Given that many A|N members come to us from the mainstream faiths, while yet another, perhaps smaller number, graduated from paganism, Wicca, and the minority religions, I don't feel too terribly embarrassed to confess that in my relatively recent past I have practiced what is termed ceremonial magic(k) and been a follower of Vedanta, Buddhism, Wicca, and Gnosticism (in no particular order). I even founded a Gnostic church. If you don't believe me, get Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions and look up the American Gnostic Church. Ours was not a "Christian" gnostic organization but one devoted to scholarly investigation and promulgation of the "antinomian" gnostic sects, and in particular the Ophites, known to break bread in celebration of the sacrament only after a serpent has coiled about it, then quenching all lights in the "temple" for sexual orgia featuring selection of partners at random in hopes of avoiding those from the least desirable of the congregation: one's wife or husband.

It occurs to me that by making these statements I might impress readers as some sort of lunatic or perhaps a deranged lecher or worse. I can only say that I came to the antinomian gnostics by way of Aleister Crowley, the man the British tabloid press of his day labeled "the Wickedest Man on Earth." It was Crowley who added the "k" to the word "magic," for he claimed to be the incarnation of a medieval sorcerer, and magick was so spelled in that period in the history of man. In one of his rituals (Crowley was a ceremonial magician), he included a passage he called "the Collects," a list of famous antinomian sorcerers and free-thinkers throughout history (persons as disparate as Moses and Nietzsche). Many of these were gnostic in orientation. There was a legend that the Knights Templar had both an outer and inner order of knights, and Crowley took as his "magickal name" the title of the idol or object that the inner order was said to have worshiped: a thing called Baphomet. (I shall not delve into the possible meanings of this word or name but say only that they range from the Holy Grail to Satan himself.) Scholars believe that Baphomet was an invention of the Inquisition and, under torture, placed in the mouths of the Knights when King Phillip the Fair (so-called because of his complexion and certainly not due to his sensibilities) sent a crusade against the Templars, confiscating their vast wealth and using gnosticism as an excuse to slaughter them.

When I read Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, I was shocked to see that he thinks the Gnostics were bull moose loonies, for they had not impressed me as such when I read Doresse, Mead, Blavatsky, Jonas, and others who portrayed the "heretics" in a sensible light, certainly no more and no less misguided than those of the Judeo-Christian persuasion. The Gnostics simply carried dualism to its absurd reduction. How a person who believes in anything so barmy as a "Holy Trinity" can condemn another for positing that the world is in an eternal balance between Good and Evil as personified in deities by various names, is beyond me. Gnosticism was so prevalent in France in the Middle Ages, the Church felt existentially threatened and acted to suppress it in the most violent and inhuman manner. I am also at a loss to understand how anyone can condemn the Nazi pogrom against Jews as "crimes against humanity" yet sweep the Catholic Church's crusades neath the carpet as if, somehow, they were any less inhuman.

Joan Acocella has penned a piece in The New Yorker about several books treating the subject of her title, "Betrayal: Should We Hate Judas Iscariot?" Noting that the discovery of a Gnostic Gospel of Judas has spawned a spate of books both commenting on this gospel's very different account of Jesus as well as the history of how the figure of Judas Iscariot has been viewed, Acocella revisits the inherent contradiction in Christian theology: how can the person most directly responsible for the "passion" be viewed as unredeemably evil? She concludes that the Gospel of Judas has altered perceptions of the betrayer in ways that could never have been anticipated, even in the art of painters like Caravaggio, who makes the kiss of Gethsemene homoerotic. The "new" Judas, she writes, allows liberal theologians to find hope, itself "an indication of how desperately, the face of the evangelical movement, they are looking for some crack in the wall of doctrinaire Christianity -- some area of surprise, uncertainly, that might then lead to thought."

Thought? Think all they wish, even the liberal Christians are hard put to explain why the Gnostic Christ is any more "real" than the monotheistic one. The inherent problem of evil might be better understood when one turns the cosmos on its head, as many Gnostics did, regarding all the "heroes" of the Bible as villains and vice-versa. Thus, the Serpent of the Garden was holy and worthy of adoration and worship, as were Cain, Korah, and Judas. Like the "gnostic" Islamist sect, the Yezidis, many Gnostics regarded Yahweh-Jehovah, the demiurge, as wicked, for only an evil deity would fashion a "prison" for the trapped souls of men, whose only hope of salvation lay in the acquisition of gnosis, the chance for reunion with the divine, variously known as Abraxas, Abrasax, Barbelo, &c., from whom we descended as divine sparks.

Unfortunately, we are no better off with the Gnostic cosmology and theology than we are with those espoused by the major faiths. None can prove the existence of "God," whether he is Yahweh-Jehovah or otherwise. But Acocella's review of the many books about the Judas gospel is entertaining reading all the same. One conclusion she comes to should be of particular interest to A|N members: her observation that Catholic and other Christian religious bodies refuse to bend their dogmatic stance that Judas is irredeemably evil in spite of his contribution to the plan of man's vicarious salvation. The only possible conclusion one can reach from such pig-headedness is that it is in keeping with Church dogma that a sinner is a sinner is a sinner and that betrayal of the son of God is the ultimate sin, for which one cannot apologize, much less atone.

It is just such unwillingness to forgo moral absolutism that is turning people away from the organized religions in increasing numbers. Situational ethics is anathema to any theological construct that interprets scripture literally and demands absolute observance of its strictures -- all the "thou shalt's" and "thou shalt not's." It is curious that Christians are quite ready and willing to eschew 9/10ths of the prohibitions of Leviticus, but not the condemnation of homosexuality, and this in a day and age when overpopulation is a very real threat to world survival. Christians eat pork, having bought their refrigerators so that trichinosis is a thing of the past.

Liberal Christian theologians may be heralding change with the discovery of a new Gnostic gospel that appears to redeem Judas of Kerioth. But what we really need is a gospel that says what Daniel Plainview forces Rev. Eli Sunday to admit in the film, There Will Be Blood (paraphrased): "Preachers, priests, and pastors are false prophets and God is a superstition."

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Comment by Skylar on February 10, 2010 at 9:03pm
"When I read Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, I was shocked to see that he thinks the Gnostics were bull moose loonies,.."

I once heard him described as a "shock jock for the Volvo set".

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