ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHY AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF CHRISTIANITY by DR ANDREW THEOPHANOUS IN MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA


CONTINUED FROM 19/05/06 ARTICLE

In his recent popular study, The American Religion, Harold Bloom suggests a second characteristic of Gnosticism that might help us conceptually circumscribe its mysterious heart. Gnosticism, says Bloom, "is a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the self, and [this] knowledge leads to freedom…."9 Primary among all the revelatory perceptions a Gnostic might reach was the profound awakening that came with knowledge that something within him was uncreated.

The Gnostics called this "uncreated self" the divine seed, the pearl, the spark of knowing: consciousness, intelligence, light. And this seed of intellect was the self-same substance of God, it was man’s authentic reality; it was the glory of humankind and the divine alike. If woman or man truly came to gnosis of this spark, she understood that she was truly free: Not contingent, not a conception of sin, not a flawed crust of flesh, but the stuff of God, and the conduit of God’s immanent realization[1].  

The One Supreme God, the Father

 

There is no doubt that Gnostics gave a major role to the doctrine of the One Supreme Being, as developed by Parmenides and Plato. In particular, from Parmenides they took the view that very little can be said or can be understood by the human mind about  the essence of God, the One. The One Divine Being was absolute, indescribable and in some ways incomprehensible.

 

 The Gnostics adopted the term The Father to represent this original Divine source of the all things – as a recognition of Christ’s teaching and the  use of the term  My Father in the gospels and in the writings of St Paul.   However they emphasized those aspects of the gospel writings in which the description of God  the Father was closest to the conception of Plato himself in the dialogues and especially in Timaeus. Here the One God had been identified as the source of the Divine mind – the Logos-  in which the Ideas or Forms were eternally existent. This Platonic concept of the One God had, as we have seen, been drawn from Parmenides.

 

However, the Gnostics noted that, if one accepts this transcendent concept of God as the One, as a Being not in any way affected by  space and time, an immediate question arises (which had arisen for Parmenides  and Plato as well) : what is the relationship between this transcendent God and the existent  universe – which includes man? As one might expect from the nature of philosophical understanding, there were differences amongst the Gnostics answer to this question. Nevertheless there are some things that we can say about the overall beliefs of most of the Gnostics:

(i)  Wisdom, the Logos and the goddess Sophia

Like Parmenides, the Gnostics believed that this Supreme God had a direct relationship to wisdom Sophia and to the Logos through which God manifested this wisdom. In similar terms to the ancient Greeks, they conceived of this Sophia Figure as a goddess. Thus the realm of Pure Wisdom, the Great Sophia, which contained the pure Forms or ideas  as  conceived by Plato, existed in a Divine realm which was associated with God the Father. Their understanding of  the Introduction to the Gospel of St John that I have referred to was that the Great Sophia manifested itself through the Word or Logos to the human soul. Most  Gnostics writings identified the Logos with the Person of Christ, as St John had done. This doctrine was, of course adopted in traditional Christianity; the Logos being  identified with Jesus Christ himself.

 

But, like Parmenides, the Gnostics did not believe that human beings could know the Great Sophia, the wisdom of God. Rather they believed that man could only know the fallen Sophia. Unlike in Plato, not even the wisest person could fully know the Divine Ideas.

 

This characterization of Wisdom as a goddess was not only a concept in Greek culture. It also occurs in the Judaic tradition of the Old Testament in the Book of Wisdom. This Divine or Pure Sophia comes to manifest herself in the world. In order to understand how and why this happen, we must first understand the way the Gnostics saw the human being and especially the life on earth which the human soul and spirit are forced into.

(i) Suffering and the Miserable Situation of Man

The Gnostics,  like the modern Existentialists, saw  the situation in which man found himself in this world as tragic.  To them, the human soul – which was divine as in Plato- found itself trapped in a weak, long suffering body, subject to all sorts of external events of fate and nature, struggling to make sense of its own existence and then apparently destroyed by physical death.  This “tragic situation” was conceived by Gnostics, not as a glorious existence at all,  but as some kind of terrible punishment. As Edward Moore states:

The human being who identifies him/herself with the objectively existing world comes to construct a personality, a sense of self, that is, at base, fully dependent upon the ever-changing structures of temporal existence. The resulting lack of any sense of permanence, of autonomy, leads such an individual to experience anxieties of all kinds, and eventually to shun the mysterious and collectively meaningful patterns of human existence in favor of a private and stifling subjective context, in the confines of which life plays itself out in the absence of any reference to a greater plan or scheme. Hopelessness, atheism, despair, are the results of such an existence[2].

 

Of course this is very similar to the Jewish concept of man as the fallen one – as a miserable being condemned to punishment by God from the beginning and destined to suffer in this material world. Having been banished from the garden of Eden, and as the bearer of the original sin of Adam and Eve, man was condemned from the outset.

