Are You “In the Know?”
Anybody else ready to take the red pill? (After screening of the “red pill” scene from The Matrix.)
You probably know the rest of the story. Keanu Reeve’s Neo swallows the red pill and follows Lawrence Fishburn’s Morpheus down the rabbit hole to discover that the world around us is not real but part of the Matrix, a computer simulation created by artificially intelligent robots in order to enslave humanity so that we can be used like so many 9volt batteries. Only a few brave souls hidden away in the refuge city of Zion, who have experienced the truth for themselves, struggle inside and outside the Matrix to free humanity from the unreality they’ve been deceived into thinking is everyday life, a struggle that involves gratuitous amounts of firearms and lots of slow motion action shots.
The vision of the Matrix trilogy is a profoundly gnostic vision of the world. The gnostics were an ancient religious movement that sought, above all else, true knowledge about the state of the world and their place in it. Named after the Greek word “gnosis,” meaning knowledge or insight, the gnostics believed they had learned a secret that would set humanity free.
And it was a secret people wanted to learn. We’ve known about the Gnostics for centuries through the words of Christian writers who produced treatises to condemn them as heretics, and we can be sure that these “Church Fathers,” as they were called, wouldn’t have taken the time to denounce them if people weren’t taking the time to be Gnostics. In the centuries leading up to Christianity’s establishment as the official religion of the Roman Empire, gnosticism was increasingly viewed as a threat and treated accordingly by the Christian powers-that-be.
But these early Christian writers gave us a picture of gnosticism as they saw it, and it was a view that was often biased and unfair, written with an eye toward keeping the faithful faithful and the unfaithful a safe distance away. It wasn’t until the accidental discovery in 1945 of several ancient manuscripts in an earthenware jar buried in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi that we heard the gnostics speak in their own voice for the first time since they had been condemned as heretics and run out of the Church. What did the Gnostics believe, in their own words?
It was a case of extremely good luck that we got to read these manuscripts at all. Several brothers were digging for fertilizer in the Egyptian desert when they uncovered a tall, unbroken jar. Afraid that breaking the jar might set free hostile spirits, they were hesitant to break it open at first. But, fueled by a hope for gold within, they broke open the jar to discover thirteen papyrus books hidden inside. They brought the books home and laid them next to the stove, and their mother started to use them as kindling for the fire.
The brothers soon caught wind that a man from a competing tribe who had murdered their father was nearby, and they left to restore their father’s honor with a revenge killing. Fearing the police would discover the ancient books (and take them) if they came to search the house for evidence, they gave them to their priest for safe keeping. When a friend of the priest saw them and said he thought they might be valuable, what became known as the Nag Hammadi library made its way to the black market. Egyptian officials managed to get a hold of all but one volume, which eventually made it way to eminent psychologist Carl Jung, to whom it was given as a birthday present.
When it was discovered that some of the pages were missing from the codex given to Carl Jung, one religion professor made his way to Egypt to try and find the missing pages. What he found astonished him. The first line he read was this: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which his twin brother, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” He had found the opening words to the Gospel of Thomas, a heretical collection of short sayings by Jesus, some of which mirror the words of the four official gospels, but others of which are entirely unique. A piece of Thomas’s gospel had been discovered some sixty years earlier, but now, for the first time in 1600 years, we had the entire thing, and many more heretical books besides. The Gnostics had reentered history for the first time in centuries. We no longer had to rely on the reports of “heresy hunters.” Now we could listen to them in their own words.
And what words they are! It’s, at times, a bewildering array of poetry, mythology, and philosophy. There are the words spoken by the goddess of wisdom that we heard this morning, lists of divine emanations and the words of power needed to surpass each of them, retellings of the Garden of Eden myth where the serpent is the hero, and self-named “secret gospels” containing wisdom that Jesus didn’t share with most of his disciples. The Nag Hammadi library is a treasure house of world literature to rival any religion’s scriptures.
But what do these Gnostic scriptures teach? We’ve already gotten a hint of what the gnostics were about in our clip from The Matrix. Central to the gnostic vision of the world is the belief that the world we live in day to day is, as Morpheus put it, “a wool pulled over our eyes.” If you have ever felt that the world as we experience is somehow not good enough, somehow not real enough, you’re not far from the basic gnostic impulse.
Traditional monotheisms like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach three things about God that don’t always play nicely with each other. Those three things are that (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is all-knowing, and (3) God is all-good. The reality of suffering in the world makes these three things hard to hold together. How can a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good let people suffer hardships and evil they don’t deserve—or, we can ask, let them suffer at all? Wouldn’t a good God save people from undeserved suffering? The traditional answer is that it’s our fault, that we do deserve it because we’ve used our free will to rebel against God’s goodness in false pride.
The Gnostics would have none of it. It’s not humanity’s fault at all, they said, it’s God’s fault. As they looked around the world they found themselves in, they saw a universe that was a cosmic mistake created by a fake God who was either stupid or evil, or both. The true God, they said, would never have created this world.
