The Pleroma An Essay On The Origin Of Christianity

Essay 13 from The Seeker’s Handbook – The Complete Guide to Spiritual Pathfinding, 1991, by John Lash. This book is currently under revision for re-publication late in 2001. The following essay is taken from the revised version.

Gnosticism as it appears today is a huge shambles, like the ruins of a once vast and magnificent temple. Historically, it may be defined as an elite movement whose members asserted the liberating power of spiritual knowledge over the promise of salvation from God on high. This viable option to Christian faith was brutally suppressed when the Catholic Church came to power. Until 1945 the record of Gnostic teachings came exclusively from its opponents, the early Christian fathers, who only cited the Gnostics to refute them. Imagine having the prosecutor’s dossier on a case tried two thousand years ago, and trying to reconstruct from it the viewpoint of the defendant! With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (NHL), precious source materials came to light. Scholars now recognize that Gnosticism comprised a sophisticated system of theological and cosmological teachings, its origins far more ancient that initially supposed.

3-D Knowledge

Gnosismeans “knowledge,” but of a special kind. Its unique character might be described as 3-D: knowledge of Divinity, of deviant forces in cosmos and psyche, and of how to develop supernormal faculties. To the Gnostics, sacred mind (Nous) was open to the Godhead in one direction and to human reason in the other. Seeing no contradiction between illumined reason and visionary revelation, they assumed a continuum from creature to Godhead, the Pleroma or “Divine Fullness,” consisting of an ensemble of paired gods called Aeons. The coupling of the Aeons recalls the paired neters (god-principles) of Egyptian religion and, even more so, the dyadic format of Hindu Tantra Vidya and Tibetan Buddhism. The evidence for Gnostic cosmology is scarce and fragmentary, but it can be reconstructed through close parallel with Egyptian and Asian systems.

Cosmic Deviation

The emphasis on deviant forces called Archons is unique to Gnostic vision. Deviance runs deep into the cosmic pattern, but it operates through error rather than sin. The Christian notion of sin due to the Fall has no role in Gnostic theology. Gnostic teachings on “the generation of error” are among the most subtle and complex of any religious system. “The world came about through a mistake,” says The Gospel of Philip (NHL II, 3). The world meant here is specifically our world-system, the solar system, not the entire cosmos. Gnostic cosmology seems to have been rigorous in ascribing the living, intelligent aspect of our world-system to the Aeons, while ascribing its mechanical or inorganic aspect to the Archons. Scholars wrongly perpetuate the notion that Gnosticism assumed two supreme gods, one good and the other evil, and rejected the visible world as the handiwork of the latter. Rather, it assumes two distinct world-orders emanated from the same source and then, somehow, collapsed into each other. The imperative of spiritual development is liberation from the deviant forces, not escape from the material world.

Christ and Sophia

Gnostic theology contains several flashpoints that have aroused extreme resistence from Christians, then and now: denial of the divinity of Jesus, rejection of sin and vicarious atonement, the apparitional or phantom-like nature of Christ’s human form (Docetism), the use of sexuality (Ophis, the Serpent Power, Kundalini) for higher evolution, and inclusion of the feminine in the divine revelation. Most shocking of all, Gnostics identified the Christian Father God, Jehovah, with the leader the Archons. They rejected the unity of the Old and New Testaments and argued that Jehovah must be a deviant entity, not a god of love and justice who sends an emissary to enlighten us. In effect, they asserted that the Supreme Being of the Christian faith is a monstrous aberration.

Gnostic cosmology describes how a feminine Aeon called Sophia, or Wisdom, was so passionately attracted to the dark matter of chaos beyond the Pleroma that she plunged ecstatically into it. This impact produced an “abortion” in the cosmic formative forces (atomic level) and so arose the Demiurge, the “half-effective” god, identical with Jehovah. The Sophia Aeon then merged into the material world, half-formed from inorganic matter and compelled by non-vital mechanical laws. Her error was to have sprung from the Pleromic matrix unilaterally, rather than dyadically: “For it is the will of the Originator not to allow anything to happen in the Pleroma apart from a coupling.” (NHL XI, 2) The “Fallen Sophia” undergoes a series of spiritual agonies described at length in the Gnostic texts, only to be united with the Christ Aeon, her male counterpart among the Pleromic dyads. In the Gnostic view, Christ is not a particular, one-time incarnation of Divinity in human form, but the eternal possibility of Pleromic contact realized by any initiated, illumined individual.

