Eighteen hundred years ago, the Christian religion was in a state of chaotic upheaval. The Bible hadn’t been canonized yet, most important doctrinal issues were still up for grabs, and nobody could agree on what Jesus’ message actually was.
One of the most exotic flavors in this seething cauldron of theological controversy was Gnosticism, a mystical philosophy whose adherents rejected the creator god of the Old Testament as an incompetent fraud. Instead the Gnostic Christians dedicated their lives to the search for another god, an elusive deity secretly hidden within the human spirit.
This quest for the God within took many forms. Some Gnostics advocated a total rejection of the world and society, living in the desert as ascetic monks; others married, worked and played alongside their neighbors without ever discussing their spiritual pursuits.
The Gnostics had an intuitive, personal approach to enlightenment. There was no hierarchy, no code of conduct and no central governing authority; the goal was liberation by any means necessary, not the creation of new orthodoxies.
While most Gnostic Christians contented themselves with respectable lives of study and contemplation, others chose a more direct route.
Often mischaracterized as “libertines” or “devil-worshippers,” it is the taboo-smashing travelers of this shorter path who have inspired the most curiosity among modern researchers.
Taboo and Transgression
Perhaps no two human activities are as thickly ringed round with religious and social taboos as the twin mysteries of sex and death – the beginning and the end, the void from which human life emerges and the gulf into which it disappears.
French philosopher Georges Bataille argues the religious impulse is identical to erotic desire for this reason – both strive for the extinction of individual consciousness, either through the mystical death of the ego (religion) or the “little death” of the orgasm (sex).
In Bataille’s view, sexual and religious taboos provoke their own violation – or “transgression” – simply by existing, for it is only through the very human drive to define and then deflower (or desecrate) states of purity that we loosen the grip of rational utility and plunge or collapse into ecstatic communion with the sacred.
Taboo breaking, in other words, is a profoundly spiritual activity; whether through religion (the giddy euphoria of the blood sacrifice), sex (the anarchic carnality of the orgy) or social play (the topsy-turvy lawlessness of the carnival). Madmen, criminals and holy fools throughout the ages have always sought to tempt fate and “break on through to the other side.”
The notion that the psychological shock caused by performing forbidden activities can lead to spiritual awakening is called “antinomianism”. The word “antinomian” means, literally, “against the law.”
Antinomian sects have been present throughout human history in almost every culture. Perhaps the best-known modern example is that of the Aghora (or “pure ones”), Hindu holy men who practice necrophilia, cannibalism and even coprophagy (the eating of feces) in their fierce quest for wisdom. 1
Of course, from the Aghora’s point of view, eating feces is simply God eating God. If everything is God, then why would he discriminate between sights, smells and tastes or prefer certain experiences, substances or actions?
But perhaps he would, for like many antinomian cults, the Aghora often speak in code. The practitioner who tells us that he eats his own feces may be speaking metaphorically of his meditative practice. Without experiencing his path for ourselves, we simply cannot know.
As the above example should make abundantly clear, the antinomian path isn’t for the casually curious, nor should it be confused with mere hedonism. It demands absolute discretion, a disdain for disapproval, and an unshakeable commitment to an ethic literally not of this world.
Beyond Good and Evil
Antinomian mystics have never been concerned with social status, physical comfort or moral redemption. Instead, their goal has always been the acquisition of divine power through mystical merger with the godhead. What society calls evil is what violates boundaries and overflows without limit, blurring the categories between pure and impure, sacred and profane.
The antinomian heroine deliberately ignores these distinctions, performing acts that most people would see as dirty, disgusting or dangerous. Trespassing on divine territory, she frees herself from society’s taboos, dissolving shame, fear and judgment as she opens herself up to the absolute.
With every forbidden act, the soul is enlarged and strengthened, made more able to receive and integrate the divine power unleashed thereby.
Antinomianism in Primitive Christianity
The antinomian current in Gnostic Christianity came in two flavors, weak and strong. The “weak” antinomian ideal held that since the flesh was just a temporary vehicle for the spirit, mature Christians could do whatever they pleased with their bodies. Biblical rules governing diet, behavior, dress, sex, etc., were restrictive and unnecessary distractions intended for the mundane herd, not the spiritual elite.
The “strong” antinomian ideal was embraced by those Christian groups we would today call “Short Path”. Preaching depravity as a positive value, these urged believers to sin without restraint. Sex, fear and intoxicants were used to break down taboos and social conditioning, releasing tremendous amounts of magical energy while sanctifying the vilest deeds with a mysterious grace.
The most infamous Gnostic antinomian of all was Carpocrates, a second-century teacher from the Egyptian city of Alexandria whose students prided themselves on their “knowledge of the deep things of Satan.”2
According to St. Irenaeus, what made Carpocrates’ teachings so especially blasphemous was the idea Christians had to bribe the Devil in order to return to God. The Devil would guide the souls of dead through the afterworld, but only if they had already paid him in life through the ritualistic performance of a multitude of “sins.”