They called this false God by many names—the Gnostics were never ones to insist on uniform theology—but the most common was “the Demiurge,” from a common Greek word that could mean “craftsman,” “blacksmith,” or even “public works laborer.” People have also translated it “the Maker” and “the Artificer.” Philip Pullman calls him “the Authority” in his wonderful science fiction trilogy for children, His Dark Materials. (Adults can read it too.) I like to call him “the Forger” because it pulls on the meaning of someone who makes something but also of someone who deceives, and the Demiurge does both.
By calling him “the Forger,” they wanted to make it clear that he was not a true Creator who made the world out of nothing by his own power. No, the Forger’s work was derivative, relying on the work of the true Creator, a God beyond God, whether the Forger knew it or not, and by most accounts he’s not even aware of the true Creator God. The Forger did the best he could (perhaps) but the world he forged together is obviously, the Gnostics would tell us, not first rate work.
So how did we come to live in this imperfect world? How is it that the Forger even got to create a universe? The Gnostics’ mythology (and stick with me here) begins with the true God, the God beyond God, a God that they called “the Fullness.” The Fullness is a divine limitlessness from which all things come and to which all things return. It’s not a God who thinks or feels so much as a God who is pure potentiality, containing the seeds of everything within it.
From the divine Fullness, a series of divine emanations come forth, with names like Grace, Silence, Power, and Love. Eventually, the story of divine emanations gets to the birth of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom whom we heard from in our reading this morning. In a tragic cosmic error, Sophia leaves her home in the Fullness and finds herself in exile, trapped in chaos and darkness, causing the creation of the material reality, which starts off as nothing but an unformed mess.
Sophia then goes on to create in desperation the Forger, so that she’ll have some help ruling this unruly material reality. But because she’s separated from the Fullness when she does this, the Forger is a defective creation. The Forger has no knowledge of the original divine Fullness, and in some tellings isn’t even aware of the existence of his mother Sophia, so that when he sets about to order material reality, he does it in a way that exacerbates chaos and darkness. He creates a world that isn’t good.
It is into this imperfect, dark, chaotic world that we come, but we are not all darkness and chaos. Buried, deep within each of us, is a hidden spark, a lost piece of that original divine Fullness, trapped in materiality. We have inside us the seeds of the divine, whether we’re aware of it or not.
And the Forger is determined to keep us unaware of that fact. The world he built is gamed against our discovering our true, divine nature, our original goodness. Morpheus calls it the Matrix. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick called it “Black Iron Prison.” It’s a world filled with distractions, disease, violence, and oppression, and governed by the lust for power and for fleeting pleasures. It’s a world of winners and losers, a world where those who have a lot get even more and where those who have little end up with even less. It’s a world where success is measured by how much you can get others to comply with your wishes, where you can reward those who help you and hurt those who don’t. It’s a world that rewards you for acting just like the Forger, ordering your Empire before you and remaining ignorant of your true origin in the Fullness, a place where there is always enough to go around, where life leads to more life, where domination not only isn’t present but where domination just doesn’t make sense.
If you’re a fan of our Unitarian Universalist forbear Ralph Waldo Emerson, you’ll recognize some similarity to his Transcendentalism. Like Emerson, the Gnostics believed there is a divine spark within each of us waiting to be awakened. And like Emerson, the Gnostics preferred a purple, convoluted writing style. (UU blasphemy, I know.) Unlike Emerson, the Gnostics emphasized that the powers-that-be were conspirators with the Forger to keep us in line (though they saw the powers-that-be not so much as “flesh and blood” than as “principalities and powers of the air,” as Saint Paul would have put it). And unlike Emerson, they had a deep pessimism about our ability to awaken the divine spark within without some sort of outside help.
It is this need for a mediator who can reconnect us to the divine Fullness that leads us to the final character in Gnostic mythology. I say “character,” but I should say “characters,” because different Gnostic groups saw this messenger of light as different people. For Jewish Gnostics, he was Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son. For the Mandaeans, the only Gnostic group that’s survived from the ancient world, with some 60,000 living in Iraq and Iran today, it was John the Baptist. For the Manichaeans, it was their prophet Mani and other prophets of other religions who preceded him.
For Christian Gnostics, it was Jesus. This is a very different story about Jesus than the story told by traditional Christianity. For Christian Gnostics, Jesus didn’t come to die for our sins. Sin, for the Gnostics, isn’t humanity’s main problem. The main problem is ignorance of our true, divine nature, a problem caused our being trapped in a world built with anything but full human flourishing in mind. It is for this reason that Jesus left the Fullness to enter material reality, the Matrix, not to satisfy an angry God’s desire to punish us, forever, for being less than perfect.
