Manichaeism: The Ancient Religion that Rivaled Christianity

Manichaeism: The Ancient Religion that Rivaled Christianity

Manichaeism is a multi-faceted religion that was founded by Iranian prophet Mani. After a revelation with the angel Eltaum, Mani prepared for 12 years to proclaim himself to the people. Manichaeism was developed in Mani’s several writings, which depicted a battle between forces, and a creation of man and the universe which was founded on the conflict between light and dark. For several centuries, Manichaeism spread far and wide, at one point being considered a main rival to Christianity.

Sermon on Mani’s Teaching of Salvation, Cathayan/Chinese Manichaean silk painting, 13th century. ( Public Domain )

Who was the Founder of Manichaeism?

The story of Manichaeism prophet Mani was largely biased by the religion’s detractors until a Greek parchment was discovered in 1969. The document dates to 400 AD and is known as the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis. With that codex, researchers have now gained better insight into who Mani was and his teachings.

Mani was born in 216 AD in Mesopotamia to parents who were members of the religious sect of Elcesaites. Mani’s father, upon worshiping in a temple, claimed to have heard a voice that urged him to abstain from wine, women, and meat. To obey the voice, Mani’s father emigrated south, with Mani, to join the Mughtasilah, or Mandaean Baptists.

  • Second Moon Uprising: How Science and Skullduggery Helped an 8th Century Prophet Raise a Revolt
  • Saint Augustine of Hippo and His Detours on the Long and Winding Path to Christianity

Detail of Mani's Birth, showing the newborn has emerged from the chest of his mother. ( Public Domain )

At this time, Mani had his first revelation. The angel Eltaum appeared before him and told him to leave the Mandaeans, live chastely, and to proclaim himself to the people after the passage of 12 years’ time. He proclaimed himself on Sunday, March 20, 242 AD, saying to the people: “As once Buddha came to India, Zoroaster to Persia, and Jesus to the lands of the West, so came in the present time, this prophecy through me, the Mani, to the land of Babylonia.” Mani spoke as the “Apostle of the true God.”

As he developed Manichaeism, Mani composed seven writings, including the Shabuhragan. His teachings focused on the origins of evil and taught a “dualistic” view between good and evil . These appeared to reflect several religions - including Babylonian, Buddhist, Chaldean, Judaic, Christian, Iranian, and Zoroastrian dualism.

At first Mani had little success and was forced to travel abroad to spread Manichaeism to Turkestan and India. He presented one of his seven writings to the King of Sassanid Persia, Shapur I, who did not follow Manichaeism, but tolerated it and did not inhibit its spread.

Illustration depicting Mani the Prophet. ( Great Thoughts Treasury )

The Universe’s Three Phases of Creation in Manichaeism

Under the beliefs of Manichaeism, there existed a powerful good force, ‘God’, which opposed a semi-eternal evil force, ‘Satan’. Manichaeism is a Gnostic religion that focuses on salvation by knowledge. The battle between God and Satan created humanity, the world, and the soul as a byproduct.

Humans serve as the battleground, as the soul is believed to contain both the light of God and the dark of Satan. The collision between the light of God and the dark of Satan is the main conflict of Manichaeism. This all is said to begin with the creation of the universe in three phases.

  • The Ancient Practice of Tengriism, Shamanism and Ancient Worship of the Sky Gods
  • Epic Cosmic Battles and the Forces of Creation and Destruction in Belief Systems around the World

The “First Creation” began with a world in which good and evil existed separately. Good was found in the World of Light. The World of Light was ruled by the Father of Greatness and five divine attributes of light called Shekhinas. Evil resided in the World of Darkness , ruled by the King of Darkness.

Over time, the World of Darkness became aware of the existence of the World of Light. The World of Darkness became jealous and greedy and attacked the World of Light. The Mother of Life sent her son, Original Man, to fight off the attacking powers of Darkness and the Demon of Greed.

Manichaean Diagram of the Universe, depicting the Manichaean cosmology. ( Public Domain )

The five Shekhinas provided the Original Man with five shields of light, which were used to trick the Darkness. The Darkness defeated the Original Man, swallowing as much of the light from his shields as possible, and entrapped him within the World of Darkness.

The “Second Creation” began when the Father of Greatness sent a call to the Living Spirit and to the Original Man. The Original Man answered the World of Light. The call and answer both became Manichaean deities. Together, the Living Spirit, his five sons, and the Mother of Life used the bodies of evil from the World of Darkness, and the light they had swallowed, to begin creating the universe .

The mixtures of darkness and light were used to create 10 heavens and eight earths. The light was used to create the sun, the moon, and the stars. As the moon became full, it filled with light which passed to the sun, through the Milky Way , to the World of Light.

The New Aeon and Liberation of light, that is, triad of the Sun, Moon, and a third divine figure between them. ( Public Domain )

The “Third Creation” began as demons were hanged over the heavens. From the male and female evil beings, light was drawn and they became sexually aroused in greed. As the light was expelled from their bodies, evil attempted to consume as much of the light back into their bodies as they could.

After swallowing large quantities of light, the evil beings copulated and created Adam and Eve . Radiant Jesus was sent by the Father of Greatness to awaken Adam and to teach him of the source of light within his body. However, Adam and Eve ultimately copulate and produce more humans, each with the light trapped within their human body.

  • One God Versus Many - The Plurality is in the Pronoun
  • Merv: In Ruins Today, How Does the Eternal City of the East Live on?

10th century Manichaean Electae in Gaochang (Khocho), China. (PHGCOM/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The Spread of Mani’s Teachings

Mani’s teachings were recounted through his books. Six of the original books were written in Syriac Aramaic . These original books have since been lost, but not before being widely translated to help spread the religion of Manichaeism. Translations included Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian, Tocharian, Uyghur, Chinese, Greek, Coptic, and Latin.

