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The Matrix and Gnosticism

Is the Matrix a Gnostic Film?

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Warning: This section contains spoilers for the Matrix: Reloaded. Read with caution.



Perhaps the idea that The Matrix is basically a Christian film stretches things a bit too far, but there are arguments that The Matrix has a stronger basis in Gnosticism and Gnostic Christianity. Gnosticism shares many basic ideas with orthodox Christianity, but there are also important differences between the two that make Gnosticism closer to the principles expressed in these films.

In his conversation with Neo near the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect explains that he is responsible for the creation of the Matrix - does that make him God? Probably not: his character seems closer to that played by the force of evil in Gnosticism. According to gnostic tradition, the material world was actually created by a demiurge (commonly identified with the God of the Old Testament), not the True God of Good who is utterly transcendent and exists far beyond the created world as we understand it. The demiurge in turn leads a cast of Archons, or petty rulers who are the craftsmen of our physical world.

Escape from this world of evil is only accomplished by those who obtain the inner knowledge about the true nature of this reality and the manner in which humans are imprisoned in it and controlled by sinister forces. Those who seek to become awakened and enlightened are aided in their quest by Jesus Christ, sent by God to the world as a bearer of divine enlightenment in order to relieve humanity of its ignorance and lead them to truth and goodness. The savior also comes to save Sophia, the embodiment of wisdom and a lesser being who emanated from God but then later drifted away from him.

The parallels here between Gnosticism and the Matrix films are obvious, with Keanu Reeve's character Neo playing the role of the bearer of enlightenment who is sent to liberate humanity from the place in which the sinister machines have them imprisoned. We also learn from the Oracle, a program within the Matrix and an embodiment of wisdom about the Matrix, that Neo has once again made a "believer" out of her. We may find in the third and final film, Matrix Revolutions, that the Architect has close parallels to the gnostic concept of the demiurge.

At the same time, there are also serious differences between Gnosticism and the Matrix films which undermine any attempt to argue that one should be closely matched to the other. For example, in Gnosticism it is the material world that is considered a prison and lacking in "true" reality; we are supposed to escape this and find liberation in the reality of the spirit or mind. In the Matrix, our prison is one in which our minds are trapped, while liberation constitutes fleeing to the supposed material world where machines and humans have been at war - a world which is much more distressing and disturbing than the Matrix.

This "real world" is also one where sensual and even sexual experiences are valued and pursued - quite the opposite of the anti-materialistic and flesh-denying principles of Gnostic doctrine. The only character who expresses anything close to true Gnosticism is, ironically, Agent Smith - the truly disembodied mind who is forced to take on physical form and interact in the simulated physical world within the Matrix. As he says to Morpheus: "I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that IÕve somehow been infected by it." He is desperate to return to a pure state of disembodied existence, just as any true Gnostic would. Yet he is the embodiment of the enemy.

In addition, Gnosticism postulates that the bearer of divine enlightenment is fundamentally divine in nature, denying him the full humanity he is accorded in orthodox Christianity. In the Matrix films, however, Neo certainly appears to be fully human - although he has special powers, they seem to be limited to his ability to control the computer code in the Matrix and are thus technological in nature, not supernatural. All of the "awakened ones" - the enlightened individuals who have become aware of the falsehood of the Matrix - are very much human.

Although there are certainly Gnostic themes running throughout the Matrix movies, it would be mistaken indeed to try and label them Gnostic films. Those who do may only be working from a rather superficial understanding of Gnostic Christianity - not surprising since pop spirituality has appropriated a great deal from Gnosticism that sounds appealing while ignoring that which may be unpleasant. How often do we hear, for example, the ways in which Gnostic writers in the past have excoriated those who fail or even refuse to seek Gnostic enlightenment? How often do we read about the terrible fates that await those who mistakenly worship the demiurge as if it were the True God?

Whatever the reasons for people's misunderstandings, the fact that the Matrix and its sequels are not Gnostic films shouldn't stop us from appreciating the presence of Gnostic themes. The Wachowski brothers have brought together a variety of religious themes and ideas, presumably because they felt that there was something in them to make us think differently about the world around us.


More: The Matrix as a Buddhist Film

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