Dear Brothers and Sisters, Neophytes, and Friends,
This is the third in a series of posts on Gnostic morality; the
first was on April 25, and the second on May 10. They are still
available in the archives of the Yahoo group, and we will also be
editing and posting them all onto the webpage.
Here we will be discussing a third component of what we have
christened the Tri-Fold Path, Right Intention. As you may recall
from the earlier posts, this is actually the second principle of the
three (the other two being Moderation and Non-Harm), but we skipped
ahead to cover the third, Non-Harm, because of current events and
the prisoner abuse scandal. I hope this has not become overly
confusing, and that you will bear with me as I go back to fill in
this middle part of a neo-classical Gnostic moral framework.
To understand the import of Right Intention, we must first realize
what I alluded to in the discussion of Moderation – namely, that
Gnosticism does not construct morality from some kind of
deontological belief in universal opposing metaphysical "principles"
of "good" and "evil. " Such a system, typified today by much of at
least conservative mainstream Christianity, proclaims certain
actions just and other actions wrong based on arbitrary decisions by
what, in the end, amounts to a largely capricious God.
In contrast, we do not believe that the "good/evil" dichotomy
represents a manifestation of "universal opposing metaphysical
principles." In fact, we do not believe that "good" and "evil" are
really either universal, or metaphysical, or opposing principles.
Let me explain briefly. Divisions, dualisms, or dichotomies such as
that represented by the concepts of "good" and "evil" base their
very raison d'être on their "universality. " If this claim is to
be judged true, such concepts would have to be universal not only
spatially (in terms of their applicability to all people and
situations at any one given time), but also temporally, so they
would be applicable to all people in all places and at all given
times. However, their own sacred texts and traditions deeply
complicate such claims by Judeo-Christian traditions.
Consider, for example, the story of creation and the "Fall of Man."
Laying aside the literal details of the myth, we can see that even
the most metaphorical interpretation of the Fall, conducted by the
most liberal of Christians, implies a certain sort of theological
implication, which is that somewhere, at some time in a past that
has faded into the mists of collective memory, human beings lived in
a primordial world that had no suffering and no pain and no death,
simply because evil had not yet touched them. If you accept these
ideas about what I call the "primordial Disneyland" and its
corollary, the "Ejection from Disneyland" or "Fall of Man," then you
are virtually admitting that there was some time when "evil" was not
a universal experience, and further when "good" did not really exist
either, since it took the fruit of the "knowledge of good and evil"
to bring both parts of the equation into the metaphorical picture of
human experience. Perhaps you could try to say that evil was sort
of free-floating around the world, like some kind of flying elephant
rampant without any ground under its feet, either in the figure of
the "devil" or as a potentiality inherent to acts that were rooted
in "free will," but even with the use of such circumlocutions, it is
clear that good and evil, as principles, did not adhere or inhere to
human beings, to the human will, or to human actions. Thus, even
according to Christianity's own mythologies, there was a time
when "good" and "evil" were not an inherent part of the human
experience, or the God-human relationship, and so the principles
fail the test of being temporally as well as spatially universal.
Now, I can already sense you responding, "But we Gnostics do not
believe in the Fall, nor do we think that there was ever
a `Primordial Disneyland'!" and you are quite right. From
our perspective, to claim that "good" and "evil" are universal
principles is even more ridiculous, because to be universal, they
would have to be universally manifested not just in time and space,
but beyond time and space – i.e., they would have to be analogous
the aeons, to Christ and Sophia, and ultimately to God. But as you
know, our prime claim as Gnostic theists is this: there is one
living and true God, undivided, undiminished, perfect in nature of
being since perfect in the realization of existence. All things
that can transcend the material world, even conceptually – such
the ideas of Love, Happiness, Unity as ideal forms – must
fundamentally conform to God's nature, since transcendence of the
material world means union with God. So it is impossible for a
dichotomy like "good" and "evil" to be universal in our
understanding of the transcendent sense.