The Jesus Jail Break
Carpocrates taught that the Earth was a prison planet created by rebellious angels who had imprisoned human souls here in shadowy tombs of flesh and bone. These “angels” were the Rulers, botched copies of another, higher deity called the unborn god.
Jesus was a normal human being until he remembered his previous existence as a bodiless soul with the unborn god outside space and time. As Jesus grew in knowledge and spiritual clarity, he realized that laws and institutions (the 10 Commandments, for example) had been designed by the world-building Rulers to ensnare and mislead us. The best way to get over “sins” was to just give into them. Like water seeking its own level, the soul could then return to the unborn god, unencumbered by earthly limits and restrictions.
To the Carpocratians, Jesus was a model of someone who had achieved total freedom of the soul – and since the source of Jesus’ power lay in His utter contempt for the angels’ created universe, anyone could become greater than Jesus by despising “things below” even more than He had. For this reason, some Carpocratians considered themselves equal to Jesus Himself, while others considered themselves even more powerful.
The Carpocratians incorporated secret handshakes, dream interpretation, magic spells and other occult rites into Christian worshiHaving defeated and risen above the creators and rulers of the world, the accomplished Carpocratian could now command these same entities, ruling over the invisible forces of creation much as they themselves ruled over the Earth.
Moral prohibitions and taboos seemed to provoke – rather than inhibit – the Carpocratians. As heresy-hunter St. Irenaeus explained:
[The Carpocratians] have reached such a pitch of madness that they say that it is in their power to do whatever is irreligious and impious, for they say that actions are good and bad only in accordance with human opinion. In the transmigrations into bodies, souls ought to experience every kind of life and action… so that… their souls… may not, when they depart, still suffer any lack. They must act in such a way that they will not be forced into another body if something is still lacking in their freedom.3
The purpose of human life, in this view, was not to obey the rules set down by the fallen angels who built the world and stranded us here, but to achieve enlightenment and escape the sphere of illusion altogether. Laws were a sort of spiritual obstacle, designed to keep us motivated by pain and pleasure. It was this misguided tendency to construct reality in terms of opposites (for example, “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “reward and punishment”) that kept us trapped here in the cycle of death and rebirth.
Jesus revealed how to escape from the cycle of reincarnation in the following parable:
When you are with your adversary on the way, act so that you may be freed from him, lest he deliver you to the judge and the judge to the officer and he cast you into prison; truly I say to you, you will not come out from there until you pay the last quadrant.4
This “adversary” was the Devil, the leader of the world-creating Rulers. After death, the Devil handed the souls of the ignorant and inexperienced over to the “judge” and then to the “officer”; these angelic bureaucrats recycled unprepared souls by trapping them in new bodies and sending them back to the Earth to live again. The body was a “prison.”
“You will not come out from there until you pay the last quadrant,” meant that no one escaped from the Rulers who created the Earth; souls are always returned here until they have “completed all sins.” The soul which had completed all sins in one lifetime was freed from the cycle of reincarnation and returned to the god above the world-creating Rulers (cf. Luke 12:58); there was no other way to be saved.
Those who engaged in each and every sin at least once would not be forced to live again. Having paid their “debts” by exploring every nook and cranny of human life, they were no longer required to live in bodies.
Carpocrates claimed that Jesus revealed these secret teachings only to the disciples (Mark 4:10-11) who could understand them. Love and faith were enough to attain salvation (cf. Gal. 5:6); “good” and “bad” existed only as matters of human opinion.
The controversy over Carpocrates didn’t end with St. Irenaeus. St. Clement accuses the mischievous mystic of stealing a copy of “The Secret Gospel of Mark” from the Church library in Alexandria and adapting it to suit his “blasphemous and carnal” teachings.5 St. Clement doesn’t tell us what these teachings were, but since Carpocrates was an enthusiastic student of Platonic philosophy we can probably take an educated guess.
“Secret Mark” has Jesus spending the night in a cave showing “the Kingdom of God” to a man He raised from the dead. Similarly, Plato’s “cave” myth compares ordinary waking life to imprisonment in a dark tunnel filled with flickering shadows, a pit we can only escape with the help of philosophy. Carpocrates probably combined the myth of “Plato’s Cave” with the teachings of “Secret Mark” and adapted them to an initiation ritual intended to lead his students to the eternal world outside the cave.
Carpocrates’ goal was to escape from the universe; his son Epiphanes sought to reform it instead. A teenage prodigy whose radical views on marriage and property have influenced generations of Christian freethinkers, Epiphanes set out his philosophy in a revolutionary essay called “On Righteousness and Justice.”
God, Epiphanes argued, has provided sunlight and plant life – indeed, the whole planet – for our common use and enjoyment. In a world of such abundance, why would theft or jealousy even exist?
