Every dog has its day, so they say, and it looks like Gnosticism, an ancient approach to spiritual experience, may be having its day, once again. Of course, despite the best efforts of the early Catholic Church, Gnosticism never really disappeared, but its reappearance over the centuries has been fleeting and sporadic. Why, as we march into a new millennium, is this hidden stream of quasi-Christian mysticism triggering a fresh interest among both spiritual seekers and readers of popular novels?
Dan Brown’s mega-bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, surely shares part of the credit. This publishing phenomenon, which sold over 6 million copies, took a simmering interest in the Knights Templar, the Divine Feminine, alleged secret societies such as the Priory of Sion, the Holy Grail, and the question of the historical Jesus, and stirred these ingredients together with a generous dollop of Gnosticism.
The result was a blockbuster thriller that unexpectedly caught the popular imagination. Despite the fact that at least two other previous thrillers, The Da Vinci Legacy by Lewis Perdue (1983), and Kingdom Come (2000) by Jim Hougan, had overlapped much of the same territory, lightning struck Brown’s novel and sparked innumerable dinner-table discussions of heretofore-arcane topics such as Mary Magdalene’s real relationship to Jesus.
But the success of The Da Vinci Code is just the culminating phase of a gradual public awareness of Gnostic matters that extends back at least a century to the great Occult Revival of the late 19th century. At that time, Gnosticism slowly re-emerged from the shadows, nudged by the French occultist Eliphas Lévi, and propelled along by Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, French neo-gnostics such as Papus and Jean Bricaud, and researchers such as G.R.S. Mead (whose pioneering discussion of the Gnostics, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, was for many decades one of the few sourcebooks on the subject for general readers).
However, it was the discovery of a cache of ancient Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert in 1945 that really set off the modern phase of the Gnostic revival. Although their translation into English was not complete until the late 1970s, early access to some of the writings inspired the great psychologist Carl Jung to draw parallels between the ancient Gnostics and modern depth psychology. The publication in 1977 of the Nag Hammadi Library translations, followed in 1978 by religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ best-selling exposition, The Gnostic Gospels, guaranteed that Gnosticism would not go away anytime soon. But before we take a further look at the burgeoning phenomenon of modern Gnosticism, a review of the ancient Gnostic teachings is in order.
Gnosis and the Church
Though scholars argue there were Gnostic teachings that predated the early Christian era, what is most commonly thought of as Gnosticism consisted of numerous Christian sects that thrived in the immediate centuries after the ministry of Jesus. These sects, often gathered around charismatic mystics, certainly thought of themselves as Christian, and it was only their emphasis on gnosis, or divine knowledge, that later earned them the sweeping label of Gnostic.
As Christianity spread outside the confines of a specifically Jewish faith, it was perhaps inevitable that some gentile Christians would reinterpret their conception of God to distinguish Him from the tribal “G-d of Israel” Whose Covenant with His people seemed anchored to their particular identity as Jews. Christian aspirations to a universal faith, applicable to anyone with ears to hear, led many Gnostics to posit that God the Father, of whom Jesus spoke, must be a different God altogether: a hitherto Unknown God Who existed far above the earthly realm and was free of ethnic contracts or favouritism. Christ functioned as the messenger from this remote and impartial God, and some Gnostic scriptures downgraded the Jealous God of the Old Testament to the role of Demiurge, a lesser creator-god who brought a flawed Creation into existence and mistakenly ruled it with a heavy hand as if he were the True God. [1.]
Thus, in the Gnostic view, salvation from this diminished material realm of suffering and injustice depended less on one’s mere beliefs or on the following of religious laws that the Demiurge put in place, than on the individual’s inner experience of gnosis – a divine knowledge of the cosmic order and one’s true identity. The Gnostic scriptures alluded to Christ’s secret teachings, which would aid the Gnostic to embrace gnosis, and armed with this knowledge, to escape the illusory realm of the Demiurge at the time of death.
There are any number of reasons why Gnosticism was bound to come into conflict with that portion of the Church which was consolidating into an institutional monolith. Gnosis, by its very nature, was an individual experience that eluded systematisation. While the Gnostics had priests and even bishops, their leadership derived from their mystical bonafides, not from a bureaucratic position of authority. Furthermore, the canonical Gospels portrayed Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the Messiah promised to the Hebrews. The Gnostics’ break with what they considered the Demiurge was at cross purposes with this historical reading and undermined the working mythos of the institutional Church.
The most common Gnostic revision of the Creation story spoke of Sophia (Wisdom), an extension of the True God, venturing forth from the Pleroma (the fullness of the ineffable divine realm), producing an aborted spiritual being, Ialdobaoth (the Demiurge), who in turn created the flawed material world. Sophia, seeing sparks of the divine entrapped in matter, descended to try and free them and was herself entrapped. It took the efforts of the Christ (pre-existing in the Pleroma) to extricate her and return her, past the Archons presiding over intermediate planes, to her rightful place beside Him: a tale symbolic of the plight of the soul enmeshed in illusion.