Manichaeism spread very quickly through the Syriac Aramaic region, ultimately becoming one of the most widespread religions in the world. It’s most prosperous time was between the third and seventh centuries, before it faded away in the 14th century. It was considered the main rival to Christianity at one point.

To many, Manichaeism was the only true combination of all religions known at the time; combining Babylonian, Buddhist, Chaldean, Judaic, Christian, Iranian, and Zoroastrian dualism. With such a combination of religions , it is easy to see how Manichaeism would have appealed to a great many people. The classic focus on light versus dark is a theme that prevails in many major religions even today.

Cao'an Temple in Jinjiang, Fujian, considered "the only extant Manichean temple in China". ( Zhangzhugang/CC BY 4.0 )


Mandaeanism

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Mandaeanism, (from Mandaean mandayya, “having knowledge”), ancient Middle Eastern religion still surviving in Iraq and Khuzistan (southwest Iran). The religion is usually treated as a Gnostic sect it resembles Manichaeism in some respects. Whereas most scholars date the beginnings of Mandaeanism somewhere in the first three centuries ad , the matter of its origin is highly conjectural. Some scholars, emphasizing the Babylonian elements in Mandaean magical texts, use of the Iranian calendar, and the incorporation of several Iranian words into the Mandaic language, argue that Mandaeanism originated in the area of southwestern Mesopotamia in early Christian or even pre-Christian times. Others argue for a Syro-Palestinian origin, basing their case on the quasi-historical Mandaean document, the Haran Gawaita, which narrates the exodus from Palestine to Mesopotamia in the 1st century ad of a group called Nasoreans (the Mandaean priestly caste as opposed to Mandaiia, the laity). They also call attention to certain Mandaean affinities to Judaism: familiarity with Old Testament writings parallels to Jewish ethics, particularly the high value placed on marriage and procreation concern for cultic purity and the use of Hebrew angelology.

Like other dualistic systems, Mandaeanism stresses salvation of the soul through esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of its divine origin. In its cosmological superstructure, evil Archons (rulers) obstruct the ascent of the soul through the heavenly spheres to reunion with the supreme deity. Unlike many Gnostic systems, however, Mandaeanism strongly supports marriage and forbids sexual license.

The Mandaeans also developed an elaborate cultic ritual, particularly for baptism, which was not characteristic of any other known Gnostic sect. The Mandaeans viewed Jesus as a false messiah but revered John the Baptist, who performed miracles of healing through baptism, which the Mandaeans viewed as a magical process giving immortality, purification, and physical health.

Among the more important extant Mandaean writings are: the Ginza (Book of Adam), a cosmological treatise the Book of John, describing the activities of John the Baptist the Book of the Zodiac, a collection of magical and astrological texts and the Baptism of Hibil Ziwa, describing the purification of the heavenly saviour of the Mandaeans.


University of Illinois Press

Manichaeism, once the state religion of Persia and long a vigorous contender for converts throughout the ancient Near East, is best remembered for the simplicity of its teachings about divine power. For Manicheans, the universe was ruled by a Lord of Light and a Lord of Darkness, who fought continuously for supremacy. All that was good was a gift from the Lord of Light, and all that was evil was an affliction visited by the Lord of Darkness. This dualism extended to cosmogony and ethics, splitting the universe into a spiritual realm that acted on the goodness of the human soul and a material realm that abetted the evil of the human body. These stark oppositions mask a remarkable degree of doctrinal and liturgical complexity, the details of which have been obscured by centuries of suppression and persecution, first by the Christian church, then by Islam.

One of the world's foremost experts on ancient religions, Michel Tardieu examines the fragmentary sources that have come down to us, pieces together the life and teachings of the prophet Mani (the itinerant Persian preacher and founder of this long lost faith), illuminates Manichaeism's ecclesiastical hierarchy and distinctive moral code, and investigates its ideas about the pre-life and afterlife. Manichaeism provides a brilliantly compact survey of what was once one of the world's great faiths, and then became one of its great heresies, surviving now only as a shadowy presence haunting the religions that superseded it.

"This stimulating and enjoyable translation is a concise and clear guide to Manichaeism for general readers and scholars. While he was already well known and respected among scholars of ancient religions, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism, Tardieu is now available to a new, English-speaking audience."--Paul Allan Mirecki, coeditor of The Light and the Darkness: Studies in Manichaeism and Its World

"Tardieu's book on Manichaeism is a marvelous short introduction to a very complex religious phenomenon of the ancient and medieval world. A justified and timely translation, this work is an excellent entry into the critical issues at stake in reconstructing Manichaean history and religion."--Paul M. Blowers, editor of The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity

Michel Tardieu holds the Chair in the Syncretisms of Late Antiquity at the Collège de France. His many books include La Formation des canons scriptuaires. M. B. DeBevoise has translated or edited some thirty works from the French and Italian.

To order online:
//www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/33kbf9da9780252032783.html

To order by phone:
(800) 621-2736 (USA/Canada)
(773) 702-7000 (International)


Manichaeism

Manichaeism, once the state religion of Persia and long a vigorous contender for converts throughout the ancient Near East, is best remembered for the simplicity of its teachings about divine power. For Manicheans, the universe was ruled by a Lord of Light and a Lord of Darkness, who fought continuously for supremacy. All that was good was a gift from the Lord of Light, and all that was evil was an affliction visited by the Lord of Darkness. This dualism extended to cosmogony and ethics, splitting the universe into a spiritual realm that acted on the goodness of the human soul and a material realm that abetted the evil of the human body. These stark oppositions mask a remarkable degree of doctrinal and liturgical complexity, the details of which have been obscured by centuries of suppression and persecution, first by the Christian church, then by Islam.

