The Agnostic Gnostics
by: Paul W. Sharkey
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As readers of this site already know, agnostics do not deny the existence of god or gods but rather simply hold that it is impossible to know anything about them, including whether or not they exist. The term is said to have been invented by Thomas Huxley who made it up by adding the prefix ‘a’ meaning "not” or “without" to the Greek word gnosis meaning"knowledge." Certain Christian “heretics” who claimed a higher or deeper insight into the nature of spiritual truths were and continue to be known as Gnostics. Huxley coined the term a-gnostic to describe himself as being without such knowledge. However, the Gnostics may not have been as a-agnostic as Huxley and others suppose.
In his book, Lost Christianities, Bart D. Ehrman points out that Gnostic Christians held that in the beginning there was only the One.1 “This One God was totally spirit, totally perfect, incapable of description, beyond attributes and qualities. This God is not only unknown to humans; he is unknowable.” 2 Ehrman goes on to say that “the Gnostic texts do not explain why he is unknowable, except to suggest that he is so “other” that explanations -- which require making something unknown known by comparing it to something else -- simply cannot work.”
I do not wish to go into a long explanation here of why such knowledge is impossible given the backdrop of Gnostic philosophy. That would require a rather extensive and though publicly available nevertheless somewhat “esoteric” venture into Neo-Platonism. Suffice it to say however that any occasion of knowledge requires that there be a knower and a thing known: a knowing subject and an object known. In short, knowledge is inescapably binary. No perfect unity therefore is knowable -- nor, interestingly I think, capable of knowledge.3
The Gnostics were considered to be the most dangerous of all heresies by the early Church because they did not propose explicit challenges to “orthodox” formulations but rather simply understood those formulations in metaphysically different ways, frequently based upon a more sophisticated understanding of epistemology as in the case concerning knowledge of or about “God” above. They also viewed the orthodox Church as naïve, superstitious and corrupt. Whether they might have had a different influence on Christianity had they not been stamped out, we will never know. That they challenged the knowledge claims of “orthodoxy” however, we can and do know. In that, at least, they may have been ironically more “agnostic” than “gnostic” as understood today.
- There was of course no notion of this being an original “singularity” as understood(?) in contemporary physics although many of the same epistemological problems apply to making any sense of either “the One” or “the singularity.”
- Emphasis added. Note the similarity to the UCTAA’s “First Article of Faith.”
- There goes the “omniscience” of God!
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