What is Gnosticism?

Discussion in 'Esoteric' started by Ella S., Nov 2, 2021.

  1. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    I have seen a few different definitions of Gnosticism. Some define Gnosticism as a continuous movement, treating sects like the Sethians and Valentinians as schools of thought within it. Others view Gnosticism as a distinct school of thought, which some sects included in a way a sect might include Docetism or Trinitarianism. Still, I have seen others define Gnosticism by example, as an umbrella term for a variety of sects. There is also a select niche of scholars who argue that Gnosticism is a modern construct, and not something that existed before the 17th century.

    There are a few edge cases. Marcionism, Catharism, Manichaeism, and Swedenborgianism are four schools of thought that I see consistent disagreement on whether they count as Gnostic or not. Discussions on each of these might warrant their own threads and help us narrow our own definitions.

    I have seen two major listings of what beliefs group Gnostic sects together in general terms. The first is a short list:
    • Dualistic cosmology (spirit vs matter)
    • Dualistic theology (Monad vs Demiurge)
    • Salvation through Gnosis
    The second is a longer list, which I have taken from GnosisForAll:
    • A belief in hidden salvific knowledge, and in personal experiental revelation of the divine - gnosis.
    • A pronounced spirit/matter duality with a negative view of the latter. In most Gnostic traditions this duality was produced by a divine mistake or catastrophe that resulted in both the genesis of the material world and its imperfect nature (see the fall of Sophia and other such accounts).
    • A 'Demiurgic' figure(s) responsible for shaping the material cosmos - who is not only seperate from the highest transcendent God (the Monad), but in fact quite far removed from such.
    • An emanationist scheme of divine beings (Aeons) that stretches from the highest unknowable God at the very top, down to the material world.
    • A belief in a Saviour/revealer figure(s), who has descended down from the Pleroma (the divine, spiritual world above) in order to help free humanity and teach salvific gnosis.
    • A belief in a 'divine spark' (Pneuma) carried within us all. A piece of the divine sundered from its source, which in station is exalted far above the material world in which it finds itself, and which longs to escape the cycle of incarnation in order to return to its home in the Pleroma above. As such, to the ancient Gnostics, knowledge of God and knowledge of the self were but one and the same.
    How do you feel about these definitions? Do you see Gnosticism as a meaningful label? Is it its own doctrine, a broader movement, or a group of related sects? What beliefs do you see as defining Gnosticism?

    I personally see Gnosticism as its own doctrine and see the short list as defining the bare minimum beliefs. Do you think I'm being too strict? Not strict enough? Do you have your own criteria? Let the forum know in a reply! This is a divisive topic, so it's good to get a variety of opinions out there.
     
  2. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    My wonder is this dualism, divine mistake catastrophe.

    Now you seem (first impression) to be much more a scholar/researcher than I. (Catholic school upbringing?)

    But my contemplation here is what would we (spirit within) do without matter, without the struggle?

    As far as salvation is concerned it leads me to an old preacher who when a person walked into her church hollering "Sister I am here to be saved" she told him, "youve come to the wrong place...ya gotta choose to do it yourself round here!" (Paraphrased)

    This new thought panentheistic nontheistic unitic who seems to gravitate further east than west is interested in hearing/reading more.
     
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  3. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    Hey, if you want to continue struggling in matter, you're free to :p

    Jokes aside, I always saw Gnosticism as very similar to Orthodox mysticism. Both place an emphasis on gnosis gained through theoria. The difference might be that, in Orthodoxy, that leads to sainthood and theosis, which is more of an achievement for the devout in this life, whereas in Gnosticism it's more of a necessity for salvation.

    If you look at the practice involved here (hesychasm), it deals a lot with inner contemplation at the expense of the experience of the external world. You sort of let go of your sense-perceptions to focus on the infinite. This is probably the root of the dualism in Gnosticism.

    As for what the world of pure spirit, the Pleroma, is like, it's often regarded as incomprehensible to us since our main frame of reference is the material world, the Kenoma. Since there is some influence from both Neoplatonism and Judaism here, there is some speculation that the Pleroma is similar to Heaven or the Garden of Eden and this world is merely a flawed reflection of our true home in the Pleroma. In that approach, it would be quite similar to life here, except nicer. Personally, I tend towards the "incomprehensible" end of the spectrum, though I might catch myself referring to the Pleroma as Heaven poetically or in interfaith dialogue.
     
