If I had to live in the past – and because of modern medicine and dentistry I prefer living in the present – I would choose to live in Rome in the second century AD. It was at that time that there was the greatest diversity of philosophies and religions, and the most interesting world-views – nearly all of which are forgotten today, but I believe can be very useful today. Second century Rome was like a giant spiritual supermarket or bazaar. Ideas came from the ancient Greek philosophers, from India and the East, from Judaism, and most intriguingly from the new religion on the block, Christianity, which grew far faster than any other philosophy or religion.
The Christian gurus are of particular interest for two reasons. First, they fused together all the other strains of thought into a powerful cocktail. And second, the thing that strikes me about the great Christian thinkers of the first three centuries is their stunning diversity. You see, at that time there was no orthodox Christianity, no straightjacket of dogma and theology – it was much more like philosophy in the nineteenth century, or psychology in the twentieth. In the second century, Christian thinkers were free to evolve their own version of the religion, and many different versions of Christianity prospered in peaceful coexistence. Even at this distance of time, we can detect the excitement felt about the new religion and at ways to express the truth that was felt by the Christians. And it was all very practical. There were new views of the universe, new cosmologies and ways of thinking about God; but the new strands of Christianity competed mainly according to how useful they were felt to be in terms of daily living and coming to terms with the human condition.
Every few blogs, starting today, I’m going to explore one of ten great early Christian thinkers. My purpose is not religious but pragmatic and utilitarian – I’m trying to find fresh ideas that are helpful in our lives, and even in business. For each of these thinkers, I will sketch a little about their life, then briefly discuss their world-view, and finally say what I think is most valuable in their teaching for our own happiness and effectiveness. I start with somebody you may not have heard of, but who built up an enormous following in second century Rome, and can speak to us powerfully today.
Valentinus – Who?
Born in 100 AD in a small town in the Nile Delta, Valentinus taught in Alexandria from about 130. He moved to Rome in 136 and such was his eloquence and the appeal of his message that he attracted a mass of disciples. Valentinus was one of the two most important “gnostic” teachers of the second century. Gnostics – the “Knowing Ones” – held that salvation came through secret knowledge and insight. They used mythology to explain how humankind had become separated from God. Valentinus received his secret knowledge from Theudas, who in turn claimed to have received it from St Paul. Valentinus died in 160.
During his lifetime, Valentinus was fully accepted as a bona fide Christian, though he was later denounced as a heretic by the Christian thought police. For centuries his views were only known through the lens of his detractors; until in 1945 two peasants digging for fertilizer near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt found the sacred Gnostic books, including the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip,and The Gospel of Truth, the latter possibly written by Valentinus and certainly reflecting his views. The gospels contain secret teaching that may go back to Jesus. Scholars take the discoveries at Nag Hammadi seriously and they may be as authentic and early as the four Gospels of the New Testament. At the very least, they are evidence of a vibrant community of Mystery-oriented Christians, with a story quite different from the one we are used to hearing.
The World View of Valentinus
At one level, the cosmology of Valentinus is complex and strange to modern ears. He described a divine world, the “Pleroma”, involving thirty emanations from God – all spiritual powers or aeons reflecting some of the divine nature and making it visible to humankind. Although this is glossed over because it is so foreign to modern understanding, it is clear that Jesus, St Paul, and all other early Christians believed there were a mass of principalities and powers, good and bad angels and spirits around them. The system Valentinus constructed was just a more comprehensive cosmology, and a more mythological one.
But fortunately Karen Armstrong has simplified his views for us, and suddenly they appear much more modern – more modern, indeed, than the orthodox Christian account:
These myths were never intended as literal accounts of creation and salvation; they were symbolic expressions of an inner truth. “God” and the Pleroma were not external realities “out there”, but were to be found within …
The Pleroma represented a map of the soul. The divine light could be discerned even in this dark world, if the Gnostic new where to look: during the Primal Fall … some divine sparks had fallen from the Pleroma and been trapped in matter. The Gnostic [Christian] could find a divine spark in his own soul, and become aware of a divine element within himself which would help him to find his way home.
