by Stephan A. Hoeller
When questioned regarding the personal elements in his lifelong interest in matters Gnostic, Professor Gilles Quispel, the noted Gnostic expert and associate of C.G. Jung, tells a remarkable story. During the dark and hopeless years of World War II, when life and the world seemed lacking in hope and joy, Quispel turned to the study of the message of the great Gnostic teacher and poet, Valentinus. The inspiration, comfort, and faith derived from the writings of Valentinus were instrumental in turning Quispel into a devoted and thoroughly sympathetic scholar of Gnosticism. It would not be a gross exaggeration to state that the experience of the Dutch scholar is far from unique and that numerous persons in our contemporary world are finding the message of this greatest of all Gnostic teachers of eminent and helpful relevance in their lives.
The Almost Pope
G.R.S. Mead, the great early translator and theosophical interpreter of Gnostic documents, called Valentinus “the great unknown” of Gnosticism, and indeed it is true that we do not possess much information regarding his life and personality. He was born in Africa, probably within the territory of the ancient city of Carthage, around or before 100 A.D. He was educated in Alexandria and in the prime of his years transferred his residence to Rome, where he achieved a high degree of prominence in the Christian community between 135 and 160 A.D. Tertullian wrote that Valentinus was a candidate for the office of bishop of Rome and that he lost the election by a rather narrow margin. This same failed orthodox church father (Tertullian himself joined the heresy of Montanism) alleges that Valentinus fell into apostasy around 175 A.D. There is much evidence indicating, however, that he was never universally condemned as a heretic in his lifetime and that he was a respected member of the Christian community until his death. He was almost certainly a priest in the mainstream church and may even have been a bishop.
It is certainly a question of some interest what the course of Christian theology might have been had Valentinus been elected to the office of bishop of Rome. His hermeneutic vision combined with his superb sense of the mythical would have probably resulted in a general flowering of the Gnosis within the very fabric of the Church of Rome, and might have created an authoritative paradigm of Gnostic Christianity that could not have been easily exorcised for centuries, if at all.
Like many of the greatest Gnostic teachers, Valentinus claimed to have been instructed by a direct disciple of one of Jesus’ apostles, an “apostolic man” by the name of Theodas. Tertullian also stated that Valentinus was personally acquainted with Origen, and one may speculate with some justification that his influence on this orthodox church father was considerable. The overall character of his contribution has been accurately summarized by Mead in the following manner:
The Gnosis in his hands is trying to . . . embrace everything, even the most dogmatic formulation of the traditions of the Master. The great popular movement and its incomprehensibilities were recognized by Valentinus as an integral part of the mighty outpouring; he laboured to weave all together, external and internal, into one piece, devoted his life to the task, and doubtless only at his death perceived that for that age he was attempting the impossible. None but the very few could ever appreciate the ideal of the man, much less understand it.
(Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, p. 297)
Valentinus, the Gnostic who almost became pope, was thus the only man who could have succeeded in gaining a form of permanent positive recognition for the Gnostic approach to the message of Christ. The fact that circumstances and the increasing floodtide of a regressive pseudo-orthodoxy caused his efforts to fail must be reckoned among the greatest tragedies of the history of Christianity. Still, many essential features of his unique contribution have survived and more have recently surfaced from the sands of the desert of Egypt. We shall address ourselves to the most important of these in the following pages.
Psycho-Cosmogony and the Pneumatic Equation
The often-debated cosmogony of Valentinus might be most profitably understood as being based on a single existential recognition, which might be summarized thus: Something is wrong. Somewhere, somehow, the fabric of being at the existential level of human functioning has lost its integrity. We live in a system which is lacking in essential integrity, and thus is defective. So-called orthodox Christians as well as Jews recognize that there is a certain “wrongness” in human existence, but they account for it chiefly in terms of the effects of human sin, original or other. Jews and Christians hold that whatever is wrong with the world and human existence is the result of human disobedience to the creator. This means, that all evil, discomfort, and terror in our lives and in history are somehow our fault. A great cosmic statement of “Mea Culpa” runs through this world view, which permanently affixes to the human psyche an element of titanic guilt. Valentinus, in opposition to this guilt-ridden view of life, held that the above-noted defect is not the result of our wrongdoing, but is inherent in the system of existence wherein we live and move and have our being. Moreover, by postulating that creation itself is lacking in integrity, Valentinus not only removes the weight of personal and collective guilt from our shoulders but also points to the redemptive potential resident in the soul of every human being.
