TWWK has recently been running an online anime group that’s watching Haibane Renmei. Unfortunately, the time slot is too late for me since I have to get up extra early on Sunday’s to unlock my Cathedral (that’s being a sextant for you!). The show is one that I have been meaning to watch for quite some time now, and have started multiple times. It’s easy to see the parallels to Christianity: on a superficial level we have angel wings and halos, and on a deeper level we have some of the things that are mentioned over at the Beneath the Angels. That said, I want to take a different route, one that is anti-Christian, but not in the sense of secularism. I speak of one of the earliest heretical groups in the history of the Church: the Gnostics.
For those who don’t know, Gnosticism was a religious movement that began in late antiquity, around the same time that Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.1 While Christian Gnosticism has become popularized by the works of authors such as Elaine Pagels, Gnosticism itself was not a unified movement and appeared in various other religions including non-mainstream Judaism and paganism. Though a full covering of Gnosticism is not my intention, there are a few key doctrines that I’d like to touch on, some of which can be seen in the first episode of Haibane Renmei.
One of the key teachings in Gnosticism, influenced by its Platonic heritage, is that the created world of matter is inherently evil; the soul was originally part of the divine but fell into the world of matter where it is now trapped. Salvation consists of receiving divine knowledge (gnosis) via a mediator of some kind. Upon learning, the Gnostic could no longer be affected by the world, and as such was immune to falling away. Thus some expressed their rejection of creation by extreme asceticism, while others indulged in any debauchery they could think of since it had no affect on their soul.
Now, one may wonder what any of this has to do with Haibane Renmei. While the falling into created existence resembles Rakka’s dream of falling, the connection is superficial at best since the dreams of each of the characters varies, some having no inherent connection to Gnosticism. Futhermore, Rakka’s birth is an event that is celebrated; the kids gather around (despite Reki’s warnings) and look on in awe at the giant egg that has materialized in the storage closet. Everyone waits with anticipation, glad to have another join their ranks. None of this resembles an aversion to the material.
Yet, the scene that can most aptly be described as a baptism – the emergence of Rakka’s wings – has a far different feel. The moment is preceded by a longing to return to the world, to have one’s memory and identity restored, and the sobering conclusion that such a feat was impossible. The Gnostic saw salvation in consisting of learning that they themselves were part of the divine, and thus Rakka’s forgetfulness of who she is mimics the Gnostics previous enslavement to the world in which they do not remember their divine origins. As Rakka’s wings spread, the music playing is a far cry from anything resembling joy, and the blood, violence, and sheer amount of pain all point that there is an inherent tragedy in what is taking place. Rakka’s birth into being a Haibane carries an inherent fallen character: it is the result of losing one’s identity, and becoming something that is no longer human.
Baptism, for the earliest Christians, was not just a symbol but an actual participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. The early Christians knew that after their baptism they were likely to be persecuted, tortured, and killed, and yet they went to the font (or lake/pond/river) willingly, knowing that the principalities and powers of the world, the satanic powers that be, could not prevent them from joining the Body of Christ. This rejection was seen in a practice in the early baptismal rite, one that has continued today in the Orthodox Church, in which the catechumen faces West and is told to blow or spit upon Satan. They were then faced East for the rest of the service, showing their leave taking from the kingdom of this world, and embracing the kingdom not of this world.
There is one other facet of Rakka’s ‘baptism’ that resonates more with the Gnostic narrative: that it is inevitable. I am, admittedly, making inference via the Platonic roots of Gnosticism, but nevertheless I feel that my observation is not without warrant. The souls that were caged within flesh were the result of the fallen world, which was a by product of the first aeon’s fall from the divine Pleroma from within God. The relevant theological point is that in Platonism, and hence I’m assuming in Gnosticism, there was no distinction between God’s will and his nature, his grace and his essence. These distinctions were made by the Church Fathers (St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Palamas, respectively), but were unknown to Plato or the Gnostics. Thus, since the fall of the first aeon must have been from God’s essence, it was inevitable that it would occur, and that all the events that occurred after would as well (in short, determinism). While the acquisition of gnosis freed one from the bonds of fate, the initial entrapment of matter seems to me as the result of fate. Thus just as the Gnostic was forced to be trapped in his material body, Rakka had no choice but to become a Haibane. The lack of freedom, to say the least, is disconcerting.
1For an excellent summary of Gnosticism, see Antonia Tripolitis, ‘Chapter V: Gnosticism,’ in Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). The information here comes from this chapter.