveness could have had a wider debate. Make no doubt about it, the decision to silence other gospels was political as one group decided for Christ other voices were false and heretical. The Gospel of Thomas, which was deemed heretical, clearly affirms belief in Christ but teaches God's spirit is in all of us as children of God, and Jesus in this gospel calls us to "bring it forth" through him. For those of us who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, as this gospel, but believe other religions can have validity, Thomas challenges those who believe the issue is clear cut.
E. What about their Myths?
Unfortunately, even the gnostic way of faith has been defined by some kind of pure mystical formula or bound by their unchangeable myths. With the writings of Gnostics before us, there are no mystical instructions or a set or sets of secret beliefs, that if one believes, makes one a Gnostic. However, there are for sure different myths!
Myths were a form of knowledge in their day, and they openly used them to explain both the spiritual and physical worlds. Clearly, there explanations were wrong. Yet most likely they would admit they were wrong today. Why? Unlike some who believe the myths today that creation happened in literally seven days, or our is a simple three storied universe (heaven, earth, hell), the Gnostics believed new knowledge could change beliefs and myths.
The major problem is that many still define them by their myths rather than their faith. It would be like dismissing Christianity years from now by saying Christians of our time were false because they believed the literal interpretation of Genesis was required to be Christian. What most don't understand is that their gnostic faith was deeper than their myths. The point is that their beliefs and myths were open to change, unlike the apostolic church who said their beliefs were literally "immovable."
In contrast, because the Gnostics didn't define their faith by what they believed, faith for them was what was constant. Faith was dynamic, vital, and foremost, a trust in the living Jesus, the one, often in their writings, they call "Lord and Savior." They then believed seeking that relationship (gnosis) with him involved knowledge (all kinds) that could change. Thus with all the amazing new knowledge becoming available to us today, the challenge isn't to believe what they believed, or for us to become Gnostics. What is exciting is they present a way of faith that allows today's new knowledge to inform our faith and Christianity without destroying it, and yet also lets us be honest and different as we choose to be Christian. Instead of those who have all the answers to everything, we become in more humble ways, those who are gnostic, or in more modern terminology, seekers of truth and God.
H. We are not all Good or all Bad
An interesting perspective on the problem of evil is presented in the Gospel of Philip. Of course, the antagonist wrote that the Gnostics were all bad, evil, and immoral--a tradition that continues for describing many people's "enemies" today. Or, the divide (often in religion) becomes "we are all right; all others are wrong!" Significantly, instead of the Western view of there being a cosmic battle and clear cut divide between good and evil, Philip's Gospel declares there is both good and evil in all of us. (We are neither all good nor all bad).
So it is extremely important we know ourselves--a theme called Self Knowledge, in Philip, and is also present in the Gospel of Thomas. Our condition is not all bad as some have argued. Therefore, we need to know what causes grief for ourselves and others, and to know what promotes love and wholeness. Instead of the good guys versus the bad guys, the challenge and key for ethics becomes focusing on what one loves. What we love may become who we are! Thus we need to evaluate for ourselves and others what we love. Hum! For those of us who don't believe in a personal devil, and or that evil is simply either/or, or morality is based on what one is told, this mix of values (both good and bad) is a refreshingly modern and helpful view.
A. New Gospels Supplement not Supplant Biblical Gospels
THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY could have been called "OTHER GOSPELS." They were probably not named so because it might imply they were an alternative to the New Testament books. To be clear, the argument here is that these new gospels supplement, not supplant, the biblical gospels. They do not negate the N.T. books, but certainly these books should be used to expand our knowledge of Christ and the early Christians. In so doing, they take us back beyond those who like Constantine wanted Christianity to be as only they believed, so they favored Jesus' disciples that best fit their beliefs. Now it is possible to learn from disciples like Mary Magdalene, Philip, and Thomas.
M. Do the Gnostics have the Right Knowledge of God in what the Church called their Secret Knowledge?
No! At this point, it needs to be reiterated that the Gnostics do not have all the answers. No one does in our crazy world. As science gets more complex, it is easy to revert to easy answers. Yet the truth is that new truths now make the world more complex and that leads to not to simple answers but more complex faith, negating one size fits all. They were seekers more than believers.
J. God the Father; God the Mother is a Phrase often Used
Gnostic Christians did not see God as male or female, but as androgynous, and even beyond, as Spirit. God is portrayed beyond our limited knowledge. In a very paradoxical hymn found in the collection of books, "The Thunder: Perfect Mind," a feminine voice from God declares, "I am the silence that is incomprehensible." The Gnostics were very supportive of women and saw them as equals. The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) makes it very clear that women were on an equal footing with the male apostles and supports their role as clergy.
Thus on a personal and practical note, as crazy as it sounds, "complex faith" is the reason I have faith. I don't have the answers and neither do you. It is exciting that I can be a Christian, think differently, but still know God accepts and loves me. My faith often seems like I am reliving the days of Galileo, but even more immensely, as we learn the size and evolution of the universe. Science is rattling my faith, but the gnostic way of Christianity allows me to hang in there and be open to change. Indeed, there is something within me that allows me to search for and love God, honestly and deeply. It is great to be inspired by the imagination and the free spirit of the Gnostics, these early Christians, who heard Jesus say and preach, to be his followers be -- "Seekers of Truth and God."
