MODERN TRADITIONAL GNOSTICISM
Modern iterations of traditional Gnostic Christianity are alive and well. Stephan Hoeller is a major figure in this movement. When he discusses ‘the Gnostic worldview’ (1), he implies an essential consensus around a single view, which is not what I find. But I do like the spirit in which he approaches it. “At the core of Gnosticism is a specific spiritual experience, grounded in vision and union, that does not lend itself to the language of theology and philosophy, but instead has a close affinity to and expresses itself through myth”. He applauds the late twentieth century’s “minor mythic renaissance”, facilitated by the ground-breaking work of C.G Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. He suggests that “their work fostered the widespread understanding that the meanings present in mythologies, ancient and otherwise, could help undo the alienation and rootlessness prevalent in the individual and collective psyches of our culture”.
Whilst expressing a reluctance to define his brand of Gnosticism (“real gnosis is not concerned with definitions”), he does so on the grounds that “the ego-involved mind requires definitions and is uneasy without them”. He then sets out “a summary of Gnostic recognitions”, which he asks us to see as a compendium of “flashes of the Vision Glorious” rather than a “statement of religious tenets in the conventional mode”.
Working through Hoeller’s list (set out, below, in italics) helps me to identify a mixed set of responses in myself.
1. There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.
When I open myself to this story, it sets up a kind of yearning. The original unity, the emanation and the manifestation of pluralities sound wonderfully real. Yet the sentence also hints at distance and the prospect of separation. A poignant sense of loss is built into the cosmic wonder itself.
2.The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.
Here, we have a confirmation that something might be wrong. Our ‘manifest universe of matter and mind’ – not just matter – is quite late in the process of emanation and manifestation. What are the consequences of being in a world created by ‘inferior powers’? In today’s mundane terms, we might ponder the word ‘sub-contractor’. Historically, this gave Gnostics an answer to the question ‘how does the ultimate Divine allow horrible things in our world? It’s because another agency is locally more powerful.
3. One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).
Our first taste of actual malignancy in ‘the creators’. They have an agenda, which depends on maintaining our separation from the unity. In our section of the cosmos, there is the looming threat of constant assaults on our integrity and authenticity insofar as there is anything of the divine in us.
4. The human being is a composite; the outer aspect is the handiwork of the inferior creators, while the inner aspect is a fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity.
We now find that our own very beings are the product of this botched sub-creation. We are separated, not only from the divine source, but within ourselves. We cannot trust our own bodies and minds. I think of the fictive worlds of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick, both Gnostic-influenced.
5. The sparks of transcendental holiness slumber in their material and mental prison, their self-awareness stupefied by the forces of materiality and mind.
Here, my modern cultural reference is the early stages of the late 1990’s film, The Matrix. This leads me to think about the stages, not specifically articulated by this list, of turning over in my sleep or beginning to wake up – the sense of alienation, being a stranger is a strange land even at home , of something fundamentally out of kilter about apparent ‘reality’. Something in me cries out for another way of being, which can’t be satisfied by material changes, greater influence or improved relationships. Something hard to identify – and pushing against any spiritual narrative that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. I don’t experience this feeling now, but it has featured in periods of my life, late adolescence probably being the most intense.
6. The slumbering sparks have not been abandoned by the ultimate unity; rather, a constant effort directed towards their awakening and liberation comes forth from this unity.
The story tells us that we are not alone or without help. An aspect or image of the Divine actually dwells in us and has been there all along. There’s nudging, a prompting, and signposting that comes from outside, and then from inside as the spark is re-ignited. There’s’ a task of noticing and responding to signs, which is how the journey of gnosis begins. If we take up the challenge, the world will begin to shift.
7. The awakening of the inmost divine essence in humans comes through salvific knowledge, called gnosis.
The central proposition of the path.
8. Gnosis is not brought about by belief or the performance of virtuous deeds or obedience to commandments; these at best serve to prepare one for liberating knowledge.
The only way to bust out of the Matrix is to bust out of the Matrix. Release is not granted as a reward for good behaviour. But ethical behaviour may help a mindset favourable to gaining liberating insight.
9. Among those aiding the slumbering sparks, a particular position of honour and importance belongs to a female emanation of the unity, Sophia (Wisdom). She was involved in the creation of the world and ever since has remained the guide of her orphaned human children.
Hoeller here glosses over a traditional narrative, for example in the Secret Book of John (2), that it is Sophia who inadvertently brings evil into the universe by giving birth to a son Ialdabaoth without permission or a male partner, thereby upsetting the cosmic harmony. Ialdabaoth becomes the false god and ruler of our world, with sub-creations of his own. Sophia repents and sets herself to repair the damage by aiding us wherever she can. This Sophia is the mainstream Eve on another plane. Although presenting an image of the divine feminine, she is shown as transgressive in her independence and stigmatised for it. This is the opposite point of view to that of the Sophia in Thunder, Perfect Mind, who speaks for herself, with her story of neglect and abuse, whilst actually representing the unity itself – to me a more powerful story. Perhaps this is why Hoeller hedges his bets. For me this is the problem of distilling myth, with its creative capacity to shift and change with culture, and Hoeller’s timeless, ahistorical propositions, which can’t – and are therefore no longer mythically alive.
10.From the earliest times in history, messengers of light have been sent forth from the ultimate unity for the purpose of advancing gnosis in the souls of humans.
This view is common to many spiritual groups, though ‘advancing gnosis’ is a characteristically Gnostic way of describing the mission that messengers of light are given. I find that from this point onwards the list gets more propositional and less mythic, and that I find less to say about it.
11. The greatest of these messengers in our historical and geographical matrix was the descended Logos of God manifested in Jesus Christ.
This is where Hoeller clearly asserts a Christian orientation, whilst recognising spaces for other figures to fill this role at different times and different parts of the world. At this point I can’t quite stay in the story. ‘Our’ seems to assume a ‘western’ cultural framework, in a taken-for-granted and essentialist way.
12. Jesus exercised a twofold ministry; he was a teacher, imparting instruction concerning the way of gnosis; and he was a hierophant, imparting mysteries.
This shows the importance of sacraments as well as teaching for Gnostic churches. I notice that Jesus’ much attested role as healer is not mentioned. I’m not sure why that is.
13. The mysteries imparted by Jesus (which are also known as sacraments) are mighty aids towards gnosis and have been entrusted by him to his apostles and their successors.
The additional information here is that Gnostic churches have their own apostolic succession.
14. Through the spiritual practice of the mysteries (sacraments) and a relentless and uncompromising striving for gnosis, humans can steadily advance toward liberation from all confinement, material or otherwise. The ultimate objective of this process of liberation is the achievement of salvific knowledge, and with it, freedom from embodied existence and return to the ultimate unity”.
Christian Gnosticism is presented as a path of great personal effort – ‘relentless and striving’. True freedom means freedom from bodily existence, and this is something that Hoeller clearly intends literally, faithful to much of the old tradition. . There is no return to the ultimate unity in this world. This doesn’t correspond with my experience, either in its austerity or in this conclusion. But I’m still left with respect for the uncompromising focus and energy of Hoeller’s path, though I cannot call it mine.
(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2002
(2) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introducing ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds Oxford University Press, 2013