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An Introduction to Gnosticism

 
 

By S.M. ROMANOV

Jesus said, 'Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return.'
Gospel of  Thomas

The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis meaning “ultimate knowledge”. Joseph Campbell tells us Gnosis refers to a knowledge that transcends “that derived either empirically from the senses or rationally by way of the categories of thought. Such ineffable knowledge transcends, as well, the terms and images by which it is metaphorically suggested.”

Gnosticism is not a religion, nor is it a philosophical dogma, but a particular body of knowledge obtained by direct personal experience of the divine. Perhaps it cannot find a better definition than that offered by one of the 2nd century communities specifically calling themselves Gnostic: “The beginning of perfection is the knowledge of Man, but absolute perfection is the knowledge of God.”

A Spiritual Path

Unlike Catholicism, Gnosticism has never been one religion or a set creed in its own right, but is a way of life and thought. An awareness of existence and a path to be followed, rather than a dogma to be passively believed or obeyed. History shows that most Gnostic schools and communities in the first three centuries were linked to what became known as the Christian Church. In fact, several researchers believe the Christian Church is just a debased descendent of Gnosticism. With the discovery of Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars had to confront the reality that far from being ‘heretics’, the Gnostics were the original Christians who received their teachings directly from the disciples of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, conceded: “The life of the Gnostics is, in my view, no other than works and words which correspond to the tradition of the Lord.”

What is today known as Christianity, in its myriad of forms including both Catholic and Protestant varieties, is a very degraded heresy of Gnosticism. This helps to explain the Church Father’s virulent hatred of the Gnostics and the brutal thoroughness with which the established Christian Church, backed by the force of the Roman Empire, tried to stamp out the Gnostic movement in the 4th century. As the officially sanctioned Christian Church set its sights on worldly power, the remaining Gnostic Christians, still adhering to the original inner teachings of Jesus, were quickly perceived as the enemy, potential revivals to be destroyed.

Precisely because Gnosticism is a spiritual path, its truths are timeless and beyond the limitations of structures and the outward professions of faith. Gnosis has been expressed in varied forms in different cultures and civilisations. This is why Gnostics are also found within the mystical schools of Judaism and Islam. And like the Gnostic Christians, they too have often been condemned as heretics by the mainstream establishment of their own religion. Gnosticism can be approached as the esoteric wisdom or inner living core in the original revelations of all the great religions.

The Garden of Delights

The Gnostics are Knowers in contrast to mundane believers, the possessors of an inner wisdom and guardians of an ancient secret tradition. Humanity is viewed as scattered divine sparks trapped in matter. As a result of their immersion in matter, the vast majority of people have forgotten their real origin, and are ‘drunk’ or ‘asleep’. The world into which they are born as exiles is the work of a false god, the Demiurge, the King of the World. Trapped in the forgetfulness of the flesh, most people are unaware of their true being, ignorant of their real condition in the world and of their home beyond the Earth.

This is the state of mind of humanity as they move unthinkingly towards their doom in the world, the Demiurge’s enclosed Garden of Delights. In their state of “waking sleep” humans voyage from birth to death aboard a ship of fools. The captain is asleep, the steersman is drunk and the navigator has forgotten the aim of the voyage. Any fool on board could push the steersman aside and try to steer the ship.

One ancient Gnostic text describes the exile of the Light Souls in physical bodies:

The Soul once turned toward matter, she became enamoured of it, and burning with the desire to experience the pleasures of the body, she no longer wanted to disengage herself from it. Thus the world was born. From the moment the Soul forgot herself. She forgot her original habitation, her true centre, her eternal being.

Blinded by life in the world of the Demiurge, human beings are persuaded, by various subtle and not so subtle methods, to do what they are told. Men and women are perpetually conditioned, cajoled and blackmailed into a life of compromise and acceptance of the narrowest perceptions. The world veils the mystery of existence.

Awakening

Men and women need to be awakened again, so that they can remember their real natures and understand their condition. Awakening is the first step in the soul’s rescue, and the beginning of true knowledge or Gnosis.

The Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text compiled at the same time of the New Testament Gospels, declares that Jesus the Christ came from the True God, the Heavenly Father, to remind “the children of humanity” of where they came from and to where they should ultimately return:

Jesus said, ‘I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in the flesh I appeared to them. I found them all drunk, and I did not find any of them thirsty. My soul ached for the children of humanity, because they are blind in their hearts and do not see, for they came into the world empty, and they also seek to depart from the world empty. But meanwhile they are drunk. When they shake off their wine, then they will repent.

Jesus the Christ called people to break free of human entanglements and overcome the human condition! By submitting to crucifixion Jesus pointed the way to salvation. For he who would be saved must be purged of all carnal will and freed from everything that binds him to the world and created things. To the Gnostic, ‘the Cross’ may include life’s physical burdens and worldly persecution, but above all it includes intense spiritual agonies, weariness with the world. Only when this point has been reached, when the human condition has been stripped utterly naked, can Gnosis be realised. Then ‘the living Christ’ enters into the soul and the spirit is awakened and purified, making the seeker a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

It is necessary to combat the King of the World by whatever means necessary. One historian describes the early Gnostic Christians as engaged in efforts “to rouse the soul from its sleepwalking condition and to make it aware of the high destiny to which it is called.”1 This complex apparatus of Gnostic practice, explains a writer on the Western mystery tradition:

was designed to stimulate the divine spark within, to prepare it for the release from flesh and for the hazardous journey of the soul through the kingdoms of the archons, the servants of the Demiurge, who ruled every sphere between earth and that of the Pleroma [Realm of Light] itself.2

The Gnostic Gospel of Truth proclaims:

If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he answers, and he turns to him who is calling him, and ascends to him. And he knows in what manner he is called.... He who is to have knowledge in this manner knows where he comes from and where he is going. He knows as one who having become drunk has turned away from his drunkenness, (and) having returned to himself, has set right what are his own.

The world of the Demiurge is one of imperfection, darkness and evil. Far from being a pessimistic, negative and debilitating view, as some detractors claim, such a realisation is total freedom. Gnostics follow a way of liberation able to break all negative earthly bonds and empower the individual to live a full and active life while ‘being in the world, but not of the world.’ Freed from illusions and the numbness, sleep and drunkenness of the enclosed Garden of Delights, the Gnostic is transformed into a warrior in the army of the King of Light.

Gnostics strive to overcome the world and its false values, while shaping their lives after the pattern of the Christ. Jesus’s message was designed to make people more alive, more conscious, awaken their longing for transformation, and open the door to real life.

Abandon sleep, awake,
behold the light
Which is drawn near.
He has come to the world!
All the sons of Darkness hide.
The Light is come, and near [is] the dawn!
Arise brethren, give praise!
We shall forget the dark night.
— Gnostic hymn

Footnotes:

1. The Early Church, Henry Chadwick
2. The Western Way, C. & J. Matthews

The above article appeared in
New Dawn No. 66 (
May-June 2001)