Do Gnostics Believe in Charity and Good Works?
An assumption exists that the Gnostics were only interested in taking astral flights to supernal dimensions or mining the depths of their subconscious for the gem called the Divine Spark.
The world was a nagging distraction to overcoming the Archons that ruled the heavenly spheres on their way to the Alien God.
This characterization of the Gnostics is correct, to an extent. Nonetheless, it misses the idea of the transformation that occurred through the occult rituals practiced by such groups as the Sethians and Valentinians. The transformation didn’t just make a Gnostic “higher than the gods” as asserted in the Apocalypse of Adam, but into Christian Bodhisattvas, a term coined by Robert Price during an interview with Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio.
Being a Christian Bodhisattva meant more than sacred information that leads to wholeness. It meant a deep caring and yearning for other souls trapped in the material world. And this attitude is not surprising considering that Gnosticism came from the Judeo-Christian matrix of the Roman imperial period, and thus charity and good works were likely important to any Gnostic community.
But talk is cheap. Bread for the poor costs money. So let us briefly explore how Gnostics throughout approached charity and good works (and just not being dicks).
Nag Hammadi Writings on charity and good works
The Gospel of Thomas has short but potent wisdom dealing the concept of charity and good works:.
Jesus said, “Love your neighbors like your own soul, protect them like the pupil of your eye.”.
Jesus said to them, “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world. If it does not shine, it is dark.”
Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.”
The Gospel of Philip further expands on charity and good works with evocative metaphor and poetry:
Faith receives, love gives. No one will be able to receive without faith. No one will be able to give without love. Because of this, in order that we may indeed receive, we believe, and in order that we may love, we give, since if one gives without love, he has no profit from what he has given.
Spiritual love is wine and fragrance. All those who anoint themselves with it take pleasure in it. While those who are anointed are present, those nearby also profit from the fragrance. If those anointed with ointment withdraw from them and leave, then those not anointed, who merely stand nearby, still remain in their bad odor. The Samaritan gave nothing but wine and oil to the wounded man. It is nothing other than the ointment. It healed the wounds, for ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (1 P 4:8).
Lastly, The Gospel of Philip contains one sentence that is strikingly modern and on par with any contemporary romantic:
Love never calls something its own.
In The Dialogue of the Savior, an exchange between Judas and Jesus stresses the essential connection between charity and Gnosis:
Judas said, ‘Tell me, Lord, what the beginning of the path is.”
Jesus said, “Love and kindness. For if one of these existed among the Archons, wickedness would never have come into existence.”
The Secret Book James states:
Harken to the Logos, understand Gnosis, love life.
The Gospel of Truth, which might have been written by the Gnostic Sage Valentinus himself, says:
God came and destroyed the division and he brought the hot Fullness of love, so that the cold may not return, but the unity of the Perfect Thought prevail…Speak concerning the truth to those who seek it and of knowledge to those who, in their error, have committed sin. Make sure-footed those who stumble and stretch forth your hands to the sick. Nourish the hungry and set at ease those who are troubled.
What others said about Gnostic charity and good works
History also proves that compassionate care was a characteristic of Gnosticism. The philosopher Plotinus mocked Sethian Gnostics for being concerned with “social justice” issues such as the disparity of wealth and the plight of impoverished people (Ennead 2.9.9).
Many scholars, from Rudolf Bultmann to April DeConick, have argued that the Gospel of John contains a Gnostic foundation. Thus, such a passage from the Gospel of John would please most Gnostic sects:
This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
The Gnostics furthermore took great inspiration from the Apostle Paul. Surely, they would have enjoyed, as an example, a passage such as found in 1 Corinthians 13 (even beyond weddings):
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
Charity and good works in Gnosticism beyond the Gnostic Gospels
Orthodox religion and secular powers persecuted Gnostic sects during the course of history. Beyond that, however, much has been written on the virtue and kind disposition of Gnostics sects like the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Cathars.
An example is found in Andrew Phillip Smith’s The Secret History of the Gnostics, in a section reviewing the Manichean Elect:
They were strict vegetarians, were forbidden to lie, were celibate and were restricted in the kinds of work that they could do. Every living being was considered to contain some of the light, and ill-treating or damaging a living being, or even polluting the water, was seen as an act that could torment the light within. Thus the Perfect were careful not to kill insects, and walked with their eyes facing the ground lest they accidentally trod on a weed or a blade of grass. Their extreme care in avoiding causing suffering to other living beings is reminiscent of Jainism or some form of Buddhism.
Another illustration is located in The Cathars, by Sean Martin. He writes that the Cathars of the middle ages were “often regarded as being better Christians than their Catholic counterparts, a fact which the church was later forced to acknowledge.”
I personally know that contemporary Gnostic organizations such as the Ecclesia Gnostica and the Johannite Apostolic Church are involved in charitable works—from prison outreach programs to supporting soup kitchens. They just don’t publicize these activities.
I’ve always liked this passage from Living Gnosticism, written by Jordan Stratford, a priest for the Apostolic Johannite Church:
May my house be at peace in this time of war. May I have a voice in this time of oppressive silence. May I have love in this time of immense loneliness. May I have justice in this time of cruelty, democracy in this age of despots.
Charity in all its aspects—various degrees of love, good works, universal compassion—is ultimately a stepping stone to Gnosis, which is the ultimate stepping stone to becoming united with the Alien God. Every step is vitally equal in the ascension from the manholes of the material to the streets of the Divine.
It should be noted that the word charity (agape in Greek) is usually interchangeable with love in Christian texts. Yet charity (agape) has a much deeper flavoring. Richard Smoley, in his book Inner Christianity, explains that charity is more of a spiritual love between man and the Godhead that causes a deep compassion and connection with all living beings.
Even those who are dicks to you.