Over the last several decades… all things Gnostic have enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance. Triggered by a series of Archaeological discoveries in the 1940s, inspired by the works of Dr. Carl G Jung and popularized by such disparate figures as Philip K Dick, Lana & Andy Wachowski and even the incomparable underground cartoonist, R Crumb… Gnosticism has captivated an increasingly significant segment of public awareness. It appears that our modern, technologically connected… post-religious world is pre-disposed for the cosmological and philosophic sensibilities of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism (from Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “learned”, from γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge) is a contemporary term used to describe numerous Biblical era mystery schools and/or religious orders’ cosmological understandings. Most of what we know today about Gnosticism was uncovered in the waning years of World War II, in a collection of papyrus codices, known as the Nag Hammadi library. This collection of Gnostic texts was discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, by a local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman, in 1945.
Contemporary Gnostic Bishop, Stephan A. Hoeller (Tau Stephanus) succinctly defined Gnosticism as a teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means.
Rising on the tide of public interest, Gnostic philosophic ideas have increasingly infected contemporary pop media. In the 1999 film “The Matrix” by the Wachowskis, a black-clad computer hacker known as Neo falls asleep in front of his computer. As Neo stirs from his slumber, a mysterious message appears on the screen: “Wake up, Neo.” This succinct phrase encapsulates the plot of the film… Neo struggles with the problem of being imprisoned in a “material world” …that is actually a computer simulation program created in the distant future by an omnipresent Artificial Intelligence (read: Demiurge). Within a martial arts/action genre, the film brilliantly depicts the Gnostic perspective that the fundamental problem which humanity faces is ignorance… and the solution is knowledge or awakening.
The ancient Gnostics of biblical times held certain “novel” and unorthodox religious beliefs that set them heretically apart from the early Church…
Unlike most early Christian sects, which taught that humanity, via “original sin” was essentially flawed and responsible for human suffering… the Gnostics maintained that the material world was flawed specifically because it was created by a flawed creator deity. “God be Crazy.” Thereby the Gnostics placed responsibility for all the horror and suffering of the material world, squarely on the shoulders of the creator God of the Old Testament, Jehovah. Humans were not only innocent of the corrupt nature of the world… not only free of original sin… they held within them, a divine spark of the true, transcendent, unknowable Godhead… which really ticked Jehovah off!
Gnostics referred to Jehovah as the flawed creator deity: The Demiurge. The word “demiurge” is an English word from a Latinized form of the Greek δημιουργός, dēmiourgos, literally “public worker” and which was originally a common noun meaning “craftsman” or “artisan.” The Gnostic Demiurge is by no means exclusively good… but is rather portrayed as a bungling and incompetent cosmic fool that creates the world as a spiritual prison. Gnosticism also maintains a distinction between the highest, unknowable “Godhead” and the subordinate “creator” of the material world… the Demiurge. In fact, some systems of Gnostic thought present the Demiurge as antagonistic to the will of the Supreme unknowable Godhead… this sort of Demiurge focus’ solely on material reality and on the “sensuous soul.”
Within certain Gnostic systems, the Demiurge is a mythological way to understand the problem of evil, differing sharply from Christianity, which sees Creation as originally good, but corrupted by subsequently created malevolent beings (such as the alleged Devil). In the Apocryphon of John (from the Nag Hammadi library), the Demiurge is given the name “Yaldabaoth”. Through arrogance born of stupidity, he proclaims himself as God:
“Now the archon who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaldabaoth, the second is Saklas, and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.”
One such Roman era Gnostic sect, named after the biblical Noah’s third son, Seth… have been referred to as “Sethians.” The Sethian mythology portrayed the Demiurge as an ignorant bumbling creator at best. In the Sethian school, the Demiurge is a hostile demonic force who creates the material world in order to trap the spiritual elements. The Sethian cosmology emphasized the dualistic relationship between the individual human spirit and the unknowable Godhead. Their redemptive path to reunification with Godhead was by means of gnosis or knowledge, bypassing the Demiurgic manifested world. From Giovanni Filoramo 1990:
“The image of Demiurge usually portrayed in the Sethian texts is negative. Apart from anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemic there are some internal reasons for this, specifically the function of the psychic (soul) element represented by the Demiurge. This element is not, as for Valentinians and other Christian Gnostics, the seat of free will, but a moment (that of animation) in the hylic (material) dimension and, like it, destined to perdition. This is the radical difference from the Valentinian Demiurge, the latter being a representative of the psychic element that is also called upon to participate in the work of salvation. Devoid of scarifying characteristics, Ptolemy’s Demiurge is simply the Creator of the Seven Heavens, who lives above them.”
However, the Demiurge in the Valentinian school, is quite different in character from the hostile creator figure familiar from other schools of Gnosticism. In contrast, Valentinians “show a relatively positive attitude towards the craftsman of the world or god of Israel” (Layton 1987). Valentinians insisted that while the Demiurge may be a bit confused or foolish, he certainly could not be considered evil. Instead, he has a role to play in the process of redemption.
