What is Gnosticism?
Basically, at the time of Jesus and in the centuries following, there was not one unified Christian religion with one canon or agreed-upon set of scriptures, one creed summarizing their beliefs, and one 'rulebook' as for how they should practice Christianity. There were several, all disagreeing with each other on many different aspects of the Christian faith and worldview. The new religion was confused and fragmented, with many different groups of Christians. The lack of unity was caused by:
- The persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire, until that practice was ended by emperor Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian himself, and eventually make Christianity the state religion, in the 300s A.D. Being persecuted meant that many groups had to be underground and secretive, and could not create big, public structures like the medieval cathedrals and universities, so they had instead only limited means of reaching people with their brand of Christianity.
- The lack of a central authority figure.
- The geographic and cultural diversity of early Christians.
- The confusing and sometimes contradictory messages and actions attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, leading to many, many debates about what exactly Jesus intended to teach people, who among his disciples would be his true successor, whether Christians had to keep the Jewish commandments like being circumcised and not eating pork, how to attain salvation, and what a good Christian life would entail.
- Uncertainty about the proper role of women in Christian organizations.
The epistles in the New Testament refer to these such debates, questions, and faction differences that existed in the early days of Christianity.
So Gnosticism is one of many strands of Christianity, or a collective name for several related strands, that emerged some time after the death of Jesus. Little about their actual beliefs survived until the discovery of a library of many of their texts, called the Nag Hammadi codices or Nag Hammadi library, after they were discovered in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. They are written in Coptic, either by a group of Egyptian gnostics, or by a group of scholars who had studied the texts.
Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, we have learned a lot about Gnostic beliefs through it. Essentially, it boils down to this:
- The God worshiped by Christians and Jews is a false God, not worthy of worship. He is in fact a malevolent lesser being who simply created the flawed material universe, which is an imperfect copy of the spiritual realm.
- This spiritual realm is called the fullness or entirety, and it consists of the one true God, who is unknowable to human minds, and beings called Aeons who "emanated" from the mind of this God.
- Sophia or Wisdom is one such Aeon, who committed the taboo of trying to emanate her own being, which became Yald-Abaoth, the flawed, corrupt, creator being the Christians and Jews considered to be God, also called the Demiurge or "half creator".
- Sophia tries to correct her error by granting mankind knowledge (gnosis) of the true nature of reality. This is the true meaning of the "forbidden fruit" in the Garden of Eden. Yald-Abaoth is indeed a jealous God, because he is inferior to the higher Aeons and to the true God, also called the Invisible Virgin Spirit. So he wants to keep humanity ignorant, while Sophia is Wisdom and wants to help them achieve knowledge of spiritual realities beyond Yald-Abaoth's enslavement of their minds.
- That makes Jesus' mission on Earth not about saving people from their own sin or from Satan, like Christians believe, but about helping them reach gnosis, or knowledge of the fullness, the true God, and the spiritual realm. His life and teachings are seen as more important than his death or resurrection.
- All people have a spark of divinity in them, their spirit. Without gnosis, it is likely to be reincarnated many times and suffer the torments of life continually trapped in this material world, so gnosis is seen as liberation (much like the concept of moksha in Hinduism,or Enlightenment in Buddhism, which are also liberation from the cycle of reincarnation).
This mythology explains many of the problems people have brought up about the God portrayed in the Old Testament. He is described as good, loving, and all-knowing, but originally he also seems ignorant, jealous, angry, vengeful, and he seems like a bumbling schlemiel as a creator. He creates humanity seemingly twice. He asks Adam "where are you?" when Adam hides from Him in the garden of Eden. Doesn't this contradict that God is supposed to be all-knowing? He allows the forbidden fruit to be in easy reach and allows the serpent to tempt humanity into eating it, leading to their fall. Later in Genesis, generations after Adam, God destroys all life on the planet except for a few animals and people in the flood. Would an all-benevolent Father do that to his own creation?
And we can see that creation itself is very flawed. Our bodies are rarely ideal by nature, prone to problems ranging from horrific disease and deformity to everyday problems like weariness, aging, minor illnesses, and eventual but inevitable death. The land is often disorderly and unpredictable, with humans living at the mercy of sun and rain. The more orthodox way to answer the question is that original creation was not flawed, but became so as a result of mankind's original sin of disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. But would a loving God even put the fruit within reach of Adam and Eve in the garden in the first place if it was so dangerous? And what was the exact knowledge gained from eating it? Why was it forbidden? Isn't knowledge good? Why would God want humans to be ignorant?
The Gnostics had an answer for this puzzle by explaining simply that the creator God was simply not benevolent, just, all-powerful, or omniscient. Instead, they believed he must be inferior. Therefore, gnosticism is seen as a personal journey to find gnosis and become free of the arduous rigor of life in this flawed material universe.
Nerv and SEELE
So, what does all this have to do with the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion? Well, when I discussed the religious and WWII symbolism in NGE, I discovered, a lot of the religious references don't make sense if interpreted through only the lens of traditional, mainstream Christian or Judaic beliefs.
