Tobias Churton is one of today’s most visible and prolific writers on the Western esoteric tradition. He first came to the attention of the public in the UK in 1987, with the release of a four-part television series called “Gnostics.”
Since then he has written nineteen books, including Gnostic Philosophy, The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians, and biographies of William Blake, the seventeenth-century British esotericist Elias Ashmole, and Aleister Crowley. He holds a master’s degree in theology from the University of Oxford and is an honorary fellow of the University of Exeter in the UK. His website is tobiaschurton.com.
Churton was featured in a New Dawn interview that I conducted in 2005 (see New Dawn 91). In November 2015, I conducted another e-mail interview with him, this time focusing on his recent book Gnostic Mysteries of Sex: Sophia the Wild One and Erotic Christianity.
RICHARD SMOLEY (RS): Your latest book is called Gnostic Mysteries of Sex. Could you start by briefly sketching out who the Gnostics were?
TOBIAS CHURTON (TC): Not all Gnostics called themselves by the name, but it is a name attached by orthodox Church leaders from the second to the fifth centuries CE to leaders and groups of spiritual deviants from orthodoxy who regarded their experience or “knowledge” (Greek: gnosis) as a superior aspect of salvation to that of other Christians. Since Gnostics prided themselves on originality, personal revelations, and esoteric insights, their views on any number of doctrines vary considerably, but they share some speculative doctrines in common.
The first and most fundamental is that the universe perceptible to the senses derives from a deformation of spiritual being into something unintended by the source of being. This unknowable “Father,” knowledge of whom Jesus brings to the gnostic, is called the “Depth” – as in an unfathomable ocean or abyss. The material universe results from a primal catastrophe: a fall from ideal into relative being. In this deformation drama, sparks of divine seed have become alienated in an unfamiliar realm and experience pain and longing. Insofar as the universe is imperfect, it is the work of a Demiurge or “fashioner,” working with relative, not absolute being. This being knows no higher than himself, like the classic egotist. Sometimes identified with the Elohim (“God” or “gods”) of Genesis, the creator of the world is regarded as the enemy of Man as a spiritually conceived being, opposed implacably to Man’s enlightenment. “Lord of this world,” the maker senses there’s something special about Man. Man has something within him. The master of matter is jealous of this spiritual substance and, while incapable of understanding it, wants it, and failing that, determines to keep fallen Man ignorant of it, lest Man escape from the world’s finite grip and become free.
The hylic or material being (the earthly Adam), belonging to the sensual universe, dies with it, for the material universe is constrained by time, unlike spirit, which is eternal.
The only means of escape is realisation of divine origin and destiny – gnosis. This means to be spiritually awake, able thereby to see beyond the universe and the Demiurge. To effect realisation, Christ descended to earth, appearing as mortal flesh, to summon the awakened spirits and raise the weak by awakening the dormant psyches of the soulful, but lost, children of divine Wisdom (Sophia). Gnostic writers present Jesus as an esoteric philosopher holding the keys to the door to eternity, for which the world rulers conspire to destroy him and those who follow him.
The Gnostics presented sometimes highly intelligent twists on every aspect of established Gospel teaching. From alleged secret sources, they created an esoteric religion of wide-ranging meaning and applicability to Man, seen as being in existential distress. Gnosis has nothing to say to those comfortable with and in the world as it is.
Moral teachings among Gnostics vary widely, for in their view state of mind is of vital significance and superior in essence to actual conduct. There were somewhat contradictory streams of interpretations in Gnostic thought and practice, and their enemies were not scrupulous in delineating greater or lesser factors, since all Gnostics were deemed a mortal threat to orthodox faith. Gnostics were, generally speaking, indifferent to religious authorities, and their radical individualism became intolerable to the growing monarchic episcopacy of the Catholic or Orthodox church.
