GNOSIS AND ‘GNOSTICISM’
There is a tension between gnosis and ‘Gnosticism’. The first is an ancient Greek word for spiritual insight. It is about personal experience and the intelligence of the heart. The second is a seventeenth century term for an officially defunct transgressive movement. It seeks to classify this movement by identifying specific characteristics. The Gnostics had no Nicene Creed to make the job easy. With their more individual orientation and commitment to ‘continuous revelation’, they generated a great diversity of understandings. There were Jewish, Christian, and Pagan Gnostics in the Roman Empire, and others from further east. – Mandaeans and Manichaeans. Later centuries saw Gnostic currents in Islam and the Cathar movement in southern France.
Modern scholars of the Nag Hammadi literature are unhappy with ‘Gnosticism’ as a term (1). Some have abandoned it. Others continue to find it useful, recognising the many people in the ancient world “for whom the pursuit of gnosis was a spiritual goal. Even though the terms ‘Gnosticism’ or ‘Gnostic’ are not found in the ancient literature, …the term ‘gnosis’ appears frequently. Thus, what ties together a variety of ancient writings is this emphasis on gnosis as a positive goal or achieved state”.
I value these distinctions because they help me separate out my cultural fascination with a set of traditions, and my personal Sophian Way. This path is to an extent fed by the traditions, and I have a sense of gnosis. But I do not place myself directly in any of the four streams identified by the Nag Hammadi editors (2): Thomas Christianity; the Sethian School; the Valentinian School; and Hermetic spiritual philosophy. But all of them have texts, or passages in texts, of contemplative value to me. They have inspired and fed me in an indirect, but powerful way, and I am very grateful for their recovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in particular in 1945 and their somewhat tardy publication in 1978.
(1) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013
(2) Marvin Meyer The Nag Hammadi Scriptures HarperCollins, 2009 (Kindle edition)