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Tried to figure out Gnostisism...





spinout
An associate at the customer office said he was a gnosticer.
So I have tried wackypedia and other but can't get a grip of the term gnosticism.
Is there any summarized data available?
deanhills
I checked through some of the links on gnosticism with Google. The link below seems to have provided the best and shortest overview of what gnosticism is - although I can imagine there has to be different interpretations depending from what vantage point you are looking at it.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/gnostic.htm
Snowwellz
I commend you on the subject just to let others know.
Indi
There are two unrelated definitions of "gnosticism".

Gnosticism with a big 'G' is a collection of ancient Greek religious philosophies that have been mixed-and-matched into a bunch of different religious traditions - most famously Christianity. Gnosticism isn't a religion by itself - it's a way of interpreting other religious ideas. A lot of Christian philosophy is heavily influenced by Gnosticism, so it's hard to say where Gnosticism ends and Christianity begins. (On the other hand, there were many things the Gnostics claimed that were heretical to early Christianity.) Gnosticism was revived as a bit of a fad at the end of the 19th century, and it's still around today.

The other definition - with a small 'g' - is simply the opposite of "agnostic". An agnostic is someone who thinks that something cannot be known for certain - usually that "a god or gods do/don't exist". A gnostic is someone who thinks it can be known for certain... though they may not yet know themselves. (For example, an agnostic engineer might think that we will never be able to know whether screws with square heads or hex heads can be tightened more. A gnostic engineer might think we can know - we just need to do some experiments - though ze doesn't know what the answer will be yet.)

(Because of the confusion between Gnostics and gnostics, some people - myself included - prefer to say the opposite of "agnostic" as "non-agnostic". It's more of a mouthful, but it avoids confusion.)

So which term are you interested in? Big-'G' Gnosticism, or little-'g' gnosticism?
spinout
The big G style...
Indi
I'm going to break this up into 4 parts: the philosophy of Gnosticism, the beliefs of Gnosticism, the practice of Gnosticism, then a little bit of the history. At the end I'll do a very quick tl;dr summary.

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Alright, Gnosticism is not a religion itself, but rather a category of religious beliefs. You can have Gnostic forms of many different religions, but the most commonly associated is Christianity.

Christianity was heavily influenced by Gnosticism... or, possibly, Gnosticism was an offspring of some forms of early Christianity. We don't know exactly how things unfolded in the earliest days of Christianity, because the early writers suppressed so much and outright lied about the rest. There were probably many versions of early Christianity that were very Gnostic. Modern Christianity, as we know it today, is fairly Gnostic (in theory, not really in practice). A lot of the teachings of Jesus are very Gnostic-sounding.

The core idea in Gnosticism is that there is a strict separation between the "worldly", and the "spiritual". For example, Heaven is not a place on Earth, it is "somewhere else" - outside of the physical universe. That sounds like the "normal" Christian belief about Heaven, right? Exactly, that's because Christianity is already very Gnostic.

But if you go back to ancient religions, and perhaps even the earliest forms of Christianity, it was very different. People believed the gods were actually living right here on Earth - up on Mount Olympus, which is an actual mountain in Greece. The Garden of Eden, too, was a place "somewhere" on Earth, that you could actually travel to if you knew the direction. And even when they didn't believe the gods were actual physical being strutting around Earth, they believed the gods existed in the same universe as is, just in a different place. For example, ancient Jews believed that Heaven was a place in the sky, above the "firmament", and you could literally rise up into it, like Elijah did. Gnosticism introduced the idea that the spiritual world was another world completely - one that is on a different plane of reality.

But along with the idea that the spiritual world was another world entirely, Gnosticism introduced the idea that the spiritual world was unencumbered by the shortcomings of the physical universe - like pain, and decay, and irrationality, and filth, and hardship, and sex. The spiritual world is eternal, logical, and perfect - everything in perfect order and harmony - nothing ever decays, nothing ever dies, nothing is subject to the limitations of physical bodies (so they don't get hungry or horny).

That's why God has to exist in the spirit world. God can't exist in the material world - because then he would be imperfect.

