Chapter 1: GNOSTIC SPIRITUALITY AND LITERALIST RELIGIONThe letter kills but the spirit brings to life.
—Paul, Letter to the Ephesians
Wake up! Rouse yourself from the collective coma you mistake for ‘real life’. See through the illusion of separateness and recognize that we are all essentially one. Although we appear to be isolated individuals, in reality there is one awareness dreaming itself to be everyone and everything. This is our shared essential nature. The simple secret to enjoying this dream we call ‘life’ is to wake up to oneness. Because, knowing you are one with all, you will find yourself in love with all. You will fall in love with living. This is the message of the original Christians, who symbolised this awakened state with the enigmatic figure of ‘the laughing Jesus’.
Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus laughing? Probably not, because we have inherited a distorted form of Christianity created by the Roman Church in the fourth century, which focuses exclusively on Jesus the ‘man of sorrows’. The image that has dominated our culture is that of a man being tortured to death on a cross. But the original Christians didn’t see Jesus as an historical man who ‘suffered for our sins’. They viewed Jesus as the mythical hero of a symbolic teaching story, which represents the spiritual journey leading to the experience of awakening they called ‘gnosis’, or ‘knowing’.
The original Christians were inspired men and women who saw how good life could be if we would just wake up and live in love. They imagined a new world that would no longer be divided into slaves or citizens, men or women, Gentiles or Jews. But inadvertently, this band of non-conformists gave birth to a totalitarian regime that would rule Europe with an iron fist for over a thousand years. The result was not Heaven on Earth, but the Holy Roman Empire. The dream became a nightmare.
The Roman Church did all it could to suppress the teachings of gnosis and the image of the laughing Jesus. It succeeded so well that it now seems strange to even suggest that Christianity was originally about awakening. But in the middle of the twentieth century some of the texts of the original Christians were found in a cave near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. In these texts the message of awakening is proclaimed loud and clear.
Those who have realised gnosis have set themselves free by waking up from the dream in which they lived and have become themselves again.
How can you bear to be asleep, when it’s your responsibility to be awake?
You are asleep and dreaming. Wake up.
Listen to my teachings, which are good and practical, and end the sleep which weighs so heavily upon you.
People are caught up in many vain illusions and empty fictions, which torment them like sleepers prey to nightmares. When they wake up they see that all those dreams were nothing. This is the way it is with those who have cast ignorance aside, as if waking from sleep. They no longer see the world as real, but like a dream at night. They value gnosis as if it were the dawn. Whilst they exist in a state of ignorance it is as if everyone is asleep. Experiencing gnosis is like waking up.
Such teachings of awakening are not exclusively Christian. Throughout history men and women of all faiths have woken up to oneness and love. We use the broad term ‘Gnostic’ meaning ‘knower’ to refer to all such individuals because, although they express their insights in the various languages of their diverse cultures, they all talk about the experience of awakening or gnosis.
These charismatic individuals often inspired the formation of small communities dedicated to waking up. But, ironically, the more successful such groups become the more they turn into their opposite. What begins as a loose alliance of free-thinking non-conformists degenerates over time into an organised, authoritarian religion, and people end up completely misunderstanding the original message. We refer to this degenerate form of Gnosticism as ‘Literalism’.
Gnosticism is sometimes called ‘the perennial philosophy’ because it has been found in all cultures and all times. It is not that Gnostics all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. It is rather that their teachings are like fingers pointing from different perspectives to the same experience of gnosis. Unfortunately, most people focus on the finger and miss the point. This is Literalism. Literalist religions are clubs for people who want to worship the finger of their founder as the One True Finger, but who have no understanding of the experience of awakening towards which it points.
This book is a damning indictment of Literalist religion and a passionate affirmation of Gnostic spirituality. Let’s start by clearly discriminating Gnosticism from Literalism:
Gnostics teach that the important thing is to wake up and experience gnosis for ourselves.
Literalists teach that the important thing is to blindly believe in religious dogmas.
Gnostics interpret their teachings as signposts pointing to the experience of awakening.
Literalists see their teachings as literally the truth itself.
Gnostics use symbolic parables to communicate the way to wake up.
Literalists mistake Gnostic myths for literal accounts of miraculous historical events and end up lost in irrational superstition.
Gnostics know that all books contain the words of men.
Literalists believe that sacred scripture is the Word of God.
Gnostics understand that the way the wisdom of awakening is expressed must constantly evolve to address the ever-changing human condition.
Literalists want a fixed canon of scripture which has absolute authority for all time.
Gnostics want us to think for ourselves, so that we become more conscious and wake up.
Literalists want us to believe what they believe, so that we will join their cult.
Gnostics understand that life itself is a process of awakening.
Literalists believe their particular religion is the only way to the truth and condemn everyone else as lost in diabolical error.
Gnosticism is about waking up from the illusion of separateness to oneness and love.
Literalism keeps us asleep in an ‘us versus them’ world of division and conflict, inhabited by the ‘chosen’ and the ‘damned’.
Gnosticism unites us.
Literalism divides us.
Throughout history Gnostics have ceaselessly exposed Literalist religion as a pernicious source of ignorance, division and suffering. This Gnostic message has never been more relevant than today. The three great religions of the West—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—are on a collision course that threatens the security of the whole world. Taking religious myths literally is the root cause of the problems in the Middle East which led to 9/11 and a host of other atrocities since. But there is nothing new about religious violence. The present conflict is just the continuation of a long and gruesome history of killing and dying for God.
The burning of Christians by Pagans as flaming torches to light their games. The brutal Christian revenge on the Pagans. The relentless persecution of the Jews by Christians. The violent expansion of the Muslim empire and the bloody conquest of India. The barbaric crusades by Christians against the Muslims. The horrors of the Inquisition. The genocide of indigenous people in the New World. The mass burnings of witches. All were motivated by the desire to please God. All were justified with reference to sacred texts that not only condoned such behaviour but demanded it. These evils have not occurred because the perpetrators were bad people, but because they were in the grip of very bad ideas. The Baby and the Bathwater
The time has come to say enough of this madness and consign Literalist religion to the garbage can of history. But we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Religion isn’t all bad. It has answered the profound human yearning to understand the mysteries of life and death. It has inspired people of all cultures to create sublime works of art, glorious cathedrals and temples, transcendental music and songs. It has this power because at its heart is Gnostic spirituality. In this book we want to rescue the teachings of gnosis from under the accumulated debris of religious dogma, so that we can jettison outdated religious Literalism but retain and revivify the perennial wisdom of awakening.
Let’s stop blindly believing in old books and listen instead to those heretical voices that have been drowned out by the cacophony of Literalist war cries. Just imagine for a moment that what Gnostics have been telling us throughout the ages is true. We appear to be separate, but essentially we are all one. The awareness that is conscious in you is the same awareness that is conscious in everyone. And if you recognise this, you will find yourself in love with all.
Imagine what would happen if we actually began to wake up and live by the Gnostic teachings of oneness and love. If we started to truly love our neighbours, and even our enemies, because we recognise that they are actually expressions of our own deeper self. If we saw through to the reality that there are no Jews, Christians or Muslims. There is no ‘us versus them’. There is only us. This is the Gnostic vision that has inspired us to write this book.
In Part 1, ‘The Bathwater,’ we undertake a religious detox to flush the poison of Literalism out of our system. We take a good hard look at the supposedly ‘sacred’ scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and demonstrate that these texts are far from divine. We show that they were not written or inspired by God, but created by men. And often by the worst kind of men. Politicians dressed up as priests. In Part 2, ‘The Baby,’ we bring ancient Gnostic teachings to life, using modern language free from worn-out religious jargon. We give the timeless wisdom of awakening a make-over for the twenty-first century, so that you can experience gnosis, here and now, as you read this book. We want you to get the joke and understand for yourself why the Gnostic Jesus laughs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Laughing Jesus by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Freke. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.