Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

by Stephan A Hoeller, Hoeller Stephena

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Gnosticism developed alongside Judeo-Christianity over two thousand years ago, but with an important difference: It emphasizes, not faith, but direct perception of God--Gnosticism being derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Given the controversial premise that one can know God directly, the history of Gnosticism is an unfolding drama of…  See more details below


Gnosticism developed alongside Judeo-Christianity over two thousand years ago, but with an important difference: It emphasizes, not faith, but direct perception of God--Gnosticism being derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Given the controversial premise that one can know God directly, the history of Gnosticism is an unfolding drama of passion, political intrigue, martyrdom, and mystery. Dr. Hoeller traces this fascinating story throughout time and shows how Gnosticism has inspired such great thinkers as Voltaire, Blake, Yeats, Hesse, Melville, and Jung.

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New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing

By Stephan A. Hoeller

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 2002 Stephan A. Hoeller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-0816-9



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One of the oldest and grandest inducements to philosophical thought and mystical insights is the mystery of the night sky. Long before astronomy disclosed the vastness of space, or the brilliant birth of new stars along with the ominous presence of devouring black holes, men and women looked at the dark, star-encrusted vault of the heavens and drew inspiration from that vision. One of the images arising from the contemplation of the night sky is the contrast of the innumerable points of light with the heavy blackness upon which they seem suspended. A dark bowl or lid seems to cover our world, enclosing us in dense, oppressive opacity. Yet this inverted sphere is riddled with specks of light that are easily imagined as perforations in the black veil, hinting at a boundless world of light from where the light of the stars proceeds.

"There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in"—so sang Leonard Cohen in "Anthem." His simple metaphor might easily have been uttered two thousand and some years ago by the unusual and ever-fascinating people who came to be known as the Gnostics. Derided and persecuted as heretics, the Gnostics were reduced to a tenuous existence after the first three or four Christian centuries, yet their teachings and practices have continued to surface throughout the history of Western culture. No sooner are Gnostics and Gnosticism declared defunct than they reappear, changed in form but undiluted in substance. While consistently represented by its enemies as a historical oddity of purely antiquarian interest, Gnosticism has attracted friends and even followers of the stature of Voltaire, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Hermann Hesse, and C. G. Jung, to mention but a few. Among philosophical tendencies, existentialism owes much to Gnosticism, and today an increasing number of folk in many walks of life profess to being Gnostic. At the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era, it seems that the Gnostics have returned and that this time they intend to stay.

The terms Gnostic and Gnosticism are derived from the Greek word gnosis, which is usually (albeit somewhat misleadingly) translated as "knowledge." For a long time, most people were more familiar with the antonym of gnostic—namely, agnostic—meaning "someone who claims to know nothing about ultimate realities and concerns." By contrast, a Gnostic is often defined as a person who seeks salvation by knowledge. The knowledge the Gnostic seeks, however, is not rational knowledge; even less is it an accumulation of information. The Greek language distinguishes between theoretical knowledge and knowledge gained through direct experience. The latter is gnosis, and a person possessing or aspiring to this knowledge is a Gnostic. Elaine Pagels, in her noted work The Gnostic Gospels, indicates that in the sense that the Gnostics themselves use the term, one should perhaps translate it as "insight," for gnosis involves an intuitive process that embraces both self-knowledge and knowledge of ultimate, divine realities. The enduring vitality and appeal of the Gnostic message is primarily grounded in its affinity with the deeper strata of the human mind. A number of serious scholars, including E. R. Dodds, Gilles Quispel, and Gershom Scholem, have suggested that Gnosticism originates in the experiences of the psyche, where archetypal psychology and religious mysticism meet. No wonder the great explorers of the depth psychological dimensions of myth, C. G. Jung, Karl Kerényi, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, have all evinced much sympathy for Gnosticism.

Since the inner core of Gnosticism originates in a rather specific kind of experience, it follows that those who lack this experience readily misunderstand Gnostic insights. A mistaken notion occasionally held even by scholars is that because of its diversity of imagery and mythology, Gnosticism cannot be regarded as a coherent tradition, or "ism." This misapprehension has a long history. In the second century, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, a fierce opponent of the Gnostics, attacked them for their spiritual and literary creativity, accusing them of producing a new gospel every day. Implicit in his statements was the view that where such a wealth of diverse imagery, myth, and teaching exists there can be no coherent doctrine equivalent to the dogma and canon of the mainstream Christian church. What critics from Irenaeus to contemporary scholars lose sight of is that Gnostic teaching is the direct result of the experience of gnosis.

Such an experience, on the other hand, seldom if ever lends itself to uniform, dogmatic formulations after the fashion of orthodox theology. Still, in spite of the refreshing absence of such formulations, there is a common or core teaching in Gnosticism that reflects a common or core gnostic experience.

