Internet Source Reference:
GNOSTICISM IS THE TEACHING
based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior,
intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious
experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experience results in Gnostic
recognitions. It is nearer the truth to say that Gnosticism expresses a specific
religious experience, an experience that does not lend itself to the language of
theology or philosophy, but which is instead closely affinitized to, and
expresses itself through, the medium of myth. Indeed, one finds that most
Gnostic scriptures take the forms of myths. The term “myth” should not here be
taken to mean “stories that are not true”, but rather, that the truths embodied
in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the
statements of philosophy.
In the following summary, we
will attempt to encapsulate in prose what the Gnostic myths express in their
distinctively poetic and imaginative language.
All religious traditions
acknowledge that the world is imperfect. Where they differ is in the
explanations which they offer to account for this imperfection and in what they
suggest might be done about it. Gnostics have their own -- perhaps quite
startling -- view of these matters: they hold that the world is flawed because
it was created in a flawed manner.
Like Buddhism, Gnosticism begins
with the fundamental recognition that earthly life is filled with suffering. In
order to nourish themselves, all forms of life consume each other, thereby
visiting pain, fear, and death upon one another (even herbivorous animals live
by destroying the life of plants). In addition, so-called natural catastrophes
-- earthquakes, floods, fires, drought, volcanic eruptions -- bring further
suffering and death in their wake. Human beings, with their complex physiology
and psychology, are aware not only of these painful features of earthly
existence. They also suffer from the frequent recognition that they are
strangers living in a world that is flawed and absurd.
Many religions advocate that
humans are to be blamed for the imperfections of the world. Supporting this
view, they interpret the Genesis myth as declaring that transgressions committed
by the first human pair brought about a “fall” of creation resulting in the
present corrupt state of the world. Gnostics respond that this interpretation of
the myth is false. The blame for the world’s failings lies not with humans, but
with the creator. Since -- especially in the monotheistic religions -- the
creator is God, this Gnostic position appears blasphemous, and is often viewed
with dismay even by non-believers.
Ways of evading the recognition
of the flawed creation and its flawed creator have been devised over and over,
but none of these arguments have impressed Gnostics. The ancient Greeks,
especially the Platonists, advised people to look to the harmony of the
universe, so that by venerating its grandeur they might forget their immediate
afflictions. But since this harmony still contains the cruel flaws, forlornness
and alienation of existence, this advice is considered of little value by
Gnostics. Nor is the Eastern idea of Karma regarded by Gnostics as an adequate
explanation of creation’s imperfection and suffering. Karma at best can only
explain how the chain of suffering and imperfection works. It does not inform us
in the first place why such a sorrowful and malign system should exist.
Once the initial shock of the
“unusual” or “blasphemous” nature of the Gnostic explanation for suffering and
imperfection of the world wears off, one may begin to recognize that it is in
fact the most sensible of all explanations. To appreciate it fully, however, a
familiarity with the Gnostic conception of the Godhead is required, both in its
original essence as the True God and in its debased manifestation as the false
or creator God.
The Gnostic God concept is more
subtle than that of most religions. In its way, it unites and reconciles the
recognitions of Monotheism and Polytheism, as well as of Theism, Deism and
In the Gnostic view, there is a
true, ultimate and transcendent God, who is beyond all created universes and who
never created anything in the sense in which the word “create” is ordinarily
understood. While this True God did not fashion or create anything, He (or, It)
“emanated” or brought forth from within Himself the substance of all there is in
all the worlds, visible and invisible. In a certain sense, it may therefore be
true to say that all is God, for all consists of the substance of God. By the
same token, it must also be recognized that many portions of the original divine
essence have been projected so far from their source that they underwent
unwholesome changes in the process. To worship the cosmos, or nature, or
embodied creatures is thus tantamount to worshipping alienated and corrupt
portions of the emanated divine essence.
The basic Gnostic myth has many
variations, but all of these refer to Aeons, intermediate deific beings who
exist between the ultimate, True God and ourselves. They, together with the True
God, comprise the realm of Fullness (Pleroma) wherein the potency of divinity
operates fully. The Fullness stands in contrast to our existential state, which
in comparison may be called emptiness.
