|Preach to the choir|
|Crux of the matter|
|Speak of the devil|
|An act of faith|
Gnosticism is a hard-to-understand mystical religious idea or philosophy rooted in the idea of secret knowledge about god and the spirit, built on the core idea that the physical world is evil and that salvation comes through gnosis. Roughly, Gnosticism refers to many different churches, groups or sects in the ancient Near East at or around the 1st-3rd century CE. Much of gnostic scripture is even less likely to be accurate than the works of the Bible due to the dating of the works being around 2nd-3rd century CE. Multiple texts were written after their respective "authors" died. The most likely reason is that they were written for initiates climbing up the ranks of their respective local bodies - something not unakin to Hellenic mystery cults (or even Scientology). This is not an uncommon approach wherever the deeper secrets of a group are, shall we say, somewhat odd. Iconic ideas considered inseperable from Gnosticism actually stem from Sethianism in a similar way that in America many ideas of Christianity are Protestant. However, in gnosticism the differences are much more widespread to the point that basic cosmology is disputed.
Theology and metaphysics
The language and ideas of the Gnostics demonstrate strong Platonic influence. In general, Gnostics regard the body as a mere vessel for the soul, and the soul is seen as the true form of the person. For most, the soul is released only upon death, but for some (such as Jesus) the body can be shed at will. The True God is Pure Good; however, the Creator of the Earth (the imperfect or even 'evil' demiurgos, also called rex mundi (the king of the world)) is not the True God. Disease, old age, and the process of the rotting of flesh after death exemplify the evil that exists in the earthly planes. The Earth is a sculpture or model of truth.
In order to escape the pull of the flesh, it is necessary to understand the correct sequence of phrases and rituals to perform for each level of angel. As Gnosticism was, at its core, an esoteric religion, teachers would impart this information to initiates individually slowly over time, until they were ready to pursue further knowledge on their own.
Gnosticism teaches that any person can have direct knowledge of God and does not require priests, churches, rituals, or scriptures to obtain this relationship.[note 1] This direct connection, however, distinctly differs from the modern pagan idea of "unverifiable personal gnosis".
Gnosticism and Christianity
Traditionally, scholars knew only of the Christian Gnostics from texts written by those who saw Gnosticism as heresy. All of the scholarship done on Christian Gnosticism carried the idea that it was a rare sect who chose Gnosticism, and that Gnostics at large tended to be fringe believers. However, since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other works like the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary, it has become clear that there were serious fights over which school had the true version of Jesus' teachings. Gnostic churches were far more common, more powerful, and more organized than were ever presented by those that eventually became dominant, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Works such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas show authorship in direct conflict with what was to become "the Church", and the characters who are praised in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts are demonized in Mary and Judas.
Several Gnostic groups believed the God of the Old Testament was an imposter God and that Jesus came to reveal the true God and expose the false one. This element of Gnosticism was an influence on the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy written by Philip Pullman. This does not represent all of Gnosticism, however.
Though Christian Gnosticism was clearly a large movement in the ancient Near East, only a fraction of all Gnostics were Christian, and when they were, it showed strong Hellenic influence. Scholars have found evidence and even writings from Jewish, Greek, and Roman Gnostics.
Though it should be no surprise they didn’t survive long as a movement — the fact they considered the material world evil meant they were firmly against sexual procreation, which led to them just dying off by themselves.
A useful term?
Some scholars such as Karen Leigh King concluded that Gnosticism is such a catch-all phrase coined largely by its enemies that encompasses such a wide variety of views that the term should be dropped. Christianity has always been at odds with any form, but recently the term has become a label for things right-wing Christians don't like, regardless of its resemblance to actual gnosticism (if that even means anything). Many of them know better than this. It has been lumped together with other eastern religions regardless of the similarities in beliefs and, like calling Neo from the Matrix a Messiah figure, is the new catch-all term for any vaguely mystical atmosphere.[note 2]
Most Christians do not even know what Gnosticism is, but when they do it's usually viewed with dismay. More conspiratorial Christians like to talk about its inspirations in popular culture, real or imagined, bringing up franchises like Harry Potter, Star Wars and the Matrix as examples. Many historical Occultists such as Helena Blavatsky have wrote about ideas in passing that resemble Gnostic elements. Unfortunately, like many Unified Conspiracy theories it gets lumped in with everything the crank in question doesn't like, usually New Age beliefs, the Illuminati, the New World Order, and the coming Antichrist.
Gnostic cranks like to frame the Nag Hammadi Library as "secret" texts hidden or lost in time and tend to believe the texts are evidence of a conspiracy to hide some real truth. In reality the texts were not only known for hundreds of years, but were known to have existed even before the library was discovered because of Early Christians writing about the texts. They sometimes take a view that History itself is altered, and can often be found in more secular-oriented crank resources. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library brings up much speculation as to why these documents were lost to time. Like many cranks, they tend to live in fear. This is not likely helped by the fact that Gnosticism has a historical habit of disappearing, popping up periodically to make a big fuss, then disappearing again. The discovery of the aforementioned library has curbed this pattern, and it's unlikely Gnostics will continue to be rounded up as heretics in the near-future. It's even less likely to become a World Religion like some Fundamentalists worry, so rest easy.
- The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism This brief summary is contained on a very long web page.
- Needless to say, this didn't sit well with priests, churches, ritualists, and those writing the "canonized" scriptures. This was one of the outstanding contributing factors to the early theological wars that ran pell-mell through Christian churches for 200 years.
- Basically, the new Illuminati in some circles.
- "The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism". gnosis.org.
- Meyer, Marvin (2007), The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: International Edition
- Peter Jones, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back: An Old Heresy for the New Age. Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 1 November 1992. ISBN 0875522858.
- Frances Flannery-Dailey and Rachel Wagner. Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix. tekgnostics.com.