Many people in recent decades, and indeed since the latter half of the nineteenth century, have turned to Eastern religions in search of teachings and practices with less dogma and more inspiration. They have probably had no inkling that just such an alternative exists closer to home and that it is called Gnosticism. Neither have they seemed aware of the parallels between Gnostic and Eastern insights into reality, the soul, and the need for enlightenment. Some of these people have been responsible for implanting ideas from the East into the minds of the Gnostics. Others have suggested, with equal plausibility, that some Eastern schools of thought, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, may have been influenced by Gnostic ideas. Once again, the most important common element joining East and West in this regard is apparently the experience of gnosis. The similarity was noted as early as about 225 A.D. by another orthodox Christian foe of the Gnostics, Hippolytus, who in his refutations of heresies wrote concerning the Brahmins of India: "They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge [gnosis] through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise."

Gnosis in the East or in the West is still gnosis, and in a very real sense that is what truly matters. Contrary to the views of some, the term Gnosticism is not an empty box into which one can place whatever one wants. Rather, the Gnostic tradition is based on the experience of gnosis and is characterized by certain attitudes toward life and reality and by certain myths and teachings concerning the origins and nature of the cosmos and the human being that are the result of this same experience. These characteristics set Gnosticism apart as a distinct and unbroken tradition that we can define and trace throughout the ages and across many cultures.


The term gnostikos, meaning "Gnostic" or "knower," does not seem to have been used often in the first centuries A.D. Most simply called themselves Christians, although there also existed a non-Christian school of Gnosis known as Hermeticism. It is widely agreed, however, that the people in question were aspirants toward and partakers of an experience that brought them a liberating acquaintance with Divinity and with the intricacies and predicaments of the human condition. By what specific means the knowers came by their knowledge we are in no position to recount. Jung stated repeatedly that the scriptures of the Gnostics bear testimony to mystical-psychological experiences of a very impressive order and that what was called gnosis was undoubtedly a psychological knowledge whose contents derived from the insights of the archetypal psyche. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, spoke of this experience as a mystical esotericism based on acquisition of a higher knowledge of things heavenly and divine. Scholem was also greatly impressed by the preoccupation of second- and third-century Gnostics with ascending through the spheres of the planets to a realm beyond the earth and the cosmos, thus returning in consciousness to their true spiritual home in the fullness of the divine Light—a return that signified redemption in the Gnostic tradition. These "heavenly flights" are perhaps the central metaphor for the liberating and sanctifying knowledge to which these people aspired.

The monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in their mainstream manifestations have placed much emphasis on faith. "I believe" (credo) is the central affirmation of much of the conventional religious mind. In contradistinction, the Gnostic mind aspires to, and eventually attains, not faith but a certain interior knowing that liberates one from unconsciousness and eventually transports one beyond the bounds of manifest existence itself. This state very likely has certain advantages over mere faith, or belief. William James, the great American philosopher-psychologist, remarked that to most people faith means having faith in someone else's faith. In the minds of many religious folk, faith has thus devolved into a belief received secondhand from other believers, none of whom are likely to have had any experience of the object of their faith.

Faith is a very different mode from knowledge, so it is fairly easy to understand why conventional religion is so different from Gnosticism. A certain kind of faith (pistis) is recognized as valid in Gnosticism, but it is faith in one's experience, an abiding faithfulness that one feels toward one's experience of inner, liberating knowledge. The Gnostic divine feminine figure, Sophia, is called Pistis (Faith) because in all her adversities she remains faithful to her vision of the light.

Harold Bloom, one of the prominent present-day admirers of Gnosticism, describes the experience of gnosis in contemporary terms in his book Omens of Millennium. He says gnosis is a varied phenomenon. It may happen when one is in solitude, or it may come through the presence of another person. One may be reading or writing or observing an image or a natural phenomenon, or one may be gazing only inward. Music, incense, and ritual may play a significant part; indeed, the sacramental and ceremonial predilections of the Gnostics are well known. In all instances, there occurs a significant altering of consciousness that transports the knower beyond the limitations of personal consciousness and, indeed, beyond the limitations of the very world we live in. Bloom aptly characterizes the principal disclosures of the experience of gnosis as (1) acquaintance with a God who is unknown to and remote from the world, a God in exile from a false creation and (2) recognition that one's deeper nature was no part of creation (or the Fall) but was and still is part of the fullness that is God. This God is more human and also more divine than any worshipped in the world.

The early Christians used the term gnosis to mean knowledge by personal acquaintance. St. Paul the Apostle used the term frequently in reference to the knowledge of God that human beings may have. One of the clearest statements he made concerning the visionary and perhaps even visual character of gnosis is in his second letter to the Corinthians (4.6): "God ... has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge [gnosis] of the glory of God in the face of Christ." Another Gnosticizing (that is, akin to Gnostic) apostle was St. John, who frequently wrote of knowing (gignoskein) God or Christ. Anyone who reads the beautiful Gospel of John is struck by its similarity to the poetic and visionary style of the writings of the Gnostics. The emphasis of much New Testament literature on gnosis is the source of the prominence that both mainstream Christian mystics and Gnostics have given to the word gnosis.

