As indicated in the opening section of the original article, these value judgments– good, bad, and ugly –reflect, in part, what I take to be the perspective of the dominant Christian culture from the beginning. I do not mean to suggest that anyone who is honestly convinced that the truth is to be found in what I am referring to as bad or ugly gnosticism should not pursue them, but I do want to distance myself from both those positions and create a safe-space for what I take to be the good gnosticism of unitive or nondual awareness. This, in my opinion, offers a viable way forward for those who are sincerely seeking the Way, the Truth, and the Life in the 21st century–a way forward in which traditional Christian teachings become, again, both living and intelligible.
Mythical/Metaphysical Gnosticism (the bad)
Bart Erhman (who, by the way, probably would not understand or acknowledge what I am referring to as nondual gnosticism) offers a good beginning overview of that which I am referring to as metaphysical gnosticism and licentious gnosticism in his YouTube lectures on The Gospel of Judas. In the first of two YouTube videos on this topic, he devotes about 7 minutes to the very general– quasi-mythical, quasi-metaphysical –framework that I am referring to as the bad gnosticism. Here is that segment cued to begin at the 21:41 minute mark:
This is offers a pretty standard view of mythical/metaphysical gnosticism. For those who don’t have time to listen to the segment indicated, here is his power-point outline:
More detailed and/or alternative presentations are widely available on the Internet. I also recommend reading the first two chapters of Jaques Lacarriere’s The Gnostics — from which I will share two brief summaries from chapter three:
“So, to have done with this problem and give an exact definition of Gnostic thought – as I understand it, at least – all institutions, laws, religions, churches and powers are nothing but a sham and a trap, the perpetuation of an age-old deception.
“Let us sum up: we are exploited on a cosmic scale, we are the proletariat of the demiurge-executioner, slaves exiled into a world that is viscerally subjected to violence; we are the dregs and sediment of a lost heaven, strangers on our own planet.
“The point is that the history of man reproduces very closely the initial drama – and the farce – of the cosmos. Man, like the universe, is a failed creation, a lamentable imitation, the mere semblance of a man, a counterfeit man, or, in anthropological terms, a pseudanthrope. In man, the forgery is more immediately apparent than it is in the universe, for the human body is better known, and more accessible to us, than the light of the distant stars. Let us therefore summarize, as simply as possible, the precise reason for our being what we are, that is to say, trespassers in a body which is ill-suited to us.
“In the beginning, in the world of possibilities and virtualities, an image of man was born in the intelligible brain of the true God of the highest circle: a potential man, the mental matrix of he whom the true God might one day have made real. This image was perceived by the demiurges, the archons or angels of the lower circles. How? Why? A mystery. But perceive it they did and were dazzled, as if by the light, the force, the beauty, the coherence which emanated from this mentally conceived Anthropos. They therefore decided to imitate and reproduce him” (The Gnostics 29, 31 —see PDF, pages 20, 22).
All of this is sufficiently alien to orthodox Christian interpretations of the Judeo-Christian scriptures as to suggest the first reason for the early churches entrenched opposition to Gnosticism. While such mythical and metaphysical speculation is fascinating, to say the least (and can be instructive as a kind of philosophical exercise or thought experiment), if taken literally, they clearly conflict with more traditional readings of Genesis (i.e. more conventional readings which also seem to be expressed or implied in the dominant strains of New Testament thought). Moreover, if we attend closely to the Lacarriere quotation, above– which suggests that the cosmic deception extends to “all institutions, laws, religions, churches and powers” –we can begin to understand the way in which mythical / metaphysical gnosticism morphs (or might tend to morph) into unconventional / licentious gnosticism, as well. For if the dominant culture is deceptive, one way to to find deliverance from the prison of this world– one way to find out who you really are –might be to intentionally live in a way that runs very much counter and contrary to the dominant culture.
NOTE: Be forewarned, this can get rather ugly, at times, and is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart…