Sunday, June 4, 2023

Stripped-Down Gnosticism

October 26, 2013

Richmond's Museum Districtby Brian Lapsa

My old commute through Richmond was littered with billboards. Usually they drifted in and out of sight over the Virginia highways like PowerPoint slides. But one day a couple of signs near my exit caught my eye. The first, over an airbrushed background of reddish swirls, hawked the dancers at a local “gentlemen’s club.” In one corner a stylized rose spread its petals in sensual bloom. In the opposite posed a brunette flushed with passion, the plunge of her décolletage interrupted only by the bottom edge of the board. A Monrovian mole adorned her upper lip, as if the finishing touch on this portrait of the “pure pleasure” that the ad promised.

The second billboard was for Body Worlds 2, an exhibit soon to arrive at the science museum. Here, the skinless model of a human being stood with sinewy arms outstretched, as if hurling a javelin, while lidless eyes gazed out beyond the overpasses. One of Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ collections of plastinated corpses was coming to town: real human remains, chemically preserved, but disfigured and set in poses ranging from the whimsical to the coital.

Two bodies, then – one mostly skin, the other skinned – loomed overhead, yet far from the proverbial docks and on the ‘right’ side of the train tracks. This brazen exposition would have been hard to imagine just a few generations ago. “The South, unlike the Yankee nation, was a Christian one,” an elderly Richmond native told me. Family-oriented courtship, not dating, had been the norm. As for the body’s treatment after death, even cremation had long remained scandalous. And, of course, the legacy of the South’s “peculiar institution” colored body politics in a less-than-progressive tone: in the 1950s and ‘60s, Richmond’s leading paper, the Times-Dispatch, championed statewide “massive resistance” to school integration.[1]


From taboos to tattoos

Happily, segregation fell, and Richmond has since been praised as a model for reconciliation campaigns worldwide.[2] Yet Richmonders didn’t just change the way they looked at skin color. They also got used to seeing quite a bit more of it. Sex on and off Richmond’s campuses became as free as anywhere else. In the 1970s, Episcopalian cleric John Shelby Spong, a feminist infamous for denying God, the Resurrection, and the power of prayer, was rector of the parish that both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee had attended. The cloth followed after the town and gown, wherein ‘superstition’ gave way to ‘reason’, restraint to ‘freedom’, shame to ‘pride’, repression to ‘expression’, drudgery to ‘entertainment’, subjugation to ‘emancipation’. Once-genteel Richmond’s old taboos are gone; instead, it now boasts America’s third-highest concentration of tattoo parlors.

Such wholesale liberation may be worth celebrating with some skin art. Isn’t it all just as laudable as the victory over racism? Aren’t we on the right side of history? Conformity is done; we can express our identities and satisfy our appetites whenever and however we choose. “Pure pleasure” – and why not? The bodies we’re in are to be used now, as are others, dead or alive, provided their owners consent. If we’re consistent, the alleged sanctity of the corpse – that inarticulate, decaying thing – is just another relic of the past. We, the living, are sui juris, a law unto ourselves, possessed of value-creating autonomy. Our dead have, or have had, the choice to spare their remains such ignoble superstition. They can instead inspire us – for example, by being put placed in titillating poses.


A metaphysical dream of the world

Way at the bottom of this story of liberation is what Richard Weaver called a “metaphysical dream of the world.”[3] Whether philosophers or not, we all have within us vistas of sentiments that serve as basic assumptions for our thoughts and deeds and which color our perceptions of the universe. Our dreamscape has been a long time in the making.

Two works published in 1859 gave this vision some striking contours: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Mill’s On Liberty. The former, or its popular interpretations, posited man’s purposeless development from inanimate stuff; the latter exalted the individual’s liberty as a cornerstone of politics and truth-seeking. Decades earlier, Condorcet had articulated the view that man’s infinite perfectibility had “no other limits than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us.”[4] From these three sources, our contemporary dream might be summarized as follows: we come from a cosmic accident; our individual liberties are supreme; and whatever chaos we come from (or cause), our creativity and science will master (or at least handle). The individual has limitless possibilities ahead of it; the species can manage the fallout.


From ancient sects to modern sex?Gospel of Mary

Some enthusiasts of this metaphysical dream would ascribe to it a still more ancient provenance. Academics like Elaine Pagels have suggested that the various first-millennium sects collectively called the Gnostics might be a distant image of liberated man, an observation that has inspired, inter alios, mega-author Dan Brown. Who were the Gnostics? Christian commentators described them as materialist dualists who pitted ‘subtle’ matter or ‘light’ against the greater part of the material world. Orthodox Christian writers branded many Gnostics as heretics for claiming to be Christ’s true followers while denying his singular divinity.