An insightful contemporary scholar, Dan Merkur, in his work Gnosis: An Esoteric Tradition of Mystical Visions and Unions, suggests that the experiential sources of gnosis are found in two interrelated kinds of experiences. One of these is a distinct type of visionary experience that discloses ultimate realities, albeit manifest in personal mental experiences and thus varying to some extent from individual to individual. The other concerns experiences of mystical union. The Gnostics themselves did not regard these visions as extrasensory perceptions of external data existing on higher "planes," as similar perceptions were understood by nineteenth-century occultists. Nor did they regard them as allegorical representations of abstract ideas, as might have been common among the more mystically inclined Greek philosophers. Rather, the Gnostics seem to have walked a razor-edged path between clairvoyant quasi-objectivity and philosophical, allegorizing subjectivity. Thus, in spite of a common core of meaning and direction, the accounts of the Gnostics' experiences are varied and diverse.

Students of the mystical experience frequently distinguish between what they refer to as visionary and unitive mystical states, the former being descriptive, the latter denoting divine union. It would seem that the ancient Gnostics partook of both. Gnostic visions frequently included heavenly ascensions, but other kinds of visions, such as ecstatic deaths, were in evidence also. One died to the created world and ascended through the aeonial regions, engaging in discourses with the denizens of these realms. The Gnostics apparently knew these visions to be at least partly intrapsychic and gave them a special status. They described them as experiences in which the "divine spark" (pneuma) resident in the individual joined with the reality of the higher worlds. Like other mystics, the Gnostic seers understood the unitive experience as a conjunction (unio mystica) with either a divine being (Sophia, Christ) or the spiritual essence of the ultimate Godhead. The synthesis of such visionary and unitive experiences can be characterized as gnosis.


A number of attempts have been made to distinguish between gnosis and Gnosticism. Some of these—among them the definitions a group of scholars devised at the Colloquium at Messina in 1966—were promising but proved flawed. To define Gnosticism as the sum of the beliefs of certain "second-century sects" who were "dualists, and rejectors of the world" appears neither helpful nor accurate. Neither does the definition oignosis as "knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite" seem particularly informative. Some insightful scholars in the field have noted that such definitions, as well as some other statements about the Gnostics that pop up in many books, are perpetuations of the skewed perspective of Christian heresiology. From this viewpoint, one is really interested in Gnosticism not on its own terms but only as it aroused the ire of a group of fanatical persons eighteen hundred years ago. Many of the old heresiologists' statements against Gnostics and Gnosticism appear discreditable and even somewhat silly today. The notion that Gnosticism was in the main a patchwork of teachings from various sources extant at the time has been discredited. More and more contemporary scholars agree with Jung, who recognized that the Gnostic scriptures were indeed based on their authors' direct experiences with original images of mysterious beings and regions. Neither does the forthright critique of the Old Testament God, which the Gnostics voiced so frequently, appear particularly sacrilegious to contemporary people, who are often nourished on the ideas of Nietzsche or the death-of-God theologians, such as Althizer and Hamilton. In the light of the evidence now available, few would agree with the church fathers who portrayed Gnosticism as a purposefully anti-Christian heresy, a diabolic perversion of Christianity worthy of every kind of condemnation.

The heresiological bias has colored the view of most writers and preachers concerning Gnosticism for an exceedingly long time. While it is true that the anticlerical tendencies of the Enlightenment and the several occult revivals of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries spawned a good deal of sympathy for the Gnostics, the old bias emanating from the early Christian critics remained. It was not until after the discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic scriptures (of which more is said later) that the climate regarding Gnosticism underwent an ever accelerating benign change. Now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, it is finally possible to give an exposition of Gnosticism without meeting the overwhelming opposition of the bias that has ruled our culture for far too long.

What then is Gnosticism, and what is its relationship to the experience of gnosis? Human consciousness does not function in a conceptual vacuum. Visionary and unitive experiences of the mind necessarily translate into a conceptual framework that fits their content and import. From visions and ecstasies are born religious doctrines, philosophical constructs, and theological and theosophical conceptions. It has been so ever since the times of the primeval shamans, and so it was with the Gnostics of the early Christian centuries. The difference between mainstream religiosity of whatever kind, on the one hand, and Gnosticism, on the other, lies in what happens to their respective systems after the initial codification of revelatory experiences. While conventional religions apparently are satisfied with the accounts of their founding experiences recorded in sacred scripture, Gnostics have always sought further expansions and amplifications of the initial experiences of gnosis. Gnostics were never primarily believers in someone else's gnosis but were inclined to add to the insights of their founders and teachers through their own experiences. And, crucially, such a continuing process of gnosis required a conceptual framework in which the new experiences would find their meaningful place. This conceptual framework or worldview, within which gnostic experiences have always found their place, became known as Gnosticism.


Excerpted from Gnosticism by Stephan A. Hoeller. Copyright © 2002 Stephan A. Hoeller. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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