Brilliant enemies of gnosis, such as Tertullian in the late second to mid-third centuries CE, simply dismissed Gnostics for trying to turn the “saving faith” into philosophy, that is, something conformable to Socratic reasoning. This is not altogether fair, since the Gentile Church had from its beginnings been required to express its doctrines to people who used philosophy to justify religious practices. One thinks of St Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34). After all, the Jewish faith never explained why the universe was created in terms philosophically explicable to the existential condition of human life. God willed it and thought it good, whether men could see it, or like it, or not. It is also important to recognise that a dominant stream of gnosis served essentially as a magical religion that sought God in the lowest effects as well as the highest causes. That is to say, the divine spirit or pneuma was not only scattered in Man for some Gnostic schools, but hidden in the recesses of Nature: such insights vitalised alchemy. The divine seed has been sown everywhere, as gnostic alchemists, or “Hermetists,” maintained.
Contemporary Western esotericism and its historical antecedents are impossible to conceive of without the Gnostic phenomenon of late antiquity. Insofar as esotericism still thrives, so does gnosis, though mediated, as ever, in diverse forms, including philosophy of religion.
RS: One of the most fascinating figures in your book is Simon Magus. Could you say a little about him and his views on sex?
TC: He is fascinating, isn’t he? This Samaritan magician gets a nasty walk-on part in Acts, and contradictory accounts of him appear in patristic and sundry apocryphal works. He was obviously a major threat to the apostolic efforts of the primitive Church. Just why is not altogether clear, especially from Acts, where he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit. This is telling, in its way, of the style of the magician. He recognised the Holy Spirit experience as a psychic phenomenon that could be induced if you knew the trick: nothing new to a magician for whom what we today call hypnosis was a stock in trade.
Acts does not mention the crucial detail that Simon was accompanied by a whore, Helen (= the “torch”), whom he saved from a Tyrian brothel to be his consort. Groups of Gnostics worshipped them both, at least by the second century, and it became established in that century that he was the first Gnostic heretic and that all the Gnostic streams derived from him. As for his teachings, or rather alleged teachings (we have no first-century evidence for his specific doctrines), we have fascinating accounts in the second-century writings of the orthodox Christian Hippolytus.
I may be the first to have realised that while Hippolytus’s accounts of Simon’s doctrines try to trash them as absurd Greek philosophy, Hippolytus’s accounts nevertheless transmit – probably without Hippolytus even realising it – a fairly complete system of sexual magic, expressed in symbols. What Hippolytus misunderstood as philosophy was, I think, the basis for working magical practice.
Simonian doctrine takes the view that sex has magical potential: it could be “redeemed” as a means to make supermen and superwomen. Looking at Simon anew was one of the most exciting things I discovered when writing the new book, and it became a real mind-opener: shocking perhaps, but definitely revelatory. It is no surprise that Simon had a work attributed to him called The Great Revelation. More intriguingly, he seems to have had some important link to John the Baptist.
RS: A main theme in your book is the connection between sex and enlightenment. How did the Gnostics see this relation?
TC: This is too big a question to be adequately dealt with in a magazine interview; the answer represents the substance of the book. Very briefly, the Gnostic understanding of sex is informed by the Platonist view that in the eternal world, there is a unity of substance. The eternal world, or world of the aeons, provides the eternal “ideas” that are used to fashion a copy or reflection of it and to make it manifest under the finite conditions of time and space. Those eternal characteristics are deformed and dissolved in the process or drama of pure radiant spirit descending into “darkness.” In order to create, we must move from one, unity, to two: reflection and manifestation. All reflection involves a measure of distortion.
Therefore, to manifest the divine mind, as Divine Wisdom (in the form of Lady Sophia) precociously endeavours to do imperfectly in Gnostic systems (creating the Demiurge in the process), is to make distortion inevitable. The idea of harmonious syzygies of divine powers becomes unbalanced through the act of creation. When this principle is linked to the existence of men and women, we note that the perfect Man, like God, is, in Gnostic thought, androgynous, containing masculine and female characteristics in perfect harmony.
In the sphere of manifestation, this harmony is lost, and man and woman appear separate and at odds. But gnosis can initiate the return to harmony. Gnostics made much of the Genesis story that Adam’s rib became the basis for woman, especially since it was extracted when Adam was asleep. Sleep, to a Gnostic, means the cosmic and spiritual unconsciousness or amnesia characteristic of material consciousness. Man and woman become each other’s tempters in the world of nature. This antipathy is reflected in the first human progeny, Cain and Abel, who are immediately opposed – opposition leading to the primal murder.