Humans live in an absurd world that can be rendered meaningful only by Gnosis, or self-knowledge. When referring to the myth of the creation of the world by a god, Valentinus shifts the blame for the condition of cosmic defect from humanity to creative divinity. That God the creator could be at fault in anything is of course tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of the orthodox. What we need to recognize, however, is that Valentinus does not view the creator with the worshipful eyes of the Judeo-Christian believer, but rather sees the creator – along with other divinities – as a mythologem. Much evidence could be adduced to demonstrate this, but one must suffice here, taken from the Gospel of Philip:
God created man and man created God. So is it in the world. Men make gods and they worship their creations. If would be fitting for the gods to worship men. (Logion 85: 1-4)
The present writer holds that Valentinian (as well as all other) Gnosticism can be understood in psychological terms, so that the religious mythologems treated by the Gnostics are taken to symbolize psychological conditions and intra-psychic powers of the mind. Taking this approach we might conclude that what Valentinus tells us is that because our minds have lost their self-knowledge, we live in a self-created world that is lacking in integrity. The word kosmos used by Gnostics does not mean “world,” but rather “system,” and thus can be perfectly well applied to the systematization of reality created by the human ego. We need not worry overmuch about whether Valentinus insults Jehovah by calling him a demiurge. What matters is that we act as our own psychic demiurges by first creating and the inhabiting a flawed kosmos created in the image and likeness of our own flaws.
The proposition that the human mind lives in a largely self-created world of illusion from whence only the enlightenment of a kind of Gnosis can rescue it finds powerful analogues in the two great religions of the East, i.e., Hinduism and Buddhism. The following statement from the Upanishads could easily have been written by Valentinus or another Gnostic: “This (world) is God’s Maya, through which he deceives himself.” According to the teachings of Buddha, the world of apparent reality consists of ignorance, impermanence, and the lack of authentic selfhood. Valentinus is in very good company indeed when he establishes the proposition of the wrong system of false reality that can be set aright by the human spirit.
This brings us to the second part of what some scholars have called the “pneumatic equation” of Valentinus. After accepting the proposition of the flawed system, the mind needs to recognize a second and complementary truth. Irenaeus in his work against heresies quotes Valentinus concerning this:
Perfect redemption is the cognition itself of the ineffable greatness: for since through ignorance came about the defect . . . the whole system springing from ignorance is dissolved in Gnosis. Therefore Gnosis is the redemption of the inner man; and it is not of the body, for the body is corruptible; nor is it psychical, for even the soul is a product of the defect and it is a lodging to the spirit: pneumatic (spiritual) therefore also must be redemption itself. Through Gnosis, then, is redeemed the inner, spiritual man: so that to us suffices the Gnosis of universal being: and this is the true redemption. (Adv. Haer. I. 21,4)
The ignorance of the agencies that create the false system is thus undone and rectified by the spiritual Gnosis of the human being. The defect can be removed from being by Gnosis. There is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a need for a blind belief in a vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus. We don’t need to be saved; we need to be transformed by Gnosis. The wrong-headedness, perversity, obtuseness, and malignancy of the existential condition of humanity can be changed into a glorious image of the fullness of being. This is done not by guilt, shame, and an eternal saviour but by the activation of the redemptive potential of self-knowledge. Spiritual self-knowledge thus becomes the inverse equivalent of the ignorance of the unredeemed ego. The elaborate mythic structures of cosmogonic and redemptive content bequeathed to us by Valentinus are but the poetic-scriptural expressions of this grand proposition, which has a direct relevance to the existential condition of the human psyche in all ages and in all cultures.