But it's not just that God exists in the spirit realm because the spirit realm is perfect. The spirit realm is perfect because of God. God is the source of everything perfect - he is the one who brings wisdom, order and perfection to the universe. He is not just the source of these things, he is these things: God is not just the source of wisdom, God is wisdom; God is not just the source of order, God is order.

That's why if you read the opening words of The Gospel of John, it says:

John 1:1 (KJV) wrote:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The "word" is the will that brings order and wisdom to the universe. The actual Greek word that "Word" in that passage is translated from is "logos" (λόγος) - the same word that "logic" comes from. The passage is saying that order and wisdom aren't only things that God has... God is order and wisdom.

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So all of that is the philosophical basis for Gnosticism (applied to Christianity). Here's how it applies to the actual story.

In the beginning there was only God and the spiritual realm he defined/created. So everything was perfect, and eternal, and good.

In traditional Gnosticism, another being comes along: the Demiurge. The Demiurge is what creates the physical universe - the word "demiurge" comes from the ancient Greek term for "craftsman". In some systems, the Demiurge is good, but imperfect... in others it is outright evil. In either case, the reason the physical universe is imperfect, and suffering exists in it, is because the Demiurge either ****** up, or was malicious.

Of course, that can't work in standard Christianity. It would be heretical to say that Satan created the universe. Nevertheless, there were forms of Christianity that did say that. One of my favourites was Marcionism, where there were actually two gods in the Bible: the god of the Old Testament was the Demiurge, and that god was brutal, capricious, and outright insane... the god of the New Testament was the true god, who laid the hammer down on the false god, and sent Jesus down to save the world from its mad creator.

Standard Christianity just sort of fudges this part of Gnosticism, and says that God did create the physical world... even though it is obviously imperfect, so the perfect god created an imperfect world for <mumble><mumble> reasons. Satan is not actually associated with the Demiurge - in fact, the whole idea of the Demiurge is just forgotten - though he does nevertheless play many of the roles that the Demiurge plays. In a way, Satan is still the Demiurge - he just doesn't create the universe, he only creates the evil in the otherwise perfect universe God created.

So in traditional Gnosticism, the perfect god lives in the perfect spiritual world... then the Demiurge creates the physical world which is imperfect and evil and has suffering... so the perfect god sends a saviour down to rescue the poor, suffering beings in the imperfect world... the Demiurge tries to prevent that, and "succeeds" in the lower, physical sense in destroying the saviour... but the saviour's message has been delivered, for those who are able to rise above the grip of the material world and hear and understand it.

In Christianity... it's almost identical, right? The differences are that there is no Demiurge (because Satan can't have created the universe), and that the Savior - Jesus - actually becomes lowly human flesh (pure Gnosticism would say that can't be right - Jesus would have to remain pure and spiritual, or he couldn't be divine). But broadly speaking, the standard Christian narrative, and the way it's interpreted, is very much in line with Gnosticism.

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Alright, so the first part was a very rough gloss over Gnostic philosophy, the second part was a rough gloss over the Gnostic "story". Now let's look at what Gnostics actually believe.

Gnostics believe that the spiritual universe is a "higher" plane of existence - totally outside of the physical universe and unencumbered by its shortcomings. The universe we live in is an imperfect universe (because it has suffering), and we want to transcend it to get into the higher universe. If we don't escape this universe, we will suffer the fate of everything else in it: death, decay, oblivion (and, in standard Christianity, punishment in eternal flame).

The saviour has opened the door for us to get into the higher universe, so we have a chance. But to be able to take that chance, we have to cast off the shackles of the physical world, and bring ourselves closer to the Divine.

That means rising above material wealth. Ideally, you give all your material wealth away, and live like a monk. If you are being weighed down by material possessions, you can't possibly elevate yourself spiritually to the point where you have moved beyond your physical existence.

That also means giving up physical pleasures, like good food and sex. A good Gnostic eats only to survive, not for pleasure. And sex is only an act performed for procreation, not for pleasure, and only under ritual conditions (in Christianity, after marriage).