According to Pagels and Brown, however, the ‘orthodox’ Christianity that affirmed it is merely a myth: it is in fact ‘the greatest story ever sold’. The Pauline faction, being both moralistic and power-hungry, used the “Christian legend” to launch history’s most successful project of mass mind-control and cultural hegemony.[5] Meanwhile, Christ’s potentially colorful sex life, either with the Magdalene or John the Beloved, had to be suppressed; his identification with Yahweh gave the project its trump card. Small bands of dissenters, however, preserved the truth – until Constantine stamped them out.

Pagels, a professor at Princeton, has devoted her career to the writings of these noble Gnostic underdogs, most of which have only been re-discovered beginning in the 1940s. Just before Easter 2006, Pagels gushed that the newly found Gospel of Judas would continue “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity and showing how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was.”[6]

Among their most ‘diverse’ elements, Pagels observes, is a vaguely Eastern strain: “the ‘living Jesus’…speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans.” Whereas “Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its creator,” such that “God is wholly other,” Pagel proffers “the secret of gnosis” with more than a hint of approbation: “self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.” Jesus, no savior, is a mere “guide” showing us the way to a “spiritual understanding” rendering leader and follower “equal—even identical.”[7] Gnosis is non-creedal; indeed, the events recounted in the Christian canon are anything but literally true. Belief in the Virgin Birth is an “error,” says the Gospel of Philip, and Christ’s resurrection is metaphorical: “he rose up first and [then] died.”[8]

Self-actualization is just the beginning. Some Gnostics could even be read as proto-feminists. Valentinians, for example, drank not Christ’s blood in their sacraments, but a mother-spirit’s.[9] Salvation was through “Immortal Androgynous Man”; in the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, his “female name is…‘All-Begettress Sophia’ [Wisdom].” The divine narrator of The Thunder, Perfect Mind frequently adopts a feminine voice; Sophia resurfaces as the self-awareness of a depersonalized One in the Secret Book of John, where Jesus also calls himself “Mother”.[10] There’s a Gospel of Mary with the Magdalene as the favorite disciple, and in Philip Jesus kisses her, leaving the other disciples scandalized, or perhaps jealous.[11] Sects devoted to these traditions were “more inclusive to women,” says Pagels: those most loathed by the ‘orthodox’ even had priestesses.[12] So far the Gnostics look pretty progressive.


Progressing backwards

The most exhaustive commentary on the early Gnostics comes from St. Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyon. On some points he confirms the popular account of their libertine practices in his condemnation of them. Gnostics would “yield themselves up to the lusts of the flesh with the utmost greediness, maintaining that carnal things should be allowed to the carnal nature, while spiritual things are provided for the spiritual.”[13] Carpocratics even claimed that salvation demanded the experience of everything, and rather than storing up treasure in, say, virtue, it was sexual experiences they were keenest on collecting. But so what? “God,” at any rate, “does not greatly regard such matters.”[14]

Today such a statement is hardly controversial. But the bishop levels other charges – manipulation, brainwashing, adultery, polygamy, intimidation – some of which sound like the very cultish practices we do still condemn. They also sound like charges that some pro-Gnostic writers bring against orthodox churches.

To be fair, Irenaeus is polemical—unabashedly so. But the texts of the Gnostics themselves confirm his account more than they do the rosy impression we’ve lately received. Their feminism, for example, turns out not to be all that comfortable in its own skin – or at least to be very inconsistent. In the Gospel of Thomas, Simon demands of his guru, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Instead of reprimanding him, Jesus reassures him: “I shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”[15] In a number of texts, “the bondage of femaleness” must be shed for “the salvation of maleness”; even metaphorical interpretations do not celebrate differences, but only obliterate them.[16]

In fact, no one should be comfortable in any skin. Elsewhere in Thomas, Christ says that soul, flesh, and body are each “wretched.”[17] Matter, Christ tells Mary, will all be destroyed.[18] That’s for the better, for we’re “thrown” here into the darkness of this dreadful world anyways, taught one Theodotus.[19] The Secret Book of John consistently refers to the body as a “prison” that degrades the soul, trapping it in cycles of transmigration and reincarnation so long as it lacks salvific gnosis. For Carpocratics, this belief justified the pursuit of carnal knowledge; for others, the harshest asceticism.[20] If they were sometimes ascetics and sometimes aesthetes, it was because the body didn’t matter: anything could be justified or condemned, and almost everything was, depending on what magnified ‘light’.