The Gnostic Saviour: a Maker of Wholeness
It would be erroneous to deduce from the foregoing that Valentinus negated or even diminished the importance of Jesus in his teachings. The great devotion and reverence shown for Jesus by Valentinus is amply manifest with sublime poetic beauty in the Gospel of Truth, which in its original form was in fact authored by Valentinus himself. According to Valentinus, Jesus is indeed Saviour, but the term needs to be understood in the meaning of the original Greek word, used by orthodox and Gnostic Christian alike. This word is soter, meaning healer, or bestower of health. From this is derived the word today translated as salvation, i.e., soteria, which originally meant healthiness, deliverance from imperfection, becoming whole, and preserving one’s wholeness. What then is the role of the soter of spiritual maker of wholeness, if he clearly has no need to save humankind from either original or personal sin? What is the state or condition of newly found spiritual health bestowed or facilitated by such a healer-saviour?
The Gnostic contention is that both the world and humanity are sick. The sickness of the world and its equivalent human illness both have one common root: ignorance. We ignore the authentic values of life and substitute unauthentic ones for them. The unauthentic values are for the most part either physical or of the mind. We believe that we need things (such as money, symbols of power and prestige, physical pleasures) in order to be happy or whole. Similarly we fall in love with the ideas and abstractions of our minds. (The rigidities and the hardness of our lives are always due to our excessive attachment to abstract concepts and precepts.) The sickness of materialism was called hyleticism (worship of matter) by the Gnostics, while the sickness of abstract intellectualism and moralizing was known as psychism (worship of the mind-emotional soul). The true role of the facilitators of wholeness in this world, among whom Jesus occupied the place of honor, is that they can exorcise these sicknesses by bringing knowledge of the pneuma (spirit) to the soul and mind.
What is this pneuma, this spirit, which alone brings Gnosis and healing to the sickness of human nature? We cannot truly say what it is, but we can indicate what it does. It has been said that the spirit bloweth where it listeth. It brings flexibility, existential courage of life. By way of the healing agency of pneuma, the soul ceases to be fascinated and confined by things and ideas and thus it can address itself to life. The obsession of the human psyche with the importance of the material world and/or of the abstract intellectual and moral world is the sickness from which the great saviours of humanity redeem us. The obsessive state of material and mental attachments is thus replaced by spiritual freedom; the unauthentic values of the former are made to give way to the authentic ones brought by the spirit.
Union and Redemption as Sacraments
The methods advocated by Valentinus for the facilitating of a true spiritual Gnosis are not confined to philosophical doctrines and poetic mythologems. The Valentinian system was above all a system of sacrament. The Gospel of Philip mentions five of the seven historical sacraments (or rather their original Gnostic forms) explicitly and mentions the two remaining ones by implication.
In addition to baptism, anointing, eucharist, the initiation of priests and the rites of the dying, the Valentinian Gnosis mentions prominently two great and mysterious sacraments called “redemption” (apolytrosis) and “bridal chamber” respectively. While many of the formulae for these rites have been lost, their essential meanings can still be discovered by perusing the various accounts given by the church fathers and the references contained in the Gnostic scriptures.
The bridal chamber, or pneumatic union, is by far the most frequently alluded to of the greater sacraments. The Gospel of Philip makes constant references to it and statements concerning it are scattered in a large number of the Gnostic scriptures. Irenaeus associates this sacrament primarily with the followers of Valentinus, but the theoretical foundations serving as its psychological rationale are present in the corpus of Gnostic writings generally. Thus the Gospel According to Thomas, which is generally considered to be relatively free of Valentinian influences, presents us with what might be considered the clearest formulation of the theoretical foundation of the bridal chamber in its 22nd Logion:
When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female not be female . . . then shall you enter the kingdom.