  4. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    Thank you! And that IS what I believe I am here for!

    The struggle....from the time the swimmer penetrated the egg the struggle in this plane of existence is real...and incredibly valuable.

    Idk what is in store next (you have any afterlife conjecture or gnosis?) But for my time on earth...from being squished out the womb on the struggle, the metamorphosis is real...and were it not for my dad's belt, school bullies, lost love, divorce, deaths and surgeries. I would not be at this location with these thoughts....my experiences and maybe more importantly my reactions to my experiences have brought my fingers to this keyboard in this moment.

    Just as all yours...and yours....and yours...have.

    If incomprehensible is next...how better to prepare for it? Sounds like a place I like to call bliss.
     
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  5. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Hi Ella S.

    You've covered most bases, I think!

    As a generalism, yes. When you drill down, it gets more involved.

    I personally see 'gnosis' as universal, as a component of every religious tradition. It's often considered within a Christian framework, but the jnana of the East is the equivalent in principle.

    So on that basis:
    Is it its own doctrine?
    I'd say no, 'gnosis' exists within the broader context: Abrahamic gnosis, Brahminic gnosis, Buddhist gnosis, even 'philosophical gnosis' when philosophy is regarded in the traditional sense of including the idea of the Divine.

    Where I take umbrage with the matter is when 'Gnosticism' regards itself as separate to (or is it separate from?) the sphere in which it operates.
     
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  6. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    I think that's beautiful.

    I do believe in reincarnation until one life attains salvation through gnosis, at which point their divine spark returns to the Pleroma and the cycle of reincarnation is broken.
     
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  7. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    I definitely thought about mentioning jnana yoga and Greco-Buddhism, and their potential influences on (and overlap with) Gnostic Christianity. I'm glad you mentioned the dharmic concepts of jnana!

    I do think that there has been a lot of the eclectic New Age crowd that take superficial themes from the Sethians and from Carl Jung, but try to drop the Christian elements from them entirely, which tries to portray itself as its own separate religion of "Gnosticism." In this sense, that form of Gnosticism could be regarded as a New Religious Movement of its own. I'm not sure I take umbrage with them, but I definitely tend to disagree with them more than I agree with them. I certainly don't believe that Archons exist as lower-vibrational entities that secretly control the New World Order and drain our life-energy like vampires.
     
  8. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    Me of the New (old) Thought variety sees the above as present in Sufi in Islam, Renewal in Judaism as well but also believe there to be avenues thru orthodoxy.

    My version of the above is like a classes in school, we are in that class.

    We have been provided with three things to care for and nurture. This big blue ball we call earth: relationships with thousands of fellow travellers learning how to work together for the common good; and a body/mind with which to utilize while here...

    And like a parent tells a kid they cant get any more to play with...until you learn to take care of what we have got.

    When we can handle the comprehensible maybe we are ready for the incomprehensible.
     
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  9. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    By these definitions, Buddhism would qualify as a Gnostic belief system?

    Short list:
    • spirit vs. matter: in Buddhism, "Nama-Rupa" (name-and-form) is one of the foundational teachings
    • Monad vs. Demiurge: "Nirvana vs. Samsara"
    • Salvation through Gnosis: Bodhi Ñana, the Gnosis of Awakening/Enlightenment ("ñana" is even a cognate of "gnosis")
    Longer List:
    • Gnosis: check (although the Buddha claimed not to have any hidden teachings, there are esoteric schools of Buddhism)
    • spirit/matter duality: check
    • Demiurgic figures: check - Mara, the Buddha's adversary; also, the highest being (which is still caught up in conditioned existence though)
    • Emanationist scheme - check? well... there is a hierarchy of divine beings with a highest being on top of the pyramid. Another candidate would be the chain of "conditioned arising", which traces the original cause, ignorance, all the way down to birth, becomig, suffering, and death.
    • Saviour / revealer: check - the historical Buddha, and the Buddhas that went before him and are to come.
    • Divine Spark (shouldn't that be the Photon rather than the Pneuma?) - well, no, Buddhism has no such indestructible essence in its teachings. So maybe it does not fit the Gnostic mold after all?
    What's your opinion? Is Buddhism a Gnostic religion?
     
