The orthodox Christian vs. Gnostic storyline and history is all the rage today. That is in part because Gnosticism is undergoing a strong revival in many quarters and consequently the orthodox Christian tradition sees itself fighting yet another round against its ancient nemesis. Depending on one’s theological preference one has to take a side. A very interesting space to see this fight play out in is in the realm of conspiracy theories, especially as conspiracism becomes more and more mainstream. There is a large faction of Gnostic-influenced conspiracy theory (e.g. David Icke) as well as a strong orthodox Christian tradition of conspiracy theory (especially in the US). So the factionalism then extends even into these alternative contexts.
In this piece I want to take a very counterintuitive stance and argue that the Gnostics vs. orthodox Christian framing is actually hiding (occulting) a deeper common similarity between the traditions and keeping out of frame a tradition that bisects that intrinsic opposition: namely nondual Neoplatonism.
I’ll begin by summarizing very briefly the two camps: Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity. As a primer, I’ve written on Gnosticism elsewhere on the site through a film review of the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg adult animated comedy Sausage Party.
Gnosticism argues that the created material world is an evil reality created by a secondary or false god (Demiurge). In this view the gods are not benevolent deities but rather archons, stealing the light from our souls. The Gnostic path involves transcending this horrifying material reality into the pure immateriality of the true home, the abode of Spirit (pleroma) ruled over by the One Ultimately Real and All-Loving Divine, a Divine utterly separate from and transcendent of this corrupt material creation. Gnostics are therefore dualistic in their outlook. There is this evil corrupt material world and there is the realm of Pure Light and Love and they are utterly separate.
The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis (knowing) which for Gnostics means seeing the truth of the evilness of created reality and coming to experience directly for oneself the True Divine utterly above and beyond this world and recognizing this other realm as one’s true home. This ancient conspiracy theory view of the world led the Gnostics to some rather wild interpretations of Scripture, perhaps most famously arguing the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempts Eve is actually the One True God while Yahweh Elohim who kicks them out of the garden (and who the orthodox tradition claims to be the real Divine) is in fact the Demiurge.
So as we can see the enmity between the two groups runs very deep. In contrast to the Gnostics, the orthodox Christian tradition argues that the God of the Bible is the Creator and Redeemer of the Universe, the Supreme Truth. For the orthodox Christians God created the world in goodness, including human beings.
In the orthodox telling creation was originally intended to be a paradise but sin entered through the disobedience of Adam and Eve thereby bringing death, destruction, and violence in its wake. The book of Genesis quickly details the escalating series of sins: disobedience, shame, lying, murder (Cain and Abel), etc. In the orthodox telling the world had been marred by this sin and destruction and it would take a long term project of redemption and restoration to undo the damage. As a Christian viewpoint God’s medicinal remedy for the ills of the fallen (but still ultimately in it’s core good) world would come through the incarnation, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whereas for the Gnostics Christ is a symbol of the descent of the Spirit and a revealer of the Other World seeking to bring his disciples out of this world and back to the realm Above.
For Gnostics materiality is evil and therefore Christ only appeared or seemed to be a physical being. For the orthodox tradition creation is ultimately sourced in goodness so therefore Christ must have been fully human as well as fully divine in order to effect salvation. He must have literally physically died and literally raised from death (see The Council of Nicaea and The Council of Chalcedon). In the orthodox Christian version The Holy Spirit has been released into the world subsequent to the raising of Christ from the dead. That Spirit will guide humanity until the final culmination of the victory of good over evil and the final liberation and transmutation of the universe into “A New Heaven and a New Earth”.
Orthodox Christianity then is itself a form of dualism, though please note it’s a very different kind of dualism from Gnostic dualism. In the orthodox Christian form the duality is between God as the Sovereign Ruler of the Cosmos and the created order. In this version of events God will eventually redeem and sanctify (divinize) the created order. The created order (and saintly souls) can become in a sense god-like but not God. According to the orthodox God can (re)join the entirely of the creation to the Divine Self through God’s free choice while remaining still ultimately of a separate ontological order.
So there are two kinds of theological dualism:
Gnostic = creation (evil) vs. Transcendent Realm, with the path being fleeing the one to ascend to the other.
Orthodox = God vs. creation, with creation ultimately destined for reconnection to God (the Father) through the work of The God-Man Mediator Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is often not commented on in discussion of orthodox Christian vs. Gnostic is how much they actually hold in common, what they agree on in secret (occulted). On the surface they seem as totally opposed to each other as two groups could be. And the history of mutual enmity and persecution (especially of the Gnostics) attests to this fact. Yet there is a core aspect held in unison: namely dualism.
