Wednesday, 14 September 2011

I am not a Gnostic

Today a kind friend in the States emailed me an unusual document, a set of Christian liturgical texts dating from between 100 and 200 AD. Actually we would increasingly say “100 and 200 CE”, “CE” being an abbreviation going back several centuries and meaning either “Common Era” or “Christian Era” but now, as Wikipedia puts it “Since the later 20th century…popularised in academic and scientific publications, and more generally by publishers emphasising secularism or sensitivity to non-Christians”.

These psalm-like pieces (42 in number, although the second has never been found) were discovered by a scholar in an old manuscript he had lying around in the early 20th century and are known as “The Odes of Solomon”, although they have nothing to do with that ancient king. Some have seen in them traces of the several heresies, known collectively as Gnosticism, that were such a plague to Saint Paul in the early days of the Christian Church. In fact there is little trace of gnostic belief in the texts, which generally seem quite orthodox and in line with the teachings of St John set out in the New Testament. Why am I telling you this? Well, one comment I read suggested that the Odes are not gnostic but could be considered gnosistic, a word whose meaning I have tried in vain to find. The definition search however brought up a link to this blog, written by an Anglican priest who—as it happens—has just left the parish in which we live and who is a scholar of Syriac. I found the article featured very interesting in view of our frequent, post-9/11, perception of Islam as the religion of gun-toting fundamentalist fanatics. In short, I felt rebuked for those times when I have been blinkered in my perceptions.

I then turned my mind to the hydra that is Gnosticism and did a bit more reading, trying to find out why the Church has taken such a hostile view of it over the centuries. I think the essence of difference lies in two main beliefs of Gnosticism: that salvation is a form of esoteric enlightenment attainable through a range of practices and that the physical world is the creation of a lesser deity and to be viewed with suspicion, if not with contempt. The first does not seem to me to fit with the Jesus I find in the New Testament, whose teaching was for all, the learned and the simple alike, and whose ministry was hostile to esoteric forms of spirituality reserved to a privileged few. The second is an example of dualism, which I believe to be alien to an integrated understanding of ourselves as psycho-physical beings and to be the fruit of the mind dissociating itself from the body.

Gnostics still exist, although they dropped off the map for a few centuries. I am not tempted to join them. A wise friend, concerned for my welfare, once cautioned me at a particularly unhappy time of my life against returning to Christian faith, saying that religion was “wrapping paper” imposed on reality; “nasty wrapping paper” to be specific. I respect this view more than I can easily express and still use the “wrapping paper test” when it seems that a concocted scheme might be obscuring reality. The notion of wrapping paper however presupposes a gift and I have to say that Christianity still appears to me to give the best chance to us of meeting the Giver. Religion is dead; faith is a different matter.

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