Master of Gnosticism
Dennis W. Zerull
I would once again thank the ULC Seminary for offering this most informative course and Bishop Pat Schwab for his obviously long study and research to author this the Master of Gnosticism discourses. Bishop Schwab no doubt has spent many hours which equates to months and even years of study and devotion to the the history and linage of Gnostic works. He has brought to us a most enlightening and somewhat difficult study which at times can tire the mind with the unlimited possibilities of the Gnostic writings of past history and what the present Gnostics are practicing in order to find the ultimate truth.
I believe there is no doubt that there is some gnosis or gnostic believe in most of today's modern religions. There also cannot be a question that most religions have some form mysticism in their respective doctrines for which as the course describes began with designation for certain dualistic religious and philosophical perspectives that existed prior to Christianity and for the specific systems of belief characterized by these ideas, which emerged in the second century and later. Although the radical conclusions of some scholars regarding a highly developed pre-Christian Gnosticism have been discounted, I believe it does seem clear that there were many ideas, assumptions and perceptions about deity, reality and relationships of person to gods and the world that were incorporated into the gnostic sects from outside Hellenistic sources. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library are of course the most famous literary discoveries that have supported these ideas.
The classic view as this course points out, is of the heretical gnostic sects as distortions of Christianity by Hellenistic thought has much strength because it easily demonstrated how the gnostics could use the New Testament texts, bending them to their purposes as is demonstrated in 1 Cor. 3:1-4 where Paul chides the Corinthian Christians for being "people of the flesh" or carnal when they should be spiritual. This text could with ease be used as the foundation for supporting the Hellenistic idea of the superiority of certain persons in the Christian community.
This classic explanation does have and leaves some problems unsolved. Little doubt exists that there are ideas, attitudes and practices incorporated into many so called "gnostic heresies "that are found outside of the Greek thought and much earlier than the second century of the Christian era. In particular, the ultimate goal of the gnostics to return to the absolute deity beyond matter and to be in some sense absorbed into the deity belongs to near eastern mystical thought and not primarily to the Hellenistic world which dates pre-christian mystical thought.
Gnosticism however is important because of its emergence in schools of thought within the church in the early second century and soon established itself as a way of understanding Christianity in all of the church's principle centers. Of course the church was torn by what I must assume, heated debates over the issues which eventually led to alternative churches and belief systems to be viewed by the church as heretical and a threat not only to it's doctrine but also it's leaders. As many as opposed it there were such leaders as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus who wrote volumes of text against it as is also pointed out in this course many times. Gnosticism is also important for interpreting certain features of the New Testament as they divided Christians into groups, usually the spiritual and the carnal. the spiritual Christians were in a special class or higher class than the ordinary Christians because they had received, as the elect of the good deity that allowed them to be redeemed and belonged to the heavenly world that was the true one. No wonder this resulted in some gnostics seeking to withdraw from the word in asceticism. Other gnostic systems took this as an opportunity to practice antinomianism or the belief that moral law does not apply and is not valid for a person or group. the claim of course was that spiritual Christians are not responsible for what they did and could not really sin because their fleshy existence was not part of God's plan. Thus they could act in any way they pleased.
I conclude that the gnostics thought faith was inferior to knowledge. The true sons of the absolute deity were saved through knowledge rather than faith. This was the feature of the various systems that gave the movements its designation. They were the gnostics, the knowers. Yet what this precise knowledge was it quite vague. It is more perception of one's own existence that solves life's mysteries for the gnostic than it was a body of doctrine. Ultimately it was self discovery each gnostic had and still has to experience.
I have mentioned this statement and lesson that I have learned before in other essay's that I have written but must emphasize it again. Among all the living creatures studied by modern scientists, only human beings can be said with absolute certainty to have been endowed with the ability to make deliberate choices about the directions of our lives and also to decide whether those choices will lead us to transitory happiness or into the realm of a lasting peace and well-being. It seems that we are wired for temporary happiness genetically but are also gifted with the ability to recognize within ourselves a more profound and lasting sense of confidence, peace and well-being. We also appear to stand alone in our ability to recognize the necessity to forge a bond between emotion and reason and an instinct to survive. And so we create a universe not only for ourselves but also for all creatures who feel pain, fear and suffering in which we are all somehow able to coexist with contentment and peace.
The universe already exists, even if we don't know it at the present time or even realize it. My belief is that only through resting mind can we recognize it and also realize that we are not our thoughts not our feelings and not our perceptions. Everything I have learned as a Buddhist and everything I have learned about modern science and studies in this seminary tells me that humans beings are more than just their bodies. Thoughts, feelings and perceptions are functions of the body and thus will at some point will pass as do all things. Ultimately happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them. When you see your own desire to be happy, you can't avoid seeing the same desire in others, and when you look clearly at your own fear, anger, or aversion you can't help but see that everyone around you feels the same fear, anger and aversion.
Sometime before Buddha, Jesus and all of the great prophets dated before the Christian first century, someone had this gnosis. That person looked at his or hers mind and realized that all the imaginary differences between themselves and others automatically dissolved when they recognized the similarities to those around them. I believe this to be true. And if this statement is true than we all have some gnosis in us. Ultimately we return to the source from which we came. This source may be different in perception for each of us but all paths teach us compassion, love and tolerance. This may be the lesson that the Gnostics were trying to teach us and not one of collective ego to serve a selfish purpose.
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