For example, Nerv, German for "nerve", is the savior of humanity. They have to operate in secrecy, much like ancient gnostic groups that were forced underground, first by the Romans and later by the Roman Catholic Church. This secrecy of Nerv is represented by its fig leaf design, the fig leaf being what Adam and Eve used to cover themselves with once they ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge and realized that they were naked. In a Gnostic reading of the show, it represents the help given to humanity by the aeon Wisdom, in overcoming our own flawed creator and reaching a higher state of spiritual paradise beyond the material realm.
Nerv's slogan, "God is in His heaven, and all is right with the world" is a bit puzzling for a scientific organization, right? It's from a 19th century poem called Pippa Passes, which is interesting because it's been quoted by other animes as well, including Black Lagoon and Durarara!!, despite being relatively obscure in the English-speaking world in which it originated. Wikipedia suggests that Nerv's slogan represents mankind's alienation from God. But in a Gnostic context, it represents the ignorance or weakness of the creator God, who believes himself to be the True God when he is not. Thus, he proclaims "it is good" when he makes a creation that is clearly just an imperfect shadow of the spiritual creation that is greater, out of ignorance. The slogan of Nerv could be mocking the ignorance of the flawed creator God.
Nerv's name was once Gehirn, or brain. It could be referring to the fact that some modern mystics conceive of the entire universe as one brain, one living entity, or a sea of information, the idea being that while we believe we have a sense of individuality, we're all just tiny parts of a larger consciousness. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, human instrumentality seems to be about breaking down an illusion of separation between all individual minds in the universe, allowing reality to return to its original perfection, a state of oneness. This is similar to the end of the world in a few different religions.
Enter SEELE, the Omniscient Council of Vagueness. They want human instrumentality to happen, but struggle with Nerv working against their plans. This can be seen as the Gnostic concept that the physical mind and body can work against the needs of the spirit or soul, which will live on after the death of the body and perhaps carry on into many earthly lifetimes before reaching a state of gnosis or enlightenment. Therefore, our physical mind, our nerves and brain, are in conflict with our souls, resulting in all of our unhappiness and struggles on Earth. Similarly, in NGE, all of the conflict results from the contradictory philosophies and agendas of Nerv vs. SEELE.
Some key symbols: SEELE's logo uses the rainbow (a spectrum of seven colors) and seven eyes. The seven eyes in its logo refer to the show's version of Lilith, but also can refer both to the many references to the number 7, in particular the lamb with 7 eyes and 7 horns that looked as though it had been slain in the Christian book of the Revelation, or it could also refer to the "seven suns" that will appear at the end of the world according to Buddhist eschatology.
Rei as a Gnostic Prophet
In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rei Ayanami is shown as very profoundly aware of things that she knows without necessarily knowing how she knows them. For example, she knows that she is a clone, the third to be used by Nerv. She also knows that the Evangelion units they pilot are not purely robotic, but beings similar to angels under the control of humans. She can actually sense that the Evangelion she pilots has a soul and a mind, and this deep understanding helps her be a better pilot of it. She also is more capable of feeling what the angels are feeling and understanding them, perhaps because she herself has Lilith DNA (we'll talk about Lilith later). I also think of Rei as a possible representation of Sophia, or Wisdom, the aeon in Gnostic myths who comes to humanity's aid by bringing it knowledge.
In NGE, the antagonist is God, or at least, his messengers, or angels. The angels' names appear to be obscure, even names from outside the texts traditionally considered canon. Most of them are angels that had little or no role in the Bible narrative proper. There is, for example, no Michael, no Gabriel, and no Raphael, and these are the foremost important angels in the Bible. But, this does make sense if you consider gnosticism, and other "heretical" sects, who sometimes took teaching from non-canonical texts, which link the angels in the Bible to the Aeons, some of which were evil, part of Yald-Abaoth's hold on humanity, and these were known as the "evil rulers" or Archons.
Interestingly, angels in the Bible are more like angels we see in Evangelion, terrifying and alien to humans. Many take on shapes that are monstrous and intimidating to the people who encounter them. In Evangelion, humanity is struggling against the angels, but we do not seem to be able to communicate with them or understand them. It is implied that if such an understanding (gnosis) were possible, there could be peace. Even though proximity to angels seems to cause fear, later in the series, movement past that initial fear barrier becomes key to achieving this understanding. Perhaps the Angels are not as evil as Nerv originally thinks, perhaps they are trying to, by seeking to free Lilith and initiating Third Impact, trying to save humanity, rather than destroy it. This is one of many puzzles the show challenges its audience to think about.
Adam and Lilith
Of particular interest to us in trying to understand the show are these Angels known as Adam and Lilith. Adam is named for the Biblical Adam, and Lilith was Adam's first wife in myths that are, for whatever reason, not considered canon in Orthodox Judaism or most mainstream versions of Christianity today. In those stories, Lilith was created separately from Adam, both being made out of the same clay or soil. This meant that they were equals. Lilith refused to obey Adam and left him. She was cursed, and became the mother of all succubi. Adam was given a replacement woman, Eve, who was fashioned from his rib. Therefore, this was a story used to explain why women had to be subordinate, rather than equal to, their husbands.
