My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In this 1979 classic of popular nonfiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. She also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.
What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within.
Given gnosticism’s dismissal of nature and the body, gnostics deemphasize the figure of Christ as incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death. For gnosticism, Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains.
Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, gnostics understate the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy and instead give a greater place to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”
The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:
As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.
As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:
Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.
Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”
The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to sympathize with: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. For example, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original—just another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do.
Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes feel the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.
But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:
William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.
Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-20th-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.
Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derive essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik.
Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined, in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century,” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:
Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.
Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.