Both are dualistic theological systems and that similarity should be always kept in mind. The similarity does not negate the real differences on the types of dualism that exist between the two traditions. They are day and night in that regard but even day and night are both aspects of a single movement.
In all their internecine warfare neither the Gnostics nor the orthodox ever admitted what they shared. Neither group ever questioned the fundamental principle of dualism itself held in common by both (though again in different ways). The fight was entirely over what kind of dualism is the right one. In so doing both the orthodox and the Gnostics hide (kept occulted, secret) the taboo of dualism as such.
Which leads directly to the tradition of Neoplatonism as a potential “third option” or resolution of the dialectical divide between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism. It’s important in this context to remember that the father of Neoplaontism, Plotinus, criticized the Gnostics but not from an orthodox Christian (dualist) perspective. Rather Plotinus’ beef with the Gnostics was that they were themselves simply another form of dualism and for him dualism was the problem.
If orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism are both species of dualism, what is the Neoplatonic alternative? Though Plotinus never used this word himself the term that would apply is non-dualism. Non-dualism does not mean the same as unity but rather unity (oneness) in and through difference (diversity). Non-separation would be perhaps a better term.
For Plotinus and the rest of the Neoplatonic tradition following him (e.g. Iamblichus) there was indeed one ultimate reality, To Hen in Greek. Literally translated as “The One” but as Plotinus would be at pains to say repeatedly The One is a “One Without a Second.” The One is not therefore a numerical one opposed to zero in binary code or opposed to two (as symbol of manifold creation). The One is a metaphor within human dualistic language pointing towards that which is not bound by such dualism.
The One emanates from utter simplicity and differentiation arises in and through and via this original simplicity/unity without that unity ever being lost in the process. To paraphrase the great Neoplatonist Proclus: “The One flows out without ever having left. It flows back never having gone away.”
In the Neoplatonic version then creation is an emanation of The One. It’s not the evil fall of the Gnostics nor is it the act of a separated Creator as for the orthodox Christian. Plotinus follows his teacher Plato here arguing that the creation is an overflowing, exuberant expression of the nature of The One.
The first emanated form of The One is what Plotinus called Nous. Nous in Greek means a combination of Heart and Mind very much like the Chinese Buddhist term Shin. The Nous is an Intelligence permeating all Creation.
The next emanation is the Cosmic/World Soul (Anima Mundi in Latin). Out of this Cosmic Soul arises human souls as well as the souls of the animal, vegetal, and mineral worlds. The very shamanic-indigenous nature of Plotinus’ thought here is rarely remarked upon but worth noting.
For the Gnostics the path is about exiting materiality in total in order to return to the Abode of Light utterly other and foreign to this horrific reality. For the orthodox Christian it is only the action of the sovereign Redeemer who must first bridge the gap (in the person of Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human) in order for reunification to occur.
For the Neoplatonist the path is altogether different than either of those two options. For the Neoplatonist the path is about realizing one’s unity/non-separation with The One, known as henosis (from To Hen). Henosis involves two central aspects: 1. ascending “back up” the chain of creation to The One 2. descending fully into material creation from/as The One. In this way the individual practitioner recapitulates in their own being the entire creation process. Flowing back to The One and then flowing back out from The One in superabundance (without ever having actually left). The ascending movement in the Neoplatonic path resembles in certain ways the Gnostic path whereas the descending movement is more akin to the orthodox Christian path, thereby seeking to unite the valuable aspects of each into a greater whole.
In the Neoplatonic telling creation (like for the orthodox Christian) is ultimately in its essence good. Like the Gnostics the path requires interior illumination and not a external deity or mediator like for the orthodox. Unlike the Gnostics, for the Neoplatonic tradition the issue is our perception or relationship to material creation not material creation itself. If we have a separated relationship to creation we end up in illusion, entanglement, suffering and violence. With the right relationship and understanding however the created order already is the expression of Ultimate Goodness (contra the Gnostics). In this Light, creation can be enjoyed, appreciated, and be a proper expression of The Divine. It does not (a la the orthodox) require some future apocalypse in order to enter into it’s perfection. It can already express such sublime divine reality in the present moment—in the consciousness (nous) of the realizer.
The point about material creation is a supremely important one in this context. To further elucidate the differences for the Neoplatonic (non-dualist) tradition versus the two dualist traditions of Gnosticism and the orthodox Christian consider the opening lines of the book of Genesis:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be Light.’ And there was light. And God saw that the Light was good.”
That very condensed passage covers a huge of information so I’ll seek to unpack the elements one by one.
In the beginning…
This is “time before time.” In the beginning functions like the opening of fairy tales: “Once Upon a Time.” Or Star Wars: “A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” The phrase evokes what the Australian Aboriginal tradition refers to as “The Dreamtime.”
