Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Understanding what Gnosis/Gnosticism IS

A few of my readers commented about what Gnosis is:
Richard: There is no question that I would like a clearer view/understanding of what is Gnosticism. At present (and I am no scholar) I see many wildly different flavours of Gnosticism. The only commonality I notice is that things labelled as "Gnostic" tend to have more complicated notions of the spiritual / divine realm than mere Christianity or Judaism do. Anything to help clarify this would be of interest to me.
Jeremy: I would be fascinated to hear your further thoughts on this matter. At the Palm Tree Garden, we've been playing with something to which we refer as "The Four Point Plane." It's a 'litmus test' we use when discussing "Gnosticism," and we've found it especially useful
1) Emanations Cosmology. The heavenly and phenomenal worlds are ultimately the effect of God's process of "emanation," or pouring forth from itself.
2) Immanent Pneumatology. God's spirit fills the heavenly and phenomenal worlds. God is right here, right now.
3) Gnostic Soteriology. Gnosis, which can also be called insight, plays the most important role in the salvation of the Gnostic.
4) Sacramental Praxis. Gnosis can be facilitated by symbolic ritual.

Grant: As far as social structure, I've been meaning to ask, how did you think to liken the 'gnostics' to a lodge movement (I don't recall anyone else who does this)? And how has that been received in your experience? I think it's definitely better than sect or cult. Would you also liken the Greco-Roman clubs, or associations, or mysteries (in which more than just Greeks and Romans participated) to lodge movements?
So let me try out where I am on thinking about this subject now. Things have shifted for me this year after all the work I've been doing on the Gospel of Judas, and also thinking about Rice's new graduate program in Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism (=GEM).

1. Gnosis is a peculiar kind of knowledge. It isn't any knowledge. It isn't "okay I know I'm divine so I'm alright" kind of knowledge. It is what I would call "unconventional knowledge." What makes Gnosis (and eventually Gnosticism when it comes into being in the late third and early fourth centuries) different from other kinds of knowledge is that it is knowledge received through revelation, that turns on its head conventional interpretations and theology, often in very profound and ingenious ways. Today in our language and world we would call it "subversive" or maybe even "transgressive," and maybe (although this feels really anachronistic to me) "countercultural" in the sense of counter the normal religious beliefs and expectations of the times. Think here about the Sethian interpretation of the Genesis story, where Eve does a good thing and the serpent is Christ.

2. In terms of content, it refers to knowledge that will enable the spirit within, that piece of god that is trapped, to be liberated at death and find its way home. And this ALWAYS includes special rituals. But it also includes a map of the universe and the multiple layers of divine beings and entities between us and the supreme source.

3. Esotericism is hidden knowledge, secrets. I think that all Gnosis is esoteric, but not all esotericism is Gnostic.

4. Mysticism is immediate encounter with the sacred.

5. Lodge idea. My idea for those of you who aren't my students is that the gnostics started out in a lodge movement in Alexandria. It was probably a Hermetic lodge. This means that the Gnostics first self-identified as Jews, and eventually as Christians. Went to lodge in addition to synagogue, where initiation was done into the higher mysteries. I didn't get this idea from anyone. I came up with it myself after looking at all the evidence and trying to make sense of this sociologically. I remember fifteen years ago when Gilles Quispel sat at my doctoral defense and gave a special lecture on Hermeticism and the lodge in Alexandria. That is where I learned about the Hermetics as lodge religionists. So it wasn't long before I started to think of the Gnostics and their connection to Hermetism, and how their movement must have started in the lodge and continued as a lodge movement, especially in the Valentinian tradition. What I am working out now is how the various strands of Gnosis emerge from this environment and eventually become a new religious movement. This is what my paper from the Codex Judas Congress is about.


Jeremy Puma said...

