Tobias Churton is one of today’s most lively and spirited investigators of that underground stream of the Western tradition known as Gnosticism. He first became interested in the Gnostics while reading for a degree in theology at the University of Oxford in the 1970s.
Soon after leaving, he became interested in exploring these ideas for television. “I’d got it into my head that there had never been any religious television – only programmes about religion,” he later recalled. “I had written a paper on the subject which recommended a new kind of television for this most neglected area, something on the lines of television, a kind of programme which would enter into the very nature of the religious experience and not simply observe it.”
Churton got his opportunity in the mid-1980s, when he produced a series on the Gnostics for British television. To accompany his series, he wrote his first book, The Gnostics, a history of this elusive esoteric movement from early Christianity to modern manifestations in such figures as Giordano Bruno and William Blake, and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In the years since then, Churton has pursued and deepened his appreciation for the Western esoteric traditions. He was the Founder Editor of Freemasonry Today magazine, and during the last year has published two new books. The Golden Builders: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, and the First Freemasons explores the background of Masonry from its antecedents in the alchemical and Hermetic traditions of antiquity through its modern manifestations. His latest book, Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times, casts an even wider net, tracing the Gnostic heritage from its roots in Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, and the Essenes to the 20th century magus Aleister Crowley and manifestations of gnosis in pop culture. Churton currently makes his home in Britain.
– Richard Smoley
How exactly would you describe gnosis? What does it mean to you?
How would I describe gnosis? I should like to describe gnosis as the experience of knowing or having intimacy with what we call God. God, the Bible tells us, wishes to be known. The word ‘Gnostic’ – one who has experienced gnosis – was first used as a nickname by those who opposed the whole idea or thought it was all too much for human beings to claim.
In a way, it really is the most enormous act of cheek to say that one has had experience of God! John’s Gospel for example says that “no man hath seen God at any time.” Hospitals for the mentally sick are full of people who claim the most extraordinary intimacy with powers beyond themselves. In the Gnostic tradition broadly, sanity or peace of mind is a fruit of gnosis. And ‘sanity’ means becoming clean, or ‘whole’ so there is a moral as well as a physical and psychological dimension to be considered. It might be argued that one has got to share in Christ to know God. But clearly there has been gnosis outside of the Christian tradition. So God obviously wants to be known by everyone!
Gnosis to me personally means receiving a gift – a gift that carries with it certain responsibilities. It’s quite a heavy thing to be lightened – or enlightened! There’s a lot we carry that prevents us from rising and growing in divine knowledge. For me, gnosis means a love of truth, a sensitivity to the magical aspects of life, and above all, a permanent struggle with material consciousness. People would rather see a person burnt than their own money burnt. That, we would say, is only natural. Politicians are adept at appealing to us on this level. Being gnostic does involve an unusual attitude to the natural order. The merely human in us does come under scrutiny – the light shows up the shadows and darkness in us, if you like. Obviously, no one likes being ‘shown up’, so we persecute the light-bringers and hide ourselves behind images of who we think we are. Gnosis is light and, if I may say so, “my burden is light.”
Is it possible to experience gnosis for oneself?
I obviously believe it is possible to experience gnosis for oneself. One could hardly experience it for other people! But the experience changes and one might not always be aware that one is experiencing gnosis. It is not a single state. It is not the same as ‘instant satori’. The universe itself is a projection of gnosis, if limited. I should say that if one has no experience of gnosis, one can hardly say one has been truly alive.
Could you explain a little about the Gnostic schools of antiquity, and what happened to them?
There were many Gnostic schools in late antiquity, as far as we can tell, surrounding some particular teacher, or the self-proclaimed followers of such a teacher. They had visions, dreams, statements, stances and orders of followers. Some were probably charlatans and some ‘the real thing’, as one would expect.
The orthodox Christian teachers who made it their business to denigrate and destroy the Gnostic movement in the Church always tended to isolate the teacher. Naming names was a big part of the anti-Gnostic propaganda. Thanks to their efforts, we have some dim records of men like Basilides, Carpocrates, Marcus, Marcion, Valentinus, Simon Magus, Dositheos. The orthodox apologists Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius and Tertullian, for example, made it their business to present these Gnostic teachers as demented quacks leading their followers into what Irenaeus called – in about 180 CE – “an abyss of madness and blasphemy.” I don’t know how seriously one can take their presentations of the evidence. It’s a bit like asking George Bush whether he prefers Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Revolver!