One of the aeonial beings who
bears the name Sophia (“Wisdom”) is of great importance to the Gnostic world
view. In the course of her journeyings, Sophia came to emanate from her own
being a flawed consciousness, a being who became the creator of the material and
psychic cosmos, all of which he created in the image of his own flaw. This
being, unaware of his origins, imagined himself to be the ultimate and absolute
God. Since he took the already existing divine essence and fashioned it into
various forms, he is also called the Demiurgos or “half-maker” There is an
authentic half, a true deific component within creation, but it is not
recognized by the half-maker and by his cosmic minions, the Archons or “rulers”.
Human nature mirrors the duality
found in the world: in part it was made by the false creator God and in part it
consists of the light of the True God. Humankind contains a perishable physical
and psychic component, as well as a spiritual component which is a fragment of
the divine essence. This latter part is often symbolically referred to as the
“divine spark”. The recognition of this dual nature of the world and of the
human being has earned the Gnostic tradition the epithet of “dualist”.
Humans are generally ignorant of
the divine spark resident within them. This ignorance is fostered in human
nature by the influence of the false creator and his Archons, who together are
intent upon keeping men and women ignorant of their true nature and destiny.
Anything that causes us to remain attached to earthly things serves to keep us
in enslavement to these lower cosmic rulers. Death releases the divine spark
from its lowly prison, but if there has not been a substantial work of Gnosis
undertaken by the soul prior to death, it becomes likely that the divine spark
will be hurled back into, and then re-embodied within, the pangs and slavery of
the physical world.
Not all humans are spiritual
(pneumatics) and thus ready for Gnosis and liberation. Some are earthbound and
materialistic beings (hyletics), who recognize only the physical reality. Others
live largely in their psyche (psychics). Such people usually mistake the
Demiurge for the True God and have little or no awareness of the spiritual world
beyond matter and mind.
In the course of history, humans
progress from materialistic sensate slavery, by way of ethical religiosity, to
spiritual freedom and liberating Gnosis. As the scholar G. Quispel wrote: “The
world-spirit in exile must go through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of
morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.” This kind of evolution of
consciousness was envisioned by the Gnostics, long before the concept of
evolution was known.
Evolutionary forces alone are
insufficient, however, to bring about spiritual freedom. Humans are caught in a
predicament consisting of physical existence combined with ignorance of their
true origins, their essential nature and their ultimate destiny. To be liberated
from this predicament, human beings require help, although they must also
contribute their own efforts.
From earliest times Messengers
of the Light have come forth from the True God in order to assist humans in
their quest for Gnosis. Only a few of these salvific figures are mentioned in
Gnostic scripture; some of the most important are Seth (the third Son of Adam),
Jesus, and the Prophet Mani. The majority of Gnostics always looked to Jesus as
the principal savior figure (the Soter).
Gnostics do not look to
salvation from sin (original or other), but rather from the ignorance of which
sin is a consequence. Ignorance -- whereby is meant ignorance of spiritual
realities -- is dispelled only by Gnosis, and the decisive revelation of Gnosis
is brought by the Messengers of Light, especially by Christ, the Logos of the
True God. It is not by His suffering and death but by His life of teaching and
His establishing of mysteries that Christ has performed His work of salvation.
The Gnostic concept of
salvation, like other Gnostic concepts, is a subtle one. On the one hand,
Gnostic salvation may easily be mistaken for an unmediated individual
experience, a sort of spiritual do-it-yourself project. Gnostics hold that the
potential for Gnosis, and thus, of salvation is present in every man and woman,
and that salvation is not vicarious but individual. At the same time, they also
acknowledge that Gnosis and salvation can be, indeed must be, stimulated and
facilitated in order to effectively arise within consciousness. This stimulation
is supplied by Messengers of Light who, in addition to their teachings,
establish salvific mysteries (sacraments) which can be administered by apostles
of the Messengers and their successors.