Gnostic texts reveal high regard for Mary Magdalene, “the woman who knew all,” represented to be the human embodiment of the Fallen Sophia. Some scandalous passages describe her and the Gnostic Jesus french-kissing and practising Tantric sex, either out in nature or in the nymphion (mystic bridal cell). Equally objectionable by Christian standards was the Gnostic insistence that those who are truly close to the Master kept the teachings to themselves, or only share them discreetly with a few other initiates. Obviously, this completely undercuts the imperative of the Church to go forth and convert the world.

Heresy for Today

Both Gnosticism and Christianity are soteriological religions, centered on the call for redemption. The difference is, Gnosticism proposes that knowledge saves us from ignorance of the indwelling Divinity, while Christianity promotes dependence on a superhuman agent who cancels our sins and insures our link to a remote Creator God. In effect, Gnosis is the realization that our intelligence is divine. Although initiation via sacred mind (dianoia) is an elitist path, the development of higher intelligence is open to all who seek it. The Gnostic quest for enlightenment probably expresses the central spiritual motive of humanity, the key to the alleged unity of all religions. This quest does not require belief in untestable dogmas such as the Incarnation, but opens the way to direct intuitive contact with Divinity. While it does exhibit some anti-Christian and even some totally non-Christian elements, Gnosticism is compatible with an optional form of Christocentric illuminism. Indeed, some of its historical advocates like Marcion and Valentinus claimed that it is the true and original from of Christianity. Gnosis leads us to correct our errors and view collective religion in a new perspective. With its emphasis on extra-human deviations of human intent due to the split-world cosmology, this heresy may contain the most liberating message of any religious system.

The publication of The Gnostic Gospels (1979) by Elaine Pagels brought Gnosticism into the mainstream. The study of the surviving texts poses great difficulty, however, due to the lack of practical methods for the third factor in the 3-D formula: how to develop the supernormal faculties implied in first-person contact with Divinity. Nevertheless, a kind of Gnostic revival may be unfolding as these long-lost teachings filter into open debate. Modern seekers who encounter these strange and baffling materials are deeply attracted by the alternative view of Christianity, as well as the opportunity to see the feminine in a new and inclusive light. For all its troublesome obscurities, Gnosticism continues to arouse profound responses in an every-widening range of people.

What we actually know about Christian gnosticism is limited. All of the writings and scriptures from these groups are ancient and suspected to be incomplete. The most important discovery of Gnostic scriptures was in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. There were found "Twelve books bound in leather…plus eight pages of a thirteenth book. The pages of these books are papyrus and contain fifty two Coptic texts, some of which appear more than once…so this collection numbers forty five writings, ten of which are severely damaged while the rest are reasonably legible."

According to one Gnostic myth the shaping of the material world was the result of Sophia, who was often decribed as an emanation of eternal light, an "immaculate mirror of God's activity," and as "the spouse of the Lord." Through her desire to "know the Father", she was cast out of the Pleroma (the gnostic heaven) and her desire gave birth to the God who created the material world. Although she was eventually restored to the Pleroma, bits of her divinity remain in the material world.

The inferior God created by Sophia's desire, also referred to as the Demiurge, is the Creator God of the Old Testament. Due to his inferiority, he is not seen as good but rather an evil, angry, violent God. It is the fault of this God that the world is in the mess that it is, and due to the fact that he created it, the world is evil. The higher transcendent God is not a creator of the material world, and instead is a nurturer of the spiritual. The only hope for humankind, while locked in this evil shell of a body is to spiritually transcend this world and deny the body.

