A Diverse Movement
Qoheleth said it well: What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9). The New Age is really not so new. And neither are the ideas contained in The Da Vinci Code. They go back quite far to the second century in fact to a loose but very widespread religious movement in the ancient world called Gnosticism.
In the second century, the Roman Empire had grown tired. Under the Emperor Trajan (d. 117 AD) the empire had reached its greatest territorial extent. For over a hundred years the Pax Romana had reigned over the Mediterranean world, a peace kept in place by the unrivaled power of the Roman military machine. But the empire had declined far from its republican roots and republican virtues. Sensuality and materialism were the order of the day. Of course, no one took the religion of Jupiter, Juno, and the Vestal Virgins very seriously. Worship of the emperor and the Roman gods was a matter of civic virtue, not of true religious devotion. Affluence and corruption led to boredom and restlessness.
In such an environment, people often look to far-off, exotic lands for something new and exciting. So it is no wonder that ideas from Persia, married to a mish-mash of ideas drawn from Greek philosophy, magic, and other exotic sects, coalesced into a something that came to be known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a tightly organized religion, but rather a general way of thinking that characterized a wide variety of sects following different leaders and often disagreeing sharply on several points.
The important thing here, though, is not what they disagreed about or even who they got their ideas from. What we want to understand is the essence of Gnosticism, the basic ideas that people called Gnostics held in common.
I Dont Belong Here
Have you ever had the feeling that you dont quite fit with the people and society around you? That you are a fish out of water?
Thats because you are different, the Gnostics would say. This material world, the Gnostics held, was not created by the Supreme Being. He dwells in the realms of light and is purely spiritual. It would never cross His mind to create the slime and muck of this material world. For the physical realm is a work of darkness created by a lower spiritual being called the demiurge. Some held that the demiurge was pure evil. Others said he was just incompetent. In any case, this physical world he created is not good as it says in Genesis 1, but rather a terrible mistake. And the most tragic mistake is that some sparks of divinity, some truly spiritual realities, managed to get trapped in human bodies. Redemption for them is to discover their true spiritual identity, escape from the body and its disgusting passions, and return to their true heavenly home.
Such liberation could only happen through gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Some spiritual being had to descend from the realms of light and bring this knowledge. Most of humanity was carnal and truly belonged to this realm of decay. The savior did not come for these pitiful folk.
But to those few who were fallen angels imprisoned in flesh, the savior brought the saving knowledge of their true origins and a complicated set of esoteric passwords so that, after death, these divine souls could navigate past the demiurge and his minions and make their way back at long last to the realm of light.
The Gnostic therefore, was someone in the know. He was better than others for he had discovered meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, and sensing a need for redemption, found it through complicated myths and exotic rituals.
Some, hearing the Christian message that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, supposed that Jesus was the heavenly messenger bringing salvation through hidden knowledge. To these, of course, the stories of Jesuss birth and death could not be right. No true heavenly being would ever defile Himself with matter, for matter and spirit were utterly opposed. So He just appeared to be human. But what to do with the embarrassing story about Golgotha? Regarding this, the Gnostics took different tacks: They either left out it out entirely, or came up with theories to explain it away, such as saying that it was based on mistaken identity. Certainly the bearer of heavenly revelation had no body and therefore couldnt have died.
Salvation was not, after all, accomplished through sacrifice, but through knowledge.
So how did these folks deal with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Some tossed out all Gospels save one, regarding the others as forgeries. For Marcion, (who though not a thorough Gnostic, held many of their ideas) the Gospel of Luke, minus the infancy narratives, was the only Gospel. Others liked the view of Jesus as the wandering guru who uttered profound discourses full of riddles, and John seemed to fit the bill. Others championed Gospels by other names, such as the Gospel of Thomas.
But all the so-called Christian Gnostics had one thing in common: Theirs was Christianity without the Cross. The crucifixion was either explained away or, in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, left out of the story. If salvation was by knowledge, why did they need a story at all? All that was needed was a collection of parables and sayings. And thats exactly what we find in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
So what kind of lifestyle should the true Gnostic lead? Here is where the various sects diverged a bit. They all agreed that the body was of no consequence. Some said, therefore, we must deny it as much as possible, even starve it. Their ideal was an ascetic lifestyle of severe fasting from food and sex.
Others drew the opposite conclusion. Since the body is just a hunk of meat that has no relationship to the spiritual life, what we do with the body simply does not matter. That means there is no law anything goes. So some Gnostic sects celebrated this license through ritual orgies. It would appear that the Nicolatians, condemned in the book of Revelation, were an early form of such a sect (Rv 2:6, 14).
But how could the Gnostics claim that their vision of Jesus was the true one in the face of the witness of the Church He had founded? Simple. Jesus realized that most couldnt take His true teaching, so He secretly confided it to a few chosen confidants. While the Church mollified the masses, this secret elite passed on this secret tradition to those who were worthy of it, from generation to generation.