“The earth was a formless void & darkness covered the face of the deep”
In this more Platonic influenced reading—as opposed to an orthodox Christian reading—creation was pre-existent with The Creator. There was a pre-existent void and a churning chaotic deep (known in Hebrew as the tehom). This reading places the opening creation story in Genesis in line with other Near Eastern and Mediterranean myths of creation like the Babylonians. In this view there is a pre-existent chaos (typically seen as feminine) against whom the deity (usually male) fights in to bring order out of chaos. (I’ve written about this mythology elsewhere in relationship to Jordan Peterson’s socio-political advocacy of that mythological construct in the present day).*
The pre-existent matter point is very important because the orthodox Christian story is that God created matter out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). The Gnostic view is that the Demiurge created out of mistake or illusion. Here we instead see a view where matter pre-exists and is intentionally molded and shaped with an ultimate desire towards benevolence with the Creator declaring the Light to be good. In the Gnostic telling the Light of Divine Truth is lost and trapped in the nefarious spider web of creation whereas in this (Neoplatonic) reading of Genesis all the subsequent forms of Creation are all emanations of originating Light. That Light may be missed, forgotten, or leaked away but it is not trapped in creation as such. It therefore always has the option to be retrieved and liberated.
"The wind/spirit sweeping over the waters”
When God says let there be light God is forming order out of the void. The wind/spirit hovering or sweeping is the energy swirling that chaotic abyss, like a spoon stirring a pot of water creating a whirlpool.
The Creator then proceeds to create (out of the formless void/chaos) the heavens, the stars, the planets, the earth, the animals, the plants, humans, and so on. Each element is properly apportioned in its specific sphere in relationship to all others—the land vs. the waters on Earth; the Sun/day vs. The Moon/Night; the heavens vs. the earth, etc. In this view then creation is a struggle and dialectical interplay between the forces of order (God/Light) and the forces of chaos (the void/tehom).
An entire treatise can be written on those verses alone but hopefully that gives a sufficient rendering. One point that I want to focus on that I have not really seen commented on is the relationship of the Narrator in the text. The text reveals a Creator and also a pre-existent void with its swirling potentially creative/potentially destructive chaos as we’ve seen. but who is the Narrator?
Who is the one standing back and observing the interactions between God and the Void? What being/reality has the capacity to observe Creation from a place of witnessing?
In Neoplatonic language the Narrator of the creation story in Genesis would be The One (To Hen). In this rendering then the God of the Bible becomes the Nous/Demiurge. Not an evil or mistaken Demiurge like in Gnosticism but in precisely the Platonic sense of forming pre-existent matter into shapes meant to express the One Light. As a consequence of that creative action with everything in it’s properly just and harmonious relationship (ayni in indigenous Andean traditions) there is a Cosmic or World-Soul, the third in Plotinus’ triad.
The World Soul, the third, again reveals the limitations (failure?) of both the Gnostic and the orthodox Christian position. For The Gnostic creation can not be ensouled. Rather the soul is a way for the archons to trap our spirits in the prison of flesh. For the orthodox the World cannot be ensouled because to do would be create a counterpart to God as Creator. This Cosmic Soul view is at the root of Giordano Bruno (in the Renaissance) arguing for tine infinity of worlds and of the possibility of creatures on other planets, all of whom would be emanations of The One—a point I’ve explored elsewhere here. The implication of Bruno’s argument is that there can be no such thing as an “alien” being even while there may well be sentient beings upon the infinity of worlds, a point entirely missed in much of the UFO/alien discourse (a point explored here.)
What all this mean is that The One is the One beyond but also inclusive of the Demiurge. Or said differently both God (Demiurge) and the Swirling Void are themselves species of an underlying substrate (The One). They are emanations of one non-separate principle.
Consequently, this worldview (“wake”) has it’s own intriguing political implications (“woke”). Each of these three positions—Gnostic, orthodox, Neoplatonic—has it’s accompanying social and political views. Each position has it’s respective cosmology and it’s political views are a reflection of how to orient to said cosmology. The Gnostic option is to flee the world and escape the archon-ruled prison planet. The orthodox tradition is to build up the church as the frontline of the war against evil, usually (though not always) aligning with state power in order to enforce it’s theological orthodoxy.
The Neoplatonic option would be to build a world in alignment to the Nous thereby liberating The World Soul. There are only some hints and implications in the traditions of how to go about that. I’ll explore those in subsequent posts.
For now the key point is to realize the Neoplatonic tradition offers a way out of the endless binary cycle of Gnostic vs. orthodox.
* Recall that Plato through Pythagoras particularly claims lineage with the Egyptian mystery traditions. Bruno similarly identified himself as a carrier of the Egyptian (Hermetic) tradition.