Gnot What It Seems

Mythology has a funny way of dying. It just keeps resurrecting itself. It is the eternal return. One of the shocking truths about religions is that their cohesiveness is exaggerated for effect. The usual desired effect is power or influence over others, as in most human enterprises. Nowhere is this clearer than at the birth of religions. Since each human brain processes information in a unique way, the two people in a room with the religious founder will hear his/her teachings in their own way and neither will be identical with each other or the founder. This phenomenon has been long recognized by religionists. It is customary to speak of “Christianities” or “Judaisms” rather than suggest a fictional singularity.

Manuscript finds and serious study of early Christian texts make a strong case for two major brands of Christianity as early as the first century of the common era: “Orthodox” and “Gnostic.” The former likely arose in opposition to the latter. Gnosticism congealed out of a heady brew of Zoroastrian dualism, Judeo-Christian nascent apocalypticism, and good old “Canaanite” mythology. The teachings of Jesus could readily fit into a worldview that rejected materialism for a pure spiritual plane untainted by physical limitations and pollution. It is only a small step from here to the belief that the physical world is an illusion. Problem is, that would mean the physical resurrection was apparent only, and what does that mean for all future prospects of bliss? Better to bring down the hammer of Orthodoxy than to live with doubt.

Yet Gnosticism lives on. One of the few direct lines of descent can be found among the Mandaeans, an endangered monotheistic sect that has maintained a Gnostic dualism for centuries. Indeed, they trace their origins all the way to Adam. Gnosticism, whether recognized or not, has left its influence on concepts from The Matrix to Philip K. Dick’s novels to Rich Terrile’s theories of God. Certainly there is a draw to believing this world is an illusion and that reality lies elsewhere. Maybe in that real world there is no need for religion since everyone already knows the truth.

sursum codex

4 thoughts on “Gnot What It Seems

  1. I second that thanks. I enjoy alternative possibilities to the mainstream that I find in gnostic texts, particularly the Manichaean idea that the snake in Eden was the first incarnation of Christ. The fact that people could not only think such things, but write them down and not be stricken by lightning, makes me bold in the possibilities I will consider. It’s healing after a damaging fundie childhood of certainties.

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  2. One of the shocking truths about religions is that their cohesiveness is exaggerated for effect. The usual desired effect is power or influence over others, as in most human enterprises.

    Loved that.

    Question: Is it “religionists” or “religionologists” or has that been debated? “Religionist” sounds like someone who does religion, not studies it analytically.

    Question: Don’t the “manuscript finds” actually show more Christianities in the first century C.E. than just Orthodoxy and Gnosticism — like Marcionism, Christian Jews (James’ crew), and others?

    Question: “the former (Orthodox) probably arose in opposition.”
    Are you saying Gnosticism was first?

    Question: “The teachings of Jesus could readily fit into a worldview that rejected materialism…” Do we really know what the actual teachings of Jesus were? You are certainly right that much of the Jesus material in the gospels point that way but some doesn’t, right? We have several Jesuses, I think, in the gospels.

    Probably since humans were conscious of their dreams, they “dreamt up” the idea of the world as an illusion. Hindus, Gnostics and many more. Hell, cognitive scientists have shown us what great magicians our minds are.

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