One of the world's foremost experts on ancient religions, Michel Tardieu examines the fragmentary sources that have come down to us, pieces together the life and teachings of the prophet Mani (the itinerant Persian preacher and founder of this long lost faith), illuminates Manichaeism's ecclesiastical hierarchy and distinctive moral code, and investigates its ideas about the pre-life and afterlife. Manichaeism provides a brilliantly compact survey of what was once one of the world's great faiths, and then became one of its great heresies, surviving now only as a shadowy presence haunting the religions that superseded it.


History in the East

Notwithstanding the bitterest persecution by the Sassanides in Persia as well as by the emperors at Rome, Manichæism spread very rapidly. Its greatest success was achieved in countries to the east of Persia. In A.D. 1000 the Arab historian Al-Beruni wrote: "The majority of the Eastern Turks, the inhabitants of China and Tibet, and a number in India belong to the religion of Mani". The recent finds of Manichæan literature and painting at Turfan corroborate this statement. Within a generation after Mani's death his followers had settled on the Malabar Coast and gave the name to Minigrama, i.e. "Settlement of Mani". The Chinese inscriptions of Kara Belgassum, once thought to refer to the Nestorians, doubtless have reference to the existence of Manichæism. The great Turkish tribe of the Tuguzguz in 930 threatened reprisals on Mohammedans in their power if the Manichæans in Samarcand were molested by the Prince of Chorazan, in whose dominion they were very numerous. Detailed information on the extreme Eastern Manichæans is still lacking. In Persia and Babylonia proper, Manichæism seems never to have been the predominant religion, but the Manichæans enjoyed there a large amount of prosperity and toleration under Mohammedan rule. Some caliphs were actually favorable to Manichæism, and it had a number of secret sympathizers throughout Islam. Though not numerous in the capitol, Bagdad, they were scattered in the villages and hamlets of the Irak. Their prosperity and intimacy of social intercourse with non-Manichæans aroused the indignation of the Puritan party amongst Mani's followers, and this led to the formation of the heresy of Miklas, a Persian ascetic in the eighth century.

As Manichæism adopted three Christian apocrypha, the Gospel of Thomas, the Teaching of Addas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, the legend was soon formed that Thomas, Addas, and Hermas were the first great apostles of Mani's system. Addas is supposed to have spread it in the Orient (ta tes anatoles), Thomas in Syria, and Hermas in Egypt. Manichæism was certainly known in Judea before Mani's death it was brought to Eleutheropolis by Akouas in 274 (Epiphanius, "Haer.", LXVI, I). St. Ephrem (378) complained that no country was more infected with Manichæism than Mesopotamia in his day, and Manichæism maintained its ground in Edessa even in A.D. 450. The fact that it was combated by Eusebius of Emesus, George and Appolinaris of Laodicea, Diodorus of Tarsus, John (Chrysostom) of Antioch, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Titus of Bostra shows how early and ubiquitous was the danger of Manichæism in Western Asia. About A.D. 404, Julia, a lady of Antioch, tried by her riches and culture to pervert the city of Gaza to Manichæism, but without success. In Jerusalem St. Cyril had many converted Manichæans amongst his catechumens and refuted their errors at length. St. Nilus knew of secret Manichæans in Sinai before A.D. 430.

In no country did Manichæism enter more insidiously into Christian life than in Egypt. One of the governors of Alexandria under Constantine was a Manichæan, who treated the Catholic bishops with unheard-of severity. St. Athanasius says of Anthony the Hermit (330) that he forbade all intercourse with "Manichæans and other heretics".

In the Eastern Roman Empire it came to the zenith of its power about A.D. 375-400, but then rapidly declined. But in the middle of the sixth century it once more rose into prominence. The Emperor Justinian himself disputed with them Photinus the Manichæan publicly disputed with Paul the Persian. Manichæism obtained adherents among the highest classes of society. Barsymes the Nestorian prefect of Theodora, was an avowed Manichæan. But this recrudescence of Manichæism was soon suppressed.

Soon, however, whether under the name of Paulicians, or Bogomiles, it again invaded the Byzantine Empire, after having lain hidden for a time on Musselman territory. The following are the Imperial edicts launched against Manichæism: Diocletian (Alexandria, 31 March, 296) commands the Proconsul of Africa to persecute them, he speaks of them as a sordid and impure sect recently come from Persia, which he is determined to destroy root and branch (stirpitus amputari). Its leaders and propagators must be burnt, together with their books the rank and file beheaded, people of note condemned to the mines, and their goods confiscated. This edict remained at least nominally in force under Constantine, and Constantius. Under Julian the Apostate, Manichæism seems to have been tolerated. Valentinian I and Gratian, though tolerant of other sects, made exception of the Manichæans. Theodosius I, by an edict of 381, declared Manichæans to be without civil rights and incapable of testamentary disposition. In the following year he condemned them to death under the name of Encratites, Saccophores, and Hydroparastates. Valentinian II confiscated their goods, annulled their wills, and sent them into exile. Honorius in 405 renewed the edicts of his predecessors, and fined all governors of cities or provinces who were remiss in carrying out his orders he invalidated all their contracts, declared them outlaws and public criminals. In 445 Valentinian III renewed the edicts of his predecessors Anastasius condemned all Manichæans to death Justin and Justinian decreed the death penalty, not only against Manichæans who remained obstinate in their heresy, but even against converts from Manichæism who remained in touch with their former co-religionists, or who did not at once denounce them to the magistrates. Heavy penalties were likewise decreed against all State officials who did not denounce their colleagues, if infected with Manichæism, and against all those who retained Manichæan books. It was a war of extermination and was apparently successful, within the confines of the Byzantine Empire.


