The concept of Gnosticism has intrigued and confounded scholars long after the ancient heretics stormed the Greco-Roman scene with their radical, counterculture faith. Some academics have even proposed that Gnosticism never existed, merely part of the malleable stream that was early Christendom.
(I contend Gnosticism is a viable term, and for more read our interview with scholar Dylan Burns).
Regardless, I’ve covered the Gnostics for years, offering various models to understand—like Stephan Holler said—this an ancient way of inner knowing. In the Gnostic myths, Sophia disobeyed because, as Wisdom incarnate, she was not going to quit in knowing the Father no matter what happened to her status in the Aeons. Like her, I’m not quitting either in disseminating a better understand of a spirituality that is more relevant than ever in a society of crumbling illusions and false gods and just bad art.
Here I offer you four definitions of Gnosticism from experts I hope will make you a badass Morpheus.
A Listicle Definition of Gnosticism
This first is from German academic Christoph Markschies, from his book, Gnosis: An Introduction. The list is considered by many to be the most concise definition in the last decade:
- The experience of a completely otherworldly, distant, supreme god.
- The introduction of further divine figures (conditioned by this experience) or by the splitting up of existing figures into figures that are closer to human beings than the remote supreme god.
- The estimation of the world and matter as evil creation and an experience of the alienation of the Gnostic in the world.
- The introduction of a distinct creator God or assistant: within the Platonic tradition he is called “craftsman”—Greek demiurgos—and is sometimes described in Gnostic documents as merely ignorant, but sometimes also as evil.
- The explanation of this state of affairs by a mythological drama in which a divine element, one that falls from its sphere into an evil world, slumbers in human beings of one class as a divine spark and can be freed from this state.
- Knowledge (gnosis) about this state, which, however, can be gained only through a redeemer figure from the other world who descends from a higher sphere and ascends to it again.
- The redemption of human beings through the knowledge of “that God (or the spark) in them.”
- A tendency toward dualism of different types, which can express itself in the concept of God, in the opposition of spirit and matter, and in the concept of the human being as constituted of body plus soul.
A Hard Core Punk Definition of Gnosticism
If you’re not in a mood for a listicle, here is one by Robert Price, from his article in The Gnostic 4:
There is an anti-cosmic dualism. This world is considered as absolutely evil, irredeemable, and under the despotic control of evil powers and demons. Certain individuals may be saved from this vale of tears. They are the rare ones who harbor a true soul or spark of the divine light. To them God has sent a Redeemer or Revealer, who saves them by revealing to them the hitherto unsuspected fact of their heavenly identity. Knowing who they truly are, destined for better things, they will be able to slough off the gross body at death and ascend to heaven. This is basically the soteriology of Gnosticism.
In a way, you can see how Bob’s explanation overlaps with the one provided by Markschies. If either is too wordy or just not to your taste, we can get to a Twitter-level definition.
A Minimalist Definition of Gnosticism
Andrew Phillip Smith provides this one, from his book John the Baptist and the Gnostics:
Stuff like what the ancient Gnostics used to do.
It’s not a joke. The definition is not too hard to grasp when you find yourself studying the culture, rituals, and philosophies of the Sethians, Valentinians, Manichaeans and other groups that shared several distinct aspects. These aspects become apparent when compared to the first two definitions above; and the following one I feel truly brings the Hathor home.
A Paradigm Change Definition of Gnosticism
I’m synopsizing this definition found in April DeConick’s new book, The Gnostic New Age. She doesn’t accept the standard academic models of Gnosticism, taking an anthropologist approach and performing considerable reverse engineering. Needless to say, I really enjoyed what a feel is a pivotal book in Gnostic studies. I’m just getting started mining this work for insights. But in essence, she presents these elements of Gnosticism:
- There exists an Alien God hitherto unknown, beyond all dimensions of reality. This being is complete goodness and love, pure transformative information.
- All the gods who lord over the material universe are lesser beings (even demonic to some extent). Their deficiency is reflected in their angelic and mortal servants.
- Humans share part of their essence with the Alien God and may awaken to this realization via different Red Pills: The message of a Gnostic revealer, an existentialist crisis, mystic event, deep dissatisfaction with the world, etc.
- Through an experiential knowledge called Gnosis—paired with carefully choreographed rituals that lead to ecstatic states—humans may enrapture with the Alien God and transform into creatures vaster than the gods of this world.
These four elements are a truly distinctive form of metaphysical orientation that never existed until the Gnostics arrived. Gnosticism is therefore a unique religion. Even more, Gnosticism turned upside down tens of thousands of years of civilizations believing in the supremacy of creator and ruling deities that included their earthly manifestations in temples and civic culture. As April writes:
What I realized as I studied the Gnostic literature is that the Gnostic scriptures didn’t become forbidden scriptures. They were forbidden scriptures.
Furthermore, Gnosticism was never truly syncretic in the traditional sense. What it did, as April further explains, is take an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to bolster their revelations and religious dialogue. It wasn’t exactly that all religions were true (they weren’t, the Gnostics felt); it was that all religions served in parts to prove the Gnostic truth about the nature of existence. The Gnostics drew from every cultural, magical, or philosophical tradition around them—whether it was Greek philosophy or Persian duality, Egyptian magic or Catholic sacrament, Babylonian astrology or Neoplatonic cosmology, and everything else—all to accelerate their communion with the Alien God. You could say that Jesus and Hermes didn’t really impart Gnosis; they were there to support the Gnosis of the awakened human becoming higher than the gods.
One might argue that the Gnostics were history’s first Chaos Magicians. One might also argue they were history’s first anarchists (and Dylan agrees to an extent in our interview).
If these definitions of Gnosticism don’t make you a badass Morpheus (or at least as wise a serpent), then either you haven’t awoken or you just need to immerse yourself in more experience—like in the characters of The Matrix or The Lego Movie; in the writings of Philip K. Dick or Carl Jung; in the imagery of William Blake or Alex Grey. Do as these Gnostics did. You might additionally need an Ayahuasca milkshake or the golden bars of the government to come down on you finally.
Or look out the window, Neo, and accept that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.
It is this feeling that has brought you to this site…