Following the logic of androgyny as being the original human form in the spiritual sense, it followed that perfected sexual union could become a sacramental and spiritual pre-enactment of the ultimate destined unity of the Gnostic spirit, restored to the Pleroma or “Fullness” of the Godhead. The mutual infusion of male and female enacts and prefigures the apocatastasis, the restoration, or what Gnostics called “the healing of the passions of matter”: the return to the One.
Obviously such sexual communion was a dedicated spiritual act. Interpretations of this essential dynamic of Gnostic sex varied very widely, but one can see echoes in the later theories associated with Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions. Enlightenment comes from manifestation and glorification of the divine seed. This seed is identified in many Gnostic traditions as the pneuma or spirit. In some groups, this identification was taken perfectly literally, but it is a feature I found to be of relevance to all Gnostic traditions, whether libertine or ascetic (the twin poles of Gnostic sexual morality).
I think much that I have found will shock and perhaps awe those used to the contemporary “soft” exposition of Gnostic thought and practice. Not least is my discovery of the identity and origin of the Gnostic feminine archangel called Barbelo; it should change minds considerably, given time.
RS: The Gnostics seem to have encompassed a wide range of attitudes toward sensuality, ranging from complete asceticism to a kind of hedonism. What inspired these differing stances?
TC: The body is the locus both of union and disharmony. It is mortal and it contains, even imprisons, the immortal pneuma or spirit, which needs awakening. Since the body is mortal, what flesh does with itself may have no ultimate significance. Its role is strictly that of a vehicle of spirit.
The body is linked to the lower worlds, so the Gnostic can afford to despise it, or, alternatively, use it for the spirit’s purposes. Gnostics, especially the followers of Carpocrates and those within the Sethian tradition, tended to believe that the spirit was so superior to flesh that flesh could not damage it. According to Irenaeus, these Gnostics said that the spirit is like gold: it can be mixed with dung but come up shining. On the other hand, the orthodox teaching was that acts of the body tarnish the spirit, injure it, and so such acts are culpable; moral choices indicate spiritual cleanliness or the lack of it.
Gnostics of radical persuasion gave these kinds of teachings their own twists. Being radical in the face of the world for them meant turning the follies of matter and its creator on their heads: flouting decencies indicated that one had seen through the façade of conformity to the Demiurge’s spiritually destructive way, the false “God of the law.” The Law governed flesh, not spirit, for the governor of spirit is the heavenly Father, and the heavenly Father is not, in Gnostic thinking, the author of the Law. They took – or twisted – this idea from the liberty Paul offered to the redeemed Gentile: free of the Law through grace and, insofar as practicing spiritual love with conscience, a “law unto himself” (Romans 2: 10-15). So, in short, some Gnostics used sex as a weapon against the Demiurge and his order, and regarded such behaviour as heroic.
There also appears to have been a movement that gained force in the third century and flourished in the fourth and fifth centuries called encratism (from the Greek enkrateia, meaning self-restraint). Encratite streams of gnosis advocated strict asceticism, bodily continence, and the maintenance of the seed in purity, as ordinarily understood. Sethian Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that sexual substances were changed in status when they were treated as sacraments, as bread and wine could be changed into body and blood of Christ by elevated intention. The book deals with all these complexities and sorts them out, I think; many are put in context for the first time. The subject remains highly charged, as it is so fundamental, and the basic issues are deeply relevant to us today, as we attempt to find a universal morality with spiritual authority behind it.
RS: Catholic Christianity became increasingly puritanical over the centuries. It finally reached the point where it viewed all sex as bad to one degree or another. What inspired this trend?
TC: We find encratism in the monastic movement with the third-century Egyptian Pachomius and his many followers, who persist to this day. Encratism’s essential fear of sex became critical in the final formation period of Catholic doctrine and is very much still with us, though finding itself greatly opposed by powerful commercialisation of the libido, and radically changed social mores. Originally seen as a heresy (by Clement of Alexandria, for example), encratism eventually triumphed over much of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, creating a two-tier morality: one for clergy, monks, and nuns, and one for the rest who were to aspire to the renunciation characteristic of the classes of the saved.