K. All is not simple in life in spite of the the plethora of simple answers.
The early church tried to give simple answers; the Gnostics protested. In the Gospel of Philip an interesting teaching says, "Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither are the good, good, nor the evil, evil, nor is life, life, death, death." The complexity of this verse is apparent, but it is a good example of the theme presented above that from the gnostic perspective, all is not simple! Life is a mystery, and so even more so by its complexity, arises the need, not for all its answers, but for faith.
Information and Remarks about the Gnostics
F. Did the Gnostics believe Jesus was real?
The Gnostics were often charged as not believing there was a physical world and that Jesus was only a mythical idea. However, the new gospels reveal the greater truth was that they believed the spiritual world to be more important than the temporary physical world. But that did not mean they did not believe the physical or material word wasn't real. Their vision was that the material world was not the only world in which we live, and Jesus was one who boldly gave witness that the spiritual world was also real and present for us. The Gnostics heavily stress the spiritual, but when they report Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene on the lips "many times," it is clear, for them, Jesus was a real person and not just a figment of the imagination. As to Jesus being both human and divine, The Treatise on the Resurrection, asks, in the Gnostic Gospels: "How did the Lord proclaim things while he existed in flesh and after he revealed himself as the Son of God? The answers is, "He embraced them both, possessing the humanity and the divinity." In other words, as with Jesus, the material world and the spiritual were not either/or, but "both/and." As persons, the choice isn't to believe or not believe, but to "awaken" to both realities in order for life to be whole.
B. The Jewish Canon was set; so it made sense to set the Christian Canon as well.
This canonization process gave authority and power for certain books over other books. In the case of the N.T., it is clear Jesus did not suggest that such a canon be established. Those with theological power did! Studies into how the N.T. Canon evolved is actually very complicated. (Recommended is the Teaching Companies' The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon by Bart Ehrman). Scholarship in this area will provide details why books like Revelation, Hebrews, and even the Gospel of John were fortunate to make the Canon. So why not the Gospel of Thomas?
D. Did the Gnostics claim exclusive truth for Christianity?
The early Orthodox, interestingly, who claimed the corner on all religious truth, charged that it was the Gnostics who were exclusive. By their "gnosis" (knowledge), the Orthodox explained the Gnostics believed they had "secret" and "special" knowledge about God. In other words, it was a different teaching than the Orthodox, and that made their gnosis, not only "erroneous," but somehow to appear to be the only truth. Yes, the Gnostics used the term gnosis but shockingly not in the way always assumed.
First, gnosis meant knowing Christ as in a relationship; this was the primary use of the term for the Gnostics. Secondly, gnosis could be recognized as "knowledge" in the traditional sense, but in this sense, also new knowledge was acceptable and important. Why? As the Gospel of Philip shares, this kind of knowledge helps "to grow one's faith."
L. Do the Gnostics teach just Believe Anything?
Certainly the charge will be made that gnostic or seeking Christians just believe "anything." No, lets argue, but in love. Even their beliefs and myths should be argued. Gnostic Christians don't believe several of the traditional beliefs, but they do believe even that which they believe or believed should be questioned. Gnostic beliefs and myths should not be set in stone and made absolute. They would argue no one in religion should believe only they know the truth as to believe that we know it "absolutely" makes us little "gods."
So when can we ever accept that we are going to have different beliefs? In this sense, gnosis as meaning knowledge and new knowledge is essential and beautiful. New knowledge, however, often takes time to settle "in" over our emotions, and our claim to believe --"no matter what, this is what we or I believe." In fact, new studies, such as Mario Livio's book, Brilliant Blunders, shows that even some of the world smartest can get so locked in what they believe, that their emotion kept them from believing something "different" when proven clearly wrong.
Of course, that wouldn't happen in religious circles. Ha! But eventually knowledge, and especially new knowledge, the gnostics would say, is that which keeps us from just believing anything. It is not wrong to believe, but to say one cannot change what one believes, is the true road to the blindness. So, importantly, the Gnostics believed Christ's intention was a more spiritual path or quest using knowledge (gnosis was a beautiful door); yet there are different paths to "the way" of Christ, not just "one."
The charge that the Gnostics were those who said "just believe anything" is often a charge that makes it easy to write these Christians "off." It is more complicated than than that. Yet Gnostic Christians believe deeply in Christ and believe God will judge us by our love, not our beliefs. Further, belonging to a church may be helpful, and encouraged, but not essential for God's grace--acceptance of us! (The Gnostics would say "praise the Lord" for those churches that agree -- many churches do today). Interestingly, they wanted to be a part of the church, but the church didn't want them. Perhaps, there is a lesson for churches. Clearly, churches have the right to their beliefs. Yet to lock out those who differ is to miss a teaching of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas declares, "Jesus said, the kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you." God's spirit is not the sole property of anyone (one person or one church). Yes, we can have our beliefs, but by our limitation of all knowledge, we are all seekers of God.
C. The Gospel of Thomas has 79 verses similar or nearly exact as those in the Bible.
Yet it was excluded. Why?
Elaine Pagels in her book Beyond Belief has a profound chapter on how the Gospel of John's emphasis on "Jesus alone," (or Jesus as the only way to God), helped to exclude the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas' theology taught that God's Spirit was not just in Jesus, but available as Jesus promised, to all of us.
Although having many verses of those in the Bible, and written near the same time as other gospels, the Orthodox who chose the canon sided with the theology of "Jesus alone," and so it was chosen for the canon. It made Jesus exclusive; meaning "believing" in him was the only way to know God, making all other ways and religions false. Thomas' gospel did not.