By John Lash
Essay 13 from The Seeker's Handbook - The Complete Guide to Spiritual Pathfinding, 1991, by John Lash. This book is currently under revision for re-publication late in 2001. The following essay is taken from the revised version.
Gnosticism as it appears today is a huge shambles, like the ruins of a once vast and magnificent temple. Historically, it may be defined as an elite movement whose members asserted the liberating power of spiritual knowledge over the promise of salvation from God on high. This viable option to Christian faith was brutally suppressed when the Catholic Church came to power. Until 1945 the record of Gnostic teachings came exclusively from its opponents, the early Christian fathers, who only cited the Gnostics to refute them. Imagine having the prosecutor's dossier on a case tried two thousand years ago, and trying to reconstruct from it the viewpoint of the defendant! With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (NHL), precious source materials came to light. Scholars now recognize that Gnosticism comprised a sophisticated system of theological and cosmological teachings, its origins far more ancient that initially supposed.
Gnosismeans "knowledge," but of a special kind. Its unique character might be described as 3-D: knowledge of Divinity, of deviant forces in cosmos and psyche, and of how to develop supernormal faculties. To the Gnostics, sacred mind (Nous) was open to the Godhead in one direction and to human reason in the other. Seeing no contradiction between illumined reason and visionary revelation, they assumed a continuum from creature to Godhead, the Pleroma or "Divine Fullness," consisting of an ensemble of paired gods called Aeons. The coupling of the Aeons recalls the paired neters (god-principles) of Egyptian religion and, even more so, the dyadic format of Hindu Tantra Vidya and Tibetan Buddhism. The evidence for Gnostic cosmology is scarce and fragmentary, but it can be reconstructed through close parallel with Egyptian and Asian systems.
The emphasis on deviant forces called Archons is unique to Gnostic vision. Deviance runs deep into the cosmic pattern, but it operates through error rather than sin. The Christian notion of sin due to the Fall has no role in Gnostic theology. Gnostic teachings on "the generation of error" are among the most subtle and complex of any religious system. "The world came about through a mistake," says The Gospel of Philip (NHL II, 3). The world meant here is specifically our world-system, the solar system, not the entire cosmos. Gnostic cosmology seems to have been rigorous in ascribing the living, intelligent aspect of our world-system to the Aeons, while ascribing its mechanical or inorganic aspect to the Archons. Scholars wrongly perpetuate the notion that Gnosticism assumed two supreme gods, one good and the other evil, and rejected the visible world as the handiwork of the latter. Rather, it assumes two distinct world-orders emanated from the same source and then, somehow, collapsed into each other. The imperative of spiritual development is liberation from the deviant forces, not escape from the material world.
Christ and Sophia
Gnostic theology contains several flashpoints that have aroused extreme resistence from Christians, then and now: denial of the divinity of Jesus, rejection of sin and vicarious atonement, the apparitional or phantom-like nature of Christ's human form (Docetism), the use of sexuality (Ophis, the Serpent Power, Kundalini) for higher evolution, and inclusion of the feminine in the divine revelation. Most shocking of all, Gnostics identified the Christian Father God, Jehovah, with the leader the Archons. They rejected the unity of the Old and New Testaments and argued that Jehovah must be a deviant entity, not a god of love and justice who sends an emissary to enlighten us. In effect, they asserted that the Supreme Being of the Christian faith is a monstrous aberration.
Gnostic cosmology describes how a feminine Aeon called Sophia, or Wisdom, was so passionately attracted to the dark matter of chaos beyond the Pleroma that she plunged ecstatically into it. This impact produced an "abortion" in the cosmic formative forces (atomic level) and so arose the Demiurge, the "half-effective" god, identical with Jehovah. The Sophia Aeon then merged into the material world, half-formed from inorganic matter and compelled by non-vital mechanical laws. Her error was to have sprung from the Pleromic matrix unilaterally, rather than dyadically: "For it is the will of the Originator not to allow anything to happen in the Pleroma apart from a coupling." (NHL XI, 2) The "Fallen Sophia" undergoes a series of spiritual agonies described at length in the Gnostic texts, only to be united with the Christ Aeon, her male counterpart among the Pleromic dyads. In the Gnostic view, Christ is not a particular, one-time incarnation of Divinity in human form, but the eternal possibility of Pleromic contact realized by any initiated, illumined individual.
Gnostic texts reveal high regard for Mary Magdalene, "the woman who knew all," represented to be the human embodiment of the Fallen Sophia. Some scandalous passages describe her and the Gnostic Jesus french-kissing and practising Tantric sex, either out in nature or in the nymphion (mystic bridal cell). Equally objectionable by Christian standards was the Gnostic insistence that those who are truly close to the Master kept the teachings to themselves, or only share them discreetly with a few other initiates. Obviously, this completely undercuts the imperative of the Church to go forth and convert the world.
Heresy for Today
Both Gnosticism and Christianity are soteriological religions, centered on the call for redemption. The difference is, Gnosticism proposes that knowledge saves us from ignorance of the indwelling Divinity, while Christianity promotes dependence on a superhuman agent who cancels our sins and insures our link to a remote Creator God. In effect, Gnosis is the realization that our intelligence is divine. Although initiation via sacred mind (dianoia) is an elitist path, the development of higher intelligence is open to all who seek it. The Gnostic quest for enlightenment probably expresses the central spiritual motive of humanity, the key to the alleged unity of all religions. This quest does not require belief in untestable dogmas such as the Incarnation, but opens the way to direct intuitive contact with Divinity. While it does exhibit some anti-Christian and even some totally non-Christian elements, Gnosticism is compatible with an optional form of Christocentric illuminism. Indeed, some of its historical advocates like Marcion and Valentinus claimed that it is the true and original from of Christianity. Gnosis leads us to correct our errors and view collective religion in a new perspective. With its emphasis on extra-human deviations of human intent due to the split-world cosmology, this heresy may contain the most liberating message of any religious system.
The publication of The Gnostic Gospels (1979) by Elaine Pagels brought Gnosticism into the mainstream. The study of the surviving texts poses great difficulty, however, due to the lack of practical methods for the third factor in the 3-D formula: how to develop the supernormal faculties implied in first-person contact with Divinity. Nevertheless, a kind of Gnostic revival may be unfolding as these long-lost teachings filter into open debate. Modern seekers who encounter these strange and baffling materials are deeply attracted by the alternative view of Christianity, as well as the opportunity to see the feminine in a new and inclusive light. For all its troublesome obscurities, Gnosticism continues to arouse profound responses in an every-widening range of people.