“Unlike the Sethians who taught a dualism between matter and spirit, the Valentinians taught that the structure of the universe is tripartite. In their view, the cosmos consists of three distinct components: spirit (pneuma), soul (psyche) and matter (hyle). This tripartite division is also applied to human beings. Every human being is said to consist of three components: a material body, an animating soul, and a spirit. According to the Valentinian creation myth, this tripartite structure has its origins in the fall and redemption of the divine emanation (Aeon) Sophia or “Wisdom”. They told a myth of her (Sophia’s) fall and redemption which has three distinct phases or stages. In each stage of the myth, one of the three primary substances was created.”
– David Brons (from http://www.gnosis.org)
So it is that various schools of Gnostic thought viewed the Demiurge very differently. Some sects… such as the Sethians, viewed the Demiurge with contempt… as a blind, hostile and jealous god that was intrinsically evil. Sethians relied on personal experience and inquisitive inquiry into the nature of man and religion, rather than fate and mysterious ways. While other sects, such as the Valentinians, saw the Demiurge as inherently good. Like Plato, the Valentinians thought that the term Demiurge implied a demigod with a blind but benevolent urge to bring the unmanifest into manifestation… a creative intermediary between the material world and Godhead, or “that which shall remain nameless.”
The question becomes… is the mythic creator, the Demiurge… intrinsically good or inherently evil? Is the “Architect” of the material world to be considered a good guy or a bad guy? Is one Gnostic interpretation correct and the other not? Is one truth and the other delusion? Is the dualistic Demiurgic mythology, as outlined above, to be compared to the Yin/Yang system of the East? …to the binary on/off system of the West? Like the modern computer hacker mythology, does the Demiurge wear a black hat… or a white hat? Since so little is known of the ancient Gnostic teachings, the incomplete texts that are available to us do not make a definitive or even clear distinction.
What is clear… is that a mythology of a confused, or worse, deranged creator God… is quite unsettling. Perhaps it is meant to be. Perhaps the dichotomy is intended. Perhaps the seeds of doubt are deliberately sown within Gnostic teachings to underscore the role of humanity’s free will to choose… for the road always forks, it seems.
It is said that there comes a time in the spiritual development of every student of the inner mysteries, where he or she is faced with a catastrophic moment of doubt. This crisis of faith has been referred to as “the dark night of the soul.” It has also been infamously typified as entering “Chapel Perilous” by uncle Bob Wilson, et al. The ancient Gnostics referred to this psychologically traumatic terrain as: The Valley of the Shadow.
Within the Guru/disciple relationship, this agonizing moment comes when the student increasingly doubts the teacher’s intentions. During their discipleship, the Guru has been a trusted pillar of light, instructing the disciple in their spiritual tradition. Suddenly, the teachings take a turn in a certain way as to cause distrust and distress in the mind of the student. Is the beloved and trusted Guru, in fact a maniacal, diabolical tyrant? Have years of devotion and faith been devastatingly misplaced?
This moment is inevitable… often orchestrated by the very Guru… for there comes a time when each of us must take responsibility for our own spiritual development. Every student must graduate from their tutelage. No one understands the need to wean dependence better than the true Guru. Carl Jung called this process “individuation” wherein innate elements of personality, the components of the immature psyche, and the experiences of the person’s life become integrated over time into a well-functioning whole.
So it is that we moderns have reached a point in our collective spiritual development where we must wean ourselves from the tutelage of antiquated religious frameworks. Blind faith in religious, pie in the sky, bye and bye, institutions no longer serve us well. The revelations and accusations of priest pedophiles, over the last 50 years, is but one horrific example of the Church’s moral and spiritual failure. In this regard, the resurgence of Gnosticism is no coincidence.
It is ironic that an ancient religious structure such as Gnosticism becomes instrumental in our collective individuation process… in our weaning of religious institution. Gnosticism is arguably the progenitor of the early Christian Church. How appropriate that such a radical cosmology… one that was hounded out of the early church as heretical… returns in the modern era to reveal the modern church’s corruption.
so in asking the big question… by what means did universe come into existence? …we approach the Gnostic mythology. Does the Gnostic metaphor for the power that gave rise to the material universe… the Demiurge… represent malevolence or benevolence? Is our universe a soulless, uncaring mechanical clockwork? Or is there an inherent emanation of love flowing and permeating universe, from that which shall remain nameless?
At times, it certainly feels like our material world is a cold, heartless place. Don’t turn on the evening news, or this suspicion might be reinforced if not verified. Perhaps this is the Chapel Perilous moment facing humanity. Perhaps we must choose a mythology wherein Demiurge wears either a white hat or a black hat. Perhaps we must decide the mythology, good or ill, we choose to pursue, thereby overcoming our doubt. Just as we choose our understanding of the Demiurge (as above), we too (so below) must choose to wear the white hat or the black hat… for our path is fashioned in the choosing. As each of our souls are that divine spark, our decided mythology will co-create universe… in the choosing.
In the end, all becomes one and there is no differentiation. But out here on the perimeter… out here on the road less traveled… our choice is important. Our free will is that divine spark, emanating from the Gnostic Godhead. Our free will is the conscious connection between us and the supreme, unknowable Deity of the Gnostics. In so choosing, we become part of the creative process. Universe unfolds by virtue of the co-creative conspiracy between us and that which shall remain nameless.