Most of us want our spiritual “stuff” to be original, or at least think that our traditions came from some exclusive explosion of wonder and innovation — something radical at least. We just know our soul or consciousness is unique, and the same should go for our metaphysical platform, dang it.
And then some data proves there is nothing new under the sun. Every metaphysical tradition is just a modified continuation of another, and both are usually spillover from some social stew.
Many scholars deem Gnosticism as another element of an ancient “social stew,” but in reality the Gnostic were as much innovators as they were uniquely radical. I’ve given examples in my podcast and articles. Beyond this, I’d like to focus on an important feature that reveals how the Gnostics brought a metaphysical wrinkle the world had never seen before. It’s from a book that keeps on giving, The Gnostic New Age by April DeConick.
For context, April discusses three forms of spirituality in antiquity, and how the Gnostics brought a fourth, groundbreaking one to civilization. Western culture would never recover from this shift.
Here they are:
As man moved away from hunting and gathering, and into the cities, they left behind the spirits and came under the dominion of gods. From ancient Babylon to Egypt, deities (like) totally ruled humans while granting them tech insights and nice weather (if they felt like it or were appeased). As above, so below — and thus kings and priests became the purported living manifestation of the gods.
But make no mistake: gods and humans were completely divided, separate, and often alien to each another.
What could possibly go wrong? Or right for that matter? The answer to those questions was the first human civilizations.
Spiritual novelty is rare. But after Zoroaster discovered the continent of “good vs evil,” the next great pioneering metaphysics, according to April, was when Judaism “shifts the servant paradigm and tames the arbitrary nature of the old God YHWH.”
Sure, treaties were made between humans in the old world. For the first time, though, man and a deity unilaterally agreed to the terms of their relationship and overall economy. In truth, it wasn’t a fair bargain for mortals, but you get what you get when making deals with a heavenly Tony Soprano. Humans were continually punished for covenant-breaking in the Old Testament, but Jehovah was never replaced by Cthulhu or another deity when he broke his promises.
According to April’s scholarship, we know that at some point ancient Greeks began to make contact with Siberian and Mongolian shamans (Pythagoras was even deputized by one). The result was the introduction of mysticism in western culture, from the Hyperborean priests of Apollo to the nascent Mystery Schools. In this revolution, the common dude could have access to divine providence. Also, mortals and gods could commune in interpersonal, intimate levels, often human consciousness leaving its physical shell.
This all happened on two levels:
Human discernment: Divinity communicated via signs such as entrails of sacrificed animals.
Ecstatic discernment: As mentioned, a human could astral travel to the domain of the gods, or they could be possessed by a deity (which could be very traumatic or even dangerous).
What’s important to note is that in ecstatic spirituality, the gods and humans were still divided, with the former still in complete control of the game of cosmos thrones.
And now for something completely different.
The Gnostics arrived around the first century CE and brought a new theological paradigm, still an ecstatic spirituality but no longer subservient to the gods. As April writes, “The Gnostics flipped the old forms of spirituality upside down as they became aware of another reality altogether.” Why? Because “it provided an alternative model of reality, one in which the human is not a servant to the gods but is liberated from them.”
She further writes:
Ancient Gnostic movements and religions reoriented the focus of religion from the welfare of the gods to the health and well-being of humans, who were not meant to submit to the gods of this world but to vanquish them.
Not only were the Gnostics higher than the ruling gods, but they also shared in essence with an Alien God, Monad, or Supreme Mind beyond the multiverse. And in a way, they were equal to this transcendent consciousness. It was a matter of creating an ecstatic communion brokered by such intermediaries of Gnosis like Jesus, Sophia, Simon Magus, Seth, Barbelo, etc.
This new religious model was indeed radical, granting humanity a better footing in the cosmos to understand itself. As mentioned, western culture has never really recovered from this shift. On one hand, this new approach to the transcendental informed Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, movements that would later transform human consciousness in the Renaissance and Enlightenment period. On the other hand, orthodoxy brought down the sandaled jackboot on mankind’s face once the Gnostic writings began to circulate; and beyond this, throughout history, priests and kings have made sure to censor those with Gnostic sensibilities (and it continues today in secular ways if you hadn’t noticed).
New paradigm under same ole heavenly manure
Sure, most New Agers and pantheists today claim to be part of a Monad — but they mostly pay lip service, lacking any sort of ecstatic dimension or rejection of the Lotus-eater existence that is the material world. They play servant to, well, both to the gods and their own egos. In Gnosticism, the “here” becomes a prison planet and the “now” is the awakened becoming a cosmic Snake Plissken who must be free at any cost.
Again, quoting April:
Gnostic movements are not about civic or familial duty. They are not a contest in appeasement or a placation of a God to be feared. They are not premised on attempts to secure God’s favorable judgment and recognition in order to procure a better life here or hereafter. They are about the renewal of the human as God and the wielding of this personal power to forge a better life in the here and now and forever after.
That’s pretty rad. Gnostic spirituality happening is not that surprising, though. After thousands of years of wars, political corruption, diseases, and unpredictable weather, somebody had to call out the gods and their butt-slaves in the establishment.
At least things have gotten better today…
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