Irenaeus, the Gnostic-Buster
As strange as this whole religious system may seem to us today, it swept the ancient world and posed a great threat to the Church. A bishop named Irenaeus, from Lyons in modern-day France, decided that someone had to take them on. And so he wrote a lengthy work called Against the Knowledge Falsely So-Called (a.k.a. Against Heresies). Iranaeus did more than expose the ridiculous and illogical doctrine of the Gnostics, rather, as an antidote to the poison of the heretics, he offered a full exposition of the truth of the Gospel.
First of all, he had to deal with the issue of legitimacy. How are we supposed to know what Jesus truly taught and Wwho He really was? Who is to say that the Gnostic Jesus is not the original one?
To the Gnostic argument of a secret tradition, Irenaeus did not respond with a sola scriptura argument. He didnt say forget tradition only Scripture is infallible. That wouldnt have worked since it was hotly contested which Gospels were the authentic ones. Rather, Irenaeus just used common sense. If Jesus had secret, deeper knowledge to pass down, wouldnt He have entrusted it to the twelve confidants called Apostles whom He personally selected? And towards the end of their lives, would not these have entrusted these secrets to their successors, and so on?. Yet, Irenaeus protests, writing around the year 185 AD, the Catholic bishops of apostolic cities such as Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome, can all trace back their lineage in a continual unbroken line to the Apostles. Since they know nothing of the silly doctrines of the Gnostics, it proves that these doctrines did not come from Jesus and His followers. And to give one example of how clearly each bishop knew his pedigree, he gives the example of the Roman Church and traces the pope of his day all the way back to Peter, naming every pope in between.
This doctrine of apostolic succession of bishops makes clear which Scriptures were authentic namely, those continuously read in the churches founded by the Apostles. And it makes clear where the authentic Christian tradition is to be found it is the tradition guarded by those churches, taught by the Apostles successors.
Having exposed Gnostic nonsense and established the legitimacy of the Catholic tradition, Irenaeus goes on to preach the true teaching of a material world that is a blessing, not a curse, a Savior who truly becomes one of us, dies for us, and continues to nourish us through sacraments material realities that become transmitters of holiness, vehicles for Gods saving power.
So what happened to Gnosticism after Irenaeuss blistering attack? Not long after his book was written, Gnosticism faded out of the picture. When darkness is exposed, it vanishes, swallowed up by the light. Though this esoteric religion initially appealed to a generation thirsty for spiritual life, it failed to satisfy.
So the Gnostic gospels were lost, buried under the sands of time. The only reason that we have the Gospel of Thomas today is because the sand that entombed it was the arid sand of Egypt, which is too dry for the bacteria that cause decay. In 1946 a famous archeological dig unearthed a copy of this document, confirming Irenaeus description of ancient Gnosticism.
The New Age- DaVinci Connection
Heresies are a lot like the common cold. They keep coming back around, but in a slightly changed form. But the change is just enough so that they sneak by the defense of our immune system and pose a new threat to our spiritual health.
Neither the New Age movement nor the Da Vinci Code buys into to ancient Gnosticism lock, stock, and barrel. But they both rely on key Gnostic ideas that have as much appeal now as they did in the second century. For who does not eventually feel the emptiness and ennui of a life without the spiritual dimension, a life devoid of mystery? Our contemporary Western society, like second-century Roman society, has lost its soul. We suffer from the desperation that comes from a lack of meaning.
The New Age has appeal because it restores a sense of mystery. It imitates the syncretism of the Gnostics, blending together exotic ideas from the East with traditions native to the West to produce a hodge-podge incoherent but intriguing. The Da Vinci Code resurrects the claim of a secret tradition that is earlier and more faithful than the New Testament Scriptures. It offers us a way to feel connected to Jesus even while we scorn the leaders and laws of the Church He founded.
But the appeal of these currents also constitutes their undoing. Both the New Age movement and the Da Vinci Code seek spirituality without sacrifice, without authority, without the Cross. They follow ancient Gnosticism in preserving a veneer of Christianity while emptying it of its heart and soul.
The fate of Gnosticism ought to serve as a warning here. A Christianity with no Cross is a Christianity with no power. And a religion with no power doesnt last very long. The Da Vinci Code may have sold a few million copies in the first years of the third millennium. But by the fourth millennium, it will take an archeologist digging in the arid sands of Egypt to find a copy.
(Dr. D'Ambrosio studied under Avery Cardinal Dulles for his Ph.D. in historical theology and taught for many years at the University of Dallas. He now directs www.crossroadsinitiative.com, which offers Catholic resources for RCIA, adult faith formation, and teens, with a special emphasis on the Year of the Eucharist, the Theology of the Body, the early Church Fathers, and the sacrament of confirmation.)