One needs also remember that
knowledge of our true nature -- as well as other associated realizations -- are
withheld from us by our very condition of earthly existence. The True God of
transcendence is unknown in this world, in fact He is often called the Unknown
Father. It is thus obvious that revelation from on High is needed to bring about
salvation. The indwelling spark must be awakened from its terrestrial slumber by
the saving knowledge that comes “from without”.
If the words “ethics” or
“morality” are taken to mean a system of rules, then Gnosticism is opposed to
them both. Such systems usually originate with the Demiurge and are covertly
designed to serve his purposes. If, on the other hand, morality is said to
consist of an inner integrity arising from the illumination of the indwelling
spark, then the Gnostic will embrace this spiritually informed existential ethic
To the Gnostic, commandments and
rules are not salvific; they are not substantially conducive to salvation. Rules
of conduct may serve numerous ends, including the structuring of an ordered and
peaceful society, and the maintenance of harmonious relations within social
groups. Rules, however, are not relevant to salvation; that is brought about
only by Gnosis. Morality therefore needs to be viewed primarily in temporal and
secular terms; it is ever subject to changes and modifications in accordance
with the spiritual development of the individual.
As noted in the discussion
above, “hyletic materialists” usually have little interest in morality, while
“psychic disciplinarians” often grant to it a great importance. In contrast,
“Pneumatic spiritual” persons are generally more concerned with other, higher
matters. Different historical periods also require variant attitudes regarding
human conduct. Thus both the Manichaean and Cathar Gnostic movements, which
functioned in times where purity of conduct was regarded as an issue of high
import, responded in kind. The present period of Western culture perhaps
resembles in more ways that of second and third century Alexandria. It seems
therefore appropriate that Gnostics in our age adopt the attitudes of classical
Alexandrian Gnosticism, wherein matters of conduct were largely left to the
insight of the individual.
Gnosticism embraces numerous
general attitudes toward life: it encourages non-attachment and non-conformity
to the world, a “being in the world, but not of the world”; a lack of egotism;
and a respect for the freedom and dignity of other beings. Nonetheless, it
appertains to the intuition and wisdom of every individual “Gnostic” to distill
from these principles individual guidelines for their personal application.
When Confucius was asked about
death, he replied: “Why do you ask me about death when you do not know how to
live?” This answer might easily have been given by a Gnostic. To a similar
question posed in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus answered that human beings
must come by Gnosis to know the ineffable, divine reality from whence they have
originated, and whither they will return. This transcendental knowledge must
come to them while they are still embodied on earth.
Death does not automatically
bring about liberation from bondage in the realms of the Demiurge. Those who
have not attained to a liberating Gnosis while they were in embodiment may
become trapped in existence once more. It is quite likely that this might occur
by way of the cycle of rebirths. Gnosticism does not emphasize the doctrine of
reincarnation prominently, but it is implicitly understood in most Gnostic
teachings that those who have not made effective contact with their
transcendental origins while they were in embodiment would have to return into
the sorrowful condition of earthly life.
In regard to salvation, or the
fate of the spirit and soul after death, one needs to be aware that help is
available. Valentinus, the greatest of Gnostic teachers, taught that Christ and
Sophia await the spiritual man -- the pneumatic Gnostic -- at the entrance of
the Pleroma, and help him to enter the bridechamber of final reunion. Ptolemaeus,
disciple of Valentinus, taught that even those not of pneumatic status, the
psychics, could be redeemed and live in a heavenworld at the entrance of the
Pleroma. In the fullness of time, every spiritual being will receive Gnosis and
will be united with its higher Self -- the angelic Twin -- thus becoming
qualified to enter the Pleroma. None of this is possible, however, without
earnest striving for Gnosis.
Psyche: The Depth Psychological Connection
Throughout the twentieth Century
the new scientific discipline of depth psychology has gained much prominence.