Pagels admits and then summarily dismisses these facts. She has a sort of Gnostic dualism about the texts themselves: the bad is from the orthodox patriarchy, whereas the good is Gnostic truth. It just so happens that Pagel’s understanding of Gnostic truth maps well onto today’s conventional wisdom. “I love the Valentinian material…it has a view of the world that is like Princeton today, which is just perfectly glorious—the sun coming through the leaves, the most brilliant colors,” she said in 2011.[21] In the bubbling stew of Gnostic diversity, it’s the progressive vegetables of praxis that float to the surface as their beliefs sink out of sight.

But whether Irenaeus is right to have had a beef with the Gnostic myths and truth-claims lurking at the bottom of the pot, it does violence to their believers’ historical experiences to strain them out like this. Their cosmology deserves a hearing. What did Gnostics teach about the world’s origins? The story begins with an impersonal father-principle whose emanations filled the divine pleroma, or spiritual realm, with dyads of sexual, sentient aeons. One such aeon – yes, it’s Sophia again – grew distraught at her own ignorance, and in her anguish, matter fell stillborn and formless from her womb.[22] Her torment, “by means of a defect,” produced a scheming demiurge, viler but duller than Plato’s.[23] It then formed the universe, and with it corporeal mankind, from the undesired matter: “material substance had its beginning from ignorance and grief, and fear and bewilderment.”[24] Philip puts it bluntly: “the world came about through a mistake.”[25] Recalling the pre-incarnate, star-riding souls of Plato’s Timaeus, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ says we existed as “drop[s] from Light and Spirit” before being trapped in bodies; it is gnosis that breaks our chains and lets us be subsumed into the same impersonal substance of the father-principle whence our drams of divinity were drawn.[26]


Interstellar tragedy & interstate trash

There are, I am sure, many strange things to be found at Pagel’s Princeton, but I doubt aeons, astral adventures, and asceticism are among them. In broader culture, dieting fads and Twilight take us about as close as we come to self-denial and the paranormal. So, how do ancient heretics keep slinking their way into headlines and bestseller lists? Perhaps their caricatures give a comforting heritage to today’s selectively relativistic ethics? Maybe the Jesus-was-a-fake genre sells not on the strength of its arguments, but because if Christ isn’t God, Christians can be marginalized as mere pawns of the dark forces of the ‘religious right’?

Yet the contemporary and Gnostic worldviews share more than an ill-fitting ethical overlap and a common enemy. For, despite certain peculiarities, their metaphysical dreams of the world unite them. What we see and what we are came about by something other than benevolence, be it the scheme of a cheeky brute or the brute forces of randomness and nothingness. The world is essentially not good. Goodness in the material world implies a normativity and an absolute grounding in nature, to which both Gnostics and utilitarians are allergic. Finding ourselves “thrown” here, as both Theodotus and Condorcet did, we, too, are freak accidents. Acts in the flesh are irrelevant at the deepest level, since matter is devoid of intrinsic value. The strictest principles we can apply are those of pleasure/pain and that of harm – those that begin and end with individuals’ perceived needs. Our refuge is in knowledge, understood as expertise, and the sacrosanct orientation of the arbitrary will.

Gnostic strip clubPerhaps the billboards say it best. As in some hideous diptych, they give us complementary accounts of who we are. Alive, the body seems to be what matters. We are licensed to consider it alone in life’s most intimate, vulnerable moments, parading our sisters naked before the crowds. Strip clubs, pornography, and fornication are insignificant to our persons apart from our pleasure/harm calculus; safety, not morals, is our concern (so, “use protection”!). But while the material is denied its intrinsic worth, the mind cannot avoid immaterial experiences like choice and thought: something persists which can say, “What my body is doing is irrelevant.” Our reduction of the person to his body has really chased him outside of his body, an intellectual and voluntary abstraction of the self from itself. And so, even alive, the body turns out not to matter.

And it matters even less when our utility-counting days are done. At death, the “person” (whatever that may mean) has no active relation to his corpse. The artifacts might as easily be used as fertilizer as be displayed in a museum. We shards of impersonal light needn’t care; we’ll be quite finished with our bodies when we die. We’re probably finished, period.


