Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul

FATHER ALFONSO AGUILAR

At the beginning of the third millennium three worldviews compete to conquer the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures, the world's soul: materialistic relativism, Gnosticism and Christianity. The New Evangelization demands a clear-cut separation between Gnosticism and Christianity if we want to bring every thirsty person to the Water of Life.

What do Harry Potter, the Star Wars series, The Matrix, Masonry, New Age and the Raelian cult, which claims to have cloned the first baby, have in common?

Their ideological soil. Identical esoteric ideas suffuse the novels, the movies, the lodges, the "alternative spirituality" and the cloning "atheistic religion," and this ideological soil has a name — Gnosticism.

"Gnosticism" is an eerie word whose meaning eludes our minds. I often meet Catholics who have heard the term but have only a foggy idea of what it means. Perhaps Gnosticism itself is foggy.

Yet, whether we understand it or not, Gnosticism may be, at the beginning of the third millennium, the most dangerous enemy to our Christian faith. Notice, I'm not saying Star Wars or Harry Potter is the danger. They provide us with good lessons and fine entertainment. They are just two signs of the power of the real enemy: Gnosticism.

Why? What is Gnosticism?

In one dense but masterful summary, we find the essential aspects of Gnosticism. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II writes:

"A separate issue is the return of ancient Gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age. We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practicing Gnosticism — that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting his word and replacing it with purely human words. Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian."

Let's examine what the Holy Father is saying about Gnosticism.

'Secret Knowledge'?

First, its nature. Strictly speaking, Gnosticism was an esoteric religious movement of the first centuries A.D., a movement that rivaled Christianity. In a broader sense, it is an esoteric knowledge of higher religious and philosophic truths to be acquired by an elite group. John Paul alludes to the first meaning with the phrase "ancient Gnostic ideas" and to the second as an "attitude of the spirit" that "has always existed side by side with Christianity."

A Gnostic is one who has gnosis (a Greek word for "knowledge") — a visionary or mystical "secret knowledge" capable of joining the human being to the divine mystery. Gnostics, the Pope remarked, distort God's word "in the name of a profound knowledge of God." What is this "knowledge" they claim to have?

The Gnostic worldview is dualistic. Reality consists of two irreducible elements: one good, the spiritual world (the realm of light); and the other evil, matter (the realm of darkness). Two supreme powers or gods oppose each other — the unknowable and ineffable god, from whom a series of lesser divinities emanated, and the evil god, or demiurge, who produced the universe from foul matter and possesses it with his evil demons.

Man is composed of body, soul and spirit. The spirit is man's true self, a "divine spark," a portion of the godhead. In a tragic fall, man's true self, or spirit, was thrown into this dark world and imprisoned in each individual's body and soul. The demiurge and the demons keep man's spirit as a slave of the material world, ignorant of his "divine" condition. Hence the need for a spiritual savior, a messiah or "Christ," to offer redeeming gnosis. This savior is a guide, a master who teaches a few "spiritual" people — the Gnostics — about their true spiritual selves and helps them to wake up from the dream world they live in. The Gnostics would be released from the material world, the non-Gnostics doomed to reincarnation.

What is an example of how these beliefs are embodied in popular stories? Consider the Star Wars movies. There is much good in them. The stories are admirable in many ways. But they are chock-full of Gnosticism.

Star Wars is the clash between the two supreme powers of the universe — "the force" and the "dark side of the force," which is exploited by the "emperor" (the demiurge) and his demons (Darth Vader, the siths). The Gnostic heroes are the Jedi, who possess the "secret knowledge" of their own spiritual powers; unlike the non-Gnostic, they are able to use "the force" well. Each Jedi has a master, who trains him to acquire this redeeming gnosis. Ben Kenobi, for instance, was for a time the master of Anakin and Luke Skywalker. The greatest spiritual guide in the saga is Yoda, a respected senior member of the Jedi council and a general in the clone wars.

As Christ's followers, we must sort out the good seed from the weeds (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). I propose a distinction between the Gnostic values and its philosophy.

