Ancient religions challenge Christianity, again
It is a different era now and Gnostics (a collection of ancient religions whose adherents shunned the material world) are no longer petrified of the early architects of the Church, such as Iranaeus, Eusebius, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, whose condemnation led to their violent suppression and Constantine's banning of the movement in 325AD.
But, what if the movement promoting the Gnostics scriptures of Marcion, Valentinus, Mary, and Thomas won the political and theological debates in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries? For sure, biblical content, as we know it, would have been alarmingly different, with a Christianity that is far more mystical.
The Church Fathers, though, were bent on a concrete, material narrative that focused on outward signs, such as miraculous healing, raising the dead and a resurrection.
The 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices paints a picture of an early Christianity that struggled to establish a monolithic belief system amid the diverse and heterodoxical doctrines during that period.
It also resurrected interest in Gnosticism, spawning a number of organisations globally, one of which is the California-based Gnostic Society or Ecclesia Gnostica, renowned for its academic and liturgical rigour.
Stephan Hoeller, 84, is the group's director. Author of Jung and the Lost Gospels, and Professor Emeritus of the College of Oriental Studies in Los Angeles, he survived the existential crises of World War II and the occupation of Soviet forces in Hungary, his native land.
His spiritual flame neither flickered nor dimmed during these withering times. As providence would have it, he made his way to the United States, settling in California where he cemented his study of Gnosticism.
"Gnosticism," he said, "never completely vanished, despite efforts to efface it."
The Bogomiles, Manicheans, Cathars, and Rosicrucians, and Theosophists practised some of its principles.
But the Nag Hammadi Library has given today's Gnostics the theological tools to re-establish one of the most fascinating movements in early Christianity that preached that we have the ability to communicate with the invisible worlds and that we create our reality, knowingly or knowingly, in this life and the hereafter.
Marcion, Hoeller said, had argued that the Old Testament be expunged from the Bible. Many who question the narcissistic, genocidal, and sadistic character Jehovah, the purported God of creation, echo this view.
Fittingly, Jehovah Sabaoth (his full name) means "he that maketh wars." And this 'god of war' more than lives up to his bloodthirsty reputation.
Simply read Joshua 6:17-21; Deuteronomy 20:16-17; Joshua 10:10-11; and Samuel 15:1-9, for starters. Ethologist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Hawkins, uses some strong, indisputable adjectives to describe this God.
The Gnostics have always questioned the true standing of Jehovah in cosmology. "By his statements and phenotype, he is a lesser god, pretending to be greater," argued Hoeller.
That a false god, the administrator of this world of simulation (falsehood), is unlike the Father of whom Jesus spoke. This God is the Father Principle, the Unmanifest Deity from whom a small portion emanates to form a series of spiritual and physical worlds.
Jehovah Sabaoath is dismissive of His Presence. But not all of the Old Testament is disposable. Hoeller calls the Book a "compound". There is light and truth to be gleaned from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. "There is some mystical character there, so we have to separate the wheat from the chaff," said Hoeller.
Gnostics refer to Jehovah's angels as Archons. They are imperfect beings that are administrators of this world. Their imperfection and ineptitude have led to false religious doctrines, arguably not out of malice, but their limited intelligence. Gnostic cosmology is fully explained in Pistis Sophia, an essential gospel for all Gnostics.
On the question of reincarnation, a doctrine that is now embraced by countless Westerners, Hoeller noted that Gnostics are not "enthusiastic" about the belief, "although there are passages attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas and Books of the Saviour that point to its reality".
He stated that reincarnation is a sign of failure, "tantamount to repeating a class in school". It indicates that the soul has not progressed.
Unknowingly, our supplications are made to these forces, and although we may be granted favours, "our rewards are suspect", according to Hoeller. Gnosticism beckons us to explore the inner meaning of the Gospels in order to experience the Kingdom of God within.
"Communicating with the spiritual world is natural," according to Gnostics. Unfortunately, if we are not trained or knowledgeable we colour and distort the messages we receive to our detriment and that of others.
Of even greater interest is that the crucifixion did not happen in the manner we are told; that another figure was killed. There is support for what Hoeller called "The Substitution doctrine", or the "Docetic interpretation", found in early gospels that were rejected by the Church. "The Gospel of Basilides," "The Great Book of Seth," and the "Act of John," written by John's disciple on the island of Patmos, identifies Simon of Cyrene as the crucified figure.
In a cleverly planned ploy, Jesus, it was said, fled the scene, appearing to John, stating, "John, why are you so distraught? I am away from that event."
Gnostics call the crucifixion drama "an illusion".
(This is an explosive 'finding' that is also expressed in the Koran and the latest findings by Dr Courtney Brown of the Farsight Institute. I will be exploring this controversial but highly credible narrative in an upcoming article.)
While the crucifixion might have been different as presented by mainstream Christianity, Hoeller said that Gnosticism is non-dogmatic on this matter, "and are more attuned to understanding and practising the mysteries that Jesus taught during his life on earth".
Gnostics are also at odds with Christianity's apocalyptic, end of time obsession. "There is nothing in our gospels that mirrors an impending Armageddon," stated Hoeller, although he conceded that at some point, the physical world would end. "How and when, we do no know."
We ended our discussion on Gnostic eschatology, in particular the soul's journey at the moment of death. Expectedly, a damning, eternal inferno awaiting Jehovah's disobedient children is rejected by Gnostics.
With information technology leading the way, many can now access knowledge hitherto impossible. This shift has led to more thinkers, ready to challenge questionable teachings. That the foundation of world religions is threatened is an overstatement. But it is a judicious guess that religious leaders will have a harder time defending teachings passed down as irrefutable truths.
- Dr Ashby is president of Global Interfaith council and author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby