The Gnostic New Age

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Summary of The Gnostic New Age

The Gnostic New Age How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today April D. DeConick COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS NEW YORK K Columbia University Press Publishers Since 1893 New York Chichester, West Sussex Copyright © 2016 April D. DeConnick All rights reserved Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: De Conick, April D., author. Title: The gnostic new age : how a countercultural spirituality revolutionized religion from antiquity to today / April D. DeConick. Description: New York : Columbia University Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifi ers: lccn 2016000270 (print) | lccn 2016020760 (ebook) isbn 9780231170765 (cloth : alk. paper) | isbn a9780231542043 (e-book) | isbn 9780231542043 () Subjects: lcsh: Gnosticism—History. | New Age movement. Classifi cation: lcc b638.d4 2016 (print) | lcc b638 (ebook) | ddc 299/.932—dc23 lc record available at Columbia University Press books are printed on permanent and durable acid-free paper. This book is printed on paper with recycled content. Printed in the United States of America c 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Cover art: @ Shutterstock / Elena Ray published with a grant Figure Foundation that square be squared Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 C H A P T E R O N E The Matrix of Ancient Spirituality 19 C H A P T E R T W O The Gnostic True Man 51 C H A P T E R T H R E E Superpowers and Monsters 77 C H A P T E R F O U R Paul and Gnostic Dogma 107 C H A P T E R F I V E John and the Dark Cosmos 135 C H A P T E R S I X Gnostic Altered States 163 C H A P T E R S E V E N Hell Walks and Star Treks 195 Contents viii C O N T E N T S C H A P T E R E I G H T Spiritual Avatars 229 C H A P T E R N I N E The Pi of Politics 259 C H A P T E R T E N Pleasantville Religions 295 C H A P T E R E L E V E N Gnosticism Out on a Limb 341 Bibliography 353 English Translations of Gnostic Sources 364 Filmography 364 Index 367 This is the book I have wanted to write since the beginning of my career. Over the years, I have learned about the Gnostics by immersing myself in their literature. I had one rule of thumb: if something in their literature looked weird or crazy to me, I refused to jump to the conclusion that the Gnostics were saying weird or crazy things. I kept reminding myself that the weirdness or craziness was my problem, not theirs. It refl ected the fact that I didn’t yet know enough to understand them. This stance opened many conversations with friends and colleagues, who entertained my questions and drafts of my chapters, inspired me with their comments and published works, and encouraged me to keep going, whether they agreed or disagreed with me. My heartfelt thanks to Jeff rey Kripal, Vernon Robbins, John Turner, Gregory Shaw, Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta, Birger Pearson, Roger Beck, Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley, Bas van Os, Judith Roof, Kelley Coblentz-Bautch, Marcia Brennan, Re- becca Lesses, Andrei Orlov, Madeleine Scopello, Jason DeBuhn, Christo- pher Rowland, Kevin Sullivan, Jared Callaway, Kocku von Stuckrad, and Terry Wilfong. I would like to thank the following scholars and their institutions for hosting talks on “The Ancient New Age” as I was writing this book: James Tabor of the University of North Carolina, where I delivered the Twenty-Ninth Annual Loy Witherspoon Lecture in 2013; Gabriele Boc- caccini of the University of Michigan, where I was the Centennial Lec- turer for Rackham School of Graduate Studies in 2012; and Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Groningen, where I addressed the Faculty Acknowledgments To Marjorie M. Fisher x A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S Research Colloquium on Theorizing Religious Change in 2012. My thanks also to Catrin Williams and Christopher Rowland, who invited me to rethink Gnosticism’s relationship to the Gospel of John and present my ideas at their conference, John’s Gospel and Intimations of Apocalyptic, at Bangor University in 2010. I am thankful for the support and advice of my literary agent, Anne Borchardt, and my editor at Columbia University Press, Wendy Lochner, who believed in this project from the very beginning and saw it through to the end. Thank you both for your care and guidance. Thanks also to Sylvia Louie, who made sure the offi ce ran smoothly while I wrote. My students have inspired me with their enthusiasm to know. They listened when I talked about my ideas with them and provided useful comments on my work as they fi elded draft after draft of this book. My thanks goes out to Grant Adamson, Cindy Dawson, Matthew Dillon, Erin Evans, Michael Domeracki, Rebecca Harris, Jason Ford, Renee Ford, Minji Lee, Victor Nardo, Erin Prophet, Mark Schmanko, C. J. Schmidt, Franklin Trammell, and Adriana Umana. I am deeply grateful for the fi nancial support and teaching releases granted to me by Dean Nicolas Shumway, the Humanities Research Cen- ter at Rice, where I was a faculty fellow during the academic year 2012– 2013, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funded my research seminar Mapping Death, from 2010 through 2012. This book started taking shape in that seminar. My deepest gratitude goes out to my husband, Wade Greiner, and my son, Alexander DeGreiner. I could not have written this book without your spot-on suggestions, your unwavering belief in me, and your love. To keep this book reader-friendly, I have tried to keep the references to a minimum, and I provide citations to works and translations in Eng- lish whenever possible. Additional resources and deeper discussion of the ideas presented in this book can be found in a series of academic articles and books that I have