Gnostics promote, without a doubt, positive values. They draw a clear-cut separation between good and evil, stress man's spiritual dimension, instill high and noble ideals, foster courage and concern for others, respect nature, reject materialism and often reject hedonism, too.

Such values shine like pearls in an age of moral relativism that thirsts for gain, the ephemeral, the hedonistic. Aren't these some of the virtues and ideas we love in Star Wars and Harry Potter?

The other side of the coin, however, is not so positive. The good values are rooted in a Gnostic philosophical understanding of man, God and the world that is, as the Pope put it, "in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian." Why?

Note the opposite views. The Christian Creator is love — a Trinity of persons who wants to establish with us a personal relationship of love — quite different from that unknowable God, usually conceived, like the Star Wars "force," as an impersonal energy to be manipulated.

The God of Revelation made everything good — the angels, the world, our body and soul. Evil is not a force of the same rank as God; rather, it springs from angels' and men's personal free choice. Salvation is offered by God in Christ, man's only redeemer.

Salvation is a grace — a free gift from God that Man can neither deserve nor earn. It is not gnosis, "secret knowledge" we can acquire by ourselves with the help of mere human guides or Christlike figures. In short, the Christian religion is a "dialogue" of love between God and man, not a self-centered "monologue" in which man divinizes himself. That's why John Paul says Gnosticism cannot lead "toward a renewal of religion."

It distorts God's word, "replacing it with purely human words."

Then and Now

Finally, the Pope alludes to the historic span and manifestations of this ideology. "Gnosticism," he says, "never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity sometimes taking the shape of philosophical movement but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion."

Let's look at a few representative Gnostic movements in history.

With the rise of Christianity, ancient esoteric ideas developed into Gnostic syncretism. Thus, in the first centuries A.D., the Apostles and the Church Fathers had to combat several "Christian" Gnostic religious systems, such as those of Cerinthus, Manander, Saturninus, Valentinus, Basilides, Ptolemaeus and the ones contained in the apocryphal gospels: of truth and perfection, and of Judas (Iscariot), Philip and Thomas.

The third-century dualist Manichaean church or religion spread from Persia throughout the Middle East, China, southern Europe and northern Africa, where the young Augustine temporarily became a convert.

Teachings similar to Manichaeism resurfaced during the Middle Ages in Europe in groups such as the Paulicians (Armenia, seventh century), the Bogomilists (Bulgaria, 10th century), the Cathars or Albigensians (southern France, 12th century), the Jewish Cabala and the metaphysical speculation surrounding alchemy.

Modern times witnessed the resurgence of Gnosticism in philosophical thought — the Enlightenment, Hegel's idealism, some existentialist currents, Nazism, Jungian psychology, the theosophical society and Freemasonry.

More recently, Gnosticism has become popular through successful films and novels, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix. It has also gained followers among the ranks of ordinary people through pseudo-religious "movements," such as the New Age and the Raelian cult.

These contemporary Gnostic expressions should certainly inspire us in the good values they promote. At the same time, we should be cautious — examine their philosophical background and reject what is incompatible with our Christian faith.

At the beginning of the third millennium we seem to face the same old clash between Christianity and Gnosticism. Both fight to conquer the "soul" of this world — the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures.

For this reason, defeating Gnosticism has become an essential task of the New Evangelization. "Against the spirit of the world," the Holy Father says in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, "the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul."

Into the Gnostic Wonderland

Morpheus, a man with circular mirrored glasses, approaches Neo Anderson, a young man who feels something is wrong with the world.

"You are a slave, Neo," the man says. "You, like everyone else, were born into bondage — kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for your mind."

Morpheus holds two pills in his hands — one blue, one red.

"This is your last chance; after this, there is no going back," he says. "You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." Neo takes the red pill.

Sounds familiar? It is a memorable scene of the hit movie The Matrix.

Morpheus' offer visualizes what our culture often offers. The blue pill stands for materialistic relativism — believing there is no truth nor right and wrong, or, as Morpheus put it, "You believe whatever you want to believe."