Valentinus taught that Man was the highest being in the lower world of matter – as opposed to the spiritual world of the Pleroma. Man was both a material and a spiritual being, and had to free himself from being a slave to the material world, liberating the spiritual part of his being. The Logos, one of the aeons, had descended to earth, and assumed the appearance of Jesus in order to show us the way back to God. The way back is not by worshipping some God “out there” – because truly we can never know the nature of God – but by taking the best parts of our own nature, our spiritual nature, and building on those in imitation of Jesus.
As Monoimus, a disciple of Valentinus, said:
Abandon the search for God … Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you … and say, My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body. Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. Learn how it happens that one watches without willing, loves without willing. If you carefully investigate these matters, you will find him in yourself.
The Value of Valentinus Today
The search for God – for meaning in the universe, for our own transformation and value, for our way back to where we belong, as a “child of the universe” – becomes highly personal and cerebral. We could even say – in the spirit of Valentinus – that it becomes a matter of introspection, of psychology, of understanding ourselves. The esoteric knowledge that was handed down from Jesus and Paul to their followers is not accessible to us. But the knowledge of how our minds and emotions work is accessible.
Which is the greater mystery? The world revealed by psychological research has many puzzling aspects. Paradoxes abound. One of the amazing discoveries of psychology is that our attitudes are formed by our actions more than by our beliefs. We look for consistency and patterns – even when they don’t exist – so we rationalize our behaviour. So the way to change ourselves, if we want, is to behave as if we feel something we want to feel, even if we don’t – leading to the wonderful maxim (from Alcoholics Anonymous) to “fake it until you make it.” Another truly bizarre finding of psychology is that what we tell our mind about our self becomes the truth – we can be powerful or useless, responsible or a victim – just by thinking it. If it didn’t have the glorious imprimatur of scientific truth, nobody would credit such things – they could be easily dismissed as wishful thinking. These truths are as esoteric and queer as anything in the Gnostic or other Christian literature.
My own personal view – which of course I cannot prove – is that there is a link between the spiritual and the perceptual mind, between something “divine” and the way that human psychology operates. I think the best way of articulating or understanding this view is to borrow from Valentinus’ way of thinking. We are in some sense lost in a world that is badly flawed – we feel like strangers in a strange universe. It is easy to feel dislocated and depressed, and overwhelmed by our failure to understand what is going on, by a sense of futility and lack of meaning.
But in another sense, we have a feeling that we do belong in the world, and that part of our nature – that driven by intellect, by creativity, by love, by the desire to build a better world – is attuned to some “higher” source of power. We long for the divine. Perhaps incalculable damage has been caused to our collective and individual psyches because the traditional sources of spiritual comfort – belief in a God “out there”, in eternal life, in a system of belief expressed in one of the world’s great religions – have been at least partly dismantled by the rationalism associated with modern science.
The truth is – there is no God out there. There is only the God in here – in ourselves. But wait. What if the God in here is also the Ground of our Being – is, in some mysterious and inexplicable way, behind the way the universe operates, behind the progress of humankind. The way this God operates is through humans, the same way that, according to Valentinus and other early Christians, God could only operate on earth through humans, through Jesus and his followers.
In a sense we hold the possibility of meaning in the universe – and all that is good and constructive about life – in our own hands, in the better fraction of our being. But we are not alone. We are primarily material beings, but we are also in part spiritual beings. We have the divine spark, and that is awe-inspiring. The power of God is behind us and within us, if we use the weird and wonderful knowledge available to us, if we intelligently flex and expand our spiritual muscles. At the root of all progress, all improvement in the human condition, all truth and beauty, all excitement, all physical, spiritual and mental health, lies the creative use of knowledge for good. That applies equally in schools, universities, business enterprises, the public sphere, and our personal lives. Useful knowledge to generate useful insight is divine, ever-expanding, and our responsibility to expand. Using insight for good is our destiny. That is what I think Valentinus would be blogging, if he were alive today.
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