Among the depth psychologists who have shown a pronounced and informed interest
in Gnosticism, a place of signal distinction belongs to C. G. Jung. Jung was
instrumental in calling attention to the Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic writings
in the 1950's because he perceived the outstanding psychological relevance of
The noted scholar of Gnosticism,
G. Filoramo, wrote: "Jung's reflections had long been immersed in the thought of
the ancient Gnostics to such an extent that he considered them the virtual
discoverers of 'depth psychology' . . . ancient Gnosis, albeit in its form of
universal religion, in a certain sense prefigured, and at the same time helped
to clarify, the nature of Jungian spiritual therapy." In the light of such
recognitions one may ask: "Is Gnosticism a religion or a psychology?" The answer
is that it may very-well be both. Most mythologems found in Gnostic scriptures
possess psychological relevance and applicability. For instance the blind and
arrogant creator-demiurge bears a close resemblance to the alienated human ego
that has lost contact with the ontological Self. Also, the myth of Sophia
resembles closely the story of the human psyche that loses its connection with
the collective unconscious and needs to be rescued by the Self. Analogies of
this sort exist in great profusion.
Many esoteric teachings have
proclaimed, "As it is above, so it is below." Our psychological nature (the
microcosm) mirrors metaphysical nature (the macrocosm), thus Gnosticism may
possess both a psychological and a religious authenticity. Gnostic psychology
and Gnostic religion need not be exclusive of one another but may complement
each other within an implicit order of wholeness. Gnostics have always held that
divinity is immanent within the human spirit, although it is not limited to it.
The convergence of Gnostic religious teaching with psychological insight is thus
quite understandable in terms of time-honored Gnostic principles.
Some writers make a distinction
between “Gnosis” and “Gnosticism”. Such distinctions are both helpful and
misleading. Gnosis is undoubtedly an experience based not in concepts and
precepts, but in the sensibility of the heart. Gnosticism, on the other hand, is
the world-view based on the experience of Gnosis. For this reason, in languages
other than English, the word Gnosis is often used to denote both the experience
and the world view (die Gnosis in German, la Gnose in French).
In a sense, there is no Gnosis
without Gnosticism, for the experience of Gnosis inevitably calls forth a world
view wherein it finds its place. The Gnostic world view is experiential, it is
based on a certain kind of spiritual experience of Gnosis. Therefore, it will
not do to omit, or to dilute, various parts of the Gnostic world view, for were
one to do this, the world view would no longer conform to experience.
Theology has been called an
intellectual wrapping around the spiritual kernel of a religion. If this is
true, then it is also true that most religions are being strangled and stifled
by their wrappings. Gnosticism does not run this danger, because its world view
is stated in myth rather than in theology. Myths, including the Gnostic myths,
may be interpreted in diverse ways. Transcendence, numinosity, as well as
psychological archetypes along with other elements, play a role in such
interpretation. Still, such mythic statements tell of profound truths that will
not be denied.
Gnosticism can bring us such
truths with a high authority, for it speaks with the voice of the highest part
of the human -- the spirit. Of this spirit, it has been said, “it bloweth where
it listeth”. This then is the reason why the Gnostic world view could not be
extirpated in spite of many centuries of persecution.
The Gnostic world view has
always been timely, for it always responded best to the “knowledge of the heart”
that is true Gnosis. Yet today, its timeliness is increasing, for the end of the
second millennium has seen the radical deterioration of many ideologies which
evaded the great questions and answers addressed by Gnosticism. The clarity,
frankness, and authenticity of the Gnostic answer to the questions of the human
predicament cannot fail to impress and (in time) to convince. If your reactions
to this summary have been of a similarly positive order, then perhaps you are a
Internet Source Reference:
GNOSTICISM:ANCIENT AND MODERN
is a philosophical and religious movement which started in pre-Christian times.
The term is derived from the Greek word gnosis which means "knowledge".
It is pronounced with a silent "G" (NO-sis). Gnostics claimed to have secret
knowledge about God, humanity and the rest of the universe of which the general
population was unaware. It became one of the three main belief systems within
1st century Christianity, and was noted for its:
By the second century CE,
many very different Christian-Gnostic sects had formed within the Roman Empire
at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Some Gnostics worked within Jewish
Christian and mainline Christian groups, and greatly influenced their beliefs
from within. Others formed separate communities. Still others were solitary
As mainline Christianity grew
in strength and organization, Gnostic sects came under increasing pressure and
persecution. They almost disappeared by the 6th century. The only group to have
survived into modern times is the Mandaean sect of Iraq and Iran. This
group has about 15,000 members (one source says 1,500), and can trace their
history continuously back to the original Gnostic movement.