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  10. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    This is an interesting question. Greco-Buddhism is hypothesized by some to have had an influence on Sethianism, and Stephan Hoeller has made his own parallels between Buddhism and Gnosticism:
    • Liberation or salvation can be achieved by a liberating insight, namely gnosis or jnana
    • Ignorance, or a lack of insight, called agnosis or avidyā, is the root cause of entrapment in this world
    • Liberating insight can be achieved by interior revelation, not by external knowledge
    • Both systems give a hierarchical ordering of spiritual attainment, from blind materialism to complete spiritual attainment
    • Wisdom, as the feminine principle personified in Sophia and prajna, plays an important role in both religions
    • Myth is preferred over historical fact; the Christ and the Buddha are not mere historical figures, but archetypal primordial beings
    • Both systems have antinomian tendencies, that is, a disregard for rules and social conventions in higher spiritual attainments
    • Both systems are intended for spiritual elites, not for the masses, and have hidden meanings and teachings
    • Both systems are monistic, aiming at a metaphysical oneness beyond the multiplicity of the phenomenal world.
    Personally, I think Gnosticism makes the most sense as a predominantly Christian (or at least, generally Abrahamic) heresy, and I think expanding that definition to dharmic religions is a bit odd. I'm not sure why one would want to. However, the argument has been made for it a few times.
     
  11. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    Just intellectual play, really. Applying the definition to all kinds of faiths, to see how well it works, and I do feel it is not specific enough if it matches Buddhism. But I was not questioning your faith.

    How does one practice as a modern Gnostic? Do you have dedicated communities? Are there religious services? Clergy, even? Or do you participate in more mainstream churches and quietly cultivate gnosis?
     
    Last edited: Nov 3, 2021
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  12. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    I actually agree that there is a lack of specificity of most definitions of Gnosticism, even if we approach them with the assumption that we're specifically talking about Christian sects. As such, there is quite a bit of eclecticism in the modern movements. The argument has been made that the label is functionally meaningless. I do think that, in practice, the people who tend to self-identify as Gnostic Christians do generally have more in common with one another than they would with other Christian denominations, so it's generally not been too big of an issue.

    In the US, we have the Ecclesia Gnostica and the Johannite Church. There are a few other Gnostic organizations out there, but I am not familiar enough with them to name any in confidence. Privately, I engage in two major mystical practices: Gnostic hesychasm and Jungian Gnostic alchemy. I'm also celibate and transitioning to a vegan diet, similar to what was expected of the Albigensians after taking the Consolamentum.

    I have attended the service of a few other denominations, mostly because I've known a lot of Baptists and Mormons who have invited me to their churches on occasion.
     
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  13. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Taking you list from GnosisForAll:

    A belief in hidden salvific knowledge, and in personal experiental revelation of the divine - gnosis.
    I'd say 'personal experiential revelation' is a constituent, but we need to tread carefully – the Christian apophatic path, for example, speaks of a transcending of the experiential. I'd say gnosis is a path, but not the only nor necessarily the best or better path (gnosticism is so often dogged by or manifests an elitism).

    Meister Eckhart is regarded as 'a prince of mystics', and while he speaks in terms of an apophatic gnosis, there is no evidence of 'personal experiential revelation'.

    have you read any Denys Tanner, I'm thinking particularly of his "The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism" which questions the validity and desire of the experiential.

    This is not to deny experience, simply that sometimes the apprehension of the Divine goes beyond it ...

    A pronounced spirit/matter duality with a negative view of the latter. In most Gnostic traditions this duality was produced by a divine mistake or catastrophe that resulted in both the genesis of the material world and its imperfect nature (see the fall of Sophia and other such accounts).
    I acknowledge the duality but not the negative connotation. I think this is one place where Hellenic thinking has influenced Hebrew interpretation of Revelation. I follow the hexameron, in that God saw that what He created was 'good', indeed in its culmination in humanity, 'very good'.

    We exist with a foot in both camps, I think our Buddhist friends regard it as a 'special condition', nigh-on a unique, one-time-only opportunity.

    A 'Demiurgic' figure(s) responsible for shaping the material cosmos - who is not only seperate from the highest transcendent God (the Monad), but in fact quite far removed from such.
    Simply don't agree.

    An emanationist scheme of divine beings (Aeons) that stretches from the highest unknowable God at the very top, down to the material world.
    Well, emanationism as generally understood, as something that declares everything divine, I'd say again say I don't see it. I'm not a pantheist. I might be considered a conditional panentheist, but again I'm probably not. My spiritual anthropology is Christian Platonist, for sure, I'd have to go into more detail to explain.