When the world is a miscarriage

This metaphysical dream is utterly incompatible with Christianity. The world was made fundamentally good, as the first pages of Genesis remind us. Though Creation has been corrupted by sin, its essential goodness could not be totally destroyed; being corrupted is not the same as being completely corrupt. Both Gnostics and those Christians seeking a rapturous rescue from the world have misread the architecture: our bodies are not “prisons” to be escaped, renovated, destroyed ad lib., but temples of the Holy Spirit. So the Corinthians heard from St. Paul, whose much-abused spirit-flesh distinction Irenaeus clarifies: “the weakness of the flesh” can be “absorbed by the strength of the Spirit”; the two may then inherit the kingdom together.[27] Our resurrected “spiritual bodies” are not spiritual in substance, but in the sense that they are moved first by spirit and not by flesh. In the Christian metaphysical dream, matter is subordinated in order to be glorified – neither abolished nor discarded, but perfected.

But affirmations of the world’s created goodness require a leap of faith, and thus a rejection of knowing spiritualism and dogmatic materialism; the normativity of this stance tolerates neither.

Pagels, concluding her piece on the Gospel of Judas, said that the text’s discovery would make subsequent Paschal reflections “more mysterious than ever.” Now, any leap of faith has mystery at its core. But the ‘mystery’ of Gnosticism is less a reasonable affirmation that can be accepted in love than a hopeless and anti-personal agnosticism, ever subject to opportunistic revision. Neo-Gnostics give us an imagined freedom from obligation while imposing – consciously or not – worse commitments. It is the same liberty that Justice Kennedy describes in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” – a sunny ambiguity the Supreme Court employed to extend the right to end life.

The Hypostasis of the Archons, recounting Sophia’s tale, says the universe started out “like a miscarriage.”[28] In a world built on stillbirth from the womb of an aeon, or on the freak chance of meaningless matter from nowhere, destruction in our own mothers’ wombs just blends into the landscape. A flight to the pleroma or an escape into “pure pleasure” will not rouse us from this metaphysical nightmare. The threefold promise of Creation, Incarnation, and Resurrection may.


Brian Lapsa is managing editor of the Clarion Review.


[1] “Times-Dispatch Editorial Expresses Regret for Massive Resistance.” Richmond Times Dispatch. July 16, 2009. Online at

[2] Cf. Corcoran, Rob. Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation about Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility. University of Virginia Press, 2010.

[3] Weaver, Richard. Ideas Have Consequences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948 (1984).

[4] Marquis de Condorcet. “Outline of an Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind.” 1794.

[5] Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. xii. xv-xxiii.

[6] Pagels. “The Gospel Truth.” New York Times. April 8, 2006.

[7] Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels, pp. xv-xxiii.

[8] Gospel of Philip 22.

[9] Pagels, Elaine. “The Suppressed Gnostic Feminism.” New York Review of Books. November 22, 1979.

[10] The Secret Book of John 10 and 3, respectively.

[11] Gospel of Mary 5:5, Philip 59.

[12] Interview with Elaine Pagels in Conner, Miguel. Voices of Gnosticism. Dublin: Bardic Press, 2011. Online at

[13] Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies, Bk. I, Ch. VI, 3.

[14] Ibid., Bk. I, Ch. XXV, 4; Ch. XXVIII, 2.

[15] Gospel of Thomas 114.

[16] First Apocalypse of James 41:15-19; cf. Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus, 79, and commentary in Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 5.8.44.

[17] Thomas 84, 87, 112

[18] Mary 4:22-23.

[19] Clement. Excerpts from Theodotus, 78:1-2.

[20] Secret Book of John 23, 26; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, Ch. XXV, 4.

[21] Pagels interview in Conner.

[22] Irenaeus, Book I, Ch. IV, 3.

[23] Ibid., Bk I, Ch. XVI, 3.

[24] Ibid., Bk. I, Ch. II, 3.

[25] Philip 105.

[26] Wisdom of Jesus Christ (verses unnumbered; p. 118 of the Berlin Gnostic Codex).

[27] Irenaeus, Bk V, Ch. IX, 1-2.

[28] Hypostasis of the Archons, 94:8-19.



One Response to “Stripped-Down Gnosticism”
  1. Alexandre says:

    Maybe I am being a bit sensitive, but I thhgout the dramatic representations greatly distorted the (non)relation between the Gospel of Judas and the historical (canonical?) Judas. To have the Coptic Gospel of Judas dramatically portrayed in Aramaic gives the impression that it is historical. And as Mark noted, Pagels is edited in such a way that she suggest the Gospel of Judas could represent a historical tradition. But, of course, it would not be as sensational if the idea is not entertained. I wonder if these sorts of programs actually lead to misinformation and confusion. Moreover, I find myself getting annoyed at these type of programs; they’re predictable, over-hyped, and at times misleading.Derek

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