A world of eternal Spirit; or a world of materiality, suffering, death. The ancient Gnostic Christians opted for the spiritual world, a realm they did not identify as the standard Christian heaven. The Spirit realm, according to the Gnostics, is an utterly transcendent sphere centered on an utterly transcendent God. The Christian heaven and its God were far too hylic, far too corporeal, for the Gnostics, who considered themselves to be pneumatic, or spiritual beings whose true home was in the transcendent domain of the Other God, whom they named the Abyss, the Silence, the Profundity.
Most Gnostic sects condemned the world as the creation of an ignorant, arrogant deity they called the Demiurge. Some Gnostics identified the Demiurge with Yahweh, Judaism’s creator-deity, whom they conceived as an upstart godling who created the material universe. He was a creator – of an inferior, pain-filled world – but he was not the true, transcendent God the Gnostics held to be supreme.
Contrast this spirit with the famed cosmos-piety of the Greeks, the vision of Yahweh’s world as “good” by Jews and Christians, and the nature-love found in many “pagan” systems and folk beliefs. For these, the beauty of the world, the harmony of the celestial lights, the fecundity of the soil, the blessing of the rains, the marvelous regency of life and its mysteries of birds, animals, the bounty of the sea, the puzzle of meteors, the eternal pattern of day alternating with night, the moon and its phases, and so many more features of a living world, were a source of wonder, reverence, and veiled meaning. One thinks of the simple but deep mystery of the sacred grove with its holy springs, or the god-touched mountain top, the lovely visions of goddesses and demigods so frequently associated with such places… the “genius loci” which imbues certain special places with an enigmatic, supernal beauty.
Yet that very world – impermanent and full of pain and struggle, a sometimes-beautiful slaughter house- is where we, as embodied creatures, live. Its cyclic rhythms are full of death, disease, dismemberment. The Gnostic vision confronts these hylic elements, despises them, and points to the True God’s non-material realm as our only true refuge and home.
It is hard not to acknowledge that both conflicting views contain truth. Can we recognize and accept the reality of both a non-material realm of radiant spiritual joy, with its non-creating but supreme Reality… and at the same time a material world which, though full of suffering, still conveys its own heart-rending splendor and hidden meaning?
I don’t have the answer to that question, but my guess is that the person who does, has found the key to real happiness.