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

Interview at Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio

My interview with Miguel Conner of Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio. We examine what is Gnosticism and how it differs from fundamentalism. What has Gnosticism taught me? Who is the demiurge? We examine The Secret Gospel of John and much more.


Image and audio courtesy of Miguel Conner.

The Shock and Awe of Covid-19

span flu2
The Spanish Flu

It’s all coronavirus all the time in the news these days and people are afraid. When people are afraid, they might countenance measures more terrifying than the disease itself. Totalitarians never let a good crisis go to waste and this one is a giant leap forward with no clear way back. Confined to our homes, under virtual “house arrest”, we can only watch helplessly as events unfold. As I write, civil liberties are suspended and there is a virtual takeover of the economy by government. When it comes to public spending, we are oft reminded, “there’s no magic money tree”. Well, quite suddenly – we have this magic money tree. Government will bail out affected business without discrimination – the good, the bad and the ugly, whatever it takes. There will be cash for affected individuals too but as usual, the benefits for them will be inadequate. No one knows for sure what the consequences will be, except – there will be consequences. If we have this magic money tree after all, then why do we have a health care system that’s so quickly and so easily overwhelmed?

A 2016 “wargame” concluded that Britain’s National Health Service was woefully unprepared for a pandemic. The results of the test, which was suppressed by David Cameron’s conservative coalition government, cited shortages of IC beds, tests, protective equipment and ventilators. We now know that austerity kills as surely as any virus. Oxford university estimated 120,000 people lost their lives as a result of austerity in the health service imposed in the aftermath of bank bailouts. That’s more than have died from coronavirus worldwide so far. Properly prepared health services could have coped with Covid-19 and there would have been no need to deliberately engineer an economic collapse.

It will be small business which suffers most from the lockdown. It is estimated that up to one third of small businesses will not re-open. Whether it’s the disease or the cure, lives are ruined or ended prematurely by suicide or despair. There will be suicides, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, necessary doctor’s appointments missed, treatments put off and the unquantifiable damage to our sense of autonomy.

Life here on our small farm goes on much as it always has. We can go for a walk in the woods or on the marsh and we have ample supplies. But what if you live in a small apartment in a big city with four kids climbing the walls? You have just lost your job, joining ten million in the USA who have lost their jobs in the last two weeks alone; and this is only the beginning. Your relationship was strained to begin with, now it’s at the breaking point. What does this mean for the incidence of domestic abuse? What does it mean for mental health? In 2012, a landmark report from University College, published in both Britain and the USA, identified a new “killer disease”– isolation.

Lockdown is not a choice of lives vs dollars; it’s lives vs lives. How many lives will be lost from the cure? It’s now a given, we are in a self-induced recession worse than The Great Recession of 2008 and, if so, it could take up to two years to recover once the crisis ends; but if the shutdown persists much longer, we could have a depression and that could last ten years. This could mean hardship on a par with the 1930s. Could it be that we are so afraid of death, we are willing to commit suicide?

I am reminded of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book The Shock Doctrine. Shock leaves us disorientated and confused. Shock leaves us begging the authorities to apply their cure. Draconian policies are often imposed on a population in shock. Minds full of fear are blank slates highly receptive and easily persuaded. If the policy response doesn’t work, there will be more shocks. In such a state we lose the capacity to resist. Klein refers specifically to the radical free-market policies imposed on Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, policies inspired by the fundamentalist economic ideology of Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. The ensuing disaster was all part of the cure, Friedman argued. The radical Marxists are no better. In either case, when things don’t work as advertised, the response is the same – double down. ( As I have argued in my book, no need for a binary choice between the seemingly opposite ideologies of the political left and right; there is another way – integration.)

It’s not clear these radical anti-virus measures will work either, unless or until there’s a vaccine but that could be two years away. By that time, we will be well accustomed to dictatorship. We are warned not to let our guard down – against the disease that is. There could be a renewed outbreak, perhaps in the fall. Even when there’s a vaccine, the disease could mutate or there could be another even more deadly virus unstoppable in a globalized world. Coronavirus could well be the new normal. Acceptance of dictatorship could also be the new normal. Having been gradually conditioned to such solutions, one question remains: Is this the end game or just one more step along the way?

Given the magnitude of the crisis and the response to it, one would hope that there would be some certainty as to the numbers. If the deaths were numbered in millions, as first indicated, then the response could be justified. To put things in perspective, the World Health Organization puts the annual worldwide deaths from ordinary flu (respiratory complications only) at 290,000 to 650,000. According to John Hopkins University, the worldwide deaths from coronavirus as of this date (April 11, 2020) stand at 105,000. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 40-50 million.

What is the true death rate for the coronavirus vs ordinary influenza? The number of deaths is the numerator, the number of infections is the denominator. The number of deaths over the number of infections equals the death rate. Current estimates are that this flu is 10 times more deadly than ordinary flu or one person dying for every one hundred infected. The truth is, no one knows the denominator because there is no antibody test available yet. Such a test would tell us the number of people who have had the virus but have recovered, having produced an antibody affording them immunity. Such a test would greatly increase the denominator (the total number of people who have been infected). A larger denominator produces a much lower death rate. The true death rate is therefore less than the one reported (the reported number is based on incomplete information).

There are problems with the numerator also. How many people die with the infection but not from it? You can have the infection and not even know it but you die of a heart attack. The test says you died of Covid-19.

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, MD Phd, is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal asking, Is The Coronavirus As Deadly As They Say? He argues that the lethality of the coronavirus is much less than advertised. He raises these issues in an interview with The Hoover Institution (included with this posting). He proposes alternatives to shutting down the entire economy.

Whatever the numbers, it’s important that we know the price we pay.

British conservative MP Steve Baker fought back tears as he labelled Britain a dystopian society following new laws passed amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Baker said: “We are implementing tonight in this Bill at least a dystopian society, some would call it totalitarian.”

He approved the Bill in the fervent hope that these measures would remain in force not one minute longer than necessary. It’s often the case though, that once enacted, there’s no going back. The Patriot Act, authorizing unprecedented surveillance of U.S. citizens, is still in force 20 years after 9/11. It was due to expire in 2015 but was extended by the Obama administration.

Former Cabinet Minister Ted Davis added: “Even worse is how some police forces are encouraging people to spy upon their neighbours, seemingly attempting to turn us into an informer state.”

From The Times of London April 10, 2020:

Nick Adderley, the chief constable of Northhamptonshire said, that a “three-week grace period” in the country was over, adding: “We will not, at this stage, be setting up roadblocks.”

“We will not, at this stage, start to marshal supermarkets, checking the items in baskets and trolleys to see whether it’s a legitimate, necessary item. But again, be under no illusion, if people do not heed the warnings I’m making today, we will start to do that.

And in Derbyshire, police use drones to find people walking alone on the mores. Such activities are deemed “non-essential”.

We recall with horror the prospect of being asked by police, “where are your papers”, recalling many old films depicting life under Nazi rule. Could we be that far off? Of course, it’s always in a good cause, legitimate or not.

(C) Adrian Charles Smith 2020