|by Jay Kinney|
For as long as I can recall, there have been two opposing world views at war in my gut. One is the basic perception that the world is a hostile place. The other is the more optimistic conclusion that the universe is basically benign. I doubt that I'm alone in bouncing between these two world views on a daily, perhaps even hourly, basis.
Gnosticism has always existed in the tension between these two world views - sometimes tilting more towards one extreme or the other, but always offering some kind of resolution for the tormented soul. In eras where injustice and misery have seemed to reign particularly harshly, or where the individual has been held captive by the imperial state, the gnostic doctrine of this world constituting a form of exile for the soul has seemed on the mark. In such times the prospect of the soul's escape from this realm of suffering and return to the fullness and light of the Pleroma (the spiritual realm of the true "Unknown God") has held special promise. Given the twentieth century's legacy of massive horror - of gulag, stalag, and genocide - it is small wonder that Gnosticism has experienced a revival.
This is not to say that only Gnosticism has delineated this tension between suffering and salvation. The more conventional religious notion that Satan holds sway over this world and is testing us at the behest of God covers much the same ground. So too does the polytheistic pantheon with its variegated gods - both hostile and benign.
Still, whether because of the mid-century discovery of the Nag Hammadi library or Jung's deep interest in the Gnostics, or the simple fact that some Gnostic myths and scriptures seem startlingly contemporary, the question of the relevance of Gnosticism has taken on a greater urgency.
As the variety of articles in this issue indicates, Gnosticism can mean many different things to different people. If gnosis is a lens through which we may glimpse God, Gnosticism is a mirror in which we see ourselves. Is one inclined towards asceticism? One is sure to find early Gnostics from which to draw inspiration. If, on the other hand, one is inclined towards sexual license or ritual, there too early Gnostics will pop up as comrades-in-arms. Is one attracted to dualism? The Gnostics were surely that. Or is monism one's favorite? Well, the Gnostics weren't really dualists after all. Anti-Semitic? One's sure to find some Gnostic support for dumping on Yahweh. Pro-Semitic? The links between Gnosticism and Jewish Kabbalah are notable. Elitist? Gnosticism fits the bill. Populist? How about Gnosticism's struggle against the Church hierarchy, its advocacy of female bishops, and validation of individual experience? On and on one can go - the very diversity of the Gnostics makes them nearly impossible to typecast, and one suspects that they would have resisted the effort back then, as in fact they did.
For the esotericist, convinced of the underlying unity of religious traditions, Gnosticism presents both a puzzle and an allure. The allure is the prominence given to gnosis - the direct experience and knowledge of God and the sacred that seems a universal feature of mysticism, no matter what the specific path. If we assume that there is a natural attraction between man and God, the prospect of embracing "the beloved" holds a great attraction.
The puzzle, however, is even more basic: the question of God's identity itself. The esotericist can follow the thread leading from the Old Testament's Lord God of Israel through to the New Testament's God the Father and on to the Qu'ran's Allah, and be confident that each religion is addressing the same deity in slightly different masks. With a few more contortions Brahma and Ahura Mazda can be gathered under the same umbrella as well.
However, ancient Gnosticism presents the conceptual problem of two gods: one the Lord of this world, the Demiurge, and the other the real omniscient and overarching Unknown God. To make matters worse, some of the ancient Gnostics identified the Demiurge - the occluded creator god, given to tiffs and high-handed behavior - with Yahweh, the God of Israel. In other words, if one worshiped the God of Moses and the Prophets one was actually worshiping the Demiurge - the wrong God! This, needless to say, was received poorly in certain circles and no doubt contributed to Gnosticism's eclipse - it's hard to deal yourself into the game when you insist on changing the rules that everyone else has been playing by.
Modern proponents of the gnostic revival, some with esoteric intentions, recast the issue of a true and false God as a question, not of separate deities, but of the gnostic seeker's own perceptions. The Unknown God of the gnostics is synonymous with Yahweh, Allah, et al., in actuality, while the Demiurge, in this usage, is not a God at all but the limited theological conceptions of God promulgated by orthodox religion.
Gnosticism in this mode casts itself as a defender of the individual's epistemological autonomy as against the authority of external "hearsay." While granting the first premise of religious faith - that God does exist and that that fact demands some response on our part - this contemporary gnosticism carries the radical reform of Luther ("Every man a priest") one step farther to "Every man (and woman) a mystic," or at least potentially so.
In a more psychological reading of Gnostic myths, the Demiurge symbolizes the ego convinced that it is the center of the universe. The Unknown God and the realm of the Pleroma then represent the wholeness of the Self, the knowledge of which inevitably pares the ego back down to size.
Yet, while the uncomfortable duality of the Demiurge and the Unknown God looms large, it is another figure, that of Sophia (Wisdom) who comes to the fore of the renewed interest in Gnosticism. Sophia, as the Bride of Christ, provides a feminine balance in the Gnostic mythos that is missing from traditional Christianity. As is beginning to be discussed at length in books such as Sophia by Caitlin Matthews (reviewed on page 65 of this issue), Sophia may be considered the archetypal link between ancient Goddess religions, budding Gnostic Christianity, and later esoteric traditions such as alchemy. Thus, for those drawn to the Gnostic myths, Sophia's Wisdom wedded to Christ's Logos/Word holds better promise of fostering the spiritual seeker's wholeness than reliance on scripture and theology alone.1
This is not to say that in its day ancient Gnosticism discarded the concept of scriptural authority altogether. While the Gnostic sects maintained their right to propagate the various versions of mystical Christianity, each group used its own alternative scriptures and gospels, deriving a form of authoritative meaning from the texts. The contemporary gnostic, however, while having access now to several dozen Gnostic scriptures as well as the myths and teachings of nearly every religion around the world, operates outside of the authority of any single interpretation or version of holy writ or normative standard.