We can see why Christian Gnostics might not get along with what we now know as traditional, orthodox Christians, even if they both shared a deep admiration for Jesus. The Gnostics did fairly well in the first few centuries following Jesus, when Christianity was a theologically diverse minority religion with no shared creed, though they were probably always outnumbered by orthodox Christians. One popular Gnostic teacher almost won the election to become Bishop of Rome, a position that would over several centuries evolve into what we now know as the Pope. It’s surely one of the great “what if’s” of religious history—what if a Gnostic had become bishop of the city that was the seat of imperial power? Would there even be such a thing as an agreed upon, orthodox version of Christianity?
Gnostics and orthodox Christians co-existed in the same churches for three or four centuries, though the Gnostics believed they knew the true, secret meaning of Jesus’ teachings, a snooty sort of one-ups-manship that couldn’t have done much to win friends and influence orthodox Christians. We can see it just in the titles of the Gnostic scriptures we’ve rediscovered, with a typical name being something like the “Secret Book” or the “Secret Gospel” of fill in the blank with your favorite disciple. They also practiced rituals in addition to baptism and communion, rituals designed to awaken gnosis, that insight into our true nature, and these rituals were kept secret from the general public, even from their non-Gnostic fellow Christians.
Gnosticism started to decline as orthodox bishops solidified their control over the Church and Roman Emperors started to favor the creed-based form of Christianity they helped create for their own purposes. The non-Christian Manicheans, who practiced a more dualistic form of Gnosticism that made the Forger the evil equal of the true God, flourished for a few centuries, stretching from the Roman Empire to China, and becoming one of the most widespread religions in history. And the Mandaeans, another non-Christian Gnostic group, did well for a while in their own right too in the Middle East. The Gnostics would pop up briefly again during the Middle Ages in southeast Europe and then again in southern France, where they were wiped out over several decades by a ruthless Pope-initiated Crusade. After that wave of extreme persecution, they disappeared from history until those brothers dug up that jar in the desert at the end of World War II.
It’s easy to dismiss Gnosticism as so much idle speculation, but it’s important, and kind, to remember that their mythology was based on their own spiritual experiences. They experienced alienation from the world of suffering around them, so they blamed that world on a character they created, the Forger, a useful shorthand to sum up what’s wrong with the world. When they experienced a flash of insight that there was something deep within them with inherent worth and dignity, no matter the suffering around them, they named this wisdom the goddess Sophia. And when they realized that there was a world of spiritual experience waiting for them beyond that first key insight, they depicting them as divine emanations they would meet on their heavenly flight to meet the one true God beyond all other gods. Gnosticism isn’t about “believing” in the Forger or Sophia or any of the other characters. It’s a spiritual path for aspiring mystics, one that chooses a mythological story to set up sign posts for the journey.
But we can be critical of Gnosticism too. Any religious movement that plays the “smarter than” card and flaunts secret wisdom isn’t going to go mainstream. There is a difference between being a smart religion and being a smartypants religion. Smartypants religions don’t last very long. If our collective religious life, in our one thousand congregational cultures across the continent, depends on knowing more than everyone else, and on trading insider references to upper middle class and predominantly white cultural markers, like National Public Radio and Whole Foods, if we rely on these things to cement together our common life in conversations in Coffee Hour and covenant groups, fellowship groups and RE classes—we will never become a truly multi-cultural (or multi-class) religious movement. If someone has to listen to Prairie Home Companion to be a part of the conversation, we’ll have a problem. Our mission and message will remain a well kept secret, like the Gnostics, and we’ll remain a small movement, like the Gnostics, and plug along until one day political winds radically change and we’re persecuted out of existence. It’s happened countless times to small religious movements throughout history, and we’re not immune. Unitarian martyrs have died for their faith before, and it could happen again.
But we can also draw courage from the Gnostics. Their theological creativity, their courage to rewrite well known myths and to invent new ones, stands as a shining example in humanity’s religious history. To make the serpent the hero of the Garden of Eden for trying to bring us wisdom and to blame cosmic injustices on God—these are not the actions of theological cowards.
What can we expect of the Gnostics moving forward? We can expect Gnosticism to keep showing up in films and novels, and in the spirituality section of the bookstore. But if Gnosticism is to move forward and become popular again, it will need to transform itself into a “good earth Gnosticism,” one that doesn’t “blame” our beautiful universe on the Forger but celebrates Creation as part of the divine Fullness. If we need a figure like the Forger to blame our suffering on, let him stand as a symbol of the oppressive societal structures that we have created, in our own ignorance. Our current environmental predicament demands theologies that embrace the natural world, not ones that write the natural world off as a tragic cosmic error.
And let us embrace the Gnostics’ appreciation for theological diversity. While they generally told the same mythological story, Gnostic teachers each told it in a different way, with different names for the gods and different plot points, and we have no evidence that they tried to silence each other for their differences. We can laud Jewish and Christian Gnostics for their practical religious pluralism, for trying to stay within their larger religious communities even when it was obvious to them that their spiritual experiences were profoundly different. Though I hope we won’t, like the Gnostics, try to keep our wisdom a secret.