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Making the Cut

From the Acts of John , written circa 150 AD (translation by M. R. James):

(V. 98) "And having thus spoken, he showed me a cross of light fixed, and about the cross a great multitude, and therein was one form and one likeness: and in the cross another multitude, not having one form. And the Lord himself I beheld above the cross, not having any shape, but only a voice: and a voice not such as was familiar to us, but one sweet and kind and truly of God, saying unto me: John, it is needful that one should hear these things from me, for I have need of one that will hear. This cross of light is sometimes called the word by me for your sakes, sometimes mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes door, sometimes a way, sometimes bread, sometimes seed, sometimes resurrection, sometimes Son, sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes life, sometimes truth, sometimes faith, sometimes grace. And by these names it is called as toward men: but that which it is in truth, as conceived of in itself and as spoken of unto you, it is the marking-off of all things, and the firm uplifting of things fixed out of things unstable, and the harmony of wisdom and indeed, wisdom in harmony. There are <places> of the right hand and the left, powers also, authorities, Lordships and daemons, workings, threatenings, wraths, devils, Satan, and the lower root whence the nature of the things that come into being proceeded.

(V. 99) "This cross, then, is that which fixed all things apart by the word, and separate off the things from birth and below it, and then also, being one, streamed forth into all things. But this is not the cross of wood which thou wilt see when thou goest down hence: neither am I he that is on the cross, whom now thou seest not, but only hearest his voice. I was reckoned to be that which I am not, not being what I was unto many others: but they will call me something else which is vile and not worthy of me. As, then, the place of rest is neither seen nor spoken of, more shall I, the Lord thereof, be neither seen <nor spoken of>…"

(V. 103) "Having therefore beheld, brethren, the grace of the Lord and his kindly affection toward us, let us worship him as those unto whom he hath shown mercy, not with our fingers, nor our mouth, nor our tongue, nor with any part whatsoever of our bodies, but with the disposition of our soul – even him who became a man apart from his body…"

The apocryphal "Acts of John" didn’t make it as a sanctioned Book of the Bible, when the Church Fathers began to separate the "sacred from the profane" in the 4th century AD. It has come down to us in a number of Catholic recensions. There is a very strong Gnostic form and influence in it. I consider parts of it spiritually elevating.

The origin of Gnosticism is still largely enveloped in obscurity, but is generally accepted as being pre-Christian at its root. Although Gnosticism may at first sight appear to be a mere syncretism of just about any and all religious systems in antiquity, it has one deep, unique root-principle:  philosophical and religious pessimism.

The Gnostics borrowed their terminology almost entirely from existing religions, but they only used it to illustrate their idea of the essential evil of the present world and the duty of man to try to escape it. This utter pessimism bemoaned the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity. In fact, the world inhabited by men was only the lowest and most degenerate plane of a system comprised of a number of sequentially degenerating spheres, emanating from the original Godhead. The Gnostic has a feverish craving to be freed from the body and a mad hope that, if he only knew them, he could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence. This is the foundation of all Gnostic thought.

The Gnostic escape is effected by sequential ascent of the soul through the planetary spheres, back to the sublime heaven that lies beyond them -- the "7th heaven", in some Gnostic cosmologies. This journey was conceived as a struggle with adverse powers, and became the first and predominant idea in Gnosticism.

The second component of Gnostic thought is magic, i.e. the power of names, sounds, gestures, actions, and also the mixture of elements to make possible the flight back to the Godhead. These magic formulae are found in all forms of Christian Gnosticism. No Gnosis was possible without the knowledge of the formulae, which, once pronounced, became the weapons used against the higher hostile powers. (This reminds us of the use of exact prescriptions and incantations for ascending to heaven from The Egyptian Book of the Dead.  For that matter, it's not that much different from the formulaic gestures, words and ritual accoutrements used to govern the conduct of sacraments in the Christian Church itself, or of any other organized religion.)

As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread like a fungus at its root. It boldly claimed itself to be the only true form of Christianity – albeit, a form that was set apart only for the "gifted" and the "elect". So rank was its poisonous doctrine in the noses of the early Church Fathers that there seemed a danger it might stifle Christianity altogether, and so they devoted all their energies to uprooting it. Though in reality the spirit of Gnosticism is divergent to that of Christianity, it seems to the unwary to be merely a modification or refinement thereof. When grown on Greek soil, Gnosticism sounded somewhat like neo-Platonism (though it was strongly repudiated by the premier neo-Platonist of the time, Plotinus).

By the time of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, the consternation of the Church leaders had became so exceedingly vociferous that it threatened to interfere with the general peace. Constantine mandated a meeting of the Church leaders in 325 AD – the First Council of Nicaea – to work out these differences. One of the primary objectives was to deal with a growing heresy called Arianism.

Arius did not himself derive directly from any particular Gnostic school, but his line of argument espoused a view that the Gnostics had already made familiar. He described the Son as a second, inferior God, standing midway between the First Cause and the creatures of the Earth. He believed that the Son was made out of nothing, emanating from God. He existed before the worlds of the ages; and was arrayed and contained in all divine creations -- except the one that was the stay and foundation of all Creation itself. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and so he once had not existed.

Constantine began the Council by making the bishops understand that they had greater business to attend to, than to be constantly diverted by personal quarrels and interminable recriminations. Daily sessions were held, and Arius was often summoned before the assembly. (St. Athanasius assures us that the activities of the Council were nowise hampered by Constantine's presence.) The Church writings declare that Arius’ opinions were seriously discussed and that the opposing arguments attentively considered. The majority, especially those who were confessors of the Faith, energetically declared Arius’ doctrines to be impious and heretical.

The symbol of this First Ecumenical Council, influenced mostly by Hosius and St. Athanasius, was the following declaration, in which the Nicene Creed was embedded:

"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tes ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance with the Father [homoousion to patri], through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men and our salvation descended, was incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into heaven and cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. Those who say: There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten; and that He was made out of nothing (ex ouk onton); or who maintain that He is of another hypostasis or another substance [than the Father], or that the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change, [them] the Catholic Church anathematizes."

Funny, I don't remember reciting that last part in church.

The adhesion to this creed was general and enthusiastic. All the bishops save five declared themselves ready to ascribe to this formula, convinced that it contained the ancient faith of the Apostolic Church. The opponents were soon reduced to two, Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais, who were exiled and anathematized. Arius and his writings were also branded with anathema, his books were cast into the fire, and he was exiled to Illyria.

And so it goes, and goes, and goes. To me, a Gnostic at my core, this is a pitiable tale of men trying to maintain primacy for a religious doctrine that’s counter to what we all see around us and what we all feel in the dark hours of the night. Trying to stifle what's in the hearts of men will always fail. Gnosticism thrives to this day -- and it will ever do so, as long as the newspapers continue to print their daily news, the radios and televisions continue to broadcast their trash, and "wars of righteousness" continue to be fought. In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll not begrudge me my time and effort spent looking for those elevating words of power.

"Beam me up, Scotty!"

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Most of this material is paraphrased from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. Gosh, there are a lot of typographical errors there – they sure do need a proof-reader!



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