What is Gnosticism (to me)?


The standard definition of fundamentalism includes strict adherence to inflexible doctrines, either religious or secular. Such doctrines are variable and transitory, being in the nature of opinions, theories, or  propositions, improperly elevated to the status of absolute truth by a priestly caste which benefits in status and power.  Where there is knowledge (of the propositional kind), it will pass away. All truth claims eventually fail.  In my book I often refer to the Wizard, the founder of our church/cult, who had his own definite ideas about what constituted “wholesome entertainment”, and this was taken as absolute truth by we impressionable students. No one dared say, “I disagree with him about that” or, “that’s just his opinion”. In Sedona Arizona, I discovered a psychiatrist with a huge following, highly regarded by various New Age authors, who claimed to have discovered an avenue to the absolute truth on any subject using a technique called muscle testing. But all his “discoveries” sounded more like his own generational worldview. This seemed to be an updated, re-packaged and highly innovative repetition of the same old story.

 The fundamentalist insists – I know! But so does the Gnostic, so what’s  the difference? The Greek word Gnosis means knowledge but when Gnostics confidently say they know, they speak about a specific kind of knowledge – that of their own experience. Fundamentalism, can be seen as the slavish adherence to the thoughts and opinions of others. It is a false claim to Gnosis, destined to fail, and therefore a counterfeit of the real thing. Fundamentalists are also prone to accept the revelations of others as absolute truth, but for the Gnostic, there’s no such thing as a second-hand revelation (Thomas Paine).   All revelations can only be in the first person. The Wizard, for example, claimed to be a modern-day apostle and this personal revelation was accepted without question.  I see Gnosticism as anti-fundamentalist, representing a complete u-turn from my former life, but I also tried to salvage whatever remained relevant and meaningful from the past. This meant continuing to be a Christian but in a very  different way.

A critic once described clinging to Christianity and embracing Gnosticism as “rolling the same old turd up a different hill” but I disagree with that interpretation. For a fundamentalist, to embrace Gnosticism is a revolutionary act, but there are two kinds of revolution.  One kind sweeps away all that went before creating a blank slate. I would put Mao’s Cultural Revolution in that category or the French Revolution of Robespierre, otherwise known as “the reign of terror”.  These revolutions created an outcome even worse than the old regime. Another kind of revolution seeks to preserve the best of that which went before, recognizing that nothing is all good or all bad, black or white, all true or all false, but rather some combination of the two. These latter revolutions tend to stick because they are anchored more in reality. Moreover, psychologist Carl Jung, a self-avowed Gnostic, having studied the spiritual traditions of many cultures, concluded, in the end, that it’s best to frame your understandings in terms of your own cultural heritage, as this is more understandable to you.

For some years after I left fundamentalism (or thought I had), I would read a favorite author or listen a lecture but If I heard something that didn’t seem right to me, I would unconsciously adopt that idea as my own, even though I didn’t believe it. I think I did so in order to resolve an internal discomfort, as though that person had let me down in some way and I wanted to resolve the cognitive dissonance. Without realizing it, I was elevating that person’s opinion and depreciating my own. It seemed to resolve itself into a binary choice, reject that person entirely or embrace all that he/she had to say. Now that I am more aware, I can make a conscious effort to reframe the experience by saying to myself, I agree with this person on many things but disagree on others. I really appreciate his book/lecture even though I have a different view in some areas.  Giving away your responsibility is the fatal flaw of the fundamentalist. The most important lesson of my  life could be expressed in this way: Do Not Defer To Others.  Fortunately, Gnosticism is a philosophy which supports that approach.

Carl Jung compared Gnosticism to the psychological process he called “individuation”. Full personhood requires access to our own subconscious and, ultimately, the collective unconscious. In so doing we  bring forth our true, authentic selves.  Authenticity requires expelling “the foreign installation” (Carlos Castaneda).  The foreign installation is an idea planted in your head which is incompatible with your true self. It is often planted there by some parasite which wants to control you and program your mind to benefit itself.

