In my last essay, I took aim at Pelagianism, a heresy from Late Antiquity, which Pope Francis has frequently targeted in its perceived modern forms in his teaching. In this essay I will discuss Gnosticism, the other major heresy whose descendants—according to the Holy Father—are seen across modern Christianity. While Pelagianism is named after its heresiarch, Gnosticism is so-called after the Greek word for “knowledge,” gnosis. As an agnostic is somebody who claims not to know anything about God, a Gnostic is somebody who claims to know too much, or more than anybody plausibly could.
I’ve decided to take a somewhat different tack in addressing Gnosticism than I took in addressing Pelagianism. A reader of the Pelagianism essay remarked that, since Pelagius’s heresy was specific and limited in its scope, my (and Pope Francis’s) use of “Pelagianism” to describe broader habits of thought struck him as a misuse of the term. In response to this criticism, this essay will devote more attention to what “historical Gnosticism” actually was before turning to Pope Francis’s use of the term to identify and criticize modern tendencies.
First, however, I should note that a modern community descended in a direct line from the historical Gnostics does exist. The Mandeans of southern Iraq are an ethnoreligious group descended from a Gnostic school of the same name. They are currently allies of circumstance with Iraq’s Christian communities due to the shared threat of ISIS and other Islamist forces. None of what follows ought to be taken as an attack on the Mandean people or their way of life.
Gnosticism is more difficult than Pelagianism to pin down. As mentioned above, Pelagius was a specific person whose beliefs are reasonably well understood. The Gnostics, however, were a whole archipelago of sects and philosophies. There was a significant overlap between Gnosticism and Christianity and most people today understand Gnosticism to have been a form of Christianity, but that was not the situation on the ground at the time. There were Gnostic schools that were not Christian, including the ancestors of the aforementioned Mandeans, who revered John the Baptist but not Jesus. Midcentury Buddhist scholar Edward Conze even suggested that certain Gnostic ideas were better understood as Buddhist than as quasi-Christian, although this theory has not met with wide acceptance. It goes completely without saying that there were also Christians who were not Gnostic. Thus, Gnostic schools of thought and Christianity are best understood as a Venn diagram with the heresies under discussion in the middle. It’s this middle of the diagram that I’ll describe as Gnosticism henceforth.
Pelagianism is unorthodox in its handling of a few specific theological subjects, whereas Gnosticism is inimical, root and branch, to orthodox Christianity. Here are a few definitions of Gnosticism from various books that I own.
The sixteenth edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has Gnostics as “Various sects, mostly of Christian inspiration, which arose and flourished in the 2nd century with offshoots surviving into the 5th century” (p. 500). Brewer’s clarifies that they meant gnosis “in the sense of ‘revelation’ which gave them certain mystic knowledge of salvation that others did not possess,” and claims that Gnosticism “was essentially based on oriental dualism, the existence of two worlds, good and evil, the divine and the material.” I would dispute that dualism is a peculiarly “oriental” concept, unless the word is being used to refer specifically to Iranian religion.
Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, a widely used divinity school textbook, describes the Gnostics as “groups that sought liberation from the world through knowledge” and “saw themselves as characters in a cosmic drama beyond the physical world of appearances” (p. 89). These groups supported their beliefs through a combination of Platonism and a certain allegorical reading of the Book of Genesis. For some of these groups the physical world was created not by God but by an inferior being called “Ialdabaoth” or the “Demiurge.” As in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, it’s “as if some lesser god had made the world.”
Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels has gnostic texts, with a lower-case g, as those that “claim to offer traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from ‘the many’ who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the ‘catholic church’” (p. xix). The Gnostic Gospels is a book that purports to treat Gnosticism much more sympathetically than those quoted above. However, this definition of Gnostic texts ends up foregrounding what is for many moderns one of the least sympathetic aspects of Gnosticism. This is its breathtaking elitism and insistence on the specialness of its devotees compared to the ordinary believer.