Gnostics believed that in order to acquire salvation one must possess a certain knowledge, or gnosis, which must be delivered to a person by a messenger of light. However, to receive this knowledge, one must be trying to reach beyond the evil, dark, material, physical earth and body toward that of the good, light, immaterial, and spiritual worlds. The indwelling spark must be awakened from its terrestrial slumber by the saving knowledge that comes "from without." Jesus is one of the most fundamental "awakeners" of this knowledge. Therefore, although Gnostics, like other Christians, find salvation through the messages of Jesus, Gnostics seek salvation not from sin but from "the ignorance of which sin is a consequence." The gnostics believe that the evil creator God and his angels cause this ignorance. If one receives gnosis during this lifetime- a true realization of the spirit-body dichotomy and the true destiny of the soul, then at death, when the body releases the divine spark, the soul may be free of the evil world. On the other hand, if this realization is not reached, then the ignorant soul, when released from the body will be sent back by the Demiurge into the evil painful world.

Sophia (fem. Gk. for "wisdom") is a complex biblical figure described variously as a divine attribute, a distinct hypostasis of God, a goddess-like co-partner with God, and sometimes even as synonymous with God. She arises in the later texts of the Jewish tradition, first simply as wisdom with a capital "W," and then, in the Book of Proverbs, personified in a female form. The writings of early Christianity frequently draw on Sophia as a metaphor for Christ. The texts that include references to Sophia have only been canonized in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but many contemporary feminists have turned to her as a general model for feminist spirituality.

Her personality is riddled with contradictions. She is at once creator and created; teacher and that which is to be taught; divine presence and elusive knowledge; tempting harlot and faithful wife; sister, lover, and mother; both human and divine. Her very existence thus deconstructs all traditional binary relationships, as if she were the creation of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray or some other modern feminist theorist. Frequently Sophia defies the feminine norm established by society. As Virginia Mollenkott writes in The Divine Feminine, Sophia (Mollenkott 98). We see her

Just as Sophia defies definition, her origins seem impossible to trace. Scholars have suggested Semitic sources (the goddess of love and fertility, Ishtar), Egyptian sources (Maat, the goddess of conception), and Hellenistic sources (the goddesses Demeter, Persephone, Hecate, and Isis), and yet they have found no source for Sophia within the Hebrew tradition. Thus, it is still unclear whether she was borrowed from a nearby civilization or invented by the Hebrew writings. Scholars have dated Sophia's textual sources at least 500 years after most of the Hebrew tradition was developed. Sophia can be found in The Book of Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sirach), and in the Christian Gospels and epistles.

According to the authors of Wisdom's Feast, only God, Job, Moses and David are treated in greater depth in the Hebrew Scriptures than Sophia. (Cady et. al. 15). She grows in power throughout these texts, until, as Christian feminist Joan Chamberlain Engelsman suggests, Sophia comes to rival God's power, promising salvation for those who choose to follow her.

However, the extent of Sophia's divinity in this period has been widely debated. Both Engelsman and Rosemary Radford Ruether insist that the strictly monotheistic texts of Roman-era Judaism never portray Sophia as an autonomous female divine figure. Others have argued that some passages actually describe Sophia as a co-partner with God.

Early Christians seeking to understand Jesus as savior within the context of their Jewish origins searched the Hebrew Scriptures for related figures. Jesus did not completely match the traditional Jewish conception of the messiah who was to be a human king who would establish a new reign of justice and peace in Israel. Jesus actually seemed to have much more in common with Sophia who was part divine and part human, sent by God to change society. And, as the authors of Wisdom's Feast argue, both Christ and Sophia ultimately failed to completely transform society: Sophia's cries to humanity were in vain and Jesus was crucified. Thus, early Christians adopted Sophia as a model for their portrayals of Christ while continuing to refer to him as the messiah.

Paul makes the following associations between Christ and Sophia: Christ is the Wisdom of God; like Sophia, he is a creator, first born of all creation, the radiance of God's glory and the image of the invisible God. Luke describes Jesus as Sophia's son who communicates her wisdom to humanity. In Matthew's writings, Jesus is explicitly described as personified Wisdom. Perhaps John's Gospel draws the strongest connection between the two figures, relating the story of Sophia as the pre-history of Jesus.