    A belief in a Saviour/revealer figure(s), who has descended down from the Pleroma (the divine, spiritual world above) in order to help free humanity and teach salvific gnosis.
    I think more a way of being, than a way of knowing. Knowledge in itself is not necessary for salvation. I'd say the way of the gnostic/jnani is not for everyone, and 'religion', or 'revelation' addresses humanity entire, not a distinct subset within it.

    A belief in a 'divine spark' (Pneuma) carried within us all. A piece of the divine sundered from its source, which in station is exalted far above the material world in which it finds itself, and which longs to escape the cycle of incarnation in order to return to its home in the Pleroma above. As such, to the ancient Gnostics, knowledge of God and knowledge of the self were but one and the same.
    Yes, and no. As I see it, the Divine transcends all forms; is Infinite and Absolute, it is not conditional nor can it be contained.

    As for the soul. the spark ... I'd have to go into the Logos, the logoi, the world of Idea and Forms, if your unfamiliar with the latter term.
     
  14. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Hi Ella — Enjoying your insights, by the way!

    Where I become most wary is when 'Gnostic Christian' or 'Esoteric Christianity' declares itself a separate and independent from the Tradition, having distinct or 'other' and 'secret' teachings that the Tradition is either unaware of, or does not know. The idea of two separate currents, the Petrine and the Johannine, for example, the Johannine gnostic tradition being the more exalted, the Petrine something to occupy the great unwashed, as it were ...
     
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  15. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    That's a challenge for esoteric currents in any religious context, isn't it? The aura or even accusations of elitism.

    A friend of mine likes to turn this on its head, however. He compares people who engage with esoteric or mystical disciplines to the sufferers of infectious disease, not to disparage them, but to illustrate their predicament: Often, such seekers begin their spiritual quest after some kind of spiritual event or experience took place - sometimes triggered by engaging with mystical practices, sometimes unprovoked, often unremarkable at the time even, but generally irreversible. One gets inculcated with the gnosis/insight/spiritual-quest virus, and the only treatment is to engage with it, through more mystical practices, to ride it out. This even happens to atheists, as I can report, and I think my friend's assessment of "the only way out is through" is very much to the point.

    I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of insufferable pompous would-be mystics, gnostics, and esoteric hoodwinkers out there who do like to present themselves as a spiritual elite.
     
  16. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Yes, I think it is.

    An interesting point.

    And I'm not arguing against gnosis, only when it sees itself as apart from its Tradition.

    The 2nd century Gnostic movement in Christianity gets a bad press from both orthodox Christian on the one side, and Hellenic philosophy on the other. I think in some aspects it tried to marry 'logos' and 'mythos' and failed both, but that might be unfair.

    The Gospel of John can be argues as a 'Gnostic Gospel' (gnosis, yes, Gnostic a la contemporary systems, no). But the Johannine literature as a corpus accents love, compassion, agape, as a necessary and inescapable prerequisite.
     
  17. wil

    wil UNeyeR1 Moderator

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    I tend to like any belief that doesn't claim to know it all or want me to bow a certain way.
     
  18. Ella S.

    Ella S. Gnostic Alchemist

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    This is something that pretty much all Gnostic sects do in one way or another. I would not call myself a perennialist. I suppose you will just have to be wary of me, unfortunately. I'm sorry, I don't mean to stir the pot or anything.

    I'm Non-Nicene, Non-Abrahamic, and reference Gnostic scriptures that aren't considered canon by the Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant churches. I don't believe in their traditions. I believe in mine.
     
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2021
  19. Cino

    Cino Big Love! (Atheist mystic) Admin

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    No worries, Ella. This is interfaith dialogue. We don't have to agree on a common world-view, but we strive to understand the many views, and to discuss them with mutual respect and genuine interest. Otherwise, someone like me would not have a place here.

    Stirring the pot often brings up the interesting bits clinging to the bottom, so to speak. But we try not to spill. We keep learning :)

    That's interesting! Which Gnostic scriptures were not embedded in the Biblical context? (I know you're not referring to Buddhist ones). Even Mani styled himself an "apostle". Were there explicitly Classical Pagan Gnostics?
     
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  20. Thomas

    Thomas Administrator Admin

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    Oh, don't mind me, stir away!
     
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