In short, there is no higher judge to evaluate the modern gnostic's gnosis, no standard to measure its authenticity against. Thus the seeker is potentially at the mercy of his own intuitions - a situation that lends itself to the construction of all sorts of baroque solipsisms.
Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that some efforts are being made to ground modern gnosticism with some consensus that differentiates the self-transcendent from the self-deluding. Stephan Hoeller's essay later in this issue is one such effort; Arthur Versluis' essay in Alexandria No. 1 is another.2 Hoeller's effort can perhaps be labeled as an attempt to delineate a Gnostic orthodoxy, while Versluis argues for a gnostic Orthodoxy. While Hoeller argues for a modern gnosticism that rallies around the mythic components of ancient Gnosticism (Sophia, the Demiurge, and so on), Versluis identifies "authentic" gnosis with an altogether different set of criteria. In his view, the essence of a true gnosis is the affirmation of universal spiritual values such as compassion for all beings or the cultivation of a connectedness with Creation which mark nearly all religions. Versluis proposes that a gnosis that draws the gnostic in such a direction may be judged authentic while a gnosis that is "accompanied by discord, immorality, and destruction" is "an inverted and divisive pseudo-gnosis."
One possible weakness of this approach is that few gnostic seekers are granted the grace of an overwhelming epiphany which determines a clear direction for the rest of their lives. Rather, most gnostics are invariably in process, wrestling with their psychological complexes, sometimes necessarily plumbing the depths of their Unconscious on the way to a greater personal integration. Such passages, including dark nights of the soul, confrontations with past traumas and with repressed emotions, and bouts of acting out, may be intertwined with spiritual growth in ways that confound the judgements of outside observers.
An individual embarked upon such a journey may well wonder whether the mythic figures of Sophia, the Demiurge, and even Christ, are of much use. If we locate them in some nice but distant mythos isn't that a tacit admission that they are basically irrelevant? The answer among modern gnostic proponents - from Jung to Hoeller and beyond - seems to be that we define and express our interior spiritual life through myths and symbols. With these we describe our journey - or perhaps more accurately, our ancestors erected them as signposts on the way for us, for resonant myths have no single author and are not invented on the spot. The gnostic has no ready-made dogma precisely defining who Sophia or the archons are; rather, one discovers over time what they may mean and how they may act in one's life. This is risky business, a form of shadowboxing with God perhaps, but in an era when secular indifference reigns, embracing risk in the pursuit of the Divine is no vice.
Still, if one isn't careful the fruits of that risk can be an unbalanced spiritual life. Running after gnosis can devolve into a form of narcissism where one's neighbors or children or co-workers may be reduced to mere obstacles in one's way. Those who don't share one's preoccupation can be all too easily dismissed as ignorant or misled - and thus dehumanized.
In like fashion, if one finds in Gnosticism justification for turning one's back on this world and taking refuge in fantasies of an impending escape from pain and suffering one is liable to lose one's own humanity.
Yet if one can walk the narrow path between these two pitfalls, (dehumanizing others or dehumanizing oneself), there lie rewards in Gnosticism that have often been overlooked by conventional Western religion.
Whatever the virtues of Gnosticism, this journal has always resisted being identified as a rallying point for a specifically gnostic movement. This is in part because, as our name indicates, our allegiance is to gnosis itself - not to a latter-day "Gnosticism" derived primarily from second-century sources. It is our working assumption, based on the similarity between different accounts of mystical experiences from different traditions, that the core phenomenon of gnosis itself points to a common Ground of Being that can be approached by a variety of means. In like fashion, that spiritual reality can be expressed in a variety of myths which may contradict each other on the surface but which do not necessarily invalidate each other at heart.
Nevertheless, we must admit that Gnosticism has held a central fascination for us here at GNOSIS, and it was an interest in the ancient heresies sharing that label that provided much of the original inspiration for this magazine. Moreover, it seems to be the case that elements of that Gnosticism have recurred in the West, down through the centuries, as components of Western esotericism. An understanding and appreciation of Gnosticism, then, provides insights into all that has followed. Perhaps only those to whom the Gnostic mythos speaks especially loudly across the centuries may choose to call themselves gnostics, but all who feel any connection with the Western esoteric traditions are children of Gnosticism to one degree or another. It is to these that this issue is dedicated.
1. Sophia, as an aspect of the Divine, bears strong parallels with the Shekhinah, the "feminine" presence of Yahweh in Jewish tradition. She can also be seen as a mythic personification of the Divine feminine in Islamic monotheism. Although he might be reluctant to endorse either the Gnostic mythos or the figure of Sophia, the noted Islamic scholar S. H. Nasr observes: "Precisely because God is at once absolute and infinite, the Divine Nature, although usually referred to in the masculine, also possesses a feminine 'aspect,' which is, in fact, the principle of all femininity. If God in His absoluteness and majesty is the Origin of the masculine principle, in His Infinitude and beauty God is the Origin of femininity. Moreover, if as Creator and Judge God is seen in Islam as He, the Sufis point out that as Mercy and Forgiveness God can be envisaged and symbolized as the Beloved or the female who is the object of the spiritual quest." (S. H. Nasr, "God" in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, S. H. Nasr, editor, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 316.)
2. Arthur Versluis, "'Gnosticism,' Ancient and Modern," in Alexandria No. 1, (Grand Rapids: Phanes Press, 1991.), pp. 310-12.
3. Gnostic mythos and cosmology were discussed in GNOSIS #1, still available as a back issue.
A Gnostic Glossary
Sources: Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958); Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987); Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).
(c) copyright 1992 by Jay Kinney and Richard Smoley