It is a common belief among mainstream Christian communities to focus heavily on right conduct, and they define rules which the “true Christian” must follow to lead a Godly life. Some go so far as to say that Christ Himself implies morals (which may very well be true). But morals are subjective, as the inconsistency of various Christian churches’ teachings on the matter attest. Even within the same church there’s not always a consensus amongst the members – e.g. what some Catholics consider a mortal sin, others consider venial, even with such a complete guide to follow as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Recognizing that it is human nature to “miss the mark” (sin), Christians emphasize that we can be forgiven of our transgressions because, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). However, there are some churches that, even though they recognize that God is merciful and forgiving, will still give a member of their church the boot for committing a sin that “cries to heaven” so badly that the person is no longer welcome in the community. Clearly, God may be forgiving, but people aren’t.
What can be said of the Gnostic view of morality, ethics, and right conduct? As the Most Rev. Stephan Hoeller has said, if morality is taken to be a system of rules then Gnostics are opposed to them, because such a system originates with the demiurge to serve his purpose. But, if morality consists of an inner integrity arising from the illumination of the indwelling divine spark (the Christ in you, as St. Paul put it), then we can embrace them.
Commandments and rules are not salvific. They may serve a purpose, by maintaining peaceful relations within social groups – but they aren’t relevant to salvation. Morality is ever changing in accordance with spiritual and secular development.
When the apostles asked Jesus what they should do, He responded by saying what they should not do: “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate” (Gospel of Thomas 6). This isn’t very specific, but it does place the responsibility upon the individual to listen to the Christ within, not to worldly “authorities” whose rules of morality are largely based on their own personal opinion. It’s hard enough living up to our own personal standards of living, never mind someone else’s!
The Law of Moses is one set of rules that most Christians recognize as authoritative. It provides us with a crude measure of good and evil. But the Gnostic teacher Ptolemy says, in his letter to Flora: “[T]he Law was not ordained by the perfect God the Father, for it is secondary, being imperfect and in need of completion by another, containing commandments alien to the nature and intentions of such a God.”
Christ was that completion – the fulfillment of the Law. Some of his teachings were outright contrary to the law, as can be seen in His Antitheses of the Law in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5.
Ptolemy divides the Law of Moses into three parts:
“…the entire Law contained in the Pentateuch of Moses was not ordained by one legislator – I mean, not by God alone: some commandments are Moses’, and some were given by other men … The first part must be attributed to God alone, and his legislation; the second to Moses – not in the sense that God legislates through him, but in the sense that Moses gave some legislation under the influence of his own ideas; and the third to the elders of the people, who seem to have ordained some commandments of their own at the beginning.”
He further says:
“[T]his division of the law (that is, god’s own law) was established neither by the perfect god, as we have taught, nor surely by the devil – which it would be wrong to say – then the establisher of this division is distinct from them. And he is the craftsman and maker of this universe or world and the things within it.”
With a divided law established by the demiurge, how can we discern what is moral and immoral. Ptolemy says, “We shall draw proofs of what we say from the words of the Savior, which alone can lead us without error to the comprehension of reality.” Jesus said, in the quote from Thomas given above, that it’s your responsibility. You already know right from wrong, because of the indwelling spark of light that is the core of your being. Listen to it, and it will guide you far better than any list of rules given by man.
The exoteric Church may cling to the letter of the law, but the Gnostic knows that those are merely words – regulations based on the fancies of imperfect people, and a tool of the demiurge. Jesus was quite critical of those who focus on the letter of the law, while ignoring the spirit behind it – yet man still feels the need for a formal set of rules, and then beats himself up when he is unable to live up to the expectations placed upon him.
You cannot go wrong if you follow the Great Commandment given by Christ Himself: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39). To violate that is the only true sin.
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