Sex was the battleground. Curiously, Isaac Newton and others believed that encratism originated among Gnostic groups, on the basis of the ascetic wing of that “movement.” I rather think that encratism was a doctrine that insinuated itself through all the churches, including the Gnostic assemblies, eventually splitting and arguably dissipating the Gnostic ferment.
There appears to have been a mood that hit the Roman Empire in the second century, a waning of the lamp, so to speak, when many considered having been born into this world a liability. In such a mood, it was not difficult to take on the widespread Christian doctrine that sin entered the world through the sin of Adam, transmitted every time a child was born. It was not difficult to conclude that by abstaining from procreation and sex, one was effectively contributing to the saving of souls, since it was deemed that lust conditioned most, if not all, births. Some countered that birth gave the opportunity for Christ and his Church to show God’s saving love. But this was, and is, something of a sop to comfort ordinary nonclerical Church members, while providing continued employment for the “sexless” pastors of the procreating sheep.
RS: One part of your book I found particularly interesting was the discussion of the resurrection of the physical body as seen by different early Christian sects. To all appearances the apostle Paul specifically denied the idea of the physical resurrection, but a couple of centuries later it was a heresy not to believe in such a thing. Could you talk a bit about this process?
TC: Paul inspired many Gnostics with his words that flesh and blood cannot inherit eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:50). It gave them fuel for the thought that only the destiny of the divine pneuma, spirit, mattered. The body had no part in salvation. However, the major heresiologists (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria) considered it one of the Gnostics’ chief heresies that they regarded the body as being of no significance in salvation. So although the orthodox circles might have respected the writings of Paul, there was clearly a stronger tradition that the resurrection of the body, prefigured by Christ, was axiomatic, and supported in Old Testament prophecies such as that of the vivification of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel. It was much more important to them than I think Christians today can possibly comprehend.
As I say in the book, no one who accepts cremation really believes in the resurrection of the body, even though the Christian liturgy still explicitly refers to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Now we know that cremation has only become acceptable recently in the Church’s history. Many modern Christians seem to share the priorities of the Gnostics nowadays where the body is concerned. That is, they don’t expect their flesh to be resurrected.
Gnostics regarded the orthodox picture of Jesus’s body on the cross as “false vision.” The true body of Christ was spiritual. Rather – referring to the blindness of those without gnosis – it was “their man” who “they” nailed to the cross; it was in fact “their man,” their idea and their awareness of what they thought man was, that was seen being crucified. The enemies of Christ put themselves to death. The “lord of this world” defeated himself, as St Paul taught, for the “lord of this world” did not know the ancient secret of the Demiurge’s ultimate destruction by the secret processes of divine redemption. As Gnostics saw it, the real man, the spiritual, “living Jesus” was in reality above all that, high above the place of the skull (“Golgotha”) or “earth,” and was laughing at “their” folly, not so much laughing at the men who could not see spiritual reality, the crucifiers and blind onlookers, but the Demiurge himself, he who had thought in his jealousy he could frustrate the essential work of Christ by getting the powers-that-be to nail up Jesus of Nazareth to “their cross.” As the Gnostic Gospel of Philip has it: Jesus came “crucifying the world.” You see, there is a great subtlety to Gnostic doctrine here, and missing it makes it very easy for unsubtle orthodox evangelical minds simply to say that Gnostics were wicked because they denied that the Saviour suffered on the cross, and that therefore there is no salvation in gnosis. It’s not that simple.
It is fascinating that today a key Gnostic doctrine has become accepted by most Christians in some way or other, even if they resort to Paul’s other doctrine of a “spiritual body” raised incorruptible. All this says a great deal. There may be more to the relation of “spirit” and “flesh” than we understand properly; certainly such debates used to enliven conferences of 1890s spiritualists in a manner we should definitely find strange today, but perhaps the wheel has turned and we must look again at what is meant by “body.”
RS: There are many discussions of the sexual techniques of the Gnostics, but most of them are rather vague. What were they doing sexually, and what did they think it would accomplish?