This observation will serve as well for the claim of metaphysical
status. There is no "evil god" figure in Gnosticism, as there is in
the case of the Christian devil. Even though critics of Gnosticism
often imagine that the demiurge serves as such an "evil" figure, we
have noted many times that our primary claim is that there is one
God, source of all spirit and all perfection. So there can be
no "evil" either in God, or evil transcendent in a "bad god,"
because everything that transcends the material realm – in
or origin, or character, or final destination – is part of the
God, living and true. Similarly, God is not "good" in the Christian
sense of the word, because to say God is good is to say that God
is "not-evil," just as when they say the devil is "evil," and by
that mean that he is "not-good." The good/evil dichotomy is self-
supporting in its constitutive conceptual-semantic origin, and
cannot function without both halves, which is what requires the
Christian devil for the Christian God to exist. To us, God
is "good" only insofar as the word "good" references perfection and
fullness of being; this is a good that has no degrees, per se, and
has no corollary opposing principle. This, again, should straddle
the claims of the final point as well, demonstrating that "good"
and "evil" are ultimately not really opposing principles, but rather
parts of the same conceptual equation.
Now, I am sure most of you are saying, "Fine! Get on with it! I am
not impressed by your vocabulary, mister multisyllabic! What is it
that we believe?" My answer is that our continuum, which replaces
the good/evil dichotomy, is one of perfection and imperfection.
Imperfection, however, is not at all in the same relationship to
perfection that evil is to good. First, imperfection is less of a
principle or even a source than it is a descriptive class; imperfect
things and indeed imperfection itself, either manifested or
conceptualized, is not inherently "unperfect" or "perfection-
incapable," but simply not yet perfected. It is a continuum of
things that simply have not yet attained the fullness of being, and
so are in various ways limited by internal and external factors and
circumstances from reaching this fully articulated existence.
Because of this, perfection and imperfection do not form a
dichotomy, a dualism, or a dialectic; they are not opposing, self-
supporting, or mutually constitutive in the way that the common
Christian conception of good and evil is.
Because of this, Gnosticism tends to be neutral about various
particulars of action and inaction. We might call this a kind
of "act-libertarianism" in the articulation of moral philosophy.
This means that we do not believe rightness or wrongness adhere to
acts themselves, but rather to the intentions that motivate them and
the consequences that flow from them. This is NOT, however, to say
that we are "moral libertarians" or "libertines." It simply is that
we have a different way of articulating and applying our moral
Very often this ends up overlapping the standard Judeo-Christian
moralities on many fundamental issues, but decisions are reasoned
out in different ways, with important implications. Before I show
you how this works on a more individual level, let us review how it
applies to inter-personal or external relationships. Let us take,
for example, the issue of violence. A violent act, unless it is
done in self-defense or under various limited justifications, is
absolutely wrong from a Gnostic perspective, as it is from a
Christian perspective. For example, it is absolutely wrong for me
to hit a senior lady on the head with a can of tuna. However,
unlike Christianity, we do not consider even this an example of the
act itself being bad; it is not as if wrongness adhered to my arm
and hand and the can of tuna as it flew through the air. Rather,
the act is wrong for two reasons: because it is undertaken by a
_wrong intention_ on my part, an intention to use my body as a mean
of inflicting suffering on another rather than as an instrument of
compassion, and therefore pulls me farther away from my spiritual
core; second, because it harms another being who is my spiritual
equal, as all other human beings are.
In that sort of case, Christian and Gnostic moralities overlap. On
the other hand, there are a number of cases where the moral systems
do not overlap. This goes in two separate directions. First,
Christianity condemns many actions not because of any harm they
cause, but simply because they fail to adhere to the arbitrary moral
principles historically articulated by Christianity and attributed
to "divine revelation." Gnosticism rejects such moralizing as being
sometimes bizarre, often hypocritical, and always capricious. The
most striking example of this right now is the issue of
homosexuality and other alternative sexualities. It is important
that we understand how radical the conservative Christian stance
against homosexuality is; it depends on the notion that homosexual
desires are in their very nature perversions, that homosexual acts
are wrong because they are inherently and constitutively evil. In
contrast, a Gnostic understanding views sexuality, like everything
else that involves the body and intellect, as a tool – a tool
can be used for good or ill, to bring love into the world or to
bring suffering into the world. There is nothing inherently "right"
or "wrong" about heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality,
transgendered sexuality, or any other kind of sexuality; sexuality
becomes "wrong," or rather is put to the wrong use, only when it
fails to be rooted in compassion and spiritual awareness.