 

However the Gnostics did not accept the  view that man was responsible for original sin and thus deserved his fate and suffering. Rather the Gnostics  raised a very important question here: How could a just and good God rationally agree to subject the human soul to such punishment?  Or putting it in Platonic terms,  if human beings are like the people  trapped in the cave, and unable to perceive the real life because of  the shadows, why had the Good God created a situation like this? why are we fact trapped like the people in the cave in a world of appearances in which we suffer all kinds of torments?

       1] Quoted from An Introduction to Gnosticism at Gnostic Society Library on the Internet 

[2]  See Edward Moore op cit p 3.

(iii) The Aeons and the Inferior personal god

Whether one believes in the Garden of Eden metaphor or not, reason tells us, say the Gnostics, that it could no have been the Supreme Being, God the Father, who had subjected man to this situation.  Rather it must have been another Lesser god,  who had placed humanity in this position.  Furthermore  human soul”s ability to express its Free Will in the world was not a sin, but a gift. It actually allowed man to express the divine spark within himself, thereby bringing him closer to God.

 

 In order to understand this situation, Valentinus postulated-  along with the our several of the other Gnostic thinkers – that there existed in the universe, between the Supreme Divine God  the Father and humanity, several other spiritual beings which he called the Aeons.  The existence of such beings was also of course foreshadowed in  Greek philosophy and in other religious systems, including the Jewish Old Testament, which refers  to such beings as the Angels.  However Valentinus  believed that the Jewish conception was inadequate and that some of these beings had much greater status and power than that attributed to angels.

 

The most important of these Beings  was the Lesser God described by Valentinus as the Demiurge, who created the material world, including the human body. This Lesser God, according to many of the Gnostics, came from the interaction between God the Father and the Divine Sophia or Wisdom.

The Gnostics  believed that, because of its corruptible nature, the material world – including the body of man- was the source of all evil in the Universe. It is for this reason that they emphasized the suffering of man as a physical being. Man’s inability to control what the material world of nature may do ( as well as how other people in their material form may behave) leads to even further angst and frustration. ( This is similar to the modern Existentialist philosophers like Sartre).

 

However the Gnostics disagreed amongst themselves about the nature of this Lesser God. A minority- who were the most radical of the Gnostics, such as Marcion – adopted the theory of the so called Jewish Gnostics. These latter had turned the Genesis story on its head. On this view, the Lesser God had indeed imposed this punishment on man for seeking Free will and thew knowledge of good and evil.  However they took the view that this work of the Personal Lesser God was not correctly  set out in the Book of Genesis; it was in fact an evil act to punish humanity so. The famous scholar, Elaine Pagels, explains this so: 

Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual reading of Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while "the Lord" threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it[1].

Thus some of the Gnostics described the Lesser God as an Evil Being, who had placed man in this miserable situation. Of course this idea of the Lesser god, or all powerful angel, who manifests himself as evil,  was adopted and amended in Christianity after the Council of Nycaea.   I refer here to the idea  of the Devil or Satan who, although he had some minor role in the Old Testament, is given a  dramatically upgraded  role after 325 AD.  Some have argued that the concept of the Devil arose from Persian theology; whether this is true or not, it appears that the Devil figure came to be identified with a Being very similar to that which had been proposed by Marcion and his followers. 

 

However there was one fundamental difference.  The Post Nycaea  Christians did not wish to accept the doctrine that the bodily creation of man had been done by an evil god. Rather they argued that, once man had been created, he was constantly tempted by the Devil. This Devil figure with God like powers, participates in the world events – sometimes quite dramatically causing unnecessary suffering and destruction. (see Schema 6). This was the traditional fathers’ answer to the fundamental problem which had been raised, namely, how can a good God allow for so much unnecessary suffering and evil in the world? 

 

It should be noted that Plato, in postulating the idea of  intermediate beings between the One Divine God and humanity,  had not put forward the idea of a purely evil Being such as the Devil. This idea is much more in tune with Persian Philosophy than Greek Philosophy.

 

Much closer to Plato’s view was  Valentinus’ conception of the Lesser  god. He was not by nature evil. Rather he was, like all personal beings, subject of both anger  and compassion, capable of both good and evil.  He could be a jealous god as in the Old Testament, or he could be a compassionate god. Thus he could invoke terrible punishments on sections of humanity – as is shown in the Old Testament on numerous occasions. For example,  in Amos 8.9f it states:

On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.  I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloff on all loins,  and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of  a bitter day[2].

 

Valentinus believed that this personal god, who created the physical world, was not the source of the whole universe, but only of matter.  Being the creator of matter, which the Gnostics believed  to be the fundamental source of evil in the human world, he was responsible for the entrapment of the  human soul – the Divine spark – in the physical body and in all the enormous sufferings created there from.

 

However, once he himself had been created, the Lesser god effectively had no choice but to create the physical world and put man into it. For this was the only way in which the human soul – through the action of its own Free Will  – could achieve reunion with the Father, the Supreme Being from which it had come.  Mysticism and philosophical understanding were matters for each individual to pursue through his own Free Will. 


[1] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels,  Vintage Books. 1979

 

 

[2] Quoted in GOD op cit p 184

 

 


 

to be continued

 

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