The Gnostics represented a kind of counter-culture and therefore exposed themselves to persecution and ridicule. You can’t imagine Gnostics wandering around in suits and ties with briefcases talking about real estate values! Some seem to have met in catacombs and private places. There were Gnostics in the first ever monasteries of Saint Pachom in the Thebaid of Egypt. Indeed, it is arguable that the first monastic movement was chiefly inspired by the desire for a place to get away from the world and experience God, i.e.: a Gnostic inspiration. Clearly the monasteries have always had a special role in promoting authentic spiritual life, if usually in secret. The walls had ears.
Sadly, the British and German Reformations, in attacking the monasteries in the name of the Protestant tendency, tended to throw the baby out with the bath-water, so the position of today’s Gnostic has some kinship with that of the early Christian Gnostics. Where do we go?, they might ask. San Francisco obviously didn’t work for everyone!
However, as we know from the story of the Nag Hammadi Library, even in the desert monasteries the Gnostics were not safe. Official visitations weeded out the offending literature and condemned it to the flames. Soon the offending Gnostics would meet the same fate. The Church hooked up with the State in the 4th century CE and the true Gnosis was exiled. Just one good reason to keep religion out of politics!
How did this Gnostic legacy survive after the end of the old Gnostic schools? What sort of heritage did they bestow on our civilisation?
Thanks be to God, the Gnostic experience and challenge did just survive the end of the Roman eagle’s flight. As one might expect, it survived on the fringes of the old Empire – in Syria, Iraq, Bulgaria, Turkestan and Bosnia – possibly Ireland. Even, for a while, in Mongolia and China. The flame was kept alive through untold numbers of military campaigns, massacres and violent conflicts of kings, sultans, demigods, semi-gods, dictators and emperors. It was carried into the bosom of the Islamic Empire after the 7th century in the form of Hermetic philosophy as an inspiration to science and philosophy – examining God in His works and wonders. The Sabians of Harran – who were not Muslims but Sabians and permitted by the Koran – their role is extraordinarily important in keeping the flame alive.
The appearance of Islamic mysticism – or rather, gnosis – among the so-called Sufis in the ninth and tenth centuries was highly significant. Magic, philosophy, science, mysticism – in short, human progress, were fostered by the enlightened circles of the Islamic world – always playing, it should be noted, a kind of shadow-boxing game with the hard-line authorities who cared as little for personal experience of the divine kingdom as did the Roman Church in the west.
The annihilation of the so-called ‘Cathars’ in southern France and northern Italy in the 13th century showed just how far the authorities were prepared to go in attempting to destroy spiritual existence that was not controlled by the status quo – the ever-present authorities we find in every age: the manifest powers of invisible spiritual opposition, as the Gnostic sees it. The Gnostics have been the light of the world and the leaven in the bread. A world without gnosis would be a very dark place indeed. The Gnostic greets the Sun, the ‘visible god’. He or she is first to see the dawn – first, you might say, in the garden of resurrection.
Some scholars suggest that the term “Gnostic” is too problematic to be valuable, and should be replaced by something else. Do you agree?
Some scholars, you say, suggest the term ‘Gnostic’ is too problematic and should be replaced. Well, I’m sorry for them. Gnosis itself will always be problematic in this world. The day it fits cosily into some scholar’s dictionary will be the day it has ceased to have power. No, ‘Gnostic’ – like ‘Christian’ – began as a nickname and like all such names should be borne with pride in a blind world. Yes, there are problems of definition. In 1966 there was a Colloquium of scholars at Messina intended to define the term ‘Gnosticism’, but it could not hold the term down. So I, without even the benefit of the Italian sun, cannot do it for you in this interview. The subject could fill a book. There is, however, another tack we can follow. That is, Why should it be defined? Definition – like a census – leads to control. Much better that the Gnostic tradition bears the unique quality of resisting definition! There is no doubt that the issue has been muddied by the activities of the Christian churches that dominate thinking in the West to a greater degree than we perhaps realise.
When I was a student at Oxford University for example, it took me a long time to realise the full implications of the fact that the Theology courses were run by church leaders chiefly for their benefit. Admittedly, it would have been odd if they had been run by industrial chemists! But the point was that ‘Gnosticism’ for example dealt with a universal experience in terms only of its presence or exile from the orthodox Christian Church. Theologising it denied its root in authentic experience. If we cannot trust our deepest most personal and absolutely authentic experience, what can we trust? Anyhow, it would have been better, I think, in retrospect, to study the entire field of Gnostic philosophy, religion and so on as a stream of its own that interpenetrates – necessarily – with all of the so-called ‘great religions’ of the world.
