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