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Friday, February 10, 2012

What I went through before choosing Catholicism

As we have seen in my previous post, in Hindu religion Avatar is the consciousness of God that takes on a human body and, when necessary, comes on earth to put humanity on the right track. But if, as modern schools of Hinduism maintain, Krishna, the Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus were all Avatar, how do we explain the diversity of their messages? Is it possible that it was somehow distorted by the receiving cultures?

At the beginning of my conversion, although Jesus had conquered me, I wanted to make an educated choice and read about other religions, but most of all about the origins of Christianity. I found out that Gnostics were an integral part of early Christian communities and that they were labeled as heretics in the second century. The realization that there had been a controversy within the early Christian movement intrigued me. We came to know more about it only in 1945, when the Gnostic Scriptures were found in a sealed six-foot jar buried near the town of Nag-Hammadi in Egypt.

The main heresy of Gnosticism consists in the idea that Jesus was a spiritual entity. Some Gnostic texts go as far as affirming that He didn't suffer during the crucifixion because He wasn't a human being. The interpretation of His suffering was a very controversial subject among Christians. While some Gnostics condemned orthodox for coercing naïve believers to undergo martyrdom claiming that they would gain eternal life, Tertullian wrote that "gnostics purposefully looked for false theological means to avoid martyrdom and even spoke of martyrs with contempt." Generally, in fact, they managed not to be persecuted. They were criticizing the faith of most believers and, as a result, dividing the Church.

However, Gnosticism wasn't limited to the wacky belief that Jesus wasn't human. It had many aspects, in fact, to say it with Tertullian, gnostics agreed only to disagree. From the gnostic gospels the figure of Jesus comes across even more mysterious and hermetic. For example, the gospel of Thomas depicts Jesus as a teacher or a prophet, but also as a divine being. In this gospel Jesus sounds like a Vedic sage: We won't know God unless we know ourselves. In other words, we need to understand that our true self is the soul, which is united with God. The reality we see is only real from our perspective, which will shift in the afterlife, and this world will become unreal. This gospel is a collection of Jesus' sayings, many of which are similar to those in the synoptic gospels. Thomas teaches that we have to look for the divine within ourselves, for we are made in God's image. For Thomas, the kingdom of God is already on earth, but we don't see it because we don't understand the world we live in, trapped as we are in the dichotomy between past and future.

I was surprised to learn that self-knowledge was at the core of the Gnostic Scriptures. In fact, the word "gnostic"means knowledge or insight. Like in Hinduism, self-knowledge is knowledge of God and salvation doesn't come through faith alone, but through meditation. In the second century, Valentinus was the leader of a branch of Christianity which gave an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures that were going to be chosen as the New Testament by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. The latter labeled Valentinus as heretic and had him cast out of the Roman Church. He wrote a huge treatise against Gnosticism, affirming that "heretics read wildly, concentrating on the enigmas".

In the Gospel of Mark, the apostles ask Jesus why He talks to the crowds only in parables, and He answers:
"The mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you. But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they might not be converted but forgiven".
Jesus seems to imply that people have different levels of insight; therefore He's giving His teachings according to their ability to comprehend. As for those left behind, forgiveness will have to be enough. Thus, the gnostics found ground for passing their teachings only to persons who had given proof of being spiritually mature. The initiation of an adept lasted five years, and during this time he or she participated in meetings where his or her role would change continually. Men and women, in fact, rotated as priests following a principle of equality.

Valentinus' followers didn't bother to argue with orthodox Christians because they considered them at a lower level of understanding for taking the Bible literally. Valentinus quoted the passages where God shows His vindictive nature to argue that humans have created a lesser God, the God of creation, who is portrayed as a craftsman and not as the ineffable First Principle, the God of Love.

There are other similarities between Hinduism and Gnosticism. In the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, she is the most spiritually gifted and Jesus reveals to her how the souls ascend to heaven in a mystic vision where the soul, superior in knowledge to the negative powers which try to send her back in a different body, succeeds instead in reaching God. The belief in reincarnation is an interesting aspect of Gnosticism. Unlike Indian religions, it doesn't mention the rebirth of the sinner in an animal body where, quite obviously, there would be no chance for him to correct the mistakes made in the course of his life. In the Apocalypses of Paul, for example, the sorrowful soul is cast down again, into a body prepared for it.

Like Hinduism, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala describes the existence of different spiritual planes, the lowest inhabited by lost souls. According to this gospel, a human being is composed of body, soul and mind. The mind is the most divine part of the self, which rules and leads the soul. Knowledge will allow the soul to escape the domination of the flesh. The spirit is part of the divine, not of the human being. Wisdom and visions are perceived by the mind, which acts as a mediator between the soul and spirit.
In the Gnostic Scriptures there is no hell and sin doesn't exist as such, but people produce sin when they follow the desires of their material nature, so punishment is self-inflicted. Consequently, gnostics didn't believe in baptism as a tool to erase original sin, but as first symbolic step towards Christianity.
Like Hindus, they believed that sex has a mystical meaning.

At this point I should probably tell you why I have expanded so much on Hinduism and Gnosticism. It all started with me trying to explain my random posts about the afterlife, remember? Well, I hope you have concluded that those posts were not so random after all. On the contrary, there was a lot of pondering behind them. See, I was interested in Buddhism in my youth. Having fallen in love with Jesus later in life, I had to believe that we have a loving Father in heaven, and that Jesus was the Way. I went through a period where I though that the truth lied between Christianity, some aspects of Gnosticism and Hinduism (these last two agreed on reincarnation, which was part of my Buddhist back-ground). But in the end I changed my mind.

Gnostic and Hindus thought that through self-knowledge we can become like God. But, even if we could find God within ourselves, could we really understand Him? For the father of orthodoxy, St. Irenaus, it was heresy to assume that human experience, even through meditation, could ever comprehend God. Only one Gnostic source, Allogenes, agrees with Irenaus and teaches that we cannot attain knowledge of the Unknown God and that we should see gnosis as a tool to achieve spiritual development. True gnosis, for Allogenes, means to recognize the limits of human knowledge, and I agree with him.

The Dalai Lama, whom I went to see when he came to Rome in the 90s, advised people of faith to make up their mind and follow one religion. I found an answer to my need of reflecting upon my choice  in Communion and Liberation. After all, Catholicism is the religion that stemmed from the early Christians. And, last but not least...I'm Italian! Do I believe or accept all its teachings? Honestly, no. But I bow before the Mystery, on which Monsignor Giussani insists so much. As I said before, I have problems with the catholic concept of hell, and that's what prompted my post on Medjugorie: It was an answer to the problem of the afterlife that worked without involving reincarnation. I'm not saying that reincarnation is not a possibility. What I'm saying is that nobody can claim to know what happens in the afterlife, so I'm comfortable speculating about it.

I believe in what I have experienced. I have felt my father's presence after he died. I feel Jesus' presence and He has changed my life. So I believe that there is life after death. And I believe that, sooner or later, in a timeless space, I'll be with Jesus.