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Harry Potter and Gnosticism

March 24, 2007

Michael O’ Brien, one of the most quoted Christian critics of the Harry Potter books, often criticizes the books of being to “gnostic.” In an interview with Catholic News Service Zenit, he said:

“Rowling’s Potter-world is fundamentally Gnostic. Magic is presented as an inherent faculty of human nature that only needs awakening and formation through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and power.”

“When I say that the Potter series is Gnostic, I am referring to the essence of Gnosticism. It is true that a majority of the early sects were dualist, that is, they despised material creation and exalted the spiritual—definitely an anti-incarnational cosmology. But some sects were pantheistic, believing that what they called the “divine emanations” could be found within nature.

There was even a so-called Christian Gnosticism that tried to incorporate elements of Christian faith into their pagan worldview. They saw Christianity as a myth that contained some truths, and that Gnosticism was the full truth. Common to all of them, pantheist and dualist alike, was the belief that obtaining secret gnosis or knowledge was salvation. I would refer your readers to the studies of modern Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin, Thomas Molnar, and Wolfgang Smith.”

The core of Gnosticism is, as O’Brien points out, a focus on secret knowledge, gnosis, and on dualism. But is this an accurate critique of Harry Potter? No, it is not. Let me explain here why the books not only is not Gnostic, but that they in fact criticizes gnosticism.

Update: It is not true that the Harry Potter books presents magic as “an inherent faculty of human nature that only needs awakening.” The magic in Harry Potter is an inherent magical faculty, but not of humans, but of wizards. Yes, wizards are humans, but humans are not wizards. Just as men are humans, but humans are not men. In the case of Gnosticism, everyone can be awakened, but most are not. In Potter, not everyone can perform magic, only wizards. Just as the mutants in X-Men.

Secret knowledge. O’Brien claims that the Harry Potter books are elitist and that they focus on giving “secret knowledge.” This is in fact not only untrue, but evidence that he (1) has not read the books, or (2) he is dishonest. My claim is that the real gnostics of the series is Voldemort and his Death Eaters.

Dumbledore, as Godric Gryffindor (and most especially, Helga Hufflepuff) wants to educate everyone, that is, everyone with magical powers. One must understand that Hogwarts is a school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, just as Charles Xavier’s school is for mutants. The real gnostics, the real elitists, are the Death Eaters who wants to murder all the “mudbloods” and muggles (just as Magneto).

This criticism of the Harry Potter books are just plainly dumb, and could just as easily be applied to any kind of private school and, especially home schooling, which, it seems, O’Brien does not have any problem with.

Dualism. Now, let us consider dualism. Now that we (perhaps) have established that the bad guys are the real elitists, who are the dualist of the books? The answer, yet again, is Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Throughout the books we are met with a view that both body and soul are equal in worth, except in the minds of the bad guys.

But there is one major difference between the old gnostics and the new, and this shows us where the problem lies today — they are both dualist, but while the old exalted the soul, the new exalts the body. Those new gnostics are in fact materialists. This is the problem we facr today. The problem is not that we are to “spiritual,” but that we exalt the body without the soul. The problem, as it was “back then,” is dualism.

I do not believe O’Brien has really read the books. Because his conclusions is so far from the books as one could come. This claim iis in fact in direct contradiction to what Rowling has put in the mouth of Dumbledore and Hermione (who, Rowling says, resembles herself). These two quotes are from Chamber of Secrets (Dumbledore) and Philosopher’s Stone (Hermione):

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

“Books! And cleverness! There are more important things–friendship and bravery.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. korg20000bc permalink
    June 19, 2007 9:52 am

    This link is a whole site based on gnosticism and Harry Potter. Maybe O’brien saw this site and was swayed by it.


  2. June 19, 2007 3:00 pm

    Yes, it looks a little gnostic that site. But I find that O’brien totally misses the point. He claims that the magic in Harry Potter is “an inherent faculty of human nature that only needs awakening.” The problem is that that’s not true. In Harry Potter only wizards — who are humans, but not all humans are wizards — can do magic.

    I don’t believe this is gnostic, it is a clever — and entertaining* — way of showing what we are to do with the gifts we are given. If a man is very smart, he should use his gift well. That does not mean that every smart person is a part of some gnostic sect (called mensa?)

  3. June 19, 2007 3:49 pm

    Sorry, forgot one thing. I wrote “…and entertaining*…”

    I forgot to add the explenation (*):

    * In “A Prefece to Paradise Lost,” C.S. Lewis writes about what he calls “stock responses,” that which, in Peter Kreeft’s words, “our heart loves, but our ideologies frown upon.” In the old times, entertainment was supposed to not only please, but also instruct, learn us how to be good human being.

    Lewis expains:

    By a Stock Response Dr I. A. Richards means a deliberately organized attitude which is substituted for “the direct free play of experience.” In my opinion such a deliberate organization is one of the first necessities of human life, and one of the main functions of art is to assist it. All that we describe as constancy in love or friendship, as lualty in political life, or, in general, as perseverance—all solid virtue and stable pleasure—depends on organizing chosen attitudes and maintaining them against the eternal flux (or ‘direct free play’) of mere immediate experience. This Dr Richards would not perhaps deny. But his school puts the emphasis the other way. They talk as if impovement of our responses were always required in the direction of finer discrimination and greater particularity; never as if men needed responses more normal and more traditional than they now have. To me, on the other hand, it seems that most people’s responses are not ‘stock’ enough, and that the play of experience is too free and too direct in most of us for safety safety and happiness or human dignity. (…)

    Once again, the old critics were quite right when they said that poetry “instructed by deligting,” for poetry was formerly one of the chief means whereby each new generation learned, not to copy, but by copying to make, the good Stock responses. Since poetry has abandoned that office the world has not bettered. While the moderns have been pressing forward to conquer new territories of consciousness, the old territory, in which alone man can live, has been left ungarded, and we are in danger of finding the enemy in our rear. We need most urgently to recover the lost poetic art of enriching a response without making it eccentric, and of being normal without being vulgar. Meanwhile—until that recovery is made—such poetry as Milton’s is more than ever necessary to us.

    Lewis, C.S., A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1942), pp.53-54.56


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