Finally, the indications in Gnostic scriptures, such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, that Mary Magdalene was closer to Jesus than the other disciples and received secret teachings denied to them, undercut both St. Paul’s misogynist version of Christianity and the Catholic Church’s claim to legitimacy based on St. Peter’s supposed selection as the “rock” on which the Church would be built. The prominent role given to the Divine Feminine via the Gnostic veneration of the Magdalene and Sophia was partly recuperated by the Roman Church through the significance it later afforded the Virgin Mary, but this status was subsumed within the overall supremacy of a Church run by celibate males.
Whatever Gnosticism’s virtues as an effective path to gnosis and to unconditioned consciousness, it was simply too idiosyncratic and contrarian to make the grade as a stabilising component of Roman power. Its subversive counter-myths stood little chance of being integrated into a social order based on top-down power relations emanating from Rome and Constantinople. The prevailing Church absorbed those elements of the Gnostic worldview that best served its own ends and scuttled the rest, consigning the Gnostics to the oblivion of heresy and their scriptures to the bonfires of proscribed texts.
Of course attempts to obliterate ideas or spiritual currents that remain attractive to some are never wholly successful. Pockets of Gnostic alienation persisted among the Eastern European Bogomils, and eventually influenced the Cathars of Languedoc (southern France). The scourge of the Inquisition originated as a response to the growing influence of the Cathars, whose 12th century challenge to the Catholic Church could no longer be tolerated. The Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century effectively wiped out the Cathars. [2.] Subsequent Gnostic impulses and teachings survived as heavily-cloaked myths and symbol systems within marginal esoteric currents of the West.
It was only once the religious and social hegemony of the Church was diminished by the succeeding blows of the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, that there was sufficient elbow room for Gnosticism to re-emerge into the light of day.
Yet, the question remains why Gnosticism should prove of special interest to increasing numbers today. Are there particular characteristics of today’s society that resonate with the Gnostic worldview? One answer is provided if we consider the popularity of “The Matrix” movies and the influential ideas of science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
The Illusion of Daily Life
Central to both the Matrix and to Dick is the creeping perception that things are not as they seem: our perception of reality, both individual and collective, is an artificial construct masking the unnerving truth. In ripping away the façade of normality, we come face to face with our true dilemma – we live in a maze of illusions and self-delusions from which we must extricate ourselves. This is, of course, a fundamentally Gnostic worldview.
The ancient Gnostics were aware that material existence is, at its root, a beguiling and temporary illusion. (Hindus called this “Maya.”) Modern physics has confirmed this at the sub-molecular level, where one can see that apparently solid objects are, in fact, composed of moving bits of energy that are neither wholly particle nor wave. The closer one looks, the less there is to see. The vast emptiness of outer space is mirrored by the vast emptiness within matter itself.
Esoteric traditions around the world teach that consciousness can exist independent of the body, and that the ability to deliver our consciousness from its addiction to sensory input and compulsive thought patterns can lead to an experience of divine consciousness (gnosis). The message of the Christ of the Gnostics was not that he considered himself the unique and only Son of God, but that each person has the potential to expand their consciousness across the vast emptiness to the level of godhood or Self-realisation.
If the illusoriness of daily life was self-evident in the relatively simple world of two millennia ago, it is becoming even more so, for those with the eyes to see, in the present world of cybernetic virtual realities, Hollywood dream-worlds, instant messaging, corporate branding campaigns, and information warfare. The ancient Gnostics were resigned to the fact that the majority of humans were fatally caught in the illusion, and for this they were called elitists. Similarly, modern Gnostics perceive that most people around them are inextricably locked into a delusory existence in which their potential consciousness is siphoned off in exchange for corporate profit and material survival. This, too, is a minority perception, but it is steadily growing.
The Gnostic rush many of us felt upon first seeing the Wachowski Brothers’ “The Matrix” was the heady sensation that somehow a deprogramming meme had made it through the corporate maze of AOL-Time-Warner, and that the dream factory itself had been tricked into promulgating a flash of gnosis. Millions responded and suddenly there was much more money on the table. All too predictably, the second and third Matrix films smothered the first film’s spark of insight under tons of ever more dazzling special effects, violence, and pretentious symbolism. The still small voice of the wake-up call embedded in film one was drowned out by the din of its own success. The series’ degeneration was an uncanny recapitulation of the suppression of ancient Gnosticism by the early Church. In the end, the Matrix – like the Church before it – emerged triumphant.