Manichaeism: The Ancient Religion that Rivaled Christianity

Manichaeism is a multi-faceted religion that was founded by Iranian prophet Mani. After a revelation with the angel Eltaum, Mani prepared for 12 years to proclaim himself to the people. Manichaeism was developed in Mani&rsquos several writings, which depicted a battle between forces, and a creation of man and the universe which was founded on the conflict between light and dark. For several centuries, Manichaeism spread far and wide, at one point being considered a main rival to Christianity.

Sermon on Mani&rsquos Teaching of Salvation, Cathayan/Chinese Manichaean silk painting, 13th century. (Public Domain)

Who was the Founder of Manichaeism?

The story of Manichaeism prophet Mani was largely biased by the religion&rsquos detractors until a Greek parchment was discovered in 1969. The document dates to 400 AD and is known as the Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis. With that codex, researchers have now gained better insight into who Mani was and his teachings.


Manichaeism – A Struggle Of Light Over Darkness

Manichaeism was a widespread religious movement founded by the third-century Iranian prophet Mani (216-276 CE).

Scene of Work of the religion originates as part of Mani’s Picture-Book, The Ardhang, This image is after digital reconstruction. Date circa 270

Based on his alleged angelic revelations, Mani proclaimed himself to be the last in a line of great prophets:

Heavenly revelations aside, a more worldly historian of religion would say that Manichaeism was a syncretic religion drawing on several pre-existing sources, to include Gnosticism, a force to be reckoned with in late Antiquity.

Sharply dualistic, Manichaeism strove to redeem mankind from an inherently evil world created by an essentially wicked god (Yahweh of the Old Testament).

Mani believed the side of “light” would eventually vanquish the forces of “darkness,” delivering mankind from the bondage of worldliness.

Manichaeism was no isolated movement but belonged within thriving communities that juggled various political and religious forces.

St. Augustine of Hippo said in his Confessions that he was duped into following Manicheism until he studied the available astronomical calculations of the era. The empirical figures contradicted the cosmology of the Manichean books, which were “full of the most tedious fictions about the sky and the stars, the sun and the moon.”¹

So Augustine confronted a Manichee called Fautus who, says Augustine, was “obviously unable to settle the numerous problems which troubled me.”

Augustine refuting heresies – Pinterest | cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Manichaeism/agustine_manichaeism.htm

The Manichaean Church was made up of the elect ‘righteous’ and auditors (‘hearers’) and grew to the extent that it rivaled Christianity.

Believers hoped to facilitate the reorganization of particles of light or, at least, not hinder this process. Through their alleged wisdom, they saw themselves as contributing to the triumph of light over darkness.

Mani himself came to an unfortunate end. After enjoying political support from previous heads of state, the Zoroastrian Bahram I persecuted the Manichaens. Mani was imprisoned and brutally executed.²

After centuries of persecutions from Christians and non-Christians, Manichaeism is virtually non-existent, save for a few small groups claiming to uphold this religion.

¹ Ironically, the Christian Church which Augustine championed came to ignore and repress most cosmological innovations in the Middle Ages. Daniel Boorstin says in The Creators that, instead of looking at scientific attempts to measure the Earth, Christian cartographers drew up wildly imaginative fantasies that a contemporary depth psychologist would have a heyday with.


Manicheism

Manicheism can be seen as the first synthesis of world religions. This may explain why this kind of dualism could become a world religion itself and spread itself in a brief time from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

Teachings

In the Manichean world view, a divine realm of Light opposes a realm of Darkness. It is, therefore, a purely dualistic world view. Both powers are engaged in a permanent struggle, in which light sparks, the spirits of human beings, have been "captured" by the dark, material world. The believer's aim is to liberate these captured parts, which means that the spirit has to be more powerful than the body.

When living creatures are killed, even when fruits are picked, the Light is wounded, and its captivity in this world prolonged. Procreation also contributes to the suffering of the Light's substance.

Manicheism's eschatology consists of a Last Judgment, in which Light and Darkness will be separated for good. The idea that Light will, in the end, be triumphant, means that Manichaeism is essentially a teaching of salvation.

Origin and Geography

Faravahar, the visual aspect of Ahuramazda. Relief from Persepolis.

A comparable dualistic world view can be found in Iranian Mazdaism, in which the good god Ahuramazda is opposed to the evil god Ahriman. This was the state cult of the Sasanian Empire, although it has antecedents that go back to Achaemenid times. The Behistun Inscription, in which king Darius the Great (r. 522-486) describes his victories, places the triumph of Ahuramazda in opposition to the defeat of The Lie.

Ideas like these influenced the prophet Mani, who was born in Ctesiphon in 214, called himself an apostle of Jesus Christ, and started to teach in Babylonia in c.240. Because he lived in the Sasanian Empire, some modern historians have denied his Christian affiliations, and stressed the Iranian background of his teachings. Mani, however, argued that Buddha, Zarathustra, Hermes Trismegistos, Plato, and Jesus Christ, all brought the message of the same God to mankind. He tried to merge the doctrines of these earlier teachers, stressing an ascetism that may have been influenced by Marcionite Gnosticism.

The Sasanian high priest Kartir, who persecuted Mani and his followers

In 242, Mani was at the court of the Sasanian king Shapur I, to whom he dedicated one of his books. He traveled to Media, Turkestan, and Gandara, while his disciples went to Egypt, Syria, and Parthia. Mani's luck, however, ran out during the reign of Bahram I, who ordered his arrest in 276. He was tortured to death in Gund-e Shapur.

Because of the persecution, Mani's disciples fled to the east and west, which effectively contributed to the rise of the new religion. Within a century, there were Manichean churches from Central Asia to Carthage, and it was certainly possible that Manicheism, instead of Christianity, would become the leading world religion. In Turkestan, Manicheism was to have its most lasting influence. By the year 1000, it was still the most important religion in that area.

/> Fresco of Augustine, Lateran Palace

In Africa, Manicheism was less powerful, although between 373 and 382, Augustine, the future bishop of Hippo and father of the Church, was a Manichean. Later, he converted to Christianity and attacked his former religion in a treatise Against the Manicheans , which was, for centuries to come, the most important source about this religion. Augustine's authority made sure that in the Middle Ages, every dualistic belief was labeled Manichean.

However, the heart of Mani's religion was in western Asia, in Syria and what is now called Iraq. Here, Manicheism flourished in the tenth century, in spite of persecutions by Christians, Muslims, and Zoroastrians.

History

The facts of the history of Manicheism are hard to establish. In spite of its swift expansion, it seems that by the sixth century, it was already past its prime. In the harsh and often violent world of Late Antiquity, a religion that preached pacifism, objected to the killing of all living creatures, and inspired people to live ascetic lives, was bound to disappear. Its members were at times violently persecuted. Nevertheless, continued Christian and Islamic criticism proves that there were still Manicheans around.

As already indicated, because of Augustine's influence, the word "Manicheism" was used pejoratively by Christian authors to describe all kinds of dissident groups and heretics, although they were often not comparable. Paulicians, Marcionites, Zoroastrians and other Mazdaists - they have, at various times in history, all been likened to Manicheans. In the High Middle Ages, heterodox believers like the Bogomils, Cathars, and Waldensians were attacked with this standard accusation, which has been refuted by recent scholarship.

Sources

Our main sources are Christian anti-Manichean treatises, like Augustine's Against the Manicheans , Ephrem the Syrian, and Epiphanius of Salamis, or the edict that started Diocletian's persecution. There are also several Islamic authors.

However, there are also several original Manichean texts, which have been discovered in 1902-1914 in Turkestan and are still not fully published. Other original writings include the Tebessa Codex, and the Kölner Mani-Codex, which measures only 3.5 x 4.5 cm, and is written in extremely fine letters, and contains a text named On the Origin of His Body . A very large library, dating to c.400 CE, was found in Medinet Madi now in Dublin, it contains homilies, a psalm book, a book called Synaxeis , and The Kephalaia of the Wisdom of Lord Mani . The psalm book is the largest surviving book from the ancient world.


Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul

At the beginning of the third millennium three worldviews compete to conquer the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures, the world's soul: materialistic relativism, Gnosticism and Christianity. The New Evangelization demands a clear-cut separation between Gnosticism and Christianity if we want to bring every thirsty person to the Water of Life.

What do Harry Potter, the Star Wars series, The Matrix, Masonry, New Age and the Raelian cult, which claims to have cloned the first baby, have in common?

Their ideological soil. Identical esoteric ideas suffuse the novels, the movies, the lodges, the "alternative spirituality" and the cloning "atheistic religion," and this ideological soil has a name Gnosticism.

"Gnosticism" is an eerie word whose meaning eludes our minds. I often meet Catholics who have heard the term but have only a foggy idea of what it means. Perhaps Gnosticism itself is foggy.

Yet, whether we understand it or not, Gnosticism may be, at the beginning of the third millennium, the most dangerous enemy to our Christian faith. Notice, I'm not saying Star Wars or Harry Potter is the danger. They provide us with good lessons and fine entertainment. They are just two signs of the power of the real enemy: Gnosticism.

Why? What is Gnosticism?

In one dense but masterful summary, we find the essential aspects of Gnosticism. In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II writes:

Let's examine what the Holy Father is saying about Gnosticism.

First, its nature. Strictly speaking, Gnosticism was an esoteric religious movement of the first centuries A.D., a movement that rivaled Christianity. In a broader sense, it is an esoteric knowledge of higher religious and philosophic truths to be acquired by an elite group. John Paul alludes to the first meaning with the phrase "ancient Gnostic ideas" and to the second as an "attitude of the spirit" that "has always existed side by side with Christianity."

A Gnostic is one who has gnosis (a Greek word for "knowledge") a visionary or mystical "secret knowledge" capable of joining the human being to the divine mystery. Gnostics, the Pope remarked, distort God's word "in the name of a profound knowledge of God." What is this "knowledge" they claim to have?

The Gnostic worldview is dualistic. Reality consists of two irreducible elements: one good, the spiritual world (the realm of light) and the other evil, matter (the realm of darkness). Two supreme powers or gods oppose each other the unknowable and ineffable god, from whom a series of lesser divinities emanated, and the evil god, or demiurge, who produced the universe from foul matter and possesses it with his evil demons.

Man is composed of body, soul and spirit. The spirit is man's true self, a "divine spark," a portion of the godhead. In a tragic fall, man's true self, or spirit, was thrown into this dark world and imprisoned in each individual's body and soul. The demiurge and the demons keep man's spirit as a slave of the material world, ignorant of his "divine" condition. Hence the need for a spiritual savior, a messiah or "Christ," to offer redeeming gnosis. This savior is a guide, a master who teaches a few "spiritual" people the Gnostics about their true spiritual selves and helps them to wake up from the dream world they live in. The Gnostics would be released from the material world, the non-Gnostics doomed to reincarnation.

What is an example of how these beliefs are embodied in popular stories? Consider the Star Wars movies. There is much good in them. The stories are admirable in many ways. But they are chock-full of Gnosticism.

Star Wars is the clash between the two supreme powers of the universe "the force" and the "dark side of the force," which is exploited by the "emperor" (the demiurge) and his demons (Darth Vader, the siths). The Gnostic heroes are the Jedi, who possess the "secret knowledge" of their own spiritual powers unlike the non-Gnostic, they are able to use "the force" well. Each Jedi has a master, who trains him to acquire this redeeming gnosis. Ben Kenobi, for instance, was for a time the master of Anakin and Luke Skywalker. The greatest spiritual guide in the saga is Yoda, a respected senior member of the Jedi council and a general in the clone wars.

As Christ's followers, we must sort out the good seed from the weeds (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). I propose a distinction between the Gnostic values and its philosophy.

Gnostics promote, without a doubt, positive values. They draw a clear-cut separation between good and evil, stress man's spiritual dimension, instill high and noble ideals, foster courage and concern for others, respect nature, reject materialism and often reject hedonism, too.

Such values shine like pearls in an age of moral relativism that thirsts for gain, the ephemeral, the hedonistic. Aren't these some of the virtues and ideas we love in Star Wars and Harry Potter?

The other side of the coin, however, is not so positive. The good values are rooted in a Gnostic philosophical understanding of man, God and the world that is, as the Pope put it, "in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian." Why?

Note the opposite views. The Christian Creator is love a Trinity of persons who wants to establish with us a personal relationship of love quite different from that unknowable God, usually conceived, like the Star Wars "force," as an impersonal energy to be manipulated.

The God of Revelation made everything good the angels, the world, our body and soul. Evil is not a force of the same rank as God rather, it springs from angels' and men's personal free choice. Salvation is offered by God in Christ, man's only redeemer.

Salvation is a grace a free gift from God that Man can neither deserve nor earn. It is not gnosis, "secret knowledge" we can acquire by ourselves with the help of mere human guides or Christlike figures. In short, the Christian religion is a "dialogue" of love between God and man, not a self-centered "monologue" in which man divinizes himself. That's why John Paul says Gnosticism cannot lead "toward a renewal of religion."

It distorts God's word, "replacing it with purely human words."

Finally, the Pope alludes to the historic span and manifestations of this ideology. "Gnosticism," he says, "never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity sometimes taking the shape of philosophical movement but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion."

Let's look at a few representative Gnostic movements in history.

With the rise of Christianity, ancient esoteric ideas developed into Gnostic syncretism. Thus, in the first centuries A.D., the Apostles and the Church Fathers had to combat several "Christian" Gnostic religious systems, such as those of Cerinthus, Manander, Saturninus, Valentinus, Basilides, Ptolemaeus and the ones contained in the apocryphal gospels: of truth and perfection, and of Judas (Iscariot), Philip and Thomas.

The third-century dualist Manichaean church or religion spread from Persia throughout the Middle East, China, southern Europe and northern Africa, where the young Augustine temporarily became a convert.

Teachings similar to Manichaeism resurfaced during the Middle Ages in Europe in groups such as the Paulicians (Armenia, seventh century), the Bogomilists (Bulgaria, 10th century), the Cathars or Albigensians (southern France, 12th century), the Jewish Cabala and the metaphysical speculation surrounding alchemy.

Modern times witnessed the resurgence of Gnosticism in philosophical thought the Enlightenment, Hegel's idealism, some existentialist currents, Nazism, Jungian psychology, the theosophical society and Freemasonry.

More recently, Gnosticism has become popular through successful films and novels, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix. It has also gained followers among the ranks of ordinary people through pseudo-religious "movements," such as the New Age and the Raelian cult.

These contemporary Gnostic expressions should certainly inspire us in the good values they promote. At the same time, we should be cautious examine their philosophical background and reject what is incompatible with our Christian faith.

At the beginning of the third millennium we seem to face the same old clash between Christianity and Gnosticism. Both fight to conquer the "soul" of this world the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures.

For this reason, defeating Gnosticism has become an essential task of the New Evangelization. "Against the spirit of the world," the Holy Father says in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, "the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul."

Into the Gnostic Wonderland

Morpheus, a man with circular mirrored glasses, approaches Neo Anderson, a young man who feels something is wrong with the world.

"You are a slave, Neo," the man says. "You, like everyone else, were born into bondage kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for your mind."

Morpheus holds two pills in his hands one blue, one red.

"This is your last chance after this, there is no going back," he says. "You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." Neo takes the red pill.

Sounds familiar? It is a memorable scene of the hit movie The Matrix.

Morpheus' offer visualizes what our culture often offers. The blue pill stands for materialistic relativism believing there is no truth nor right and wrong, or, as Morpheus put it, "You believe whatever you want to believe."

Consequently, "You wake in bed" you enjoy yourself in comfort, money, hedonistic pleasures, social success. We often see the blue pill available over the counter in books, colleges, courts, institutions, the media.

The red pill stands for Gnosticism believing reality is ultimately divine and can be manipulated by whoever has "secret knowledge." This is "Wonderland," and it, too, can now be bought over the counter like the blue pill.

Thank God there is a third option Morpheus didn't take into account something neither blue nor red but transparent: Call it water. Water stands for our Christian faith. Christ, the water of life (see John 7:37-39), came to bring us the "living water" of "eternal life" (see John 4:7-13) through the water of baptism.

The blue and red pills counter the effects of water in different ways. Materialistic relativism tries to destroy all objective truths and values. Gnosticism, instead, proposes alternative truths and values. Moreover, it interprets Christianity as esoteric knowledge, not to destroy it but to distort it.

Neo, Vader and Voldemort

First, where is Gnosticism in today's culture? You might bump into it in successful films and novels, such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Matrix, or face it in "religious" and "philosophical" movements, such as the New Age, the Raelian cult and Freemasonry.

Note the difference between the three media products and the three movements: The movies and the books do not instill a credo you must believe in if you want to watch, read and enjoy them. In fact, they are commendable in many ways they provide us with elevated entertainment, valuable lessons and admirable heroes.

The movements, instead, are credos one must embrace in order to be an authentic New Ager, Raelian or Mason. As Catholics, we might be inspired by the noble ideals of these movements but not by their philosophy. Their philosophy is "Wonderland." And "Wonderland" is not "Christianland."

What is the Gnostic "Wonderland"?

The story of The Matrix shows it.