Eventually Sophia was completely fused with Christ. Wisdom became Logos, and explicit associations between Sophia and Jesus disappeared from Christianity. Many Christian feminists describe her disappearance in the psychological language of repression. In her essay, "Wisdom Was Made Flesh," Elizabeth Johnson argues that the feminine Wisdom was replaced by the masculine Logos (Johnson 105). The authors of Wisdom's Feast offer a very different theory. They suggest that in order to recognize Jesus as equal to God the Father, all explicit associations between Jesus and the weaker Sophia had to be abandoned.

Wisdom's Feast also traces Sophia's disappearance to the tensions at this time between the Gnostics and the mainstream Christians. The Gnostics tended to downplay Jesus' humanity, and many rejected the notion that he was human. They adopted the association between Jesus and Sophia in order to de-emphasize Christ's bodily pain and suffering and focus more on the wisdom he imparted. Mainstream Christians, eager to separate themselves from the Gnostics, thus avoided reference to Sophia.

Following in the line of feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, the author's of Wisdom's Feast argue that in order to develop feminist spirituality we need to deconstruct traditional hierarchical binaries (i.e. sacred/profane, good/bad, male/female) and create a unity that celebrates the differentiation of its parts. Sophia, they insist, embodies this unity.

Sophia was not only a force for unity within Judaism. She also established continuity between Judaism and Christianity. And her fusion with Christ offers contemporary Christians a way to understand their Savior as a union of male and female. As Mollenkott explains, (Mollenkott 104). Similarly Johnson writes that through the filter of the Sophia metaphor, (Johnson 106). In light of this feminist revival of the Sophia figure, some Christian women have begun to speak of the "Sophia-God of Jesus" and of "Jesus Sophia."

Mollenkott also suggests that Sophia can replace the Virgin Mary as a positive role model for Catholic women. Mary, she insists, is an impossible model to follow, for no woman can be both virgin and mother. In addition, she argues that the strong, independent women of today cannot identify with Mary, for the Virgin Mother is a passive figure submissive to a masculine God. Sophia, however, may be a much more viable role model: (Mollenkott 102). Sophia supports a two-way flow of energy--both give and take--and thus she is an especially important figure for women who need to learn to restrain themselves from giving excessively.

However, like the Virgin Mary, Sophia too was shaped by a highly patriarchal society. In fact, some biblical portrayals of Dame Wisdom are clearly sexist. Some depictions of Sophia seem to reveal concerns that her growing power threatens patriarchal society. Proverbs 7 thus picks up on the traditional "bad girl" stereotype, describing Sophia as an evil harlot who threatens the patriarchally dominated institution of marriage. Ultimately, the authors of Wisdom's Feast have to admit that

In more modern Gnostic groups, Sophia is talked about in relation to Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. She is compared to Eve because both women experienced a "fall from grace" which resulted in the creation of the material world into the form it is today. In the myth she gives birth to a defective creature who she casts away, but who still retains power due to her holiness.

In the end, most sources agree that Sophia can be developed into a positive figure for feminist spirituality.

In more ways than one the Sophia figure suggests that that the gender stratification of Judaism and Christianity is centered in the body. Most revealing is the name of this extremely powerful female figure of Judaism and Christianity. Her name "Wisdom" seems to lend her the power to transcend the "impurities" of her female body. Sophia's role in the Gnostic community also suggests that her power was rooted in her wisdom. Here, more divine than flesh and blood, she was capable of transcending any impurities that might have been associated with her female body. Although she was sometimes described as a mother and a lover, these were only metaphorical depictions of Sophia. Clearly her wisdom was manifested in her bodilessness.

Cady, Susan, Marian Ronan, and Hal Taussig. Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Camp, Claudia V. Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs. Decatur: Almond, 1985.

Cixous, . "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1453-1471.

Irigaray, Luce. "This Sex Which is Not One." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 1466-1471.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. "Wisdom Was Made Flesh and Pitched Her Tent Among Us." Reconstructing the Christ Symbol: Essays in Feminist Christology. Ed. Maryanne Stevens. New York: Paulist, 1993. 95-117.

Mollenkott, Virginia Ramey. The Divine Feminine. New York: Crossroad, 1984.

Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Whybray, R.N. Wisdom in Proverbs: The Concept of Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9. Naperville: Allenson, 1965.

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