On the other hand, as I have suggested before, Gnostic morality
“usually” is far more rigorous and expansive than mainstream
Christian morality. This is, paradoxically, also because we do not
locate the nature of moral decision-making within acts. What I mean
is that many actions, neutral in themselves, can be turned either
right or wrong by particular circumstances and the intentions of the
individual. Gnosticism is much stronger in emphasizing this part
of morality than many other religions. If you understand what I
mean, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph, but for those who may
still be struggling with the concept, I will give you a few examples
of what I mean. Let us take the older lady from the previous
example. Imagine now that I am angry with her, but instead of
beating her severely about the head with a can of tuna, I begin to
scream at her, and tell her she is as ugly as a tuna and I hope she
dies. From a Gnostic perspective, even though the act in question
is "less serious," what I have just done <i>morally</i> is really
almost as wrong as hitting her in the head with the can, because I
have deliberately taken it upon myself to bring harm upon her spirit
and bring her sorrow and suffering, rather than acting
compassionately. Even more distinctive is our view of environmental
stewardship, because it is based on the notion that animals, plants,
and nature itself are also infused with the same kind of spirit we
are; so littering, to take an unfortunately prevalent example, is
wrong not merely because it is an example of selfishness, but more
importantly because it harms the spirit of the world around us. If
you have ever seen a badger or small animal caught in the snares of
plastic bag or the head of a bottle, you know that such suffering is
like the suffering of other human beings when we are hurt either
physically or emotionally, and to harm another spiritual being
invariably harms us by moving us away from our own spiritual
identity. For a more positive example, consider the simple act of
pouring a glass of water; a more neutral action can hardly be
imagined. Yet, when I perform this simple act and take the water
outside to someone working on a fence or repairing the road outside
my home, I have done a great work of compassion. I have made Christ
and Sophia manifest in the material world, and I may have set off a
great train of spiritual progress in that person's heart.
So, you see that in our relationships to others, Right Intention and
Non-Harm are actually interpenetrated. Right Intention, however,
also serves as a guide to reflexive actions that primarily affect
ourselves. Again, we start from a position of "act-neutrality," and
render our moral decisions based on the simple principle that
everything we do, every use we make of our power to will, every use
we put our bodies and our intellects to – all these things either
move us closer to the spirit, or farther away, not
because "rightness" or "wrongness" inheres to the actions, but
because our intentionality and our usage of certain acts has such an
effect. We can see this, for example, with issues such as sexuality
and various kinds of drugs. In both cases, we can use these actions
in a healthy way, in a way that promotes connection with another,
that promotes meditation, that promotes contemplation, that helps us
come to a greater understanding of compassion. On the other hand,
we can use these things in a very destructive way, particularly when
they become addictions that cover up our ability to see things in a
spiritual way.
In today's world, there is so much pain and suffering that people
are addicted to many different types of things, some chemical, some
emotional, some cultural. Ridding ourselves of addictions is the
first step toward becoming whole and living a moral life. This does
not mean cutting alcohol, drugs, sex, or anything else out of our
life, but rather finding a way to use these things according to our
own personal path without letting them “dominate” our lives and
our identities. Such a process takes a long time, of course, and it
must be done in stages, or the attempt will inevitably fail. And
the first stage is simply awareness – becoming aware of the
we use as crutches, as ultimately unreliable relievers of pain, as
shunts that pull our spiritual energy away from its proper channels
of self-discovery. That is why the first moral command of
Gnosticism is this: Wake up! Waking up is not an easy path; it is
full of pitfalls and real and genuine pain that must be dealt with;
it involves being "troubled" and "astonished" (Gos. Thom. 2). But
in that pain, in that dark night of the spirit, is a promise of the
dawn. Right now, many of us live as if we "were fast asleep and...a
prey to troubled dreams" (The Gospel of Truth). Let us awaken our
hearts and our spirits; let us shake off the troubled dreams and be
sober; let us shape our lives and our bodies and our minds to the
yearnings of the spirit, and the work of compassion to all those
around us. "The night is darkest just before the dawn," so let us
be darkness to the world, and light in the service of our Lord Jesus
Christ and his mystical bridge, Lady Sophia.
In Christ and Sophia,