January 23, 2005


Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul (FATHER ALFONSO AGUILAR, April 6-12, 2003, National Catholic Register)

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."

The values taught have to be used to lead people to the true philosophy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 7:12 AM

So Gnostics are returning, clad in the garb of science fiction and fantasy. Guess we'll just have to call them neo-Gnosties.

Of greater concern to me are the malign influences of Calvin and Hobbes.

Posted by: Ed Bush at January 23, 2005 2:00 PM

So far, anyway, the most dangerous enemy of the Christian faith has been the bahavior of Christians.

Once word got around, people started wondering if it was such a good idea after all.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 23, 2005 3:46 PM

yeah, they're down to just two billion.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2005 4:37 PM


Great post. Lots to think about.

Posted by: jdkelly at January 23, 2005 4:58 PM

It's all Father Aguilar.

Posted by: oj at January 23, 2005 5:01 PM

Why Harry- have you been reading the epistle of James?

I'm beginning to understand why the name Satan means "the accuser".

Posted by: judd at January 23, 2005 5:46 PM

DT 30:

[11] "For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.
[12] It is not in heaven, that you should say, `Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'
[13] Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'
[14] But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
[15]"See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.
[16] If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.
[17] But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them,
[18] I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
[19] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live,
[20] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them."

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 23, 2005 10:22 PM

Although I know that various fundamentalist Christians have always been upset over Star Wars' newagey feel about the Force, and Harry Potter, it's stretching to claim they are harbingers of Gnosticism.

I could just as easily illustrate how Star Wars represents Christian myth (the Dark Side of the Force representing Satan, the Emperor as the Anti-Christ, the destroyed Jedi as the Church fallen into Babylon, the Rebellion as the faithful during Tribulation, Han Solo as the Good Thief, Obi-Wan Kenobi as John the Baptist, etc.). At the very least, it does not make sense to claim that the Gnostic belief in the evilness of matter translates into the Dark Side of the Force (a non-material element in Star Wars). If you demand that stories exactly reproduce Christian theology, then JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis have written Gnostic works and that's just ludicrous.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 24, 2005 11:40 AM

They aren't harbingers--theyt are Gnostic.

Posted by: oj at January 24, 2005 12:32 PM