Consequently, "You wake in bed" — you enjoy yourself in comfort, money, hedonistic pleasures, social success. We often see the blue pill available over the counter in books, colleges, courts, institutions, the media.

The red pill stands for Gnosticism — believing reality is ultimately divine and can be manipulated by whoever has "secret knowledge." This is "Wonderland," and it, too, can now be bought over the counter like the blue pill.

Thank God there is a third option Morpheus didn't take into account — something neither blue nor red but transparent: Call it water. Water stands for our Christian faith. Christ, the water of life (see John 7:37-39), came to bring us the "living water" of "eternal life" (see John 4:7-13) through the water of baptism.

The blue and red pills counter the effects of water in different ways. Materialistic relativism tries to destroy all objective truths and values. Gnosticism, instead, proposes alternative truths and values. Moreover, it interprets Christianity as esoteric knowledge, not to destroy it but to distort it.

Neo, Vader and Voldemort

First, where is Gnosticism in today's culture? You might bump into it in successful films and novels, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix, or face it in "religious" and "philosophical" movements, such as the New Age, the Raelian cult and Freemasonry.

Note the difference between the three media products and the three movements: The movies and the books do not instill a credo you must believe in if you want to watch, read and enjoy them. In fact, they are commendable in many ways — they provide us with elevated entertainment, valuable lessons and admirable heroes.

The movements, instead, are credos one must embrace in order to be an authentic New Ager, Raelian or Mason. As Catholics, we might be inspired by the noble ideals of these movements but not by their philosophy. Their philosophy is "Wonderland." And "Wonderland" is not "Christianland."

What is the Gnostic "Wonderland"?

The story of The Matrix shows it.

Morpheus reveals to Neo that human beings are trapped in a false "reality." Why? Some time ago men created the Matrix, an artificially intelligent entity. Needing man's energy to survive, the Matrix became a computer-generated dreamworld — the world we think we live in — to enslave men in a huge lab and suck their energy with the help of "agents."

However, a man succeeded in freeing the first human beings and teaching them the truth before he died.

The Oracle (a prophet) predicted this man will return to liberate all people and bring them to Zion, the last human city. Thus, a few freed men and women free others, looking for this man. Morpheus believes Neo to be the One and tries to free his mind so Neo can operate as the savior he is.

Here is the story's translation into the Gnostic worldview:

Two supreme powers or gods fight one another for supremacy. One is the pleroma ("fullness" in Greek) — the good unknowable godhead, from whom many spiritual entities called aeons emanated. The other is an evil, deformed god, called the demiurge ("craftsman") that fashioned the flawed universe, along with archons, or demons.

Reality is dualistic. Everything is spiritual, particularly — but not solely — man's spirit. This is man's own true self, and it is good, for it is a portion of the pleroma's divine essence. Everything material, like man's body, is foul and evil, because it was produced by the demiurge and his demons to keep man's spirit a slave in the material prison of creation. Thus, every human being, knowingly or unknowingly, serves this false god and lives ignorant of his divine condition. His fate is reincarnation.

How does one free oneself from matter and join the divine pleroma? Through secret, esoteric knowledge called gnosis — the visionary or mystical awareness of one's own divinity. One becomes a Gnostic by following spiritual guides or masters, historical figures of the "Christ," such as Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and Rael.

Review the story of The Matrix and our introductory scene and you will understand the philosophy.

Zion and mankind stand for the pleroma. The Matrix and its "agents" are the demiurge and his archons, who created the illusory world to enslave man and hinder him from realizing their spiritual powers. Morpheus and his crew are the Gnostic. Morpheus is also Neo's guide. Neo will become the ultimate "Christ," the One who will offer redeeming gnosis to the rest of the mortals.