So what do these definitions of Gnosticism tell us about “neo-Gnosticism”? Evangelii Gaudium §94 characterizes gnosticism, again with a lower-case g, as “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.” In other words, Pope Francis notices the very same thing about Gnosticism that Pagels notices, and is much less inclined to assess it positively. Understood this way, Gnosticism is the idea that the intellect saves us, not through faith or through works but through ideas, sensations, and knowledge received privately. A few years ago the center-left news website Vox ran an article called “The Smug Style in American Liberalism.” This article defined a tendency to act like politics is about having the “Good Facts” rather than about actually being either morally or prudentially right. By the same token we could call Gnosticism “the smug style in Late Antique Christianity.”
Placuit Deo, a 2018 CDF document, stresses that in Gnosticism “salvation consists of improving oneself” and stresses its contempt of the flesh and attempt to escape the human body, even the body of Jesus. Gaudete et Exsultate, which was promulgated weeks after Placuit Deo and whose groundwork Placuit Deo was probably intended to lay, sees this as a form of hatred for the world as a whole. Here are §§40-42 of Gaudete et Exsultate, under the subheading A doctrine without mystery:
Gnosticism is one of the most sinister ideologies because, while unduly exalting knowledge or a specific experience, it considers its own vision of reality to be perfect. Thus, perhaps without even realizing it, this ideology feeds on itself and becomes even more myopic. It can become all the more illusory when it masks itself as a disembodied spirituality. For gnosticism “by its very nature seeks to domesticate the mystery”, whether the mystery of God and his grace, or the mystery of others’ lives.
When somebody has an answer for every question, it is a sign that they are not on the right road. They may well be false prophets, who use religion for their own purposes, to promote their own psychological or intellectual theories. God infinitely transcends us; he is full of surprises. We are not the ones to determine when and how we will encounter him; the exact times and places of that encounter are not up to us. Someone who wants everything to be clear and sure presumes to control God’s transcendence.
Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life. This is part of the mystery that a gnostic mentality cannot accept, since it is beyond its control.
Ironically, Gnosticism, which was a mystery cult in the Classical sense of presenting the initiate with secret and publicly unavailable information about its doctrines and practices, is condemned as anti–mysterious. The devotee seeks to control the mystery, to blast it open the way Walter Benjamin’s ludicrously macho ideal historian is “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.” Somebody who watches a lot of science fiction and fantasy television—which I used to—might compare this to the modern tendency towards surprising the audience with “reveals” that, if mishandled, cheapen a show’s fictional world rather than deepening it. But the world of the Triune God and His angels and saints is not fictional. It’s extremely real and deadly serious business—and, yes, after the Last Judgment it will be materially real as well. Treating it as an immaterial abstraction to which the human intellect ascends in an ecstatic flight from death is reducing it to some kind of game that can be rigged.
Gaudete et Exsultate goes on to say in §47 that Pelagianism was effectively Gnosticism applied to the will rather than the intellect. I don’t know how well this reflects Church history. As an exercise in connecting the dots between ideas, though, it shows something important about both heresies. Both involve an immoderate desire to dictate terms in one’s relationship with God, as if he was a mere toady or aide de camp in one’s (self-chosen) spiritual battles.
In the worldview that both heresies share, there are some good people who have their lives and spiritualities under control, and some bad people who do not. The idea is that some people are “on top of things” and are to be commended for that. Other people are not and are instead to be chided. This idea is appealing to our individualistic age in which people want, and believe that they have, control over their own destinies. Unfortunately, this is not the understanding of Christian orthodoxy, in which God’s gratuitous encounter with us, not our own accomplishments, sets the pace and tone for our lives. I’ll leave the reader with this quote from St. Bonaventure, which Gaudete et Exsultate quotes in footnote 37 of its section on Gnosticism:
Since nature can achieve nothing and personal effort very little, it is necessary to give little importance to investigation and much to unction, little to speech and much to interior joy, little to words or writing but all to the gift of God, namely the Holy Spirit, little or no importance should be given to the creature, but all to the Creator, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Image: A modern colorization of the “Flammarion Engraving,” an unknown artist’s allegorical depiction of the quest for knowledge.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.