published previously (DeConick 1996, 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c, 2013d, 2013e, and 2016). April D. DeConick The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul The Gnostic New Age K Forbidden Scriptures In 1982, I was fi nishing my fi rst year of college. I was enrolled in a two- year program to become a registered nurse and had been doing rounds on the oncology fl oor of the local hospital and in geriatrics. I was eighteen years old and any romantic notions I may have had about health care when I started school vanished with the fi rst catheter I had to insert. One day, to distract myself from my existential crisis, I visited the lo- cal bookstore, hoping to fi nd a good novel. But I didn’t have any luck. Back at home, my mother pulled out a book that she had been reading and handed it to me. “I bet you will like this,” she said. I glanced at the cover. The Other Gospels by Ron Cameron (1982). Gospels that never made it into the New Testament . Unknown sayings of Jesus . Could be interesting, I thought. That is how I read the Gospel of Thomas for the fi rst time, in the open- ing pages of The Other Gospels . As I read this gospel, I encountered a Jesus who impressed me, a Jesus who was unknown in conventional Christian circles. As I began reading the Gospel of Thomas, I was immediately en- raptured by Jesus’ declaration that God’s power is not external to us but inside of us, and that if we don’t grasp this we are living impoverished. Here, in the Gospel of Thomas, was a Jesus I wanted to know more about. For years I had been searching for a spiritual church home. I had vis- ited just about every Christian denomination under the sun. But I always left their services disappointed and disenchanted. The God of goodness and providence that I knew from my personal religious life did not seem Introduction 2 I N T R O D U C T I O N to be present in any of the traditional Christian churches I attended. No matter how hard I tried, I could not harmonize the God of uncondi- tional love I personally knew with the conventional Christian God who demanded that his son be sacrifi ced to him for the salvation of sinful hu- man souls. It wasn’t until I read the Gospel of Thomas that I felt aligned with Christianity, although it was a Christianity that had not survived into the modern era. What was up with this? I was galvanized. Why isn’t this gospel in the New Testament? I wondered. Committed to learning more, I came upon Elaine Pagels’s book The Gnostic Gospels (1979). As I read her book, I was tantalized by her discus- sion of a wider range of Gnostic opinions and writings. Professor Pagels was among the fi rst researchers to have access to a hoard of Gnostic texts that had been found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, so her book contains some of the fi rst publicly available English translations of these old Gnostic texts. For nearly two thousand years, the writings of the leaders of the emer- gent Catholic church told about the terrible Gnostic heretics who had said and done horrible things that would lead good Christians straight to hell. The Gnostics were so threatening to the fi rst Catholics that they were called by the Catholics monsters and demons. But were they? Pagels posed this question in her book and, in the end, concluded that the works of the Gnostics have a diff erent story to tell. As I read Pagels’s book, I came to see that the Nag Hammadi writings enable us to know what the Gnostics actually said. These old texts give us a chance to evaluate the claims of the Gnostics against the claims of their Catholic enemies. I learned from Professor Pagels that early Christianity was an extremely diverse religion and that Catholicism triumphed as the orthodox or “right” way by forcibly suppressing the Gnostics and elimi- nating their publications. Pagels could fi nd nothing theologically wrong with the Gnostics. They, in fact, were very reasonable, sometimes even more reasonable than the Catholics in their understanding of the human being, the world, and God. The main idea that got Gnostic groups into trouble, according to Pagels, was their insistence that we have to fi nd access to God ourselves, that the light of God is already within us, and that this self-knowledge is salvifi c. Salvation would not come through the sacraments or rituals. It 3 I N T R O D U C T I O N would not come through right belief or the proper reading of the Bible. It would not come through sacrifi ce and martyrdom. It was available only through the personal discovery of our own internal divinity. The Catholic bishops were threatened by this premise because, if true, it meant that there was no need for bishops to administer rituals, interpret scriptures, hear confessions, or run churches. In other words, they would be out of a job. So the theological controversies between the Gnostics and the Catholics over the nature of God and Jesus’ resurrected body, the value of Jesus’ crucifi xion, and the rules of salvation were motivated more by the political struggle for control of Christian churches than the right- ness or wrongness of Gnostic doctrines. The Gnostics, unable to ritualize or institutionalize their personal experiences of the divine, were the losers in this battle. The Gnostics did not survive historically. Their highly per- sonal religion was destroyed under the pressure of Catholicism, which was able to develop into an organized religion attractive to a mass audience. Captivated, I bought a copy of The Nag Hammadi Library in En glish (Robinson 1977) and began reading the Gnostic scriptures fi rsthand. As I read the ancient collection of Gnostic texts, I noticed constant references to rituals, communal prayers, organized assemblies, and church leaders. The Gnostics who wrote these texts weren’t less organized than the Cath- olics or unable to ritualize