TC: One notable thing about my new book is that I have been able to locate actual techniques used by different Gnostic sodalities, and comparisons are made in technical detail between kundalini yoga, various Tantric practices, and the practices of Gnostic groups, especially Sethian, Simonian, and Valentinian groups. Understanding may have been vague before, Richard, but not so now. The Gnostics appear to have transmitted explicit practices of what, since Theodor Reuss’s time in the early twentieth century, esotericists have called “sexual magic” or “magick.” The Gnostic claims of some modern esoteric groups now have a greater basis in fact, I think.
RS: Some Gnostic sects were accused of having a sacrament in which sexual fluids such as semen and menstrual blood were consumed. And in fact many magical traditions attribute considerable power to these substances. Do you think there is any truth to this idea?
TC: Not for me to say. That is the belief of some persons. I describe what some Gnostics believed and practised and leave judgement to the reader’s interest and experience. I would simply offer these questions: Is the occult power of any substance in the substance itself, or in the way it is conceived? Or could it be that power lies in the relation between substance and mind? When pagans saw, or heard of, the Catholic eucharist, they could only conclude that eating the Saviour’s flesh and blood constituted gross cannibalism. The Gnostics of course had their own take on this, and it is revealed in the book.
RS: You discuss William Blake and a tradition of sexual magic that he may have been heir to. Could you talk a little about Blake and how he fits into this theme?
TC: I was very interested in the relation between Blake’s riddle in his epic poem Jerusalem (not the hymn called by that name):
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball
It will lead you in at heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall
And Andrew Marvell’s poem “To his Coy Mistress,” written in the 1650s, a century and half earlier. In both there are clues to a powerful sexual magic, or mysticism if you prefer, consistent with Blake’s belief that the New Age would be characterised by the refinement of sensual knowledge, by which he was undoubtedly informed by the idea of an explosively sexual gnosis, which nonetheless had to be approached in a guarded form lest it be debased by debased minds.
This is the perennial problem with esoteric sexual doctrines. They have been kept secret to try to prevent their perversion. Of course the enemy always thinks such matters are perverted, but that may only indicate the debasement of their own minds. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
RS: To get more personal: what do think the connection is between sex and spirituality? Can sex really be used to move toward enlightenment?
TC: At least in the fields enjoyed by readers of New Dawn, who doesn’t share this interest? We are sexual beings. We are, in essence, spiritual beings, if not actually, then at least in potentia. Sex is the means of creation. From one, two, from two: all. Spirituality raises the created to its highest potential, in theory.
However, since you ask about my personal outlook, I rather accept that morality is not as relative as some antinomian Gnostics averred, and to understand the Ten Commandments seems to me to be a first vital step on the road to understanding divine love. We may approach spiritual things best with purity of mind, though I don’t think that means quite the same thing as puritanism of mind. In a sexual context, the Golden Rule might incur some moral debasement: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Some folk want things done to themselves I think other folk might best avoid, or be protected from!
Put in stark terms as you have – “sex used to move toward enlightenment” – well, I don’t really understand what that means. If I want “enlightenment,” I may go to the source of illumination. “Sexual magic,” as I understand it, is a discipline that is not for the foolhardy, or for anyone in search of a quick rush. In some ways, it may seem a very long way indeed up the hill, and clearly for most people it is far too long, difficult, and treacherous a process. There are abundant risks. But if the alternative to accepting that possibility is the idea that sex is a really bad thing and we’d be holier and safer without it, or that it’s solely for procreation, well, I think that’s pretty mechanical, uninteresting, and joyless.
When we were young, was not sex an intimation of heavenly things? And did we not spoil it all as time went on and innocent romance turned to selfish lust? True marriage gives us a way back to the first intimation, so long as we understand what is really meant and implied by the word union. The Valentinian Gnostics really invented romantic, spiritual love, though as I show in the book, it was surprisingly different to what we might think when we hear those words today.
Man is all potential, and precious little realisation. Gnostics give us a clue to what might be, perhaps even to what ought to be. Can we learn anything from their convictions, as well as their alleged errors? I think we can.
Tobias Churton’s new book is Gnostic Mysteries of Sex.
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