In 1945, an Arab peasant discovered a number of manuscripts near Naj Hammadi, Egypt. These manuscripts were eventually published and became known as the Gnostic Gospels, a set of gospels that may have been suppressed by the orthodox church of the time. The Gnostic Gospels contain many ideas that differ from orthodox Christianity. The differences are described in Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels.
According to the Gnostics, we have a divine nature or soul that is identical with God, but we mistake our ego for our true self. We recognize our ego is fragile and spend all our energy trying to preserve and promote it, denying that it will die. Our ego may mature to sense God, but we think of God as something distinct and separate from our ego. We mistakenly feel sinful or fallen because we think our ego can never reconcile with God, except perhaps through divine intervention. “Whoever comes to experience his own nature — human nature — as itself the ‘source of all things,’ the primary reality, will receive enlightenment” (pg. 144).
Our soul or divine nature is not at odds with our ego, only greater than it. Identifying with the divine makes our ego far more effective in dealing with the practical world in a meaningful way. Our ego is a vehicle of creation in the world and must be cared for, not hated or destroyed. By recognizing our divinity, we become equal with Christ, and have the ability to even surpass his achievements. Gnostics do not become Christians, they become Christ.
In the orthodox view, God is a male, suggesting male dominance in the church, part of a hierarchy leading up to the Pope. The orthodox church emphasizes the suffering of Christ on the cross, and its implication that Christians should suffer. By submitting to the Church’s doctrine, a sinner is reconciled with God. In contrast, the Gnostics observe that Mary, a woman, was the first to see Christ in a vision, not the flesh. They distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament God, and organize their worship in an egalitarian form, with men and women members of the congregation taking turns as leaders. The Gnostics seek a spiritual church rather than an empirical one. Christians need not suffer away but can claim the power of Christ. “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all things” (pg. 127, quoting Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas.
The concepts described here fit nicely with the Buddhist ideas I have been exploring more recently. I prefer to avoid talking about God as an entity, but I can work with it too. Like some Buddhists, I think it is more important to advance a secular ethics and practice than to fuss about particular religious views. In the end, I subscribe to the common view of a perennial philosophy underlying both the world’s religions and humanist views.