Note that Gnosticism doesn't say you can't have any pleasure! There's a subtle difference: You can't have sex for fun, but you can have sex for procreation and enjoy it. Same with eating - you can't eat excessively or luxuriously for pleasure, but you have to eat to survive, and there's no reason you can't eat just what you need to survive and enjoy it.

A lot of this all sounds like pretty standard Christian teaching, and it is (even if not all Christians follow it). But where Gnosticism really deviates from standard Christian teaching is that Gnosticism rejects faith. The reasoning is that any idiot can turn their brain off and just "believe" whatever they need to believe to get into Heaven, and that's just not good enough. Gnostics believe that the way to Heaven is through wisdom, knowledge and understanding. What you're supposed to do is not just blindly accept whatever your local preacher says Jesus said or Jesus meant. You're supposed to study the teachings of Jesus yourself, and find the truth in them using your own wisdom. And not just the teachings of Jesus - you're supposed to study in general, grow your knowledge and wisdom, because God/Jesus is wisdom... by attaining wisdom, you grow closer to God.

So a true Gnostic is a person who tries to rise above the physical world - to rise above suffering and carnal pleasures - and tries to grow their wisdom and knowledge (by studying the teachings of the Saviour) to transcend the dumb matter of the physical universe, and grow closer to the ultimate source of wisdom and logic, wich is the Divine - aka, God.

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So first we covered Gnostic philosophy, then Gnostic religious narrative, then Gnostic practice. Now it's time for some brief history.

We're not exactly sure where Gnosticism came from. Historically, scholars believed Gnosticism was part of ancient Greek thought, and Christians adopted it. But in modern scholarship, there is also strong evidence that Christianity more or less invented Gnosticism in its early days, as part of the struggles between the different factions of the early Church. Then they probably back-dated it to make it sound more wise and insightful (the same way they tried to back-date all the stories they were coming up with about Jesus and the apostles).

So the only thing we can say for sure is that Gnosticism was a big part of early Christianity. It was very popular. The early founders fought viciously over it, calling some parts of it heresy, and incorporating other parts. In the end, the Christianity that emerged is one that is heavily influenced by Gnostic thought (the Gospel of John is a flagrantly Gnostic text), but one that rejects key parts of it.

After Christianity was standardized in the 4th century, Gnosticism more or less died off. It wasn't really "forgotten" - Christian thinkers knew all about it (more or less), and often commented on it over the ages. There were even sporadic attempts to create Gnostic sects over the centuries, but nothing took hold.

But in the 19th century Gnosticism became fashionable. This was likely because the Enlightenment and the relentless march of science were squeezing out religion mercilessly, and forcing believers to retreat into positions that were increasingly daft and irrational in order to defend their faith. The thinkers of the time probably saw the idea of "faith by learning" as a wonderful idea - a way to keep of the act of being learned and wise people, yet still cling to their old superstitious religions.

It became big again in the 1960s. At the time, huge amounts of new information about the Gnostic beliefs and history were just being uncovered, so it was hot news. And it fit really well with the 1960s aesthetic about "opening your mind" to "higher levels of consciousness".

And it's still around today, more or less, though it's kind of a niche thing. My friend Anna actually called it "hipster", which i found quite apt.

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So here's the tl;dr:

Gnosticism is a general category of beliefs and ways of interpreting religious ideas that can be applied to numerous religions, but is usually associated with Christianity.

Gnosticism generally says there are two levels in the universe - the lower, imperfect physical universe, and then a higher, perfect spiritual universe. The physical universe has suffering, decay, and irrationality, while the spiritual universe is eternal, orderly, and perfect. It is God, the supreme being who gives the spiritual universe this perfection. God sent a Saviour to help those of us trapped in the lower universe - and though the Saviour was hampered by the Demiurge, the Saviour did succeed in leaving us with the teachings we need to reach up to the divine spiritual world. We must try to escape the clutches of this lower world by studying those teachings, and expanding our wisdom, to get closer to God.

Gnosticism is practised by trying to escape from the shackles of the physical world, and get closer to the Divine by studying - especially studying the teachings of the Saviour - and growing your wisdom and knowledge. Specifically, you cannot escape the physical universe just by "believing" in God or the Saviour. You must escape the tyranny of the flesh, and expand your mind to get closer to God.