Morpheus reveals to Neo that human beings are trapped in a false "reality." Why? Some time ago men created the Matrix, an artificially intelligent entity. Needing man's energy to survive, the Matrix became a computer-generated dreamworld the world we think we live in to enslave men in a huge lab and suck their energy with the help of "agents."

However, a man succeeded in freeing the first human beings and teaching them the truth before he died.

The Oracle (a prophet) predicted this man will return to liberate all people and bring them to Zion, the last human city. Thus, a few freed men and women free others, looking for this man. Morpheus believes Neo to be the One and tries to free his mind so Neo can operate as the savior he is.

Here is the story's translation into the Gnostic worldview:

Two supreme powers or gods fight one another for supremacy. One is the pleroma ("fullness" in Greek) the good unknowable godhead, from whom many spiritual entities called aeons emanated. The other is an evil, deformed god, called the demiurge ("craftsman") that fashioned the flawed universe, along with archons, or demons.

Reality is dualistic. Everything is spiritual, particularly but not solely man's spirit. This is man's own true self, and it is good, for it is a portion of the pleroma's divine essence. Everything material, like man's body, is foul and evil, because it was produced by the demiurge and his demons to keep man's spirit a slave in the material prison of creation. Thus, every human being, knowingly or unknowingly, serves this false god and lives ignorant of his divine condition. His fate is reincarnation.

How does one free oneself from matter and join the divine pleroma? Through secret, esoteric knowledge called gnosis the visionary or mystical awareness of one's own divinity. One becomes a Gnostic by following spiritual guides or masters, historical figures of the "Christ," such as Jesus of Nazareth, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and Rael.

Review the story of The Matrix and our introductory scene and you will understand the philosophy.

Zion and mankind stand for the pleroma. The Matrix and its "agents" are the demiurge and his archons, who created the illusory world to enslave man and hinder him from realizing their spiritual powers. Morpheus and his crew are the Gnostic. Morpheus is also Neo's guide. Neo will become the ultimate "Christ," the One who will offer redeeming gnosis to the rest of the mortals.

Consider the Star Wars series. "The force" is the good godhead opposed by "the dark side of the force," which the emperor (the demiurge) and his siths (the archons) employ to enslave all peoples. Only the Jedis (the Gnostic) are capable of transcending the physical laws of nature and join "the force" to use it for the salvation of all. Each Jedi acquires gnosis with the help of a master. Yoda, for instance, trained Ben Kenobi, and Ben Kenobi trained Anakin and Luke Skywalker. In the last scene of The Return of the Jedi, you see Yoda, Ben Kenobi and Anakin "saved" "energized" with "the force."

Harry Potter follows a similar pattern. It portrays the clash between the "white" magic (the pleroma) practiced by the witches and wizards (the Gnostic) and the dark arts exploited by the Dark Lord Voldemort (the demiurge) and his followers in the Slytherin House (the demons). Every professor at Hogwarts is, of course, a master, with Albus Dumbledore as the school headmaster. The non-Gnostic are called the Muggles, ignorant human beings who, like the Dursley family, are subject to the laws of the material world.

We expect Harry Potter to finally become the "Christ," the savior. Note the boy never becomes a wizard and never acquires magic powers. He only becomes aware, through training, that he is a wizard and has these powers from birth. That's gnosis.

Most people who enjoy these three popular sagas might be inspired by their positive values but do not take their Gnostic wonderland seriously. But to leave fiction and enter the New Age movement, the Raelian religion or Freemasonry requires a "conversion" of the initiated. To join, you must swallow the red pill.

The pleroma is the Mason's inaccessible great architect and his divinities, the New Agers' impersonal "energy" or the Raelians' community of wise extraterrestrial scientists called Elohim who created all life on earth 25,000 years ago. The three groups identify the demiurge with all "dogmatic" churches and religions but especially with the Catholic Church with her archons (the Church leaders and particularly the Pope) she traps men in the false "reality" of Christian Revelation, hindering them from the self-consciousness of their own divinity.

The Gnostic are the Masons, the New Agers, the Raelians. Many historical figures have incarnated the "Christ," known as Maitreya in Masonic and New Age circles and as Rael ("the messenger") among Raelians.

Water or the Red Pill?

On the surface Gnostic wonderlands might look Christian they promote religiosity, spiritual values, concern for others, respect for nature, the sense of mission, rejection of materialistic relativism. How can we discern if a movie, a novel, a movement or an organization is rooted in a Gnostic or in a Christian worldview?

We need to examine its underlying concept of God, man and the world. First, God: Is God the only supreme good power or is there another evil force of the same rank? Is God somebody with whom we have a personal relationship of love or something like a force to be used? Is Jesus of Nazareth the only savior or are there many "Christs"?

Second, check the notion of man: Is he a loved creature or a portion of divinity to be freed? Is man a unity of body and soul or just a spirit imprisoned in a body? Does man's salvation come from a gratuitous gift of God (grace) or from "secret knowledge" acquired by training (gnosis)?

Third, think of the world: Is creation good and real or evil and illusory a sort of prison?

The answers unveil the pervading philosophy. A fictional story, of course, does not need to present the Christian truths. The question is whether or not there is room for a Christian worldview in the story.

Mark this substantial difference: A red pill is a man-made drug that may fail to cure water, instead, is a God-made basic element for life. Gnosticism is a man-made self-centered philosophy a "monologue" in which man divinizes himself and fails in the attempt. The Christian revelation is a God-made gift "dialogue" of love that God establishes with man for eternal life.

The Christian revelation is Christ. To definitively discern what is Christian from what is not use what I call "St. John's criterion": "By this you know the spirit of God: Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world" (2 John 4:2-3).