Having once escaped the grip of fundamentalism, I came to embrace Gnosticism, which I consider more of a philosophical approach than a replacement  religion. To the philosopher, the universe is a mystery to be continuously explored but exploration is only possible once you get out of prison. For the literalist, life holds no mysteries because the answers are already known. Gnostics make no truth claims, but only speak of personal revelations and insights which are true and meaningful for them.

“We run with those who search for the truth but avoid those who have found it.” Miguel Conner

Gnosticism is philosophy combined with mythology. Listening to a Gnostic, you never really know if they speak literally or figuratively.  A Gnostic might speak as though certain things are literally true but symbolism is the only thing that matters. For the Gnostic, the exodus myth is about the transition from slavery to freedom and as such, not only true but profoundly true. Viewed in this way, why would it matter if the Red Sea actually  parted? Devoid of meaning, it would be reduced to nothing more than an impressive  magic trick.  I remain agnostic about those  things which I have neither seen nor heard myself. I wasn’t there, so I can’t  know for sure, but why close the door on anything?  Miracles are possible. To insist too much, one way or another, is to be fundamentalist. Religion insists you must accept implausible things on faith or face damnation.  The Gnostic says,  “bring forth what is within you” and what is within you will save you.  We already have all the internal resources we need to save ourselves. The challenge of this particular saying, from the Gospel of Thomas, is that it does not tell us what to believe but to find the truth for ourselves and from within ourselves.

thomas gospel

The Gospel of Thomas was a lost gospel discovered in 1945, together with other such gospels, hidden in earthen pots inside a cave in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The Gospel of Thomas was at variance with The New Testament Gospel of John which required the hearer to believe the testimony of others – believe it or else. The mere fact that the Gnostic gospels, known collectively as The Nag Hammadi library, were hidden, reveals that they were considered heretical.

If the divine light is hidden in everyone, then salvation is universally available to all, regardless of time and place. This was at variance with the orthodox view that only by accepting the testimony of  a particular  few at a particular time, those who witnessed Jesus ascend into heaven, could we then be saved. The literal resurrection of Jesus, therefore had a political dimension, to fix authority on those who had witnessed it.

It’s hard to define Gnosticism with precision because there is no uniform set of doctrines to sign up to or identify. There’s an old saying: put two Gnostics in a room alone and if they both agree, one of them is not a Gnostic. Yet there was much greater unity amongst Gnostics than in the structured, ordered  world of the fundamentalist. Theirs was a unity of the Spirit.

Gnostic teachers encouraged their followers to paint their own portrait, write their own gospel and live their own myth. This annoyed the orthodox Church to no end because it denied their authority. Such an approach would be administratively unworkable. Sound administration required uniformity – one Church, one faith, one doctrine. Of utmost importance to them was, you could say, bums on seats. Ever increasing attendance figures was the measure of success. Success required spreading the word. Gnostics, on the other hand, were not interested in spreading the word or in playing a numbers game. In fact, they preferred to keep their Gnosis secret except amongst those who were receptive to it.  No need to spread the word indiscriminately and no need to become a martyr in the coliseum to demonstrate solidarity with the Saviour.  Gnostics were not interested in quantitative measurements, only qualitative ones, the quality of their interactions.

The orthodox Bishop Irenaeus complained bitterly that the Gnostics had nothing to rely on but their own intuition. The implication is clear: don’t  trust your own intuition, trust ours instead. Trust and obey.

“Create your own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” William Blake

The Gnostics had a unique mythology centred on the divine feminine, which I will address in future posts; for now, I will summarize what Gnosticism means, not in terms of doctrine or mythology but by briefly describing who Gnostics are. Gnostics are first and foremost heretics, always rebelling against an ossified status quo. Gnostics are also mystics, individualists, philosophers, artists, shamans, mythologists and visionaries.

(c) Adrian C. Smith, 2020

One thought on “What is Gnosticism (to me)?

  1. Thank you for your article. I may be beginning to understand the Gnostic philosophy. Usually my gut tells me to avoid extremes. I know that strongly held beliefs impede learning.
    I benefitted from your book! Currently reading it for the second time!


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