their personal experiences of the divine. In fact, the opposite seemed to be the case. The Gnostics who wrote these texts had developed sets of rituals in order to prompt intense religious experiences of spiritual transformation and transpersonal integration. And they were doing so in organized groups with guru-type leaders. What was going on with this? I was electrifi ed. Quite suddenly, I knew that I would never become a nurse. My vocation was clear. My path would be charted in academia, where I would try to make sense of the unconventional spirituality and forbidden religion lodged in the scriptures that had been forsaken by the Christian church. I was determined to fi gure out why the Gnostic scrip- tures had become forbidden scriptures. A Revolutionary Spirituality After I took my PhD at the University of Michigan in Near Eastern stud- ies, I turned my full attention to the Gnostics and their literature. For the 4 I N T R O D U C T I O N past twenty years I have been resolved to understand why their scriptures had become forbidden in the early church. To translate and study the original documents, I have traveled the world over, visiting the major museums and libraries that house the Coptic manuscripts of the Gnostic scriptures. What I found took me by complete surprise. The Gnostic writings were not forsaken because they had perverted the older and truer Catho- lic Christianity, as Christian apologists have claimed over the centuries. Nor were they innocuous alternative scriptures engineered as heresy by the Catholics to control the game board and assert Catholic interests. During my years of study, I have come to understand that the Gnostic compositions were forbidden because they promoted a type of spirituality so revolutionary that ancient religion was turned on its head. The ideas in the Gnostic scriptures are not innocent. They are not innocuous. Rather, they are provocative. They involve risk. They call into question. They stir up and incite. The Gnostics were the fi rst to view traditional religion as the opiate of the masses, the drug that keeps people satisfi ed to serve the gods and their kings as obedient slaves and vassals. Gnostic spirituality off ered a new orientation that insisted that human beings are more than the mortal creations of the gods. Conventional religions, they thought, mask the true God of worship, a transcendent God who is the ultimate reality and the primal source of all existence. This God of goodness and love transcends all gods and all religions. This God can only be known through direct personal contact, when the Gnostic unites with him in a profound tran- scendent religious experience. This personal link with the transcendent God was believed to be a nat- ural one. According to the Gnostics, the essential human self, our authen- tic being, is nothing less than God’s very own life essence, his own spirit captured deep within the human soul, where it lies dormant, unexpressed, and forgotten. It lies there pained, waiting to be awakened, cultivated, and reunited with the divine source of all. For the Gnostics, religion is not about obeying the conventional gods but about transcending them in order to fi nd spiritual union with the ul- timate God, the supreme source of all existence. Within the various com- munities of Gnostics, humans were no longer perceived as depraved mor- tal creatures punished by their maker and forced into perpetual servitude 5 I N T R O D U C T I O N and sacrifi ce. Humans were freed from slavery to the gods. They were liberated from the tyranny of the gods and their human ambassadors, the kings. The true God of worship is a transcendent god of love who desires nothing more than reunion and integration with us. This new countercultural orientation toward a transcendent God and the divine power of the human altered religion’s traditional purpose and challenged religious convention in dangerous ways. Since the individual person is no longer viewed as a mere mortal created by a powerful god to do his bidding, to off er obedience and submission, the traditional pos- tures of worship are turned upside down by the Gnostics. Since ancient people believed that off ending the gods and neglecting their laws would result in divine retribution, natural disaster, and civil unrest, the Gnostic message was forbidding to most people in antiquity. It was transgressive. It was countercultural. It threatened the very fabric of their society and the maintenance of civil order. What I realized as I studied the Gnostic literature is that the Gnostic scriptures didn’t become forbidden scriptures. They were forbidden scriptures. The Dirty Word Gnosticism In the forty years since the publication of The Gnostic Gospels many new developments have taken place in the fi eld of early Christianity (Ru- dolph 1983; Layton 1987; Couliano 1992; Williams 1996; King 2003; Mark- schies 2003; Logan 2006; Pearson 2007; Brankaer 2010; Brakke 2011; Denzey Lewis 2013; Broek 2013). Since the publication of books by Michael Williams (1996) and Karen King (2003), many scholars of early Christianity have come to view the terms Gnosticism and Gnostic with suspicion. Many scholars have become reluctant to use the terms at all, arguing that they were pejorative terms then and remain so now and that it does us no good to continue to use them. Gnosticism was not an ancient religion, and we should stop using the term because it limits our ability to see the full constellation of ancient Christian movements with- out prejudging them or prejudicing our analyses of them. The Gnostics, they say, were Christians, and we should discuss them under this rubric, not the Gnostic one. This disenchantment with the Gnostic label is trendy right now in aca- demic circles. It got its momentum from the rise of postmodern critical

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