These vices arose, Epiphanes concluded, when blind, ignorant men perverted God’s gifts by greedily insisting on private ownership.
Given God’s limitless generosity, why did so many Christians insist on keeping their food, animals and land locked up, not to mention their wives? By selfishly refusing to share the benefits of matrimony with their fellow believers, weren’t they spiting the same God who blessed us with strong sexual drives and desires in the first place?
Epiphanes had a novel response to the stifling traditions which had so provoked his father: When God told His chosen not to swap wives He must have been joking.
“Consequently one must understand the saying ‘You shall not desire’ as if the lawgiver [God] was making a jest, to which he added the even more comic words ‘your neighbor’s goods’ [Exodus 20:17]. For he himself who gave the desire to sustain the race orders that it is to be suppressed, though he removes it from no other animals. And by the words ‘your neighbor’s wife’ he says something even more ludicrous, since he forces what should be common property to be treated as a private possession.”6
Sabotaging the Matrix
Epiphanes’ subversive reading of Mosaic Law was shared by the Cainites, a mysterious second-century Christian group who took their name from Abel’s homicidal brother. The Cainites were not escapists like the Carpocratians or reformers like Epiphanes; instead we might describe them as saboteurs. Like many other Gnostic Christian groups, the Cainites believed the Earth we inhabit was a sort of cosmic prison or zoo, a labyrinth for the souls of the fallen and the lost ruled over by an incompetent and insane Demiurge. This Demiurge was identified with Yahweh, the wrathful creator god of Genesis. His mother was Sophia, the hidden Goddess of Wisdom.
The Cainites rejected the diabolical Demiurge, looking instead to Sophia (the “superior power”) for guidance and protection. Like Yahweh, Sophia had chosen people of her own; through Cain, Judas, the Sodomites, and all of the other outcasts of the Old Testament, she worked tirelessly to undermine Yahweh’s authority.
The Cainites were “strong” antinomians who treated sinning as a religious duty. Through the systematic violation of Yahweh’s moral laws, they sought to undo the actual physical laws (e.g., gravity, friction) which make life on Earth possible.
The Cainites invoked angels while sinning for assistance, not forgiveness – in short, they were trying to sabotage the Matrix:
And they say they cannot be saved in any other way, except they pass through all things, just as Carpocrates also said. And at every sinful and base action an angel is present and instills in him who ventures the deed audacity and impurity… And this is the perfect “knowledge,” to enter without fear into such operations, which it is not lawful even to name.7
With their audacious pursuit of unspeakable acts, the Cainites seem to have anticipated the pessimistic neo-Platonism of Jean Baudrillard, the French postmodernist whose concept of simulation has so influenced contemporary science fiction:
For example: it would be interesting to see whether the repressive apparatus would not react more violently to a simulated hold-up than to a real one? For the latter only upsets the order of things, the right of property, whereas the other… suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation.8
In a simulated world, neither crime nor punishment can exist in any meaningful way – how could they, when victims, police and money are all just different aspects of the same illusion?
The antinomian legacy is wreathed in paradox. What little we know about these rebellious holy men comes only from the reports of their enemies. What most Christians called “sins” the antinomian Gnostic called initiations – no wonder their message so horrified the establishment!
The antinomian path asks difficult questions. Can we make ourselves pure by wallowing in impurity? What is pure? What is impure? What is sin? What is not?
Does might make right? Does power corrupt? Is pleasure a crime? Do the same rules apply equally to everyone? Are some laws higher than the laws of man?
In a world where conventional morality defines civilian deaths as “collateral damage”, prejudice as a “family value”, and pregnancy as an “epidemic,” we may find ourselves agreeing with Bataille’s poignant plea for collective awakening when he writes:
Lift the curse of those feelings which oppress men, which force them into wars they do not want, and consign them to work from whose fruits they never benefit… Assume within oneself perversion and crime, not as exclusive values, but as a prelude to their integration into the totality of humanity. Participate in the destruction of a world as it presently exists, with eyes open to the world which is yet to be. 9
Where nothing is true and everything is permitted, the antinomian becomes the only moralist worth listening to. Perhaps these ancient heretics still have something to teach us today after all.
- Svoboda, Robert. Aghora: At the Left Hand of God. Brotherhood of Life, 1986. 83-84. [↩]
- “The Secret Gospel of Mark.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 341-42. [↩]
- “Carpocrates.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 648-49. [↩]
- 3. Luke 12:58 59; Matt. 5:25-26 [↩]
- “The Secret Gospel of Mark.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 341-42. [↩]
- “Epiphanes.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 649-50. [↩]
- “The Cainities.” The Other Bible. Ed. Willis Barnstone. Harper San Francisco, 1984. 651-52. [↩]
- Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Semiotext(e), 1983. 38-39. [↩]
- Taylor, Mark, et al. “Encounter: Georges Bataille.” Radio National, 22 April, 2001. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/enc/stories/s281136.htm [↩]