The psychological basis upon which the bridal chamber ritual is founded is fairly easily understood. The Gnosis considers the human being as divided and fragmented within itself. The divisions have numerous aspects: We are involved in what modern psychology would call an Ego-Self dichotomy, in an Anima-Animus dichotomy, in a body-mind dichotomy, in a subjective-objective dichotomy, and many others. All of these divisions require mending, or healing. Even as the Pleroma, or divine plenum, is characterized by wholeness, so the human being must once again become whole and thereby acquire the qualifications to reenter the Pleroma. Contemporary, especially Jungian depth psychology envisions such a pneumatic union as the ultimate objective of what it calls the individuation process. Unlike Jungian psychologists who can offer only the practice of analysis as an instrumentality of the process of reunification, Valentinus was apparently inspired to document and ritually dramatize this union in the great sacrament of the bridal chamber. The Sophia myth serves in many ways as the mythological support of this sacrament. The myth implies that the creation of the imperfect world and the confinement of the soul within it originated through the disruption of the original spiritual unity of the Pleroma, so that the return of the soul into the loving embrace of her bridegroom, as indicated by the return of Sophia into the arms of Jesus, then represents the healing of this disruption and restoration of wholeness.
The sacrament of the bridal chamber more than any other feature of the Valentinian Gnosis gives us a clear indication of the psychological versus the theological character of Gnostic teaching and practice. The professed purpose of this rite is the individual and personal ‘becoming one’ of the soul of the initiate, and cosmic and eschatological considerations play no role in this. It is not abstract being or creation that is healed and unified in this sacrament but the interior being of a human individual. It might be fair to say that Valentinus practiced an individuation rite, the need for which in today’s world is evidenced by the highest and best of psychological research. It is perhaps characteristic of the sad deterioration of the sacramental system in historic Christianity that this intrapsychic union has been allowed to devolve into the sacrament of matrimony, signifying a contractual relationship of two terrestrial personalities within the context of the flawed order of societal mores.
However, it is not sufficient to be unified in one’s nature – so Valentinus implied – one must also be redeemed from the corrupting and confusing thralldom of the false existential world wherein one lives. This liberation from the clutches of the world of defect was accomplished by the sacrament of redemption (apolytrosis) sometimes also called restoration (apokatastasis). This might be called the final act of separation from the rule of illusory and deceptive states of mind. While it is by no means established whether the sacrament of the bridal chamber was administered first and the redemption later, it is the conviction of the present writer that this indeed was the case. The individual in whom the dualities have been united and the splits healed (the individuated person, as Jung might have called him or her) is now empowered to repudiate the forces bereft of illuminating meaning. This is well-expressed in one of the formulae of restoration preserved from Valentinian source:
I am established, I am redeemed and I redeem my soul from this aeon and from all that comes from it, in the name of IAO, who redeemed his soul unto the redemption in Christ, the living one. (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I. 21,5)
Even as Buddha is said to have triumphantly repudiated the works of Mara the deceiver subsequent to his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, so the Gnostic severs every connection with the unconsciousness and compulsion and lives and dies as a sovereign being of light and power henceforth. There is every indication that the double sacraments of the bridal chamber and redemption caused enormous transformations and brought a great empowerment to the lives of their recipients. (These rites survived in modified form among the followers of the prophet Mani and the Cathars of the Languedoc. The latter had a great sacrament resembling the apolytrosis, called the consolamentum, which gave its recipients not only a great serenity of live but a virtually unequaled courage to face death.)
The foregoing – and much other material relating to the Valentinian Gnosis that had to remain unexplored in this brief exposition – serve to illustrate the great and undeniable virtues of this heritage of wisdom. Philosophic integrity, psychological insight, poetic and artistic exaltation and beauty, mingled with true religious devotion and emotion characterize the contribution of Valentinus and elevate it over most Gnostic and semi-Gnostic systems and schools. Were one to combine the highest and best products of Existentialism, one might only hope to approximate the sublime message of the great technician of human transformation who beckons to us from the distance of nearly two millennia. Valentinus indeed lives. He was and is a knower, a Gnostic for all seasons, a source of inspiration and guidance for persons in every age and clime: a timeless messenger of the mysteries of the soul. One could not conclude this brief exposition and tribute with a more appropriate hope than the one embodied in the following fragment of a Valentinian blessing:
May the Grace beyond time and space that was before the beginnings of the Universe fill our inner man and increase within us the semblance of itself as the grain of mustard seed.
The article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol. 1), and is reproduced here by permission of the author.