Many new emerging religions
in the West have adopted ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices.
Ancient Gnostic Information
Until recently, only a few
pieces of Gnostic literature were known to exist. These included Shepherd of
Men, Asclepius, Codex Askewianus, Codex Brucianus, Gospel of Mary, Secret Gospel
of John, Odes of Solomon and the Hymn of the Pearl. Knowledge about
this movement had been inferred mainly from extensive attacks that were made on
Gnosticism by Christian heresiologists (writers against heresy) of the second
and early third century. These included Irenaeus (130? - 200? CE), Clement of
Alexandria (145? - 213?), Tertullian (160? - 225?) and Hippolytus (170? - 236).
Unfortunately, the heresy hunters were not particularly accurate or objective in
their analysis of Gnosticism
In 1945, Mohammed Ali
es_Samman, a camel driver from El Qasr in Egypt, went with his brother to a
cliff near Nag Hummadi, a village in Northern Egypt. They were digging for
nitrate-rich earth that they could use for fertilizer. They came across a large
clay jar buried in the ground. They were undecided whether to open it. They
feared that it might contain an evil spirit; but they also suspected that it
might contain gold or other material of great value. It turns out that their
second guess was closer to the truth: the jar contained a library of Gnostic
material of unmeasurable value. 13 volumes survive, comprising 51 different
works on 1153 pages. 6 were copies of works that were already known; 6 others
were duplicated within the library, and 41 were new, previously unknown works.
Included were The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Treatise on the
Resurrection, Gospel of Philip, Wisdom of Jesus Christ, Revelation of James,
Letter of Peter to Philip, On the Origin of the World and other writings. Of
these, the Gospel of Thomas is considered the most important. It was a
collection of the sayings of Jesus which were recorded very early in the
Christian era. A later Gnostic author edited the Gospel. Some liberal
theologians rank it equal in importance to the 4 Gospels of the Christian
The works had originally been
written in Greek during the second and third centuries CE. The Nag Hummadi
copies had been translated into the Coptic language during the early 4th century
CE, and apparently buried circa 365 CE. Some Gnostic texts were non-Christian;
others were originally non-Christian but had Christian elements added; others
were entirely Christian documents. Some recycled paper was used to reinforce the
leather bindings of the books. They were found to contain dated letters and
business documents from the middle of the 4th century. The books may have been
hidden for save-keeping during a religious purge.
The texts passed through the
hands of a number of mysterious middlemen, and finally were consolidated and
stored in the Coptic Museum of Cairo. Publication was delayed by the Suez
Crisis, the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and petty debates among scholars. The most
important book, the Gospel of Thomas, was finally translated into English
during the late 1960's; the remaining books were translated during the following
ten years. In many ways, this find reveals more about the early history of
Christianity than do the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Nag Hummadi find revealed
that there was a broad range of beliefs among the various independent Gnostic
systems or schools. The However, the following points are believed to be
generally accurate throughout the movement:
They believed that they alone truly understood Christ's message, and that
other streams of thought within Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus'
mission and sayings.
Knowledge to them was not an intellectual exercise; it was not a passive
understanding of some aspect of spirituality. Rather, knowledge had a
redeeming and liberating function that helped the individual break free of
bondage to the world.
Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth is remote from human
affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he created a
series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these
was Sophia, a virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior
Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. (Demiurge means "public
craftsman" in Greek.) This lower God created the earth and its life forms.
This is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), a deity who was
viewed as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and
prone to genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His pride and
incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it,
and in the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind."
Duality of spirit and body:
Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and
evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human
body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the
sparks of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to humanity by
person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual
essence: a divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity
to escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to
be reunited with the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics
divided humanity into three groups: