Gnosticism and Modern Spirituality: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Approach

Gnosticism has enjoyed a certain romantic vogue in our culture as a road to spirituality ever since the publication of the Nag Hammadi codices, and even more since the publication of Jung’s Red Book, which includes his “Seven Sermons to the Dead” featuring the Gnostic Basilides as a figure, together with his comments on them (Jung 2009). Part of this modern appeal is a result of some misimpressions about the ancient Gnostics in comparison to Jung’s own position and that of depth psychology generally (see Segal, pp. 43-52). Still, the authentic ancient Gnostic myth does have things to offer us in our spirituality today. This post examines the ancient Gnostic myth, contrasts it with the position of depth psychology, and outlines certain parallels with depth psychology which show how Gnosticism can still be inspirational in our own spiritual practices.

The Gnostic Myth

The Gnostic myth is a fascinating and complicated combination of Hebrew Bible material used for the plot, and an adaptation of Greek Platonic philosophy used for its ideas, ideas which Christ embodies and which the Gnostics said make him our savior. Several Gnostic texts contain versions of the Gnostic creation myth, but the most central and earliest one that we know of is the one told in The Secret Book (or Apocryphon) of John, dating to the first half of the 2nd century CE. It seems to have been very popular, as we have 4 complete copies of it in Coptic, and the heresiologist Irenaeus relied on it in describing Gnosticism in his Against Heresies (ca. 182-88 CE). The Secret Book purports to describe an encounter between Christ and John the Evangelist, the author of the canonical Gospel of John. In it, Christ, well after his resurrection and ascension, visits earth again to give John gnosis, as contained in the Gnostic myth. By conveying this truth to John, who will then relate it to the other apostles, and they to other people, Christ is functioning as humankind’s savior. That is, Christ is the savior not because he died for our sins on the cross (which the Gnostics hardly talked about), but by teaching us the most essential religious truths.

According to the myth, in the beginning there was only a single god called the Invisible Spirit (“God”), who is indefinable and unknowable. At some point he had a first thought, which was about himself since at that point there was nothing else to think about. This thought was called Forethought (also the Barbelo), which amounted to God’s self-knowledge and was an image of him. At this point, God came to be thought of as masculine and Forethought as feminine.

Forethought then proceeded to create 4 aeons, which were further aspects of God representing other thoughts or categories of mind (namely: Prior Acquaintance, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and Truth). Each aeon was thought of as a balanced male-female pair, and was created by Forethought with the consent of God, meaning that these creations represented his will. God and Forethought also created a being viewed as their son, the Self-Originate, who was the divine Christ. With God’s consent, Christ then created 4 Luminaries, each in charge of 3 more male-female aeons plus divine forms of 4 future prominent future humans (Adam, Seth) and groups of humans (Seth’s descendants (Gnostics), and repentant humans). The aggregate of the aeons, the Luminaries, Christ, and divine humans was called the Pleroma in Greek, usually translated as the Fullness or the Entirety, and represented God in all his aspects.

Then the female half of the aeon Wisdom (Sophia) decided to create without the consent of God or her male half. The result was a defective divine being. Mortified and ashamed, she threw it out of the Pleroma and named it Yaldabaoth. In due course, Sophia repented and was restored to the Pleroma. For his part, Yaldabaoth created a group of subordinate rulers as well as the material universe.

Yaldabaoth

Yaldabaoth was said to have the body of a snake, the head of a lion, and eyes that blazed like lightning.

When he was excluded from the Pleroma, Yaldabaoth took with him an amount of power (or spirit) from Sophia, and therefore from the Pleroma, which had to be restored. Sophia and Forethought now plotted to get it back in order to restore the Pleroma to balance. Once that happened, they would destroy Yaldabaoth and all his creations. So they tricked Yaldabaoth into creating Adam in the image of the divine Adam and breathing his spirit into Adam, thus losing it himself. Adam was now greater than Yaldabaoth. Adam and subsequent humans thus consisted of body and psyche on the one hand and spirit (sometimes called the “divine spark”) on the other. If humans become aware of their true spiritual essence (achieve gnosis), then when their bodies die their immortal spirit will rejoin the Pleroma. When a critical mass of humans does this, the Pleroma will be restored.

The myth then details a long cosmic struggle in which Yaldabaoth tries to keep humans ignorant of their spiritual essence, while Sophia and Forethought help them to rediscover it. Eventually, they have the divine Christ incarnate as Jesus, who teaches people to rediscover this and who thus becomes our savior.

Gnostic Rituals

The Gnostic rituals included several initiatory steps, including baptism, Chrism (anointing), Eucharist, Redemption, and the Bridal Chamber (see the Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, pp. 298, 304, 318). They also read sacred texts, chanted vowel sounds, and sang uplifting hymns. Some texts were in the form of apocalypses, such as Zostrianos (Layton, pp. 121-40), where a traveler journeyed up through the chain of being in the Pleroma and reported back on what he saw. Many of the hymns similarly tell about the chain of creations in the Pleroma and appear designed to provide the singers with an approximate experience of journeying through the Pleroma. Some of the texts read like typical descriptions of mystical experiences, such as in The Foreigner (Layton pp. 145).

Differences with Depth Psychology

From the myth, several differences between the approaches of ancient Gnosticism and depth psychology become apparent. These include:

  • The Gnostics had a complicated metaphysics that extended into the makeup of our selves. Depth psychology has no metaphysics, and the part of us to be “rediscovered” is simply the unconscious.
  • The Gnostics were dualists who rejected the earthly world; the spirit was not supposed to integrate with body and psyche. Depth psychology is not dualist, does not reject the world, and calls for integration (individuation) of the Self, which has biological aspects.
  • The Gnostics believed in immortality of the spirit and in reincarnation; depth psychology takes no position on these.
  • Some Gnostics appear to have believed in predestination for an elect (themselves); again, depth psychology does not get into this.
  • The Gnostic religious experience had a strong intellectual/knowledge component and relied on the myth and ritual, whereas depth psychology has no myth or ritual and focuses on experiencing material from the unconscious, including what we call the “divine” or “God” (according to Jung mainly from the Self (or “God”) archetype).It is thus also apparent that Jung himself cannot fairly be called a Gnostic. While he was inspired by Gnosticism (as seen, e.g., in the Red Book) and saw parallels between it and the processes of the psyche (much as he did with alchemy and the alchemists), the theoretical basis of depth psychology is quite different, as explained above.

Parallels with Depth Psychology that Can Help in Modern Spirituality

A number of parallels exist between Gnosticism and depth psychology that point the way toward greater spirituality. These include:

  •  In both Gnosticism and depth psychology we seek to discover (or rediscover) who we really are. The Gnostics stressed the need to reconnect with our inner selves, with spirit. We see this in Sophia’s repentance and reacceptance into the Pleroma, in the apocalypses, and in the inner journey depicted in The Foreigner. In depth psychology, it is the unconscious that is largely ignored (and suppressed/repressed) by our ego consciousness and needs to become conscious and therefore known. Depth psychology holds that the unconscious is indeed the source of what we term “the divine” or “God,” and that the individuation process will integrate this into our psyche.
  • In Gnosticism, at our real center is the divine spirit or spark. According to Jung, at the center of our psyche is the Self archetype, also called the God archetype because psychologically it is indistinguishable from “God.” It provides a window into our psyche, and a door to into spiritual practice.
  • The Gnostics believed that symbols and images reflect a higher reality and could be used to access the truth about ourselves (e.g., Gospel of Philip, in Barnstone and Meyer, p. 297). Depth psychology likewise considers symbols important, in this case because they emerge from the unconscious and can tell us a lot about our psyche, so we should work with them.
  • Depth psychology holds that creation myths are really about the emergence of ego consciousness in humanity (Franz, p. 5), typically depicting the emergence of distinctions, order, multiplicity and opposites (all the products of ego consciousness), from formless chaos (representative of the unconscious). The Gnostic myth reflects this too: In the beginning was only an undefined, vague, deity, and then thoughts emerged reflecting categories of mind, and finally the material world with its distinctions. Yaldabaoth was ego consciousness run rampant.
  • The Gnostics held that Christ incarnated in Jesus in order to teach humanity the truth about ourselves, and was a savior in this sense. According to Jung, Christ is a symbol of the Self (Jung 1969). Most importantly from the psychological perspective, the incarnation in Jesus symbolizes the union of ego consciousness and the unconscious. Further, Christ is a mediating figure who also symbolizes the operation of the Self as it individuates. Here his birth as the Divine Child, his Passion, and his Resurrection are also important symbols, respectively of the potential for individuation, of the suffering of the ego during individuation, and of the resulting individuation.

Conclusion

Despite the differences between ancient Gnosticism and the approach of depth psychology which we must remain aware of, Gnosticism can still symbolize much of what should transpire within us in order to lead more spiritual lives. It is therefore a rewarding exercise to read the Gnostic myth and the other Gnostic texts.

Sources

Barnstone, William and Marvin Meyer, eds. 2009. The Gnostic Bible, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Franz, Marie-Louise von. 1995. Creation Myths, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.

Hoeller, Stephan. 2002. Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

______. 1982. The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

Jonas, Hans. 2001. The Gnostic Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

Jung, Carl. 2009. The Red Book. New York: W.W. Norton.

______. 1969. “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, 2nd ed., Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 9.2. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Layton, Bentley, ed. and trans. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday.

Rudolph, Kurt. 1987. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Segal, Robert, ed. 1992. The Gnostic Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

© Arthur George 2018

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One Response to Gnosticism and Modern Spirituality: A Mythological and Depth Psychological Approach

  1. dinoconstant says:

    Hi Arthur!

    I like how you’ve compared and contrasted the mythology of Gnosticism (maligned by all other Christian followers) with Jungian Depth Psychology. I knew little about either until I read your article but I was impressed by the clarity and precision of your writing style.

    Peace to you and all humanity,

    Dinos

    Like

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