At the beginning of the third millennium three worldviews compete to conquer the minds and hearts of peoples and cultures, the world's soul: materialistic relativism, Gnosticism and Christianity. The blue pill is easy to recognize. But the red pill is often dissolved in apparent water.

The New Evangelization demands a clear-cut separation between Gnosticism and Christianity if we want to bring every thirsty person to the Water of Life.

Father Alfonso Aguilar. "Gnosticism and the Struggle for the World's Soul." National Catholic Register. (April 6-12, 2003).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Was Tolkien Manichaean?

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:15,19) 1

Perhaps I am being a smidgen anachronistic, but I am starting to wonder if Paul, in composing those famous lines in his letter to the Christians in Rome, was speaking of Reddit. Of course, Paul predates the “Front Page of the Internet” by more than a few centuries—but he describes with uncanny accuracy how I routinely find myself browsing Reddit and loathing every minute of it. As a matter of fact, just last week I found myself perusing a thread that had strayed from the original topic and devolved into criticism of J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of it was innocuous and plainly subjective there was, however, a particular comment so unexpected and curious it gave me pause—this writer accused Tolkien of Manichaeism . 2

If you’re wondering, “What the heck is Manichaeism?”, you’re not alone. This obscure religion, born in ancient Persia and long since extinct, is largely an academic curiosity today. Unless you study the religions of the late Roman period, there is little reason to have heard of Manichaeism, much less know enough about the religion to accuse a famous Catholic writer of entertaining it. Readers of Augustine’s spiritual biography, Confessions , may perhaps recall that the great philosopher-theologian pursued Manichaeism for some years before quitting in frustration. (Augustine, by the way, left for an amusing reason: after nine years with the religion, he realized it was very dumb. 3 )

Manichaeism is a third-century syncretic religion founded by the “prophet” Mani, blending Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism together and pours the syncretic admixture into a mold of Gnostic dualism. 4 In Manichaean thought, Light and Dark were equal and opposite co-eternal principles of the universe. Like in Gnosticism, the material is the evil (or “Dark”) aspect of existence, whereas the spiritual is the good (or “Light”) aspect. In Mani’s cosmogony, an ancient mingling of Light and Dark led to the creation of our material universe of stars, planets, and sinful people. This mingling means that there is Light and Dark in all things, and only by revealed knowledge (cf. the Gnostics) and a regime of ascetic purgation would the devotees of Mani find their way back to the Light. This meant abstaining from meat, wine, and even sex. Mani also described himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, teaching that he and the prophets of other religions were sent into the world to release souls of Light from their material bodies. Like the Roman cult, it was a smorgasbord religion.

This is about all you will find about Manichaeism in most secondary sources, save for maybe a paragraph on how the religion was so pervasive and widespread that it rivaled Christianity for a period. However, that doesn’t help us understand just how weird Manichaeism really was. The texts of the other religions on which he based his teachings were not sufficient for Mani. Instead, he concocted a series of bizarre myths that explained how Light and Dark, which once were separate, came to mingle. I once took a course in college under Zlatko Plese , an authority on religions of the late Roman period, and we did a unit on Manichaeism. In order to help the students parse the bewildering complexity and comic strangeness of Mani’s myths, Plese assembled an elaborate Powerpoint presentation that retold the stories with Angelina Jolie, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Neo from The Matrix. It was surprisingly helpful.

I wanted to explain Mani’s cosmogony more in depth, but I don’t have the space and I think it’s better if you read a good, scholarly take on it yourself. There is one available here . It starts out strange, and then you get to the part where the sun and moon are starships and some demons ejaculate and have spontaneous abortions into the sky.

Getting back to the original topic: how on earth could someone construe Tolkien as a Manichaean? It’s certainly not by his private life. His Catholicism is well documented and it’s common knowledge that Tolkien even helped bring about the conversion of C.S. Lewis. I assume the author of that comment meant Tolkien’s writings were Manichaean. If so, then I can think of no other basis for the remark than The Silmarillion , Tolkien’s creation myth for the Lord of the Rings universe. This too, however, confuses me. The defining characteristic of Manichaeism—other than the weirdness with the demons—must certainly be its dualism, an ontology rooted in the equipotency of good and evil, of light and dark. All things trace back to the separation and equilibrium of light and dark. Is there any hint of this in Tolkien’s cosmogony?

No, not really. Even a cursory glance at The Music of the Ainur shows a distinct monotheism: “There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar and he made the first Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were offspring of his thought.” 5 In Tolkien’s creation myth, there is a single, ultimate existence from which all others are derived. Eru has creative and authoritative power over all his creations it is he who grants wisdom and power. There is no opposing dark side, no King of Darkness. “The One” has no enemies at the start of the story. There is no evil there is only the inert Void, which becomes the canvas of creation. 6

Evil does enter the story, yes, but Melkor is a creation of, and subordinate to, Iluvatar, and this fallen angel figure owes everything to his creator. “To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren.” 7 When Melkor tries to wrest control of the primeval music that Iluvatar and the Ainur performed in concert, Iluvatar subdued him each time. Iluvatar then chastises him, saying, “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” 8

For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument. This is classic Christian doctrine: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God turns evil things to good in the end. Evil is robbed of its power to be evil, for in the end it is doing good. So it is with Tolkien’s legendarium Melkor’s resistance is robbed of meaning by his creator, who will turn his evil deeds into good. Far from being the equal to Light, the Darkness is ultimately powerless.

If one wanted to be pedantic, one could accuse Tolkien’s mythos of unitarianism or paganism. You’d have to contort the narrative to come up with a decent parallel to the Trinity, and the mingling of mortals and minor gods has much more to do with pagan myths than Christianity. However, I don’t want to be pedantic, so I will leave those criticisms in the hands of whoever wishes to take them up. In any case, painting Tolkien with the Manichaeism label is patently absurd.


Watch the video: Manicheism By Rudolf Steiner