One of the interesting things about the orthodox Church – if we may for just a second see the plethora of conflicting bodies as a broad unity – is that it finds it can eventually accommodate everything – everything, that is, except gnosis! By this I mean that Darwin was more or less accepted by the Church of England by the time of World War One. Church leaders – by no means all, I know – made accommodations with Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini and – let’s face it, the Church has pretty well made its peace with the world. Gnostic types do not find themselves in such a comfortable position with regard to the world as it is.
There are many people who are on the road to gnosis who perhaps do not realise it, who out of love of God and fear of God - and fear of themselves and others - find themselves wasting years in very unsatisfactory Church gatherings which - in the name of God - demand their sacrifice and allegiance. I've always found that it was the most selfish groups that preached self-abnegation.
But to get back to the point, what other tame word could replace the tattered glory and battered bread of the words Gnostic, Gnosis - even that scholars' word 'Gnosticism'? Mysticism is too misty. Magick has been bowdlerised and Disneyfied. Spirituality - well! It used to have meaning, now it means anything and probably nothing. It's only a matter of time before car manufacturers come up with a car that meets your spiritual needs! I really don't know what people mean when they talk about 'spirituality'. It's so vague as to be useful to every pseudo-religious charlatan and greedy politician in the world! When you say 'Gnostic', you always have to explain it. And when you do, people are always fascinated, whether they admit it or not! So that's what we've got and we have to make the best of it. Gnosis means knowledge. Get it?
What do you make of current attempts to revive Gnosticism? What value do they have?
You ask about recent attempts to revive Gnosticism. This is a difficult question for people like myself who prefer authentic experiences with some real history attached. This is the scholar and antiquarian in me speaking. My path is not your path.
I don't believe 'Gnosticism' - that word really refers to the Gnostic groups that came into conflict with Christian orthodox authorities in the first five centuries of the known life of the Christian Church - can or needs to be 'revived'. The patient is not dead - though the world might well be. "The dead are not alive," as the Gnostic gospel has it, "and the living will not die." This is my personal favourite among the many great Gnostic logia. The dead are not alive and the living will not die. How true.
Besides, there are several great authentic Gnostic streams still going strong - though at least one of them is severely persecuted. The Yezidis of northern Iraq, western Iran, Georgian Armenia - that is to say Transcaucasian Kurdestan - have the most unbelievably inspiring tradition. There's nothing to compare with it in the whole world. It is in a class of its own. The Yezidis have been persecuted cruelly by those in power about them because they are not regarded as "people of a book" as defined - there's that word again! - in the Koran. They have long been accused of 'Devil worship', but that kind of cruelty has been common among oppressors since Jesus was accused of being a devil's mouthpiece all those years ago. It's the oldest trick in the book and works because people fear every type of evil - except their own.
Yezidis are today being attacked and killed in and around Mosul and denied police protection in Georgian Armenia. This is fact.
The second tradition I was thinking of was that of the Mandaeans of lower Iraq, who claim John the Baptist as a special prophet and have referred, interestingly, to 'Christ the Roman'. As far as 'Gnostics' go, these people are undoubtedly the 'real thing'.
When I made the TV series Gnostics in 1985-87, we wrote to the Iraqi Embassy in London, and they denied any knowledge of the Mandaeans. I was worried that they had been wiped out under the last miserable Iraqi regime, but to my delight, I now observe that they have survived - though still having to justify themselves, surrounded as they are by the various Islamic traditions. I think they qualify as Sabians in the Koran and are therefore protected. The wonderful Yezidis, on the other hand, have been persecuted for 1300 years and have no such protection.
An independent Kurdistan would probably offer these unique and admirable people a future that may otherwise be in jeopardy. This would be a very good thing to come out of the current mess in Iraq. The great powers have been screwing up the Middle East since the fall of the Roman Empire, so one may legitimately question whether the mad, bad game of sharing out the property of the vulnerable will end in our lifetimes. We must hope, have faith and love. Spare some love for the Yezidis - even though most people have probably never heard of them.
This, to answer your question, would be a good way to care for the Gnostic tradition - the tradition, I should say, of the authentic spirit of man, enslaved in, and by, the world. The love of money is the root of all evil. The way to revive Gnosis, is to be revived by Gnosis.