Consider the Star Wars series. "The force" is the good godhead opposed by "the dark side of the force," which the emperor (the demiurge) and his siths (the archons) employ to enslave all peoples. Only the Jedis (the Gnostic) are capable of transcending the physical laws of nature and join "the force" to use it for the salvation of all. Each Jedi acquires gnosis with the help of a master. Yoda, for instance, trained Ben Kenobi, and Ben Kenobi trained Anakin and Luke Skywalker. In the last scene of The Return of the Jedi, you see Yoda, Ben Kenobi and Anakin "saved" — "energized" with "the force."

Harry Potter follows a similar pattern. It portrays the clash between the "white" magic (the pleroma) practiced by the witches and wizards (the Gnostic) and the dark arts exploited by the Dark Lord Voldemort (the demiurge) and his followers in the Slytherin House (the demons). Every professor at Hogwarts is, of course, a master, with Albus Dumbledore as the school headmaster. The non-Gnostic are called the Muggles, ignorant human beings who, like the Dursley family, are subject to the laws of the material world.

We expect Harry Potter to finally become the "Christ," the savior. Note the boy never becomes a wizard and never acquires magic powers. He only becomes aware, through training, that he is a wizard and has these powers from birth. That's gnosis.

Most people who enjoy these three popular sagas might be inspired by their positive values but do not take their Gnostic wonderland seriously. But to leave fiction and enter the New Age movement, the Raelian religion or Freemasonry requires a "conversion" of the initiated. To join, you must swallow the red pill.

The pleroma is the Mason's inaccessible great architect and his divinities, the New Agers' impersonal "energy" or the Raelians' community of wise extraterrestrial scientists called Elohim who created all life on earth 25,000 years ago. The three groups identify the demiurge with all "dogmatic" churches and religions but especially with the Catholic Church — with her archons (the Church leaders and particularly the Pope) she traps men in the false "reality" of Christian Revelation, hindering them from the self-consciousness of their own divinity.

The Gnostic are the Masons, the New Agers, the Raelians. Many historical figures have incarnated the "Christ," known as Maitreya in Masonic and New Age circles and as Rael ("the messenger") among Raelians.

Water or the Red Pill?

On the surface Gnostic wonderlands might look Christian — they promote religiosity, spiritual values, concern for others, respect for nature, the sense of mission, rejection of materialistic relativism. How can we discern if a movie, a novel, a movement or an organization is rooted in a Gnostic or in a Christian worldview?

We need to examine its underlying concept of God, man and the world. First, God: Is God the only supreme good power or is there another evil force of the same rank? Is God somebody with whom we have a personal relationship of love or something like a force to be used? Is Jesus of Nazareth the only savior or are there many "Christs"?

Second, check the notion of man: Is he a loved creature or a portion of divinity to be freed? Is man a unity of body and soul or just a spirit imprisoned in a body? Does man's salvation come from a gratuitous gift of God (grace) or from "secret knowledge" acquired by training (gnosis)?

Third, think of the world: Is creation good and real or evil and illusory — a sort of prison?

The answers unveil the pervading philosophy. A fictional story, of course, does not need to present the Christian truths. The question is whether or not there is room for a Christian worldview in the story.

Mark this substantial difference: A red pill is a man-made drug that may fail to cure; water, instead, is a God-made basic element for life. Gnosticism is a man-made self-centered philosophy — a "monologue" in which man divinizes himself and fails in the attempt. The Christian revelation is a God-made gift — "dialogue" of love that God establishes with man for eternal life.

The Christian revelation is Christ. To definitively discern what is Christian from what is not use what I call "St. John's criterion": "By this you know the spirit of God: Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world" (2 John 4:2-3).

At the beginning of the third millennium three worldviews compete to conquer the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures, the world's soul: materialistic relativism, Gnosticism and Christianity. The blue pill is easy to recognize. But the red pill is often dissolved in apparent water.

The New Evangelization demands a clear-cut separation between Gnosticism and Christianity if we want to bring every thirsty person to the Water of Life.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Alfonso Aguilar. "Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul." National Catholic Register. (April 6-12, 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy in Thornwood, New York, and can be reached at: aaguilar@legionaries.org.

Copyright 2003 National Catholic Register


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