By the title, you might think I’m selling out by providing the popular list article, the absinthe of a short-attention and profoundly sick society (borrowing from J. Krishnamurti). However, let me remind that arguably the most famous apocryphal Christian text, the Gospel of Thomas, is nothing more than a majestic listicle. Sometimes an organized list is the runway for flights into skies of broad understanding.
To deeply understand Gnosticism one must understand one of its central tenets: Gnosis.
Sure, ultimately Gnosis is an experience, sublime and ineffable, as Brown Professor Nicola Denzey Lewis explained in our interview. Nonetheless, the Sethians contended that God’s mind suffered a breakdown and lost its wisdom, also known as the Aeon Sophia. Due to this trauma, Sophia fell into a void of chaotic, speculative emotions that eventually became the material world. As a coping mechanism against this insanity, she fooled herself into thinking she was a human. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best when he wrote: “A man is a god in ruins.”
By perfecting our own minds, according to the Sethians, humans could not only connect with but restore to soundness the mind of God (a concept Kabbalists would later refer to us the Tikkun Olam, borrowing from the Talmud that states God needs us as much as we need him to heal a fractured cosmos).
As David Brakke wrote in The Gnostics:
The human mind is a kind of miniature representation of the aeons that emanate from the ultimate God… For this reason, the Gnostic could also contemplate God by contemplating his or her own intellect.
Thus, understanding Gnosis intellectually and how Gnosis is an intellectual pursuit is essential to seeking Gnosis itself. The ancient Gnostics were philosophers and individuals of reason—with even the Valentinian Theodotus explaining that “scientific knowledge is necessary both for the training of the soul and for gravity of conduct; making the faithful more active and keen observers of things.”
So please allow me to present ten definitions/viewpoints of Gnosis from today’s chief experts on Gnosticism. This somewhat eclectic, intersecting list will hopefully stimulate your mind, deepen your understanding, and move your closer to that sublime and ineffable experience that gets us closer to rectifying both the sanity of God and humanity.
Ten Definitions of Gnosis
Gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (“He knows mathematics”) and knowing through observation or experience (“He knows me”). As the Gnostics use the term, we could translate it as “insight”, for Gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of Gnosis. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels.
Going through the Inferno of matter and the Purgatory of morals to arrive at the spiritual Paradise. Gilles Quispel, Gnosticism from its Origins to the Middle Ages.
In the case of Gnosticism, Gnosis is the very basis of salvation. One comes to Gnosis by having it revealed to that person, and through that revelation is awakened from ignorance, from sleep, or from drunkenness, which are various metaphors that are used for the state of the human being before he or she received Gnosis. Once Gnosis is revealed to that person and is accepted by that person, it’s ultimately the basis for integration into the world of the divine from which that person had originated. One of the essential features of Gnosis in terms of its content is that the knowledge that saves is the knowledge that the world in which we live is not the eternal world and our innermost beings are divine and consubstantial with a divine being who is beyond the world, and ultimately is not responsible for its creation. Bart Ehrman, Voices of Gnosticism.
Salvific knowing, arrived at intuitively but facilitated by various stimuli, including the teaching and mysteries brought to humans by messengers of divinity from outside the cosmos. Stephan Hoeller, Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.
The cognitive awakening of gnosis is usually a gradual process, rather than a single, transformative vision. This liberation of the true “I” from the world does not make moral behavior irrelevant; it makes it easier. Detachment from externalities makes it easier to love one’s fellow humans, because one is then free from wanting things and nursing hidden agendas. Richard Smoley, Forbidden Faith: The Secret History of Gnosticism.
Gnosis, as a special kind of knowledge, should not be confused with Gnosticism. Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion.
Direct knowledge of the divine, which itself provides salvation. For the ancient Gnostics, Gnosis existed within the framework of cosmology, myth, anthropology, and praxis used within their groups. There Gnosis was not only illumination but was accompanied by an understand, as expressed in the Excerpt from Theodotus, of “who we were, what we have become where we were, wherein we were cast, where we are going, what we are freed from, what birth is and what rebirth is.” Andrew Phillip Smith, A Dictionary of Gnosticism.
Greek for “knowledge”; a specific knowledge of one’s divine origins and that the path to salvation comes through self-knowledge. Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds.
Unawareness and ignorance keep man in thrall to the Archons; it is knowledge (gnosis) alone that can liberate him: knowledge of the transcendent God and of the divinity within, and also knowledge of the way to combat or outwit the Archons and enable the soul to achieve the reunion it yearns for. This saving knowledge cannot be discovered in the world, the realm of darkness. It must come from the realm of light, vouchsafed either by revelation (or illumination) or brought by a messenger, a transcendent savior. Stuart Holroyd, Elements of Gnosticism.
The goal of the Gnostic is to be saved from the cosmic prison in which it now exists and to be restored to the realm of light from which the true human self originated. Gnosis provides the means for achieving this and ensuring the passage of the soul after death back to God. Once the process of liberation is completed, that is when all of the elect are redeemed, the material world will either be annihilated or become subject to eternal darkness. Gnostic eschatology is basically a reinterpretation of standard biblical and Jewish eschatology. Birger Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions And Literature.
Gnosis in action, and its perils and opportunities
I hope this list calibrates your mind for a better comprehension of the radical message of the Gnostics: complete liberation through a fierce awakening, resulting in the hopeful restoration of the universe. Clark Emery famously said, “The awakening (i.e., the salvation) of any individual is a cosmic event.” Or as Robert Price once told me, the goal of the Gnostic is to become a Christian Bodhisattva.
How you achieve Gnosis is up to you and only you. It might not even involve Gnosticism, even if the revelations and conclusions are in line with Gnosticism. As Nietzsche said: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”
But the revelation and conclusions will be the same in any individual path. As Jeremy Puma wrote in This Way:
Listen: gnosis tells you that the world sucks, they really are out to get you, and you don’t know jack about anything. Anyone who tells you anything different is trying to get you in bed. Sure, there are benefits to gnosis, too, but if what you’re hearing about gnosis sounds like the work of some enlightened being, or it makes your b.s. detector start to twitch, or it makes the author look good, you should probably take a step back.
In the end, what makes Gnosis even more unique is as Gary Lachman explained in our interview on The Secret Teachers of the Western World: Mystics desire to become unified with the Divine, while the Gnostic-minded desire to both understand and become unified with the Divine. The Gnostic wants to comprehend what they seek (which is paradoxically what is lost—the wayward shards of divinity that are the essence Sophia); the mind has to be present to, again, repair the mind of God.
The Gnostic way might be the hardest way, though, due to the total demands on both mind and heart (and dealing with that profoundly sick society of Krishnamurti, as well as the Archons reinforcing the bars of the Black Iron Prison once they realize you’re waking up). Achieving Gnosis is only the beginning of the arduous Hero’s Journey of a Thousand Facebook posts. Again quoting Puma: “Gnosis is not the results, it brings results.”
Chris Knowles wisely wrote on the perils of Gnosis in the Secret Sun:
The truth doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes it saddles you with a burden you can never escape. So choose very carefully where you decide to start digging and what dragons you choose to slay. Prepare to be taken places you never wanted to go. Gnosis isn’t always a flower– sometimes it’s a sword. Maybe more often than not.
Is Gnosis even worth it? Only you can answer that question. While you decide whether to slay that dragon on Facebook and eventually in the material world, here is a central takeaway and responsibility of this entire article on Gnosis:
You are not your mind, but you are the mind of God.
Anything else would be crazy.
Beyond all these great thinkers mentioned in this article, thanks to Steve Dee’s A Gnostic’s Progress for research.