Written by +Stephan A.Hoeller (Tau Stephanus, Gnostic Bishop)
Gnosticism is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by the way of interior, intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experiences result 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 form 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 distinctly 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 transgression 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 a flawed creation and its flawed creator have been devised over and over, but none of these arguments have impressed the 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 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 imperfections 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 imperfections 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 subtler 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 Pantheism.
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 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 that bear the name Sophia (“Wisdom”) is of great importance to the Gnostic worldview. In the course of her journeying, 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”.
The Human Being
Human nature mirrors the duality found in the world: in part the false creator God made it 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 residing 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 destiny. Anything that causes us to remain attached to earthly things serves to keep us in enslavement to those 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.
In the course of history, humans progress from material 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 Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise.” The Gnostics envisioned this kind of evolution of consciousness, 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 Light have come forth from the True God in order to assists humans in their quest for Gnosis. Only a few of these salvatic 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 Soto).
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 performed His work of salvation.
The Gnostic concept of salvation, like other Gnostic concepts, is a subtle one. On the other 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 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 with 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 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 as ideal.
To the Gnostic, commandments and rules are not salvific; they are not substantially conductive 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 Manichean 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 the 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?” A Gnostic might easily have given this answer. 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 conditions of earthly life.
In regard to salvation, or the fate of the spirit and the 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 heaven world 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.
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 language other than English, the word Gnosis is often used to denote both the experience and the worldview (die Gnosis in German, la Gnose in French).
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 worldview is stated in myth rather than 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 interpretations. 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 worldview 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 similar positive order, then perhaps you are a Gnostic yourself.
- Rt. Rev. Stephan Hoeller, Bishop
- 3363 Glendale Blvd.
- Los Angeles, California 90039
- For More Information on Gnosticism and the Ecclesia Gnostica, please visit The Gnosis Archive on the Web at: http://www.gnosis.org