This seems very different from the way the names Adam and Lilith are used in Neon Genesis Evangelion. In this story, Adam and Lilith are perhaps the very same figures, albeit without being as human in appearance, with Eve being represented by the soul split into all Eva units. Interestingly, it is the union of Adam and Lilith that is said to bring about instrumentality and simultaneously end humanity and restore it to the glory of its true spiritual nature. Perhaps this is the idea that if Lilith existed, female equality and Adam's reconciliation with Lilith is necessary to perfect humanity's original error, that of separation and alienation of male and female (the union of male and female is also symbolized by Misato's cross, as I talk about later).
The idea of discord between male and female energies, and the desire to bring about harmony and end that discord, both in society and inside the individual mind, is common in Gnosticism. In Evangelion, conflict between male and female is present everywhere, to where you'd be hard-pressed to find an example of a male-female relationship that was not seriously fucked up. In many religions, an increase of conflict is also a sign of the end times. It makes sense that the darkest hour will always be before the dawn.
Since Neon Genesis Evangelion means "Gospel of a New Creation", I believe that means that Rei and Kaworu, after uniting human and angelic consciousness into one, become the new Adam and Lilith of a new spiritual utopia after the end of the movie End of Evangelion, but that's just my headcanon because I didn't like the later movies and prefer to think of EoE as the actual end of the show.
The Lyrics to "Cruel Angel's Thesis", other Possible Symbols
- There is the fact that Nerv headquarters is underground and it operates in secrecy, symbolizing perhaps the way that gnostic organizations had to be "underground" and secret during Roman times.
- The pyramid probably refers to the fact that the Nag Hammadi codices were found in Egypt, and Alexandria, Egypt in particular appears to have been at one time an important center for gnostic styles of Christianity. Shinji has a flashback to himself constructing a sand pyramid as a child in the movie End of Evangelion.
- "The Cruel Angel's Thesis" could refer to the Archons as "cruel angels".
- There are two Greek terms used in these lyrics, "thesis" and "pathos". This might be referring to the fact that in addition to Christianity and Judaism, many gnostics got their inspiration from Greek philosophers, especially Plato, who was the first to describe the concept of the Demiurge, although, unlike the gnostic Yald-Abaoth, the Demiurge was simply a flawed craftsman creator god, inferior to the true God but not necessarily malevolent. Plato would have referred to his ideas as "theses", and the term "pathos" comes from the triad of "logos, ethos, and pathos" which were terms used by Aristotle, a student and later teacher at Plato's Academy, to describe three kinds of rhetoric, pathos referring to emotions and emotion-based persuasion.
- The lyrics generally seem to be talking about gnosis, with the speaker of the song urging the person it's directed at to rise up spiritually, achieving salvation from within, which is a very gnostic idea of salvation. "You held tight to the form of life
when you woke up from that dream.
You shine brighter than anyone else." for example.
- "I know that the Bible is for learning freedom" and "I won't become a goddess, but I will live on." Both of these seem to be talking about the gnostic concept of salvation by achieving freedom from Yald-Abaoth, and not attaining any kind of god-like status, but unifying with the invisible virgin spirit and becoming part of the fullness/entirety.
- This lyrics site also says that the word "sora" or sky, is from a kanji that can also mean "universe". Thus it tells the listener to "embrace the universe", which is possibly a metaphorical way for saying "achieve gnosis by embracing your true home, the spiritual realm."
- During the instrumental break, a background singer says the line "Ai ga fusei..." meaning "love is a sin". Some gnostics, and related sects believed that even reproductive sex was bad, because it perpetuated the evil of material existence, hence, love itself is a sin. This could be also the reason for the pessimistic view of love seen in Evangelion.
- There's also more than a few crosses, even though the creators of NGE swear there is no symbolism intended in their use. Interestingly of note though, is Misato's necklace, which is an equal-armed cross, rather than a Christian cross. This equal-armed cross is more esoteric and either represents four elements or the union of male and female, which would fit with Misato's sexual nature and her internal conflict. In gnosticism, since the perfect virgin spirit was neither male nor female, and the Demiurge made humanity separate into male and female to trap us in ignorance, one had to unite male and female aspects of his or her spirit in order to become whole. That's what Misato's cross really represents, in my opinion. Misato herself is torn between the "male" role of being a military commander, and the "female" role of being a mother-like figure to motherless Shinji, Rei, and Asuka.
So while the creators of Neon Genesis Evangelion deny officially that there is any intended symbolism in the show, I believe that it's chock full of it. The creators probably don't want to merely explicitly state it, I think they like the fact that the show is seen as a mystery for the audience to puzzle out. It also might be true that if their beliefs are from an unorthodox flavor of Christianity like Gnosticism, they don't want to upset or alienate mainstream Christian viewers. I like thinking about this as the equivalent of the "death of the author" that we have when we discuss literature. It's not that the author, or in this case, the directors, writers, animators and artists, necessarily don't have opinions on the show that matter, but they don't have the only opinions on the show that matter.
Anyway, thanks for reading, let me know what you think in the poll and by commenting!