Gnosticism is very old, but it's a bit of a fad. It's "cool" because it rejects the mindless faith most modern religions push, and makes wisdom a virtue.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to it... there's all the crap about aeons and archons, for example (spoiler alert: they're basically angels and demons), and Sophia (which is either Lucifer or Jesus, depending on your interpretation). But that's the general gist of it.
spinout
OK - good penworking.
Hm, so the big difference, besides where the gods live, is that gnostisim is a mono-theism? (or dual-theism with the demiurge... but that was not on the same plane, so per plane monotheism). A perhaps greek rebellion group from the common polytheism?
Indi
In the early days of Christianity, there were dozens and dozens of branches. These were eventually all rounded up, stomped down, and eradicated, leaving us with the "standard" form of Catholicism. (And of course, that later branched out again into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy after the Great Schism, etc. etc..) These early sects had beliefs we would find "weird" today: For example there were some influential sects for whom the saviour was John the Baptist, not Jesus. In fact, the Jesus sects actually went out of their way to make the point that John was not the saviour - there is a story in the Gospels about John meeting Jesus, and saying that Jesus is the actual saviour, just to stick it to the John-worshippers. (Imagine if they'd become the dominant group, and not the Jesus-worshippers. Today we'd have people walking around with little serving platters around their necks instead of crosses.) There were even sects that worshipped Peter, and Mary.

There were some branches that were explicitly polytheistic. Some had God and Satan as a pair of gods - with God being slightly more powerful. Others had God 1.0 and God 2.0 - that is, the god of the Old Testament was the Demiurge, while the god of the New Testament was the true god. These were actually very popular and widespread "heresies" that got a lot of heads chopped off.

Those forms were all Gnostic, and they were all polytheistic.

However, the form of Christianity that won out in the end is STRICTLY monotheistic... even to the point of absurdity (for example, claiming that Jesus and God are one, so God couldn't forgive us our sins until God left God to come live with us, then God tortured God, and forgave God for torturning God, and returned to God). This form of Christianity usually doesn't claim to be Gnostic (and in fact, once considered Gnosticism to be a heresy).

But some people do claim to believe Gnostic forms of contemporary Christianity. Unfortunately, this is the limit of my expertise: I honestly can't tell you how they square it all. Gnosticism seems to require at least two gods - the true God and the Demiurge - but saying the devil is a god is supposed to be heretical.

So, actually, i would say that Gnosticism is not monotheistic. It's polytheistic. You can't even use the escape hatch by saying the Demiurge is on a different plane of existence, because a) the true God is supposed to encompass all existence, and b) the Demiurge is what created the universe, so it has to exist in some form here.

That would be the big difference between Gnosticism and modern Christianity: that God didn't create the universe, the Demiurge/Satan - who was also a god, though an insane, lesser powered one - did. God just stepped in later, via sending Jesus, to save us poor souls who were suffering on the Demiurge's twisted creation.

(The thing about having different planes of existence - a lower, imperfect plane, and an upper, spiritual, perfect plane that can only be reached through the Saviour - that's actually very much in line with modern Christianity.)

Somehow - in a way i don't understand - some people have found a way to make Gnosticism work with modern, monotheistic Christianity. You'll have to ask a modern Gnostic how they manage that. If you find out the logic, please share it here.

(My opinion is that Gnostic forms of Christianity were always the "smarter" versions of Christianity - pushed by smarter people back in the earliest days of Christianity, but ultimately overruled because the dummies outnumbered the smart people. Nevertheless, several of the really smart ideas did get adopted into the dumber versions, making them slightly less dumb. But of course, there were still some key things that the stubborn dummies just didn't want to cave on: like that there can ONLY be ONE god... EVER... under no circumstances can there be any other gods. So while modern Christianity does have many Gnostic features, there are a few key points that prevent them from being totally compatible. So anyone who says they're a modern-day Gnostic Christian is either not really Gnostic, or not really Christian, or both (in that whatever they call "Gnostic" or "Christian" would have to be a very idiosyncratic thing).)
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