Interesting thoughts. Some brief thoughts:

The Lodge idea makes great sense, at least in the way the "secret" knowledge was likely imparted. It's my impression that the early Christian polemecists took "secret knowledge" to mean "knowledge that only we can have and nobody else can so nyah," whereas "secret knowledge" in the literature seems more like "knowledge that's available to anyone, but through initiation." In other words, the Gnostic groups have been portrayed by their opponents as having kept this knowledge from the masses, when in actuality this knowledge was available to anyone, but procedurally.

But, then, what about the Platonic distinction between episteme and gnosis? Would it ever have been understood as such in the Lodge cultures? The assumption we've all been under for some time is that gnosis is experiential and generally undescribable, but there seems to be an undeniable epistemological transmission in a lot of the tradition (I'm thinking in particular of the post-resurrection discourses like the Pistis Sophia/Books of Jeu where "gnosis" seems to equal detailed information about rites, rituals, and the cosmological structure of the universe).

Also, the cosmological texts (Apoc John etc.) often include pre-creation Aeonic manifestations of knowledge (Forethought, Foreknowledge, etc.). This seems to indicate that gnosis is something preexistent in the Pleromic realms.

As a peripheral aside, and just out of curiousity, is the idea of the "Good Serpent" still considered common to the Sethian movement? It was recently pointed out to me that this idea only really occurs in two of the cosmological texts in the NHL (On the Origin of the World and The Hypostasis of the Archons), but in other overtly Sethian texts (Apoc John) the serpent is still considered iniquitous. Can this trope still be considered indicative of gnosis if it occurs so rarely?

Finally, I know a lot of so-called modern Gnostic practitioners, since we're basically making it up as we go along, tend to equate gnosis with various Buddhist/Eastern understandings of enlightenment, often as simply stated as "gnosis equals samadhi." Do you have any thoughts regarding this equation?

April DeConick said...


These are all EXCELLENT observations.

1. The distinction you make is right on. Gnosis is for the few, but they are few that go to lodge, and the lodge is open to anyone who wants to join. The Gnostic groups define gnostics as those people who belong to their organization. How do they get these people? By getting other Jews and Christians and other Romans to join. So it is not a matter of "there are only a few that get gnosis". It is a matter that gnosis is available to anyone, but only the true gnostic is going to join us and get it.

2. Again you are right. There is epistemological knowledge that has to be gotten, particularly cosmological and cosmogonic. Why? Because the gnostic spirit has to learn how it got here and how to journey home. I mean this literally - it needs a map. Then there is secret ritual knowledge that has to be learned and undergone. These initiations are supposed to be experiential. The spirit is supposed to do pretests, to journey home and meet all the beings along the way, especially in the upper aeons where the spirit is encountering all the sacred beings face to face, and is being transformed or divinized in the process. So both forms of knowledge are necessary. Gnosis is experiential in the end, but the idea is that epistemological knowledge or discursive knowledge can only bring us so far on the spiritual journey. If we actually want to GO, ritual takes us, and this is Gnosis ultimately.

3. Yes, the serpent image is played with in gnostic materials. In fact, Valentinian materials read the Genesis story in a pretty standard sense. On the other hand, I think the good serpent can be seen as an image of Gnosis, in terms of a example of that kind of unconventional wisdom. Another example from Valentinianism would be to see the woman with the flow of blood as the suffering Sophia, a subversive interpretation that Irenaeus hates. Or Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife-lover as she is found in Philip. Or Judas the demon as the receiver of the mysteries. All of these turn upside down the conventional interpretations, and send them spinning. With Gnostics, as with other Jews and Christians, don't think of one interpretation of materials as being THE standard for a tradition. Each tradition (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Gnostics) seems to be pluriform in interpretation.

4. I would tend to shy away from the equation of Gnosis with samadhi. Why? Because they are two separate ideas of salvation. Gnosis is an inversion of conventional wisdom. Gnosis grants you insight to achieve an eschatological return of the spirit to its source. This is achieved through ritual initiation and guided spirit journeys NOW that teach the spirit where to go and allows the spirit to meet face to face the great deities. But the sense I get from the literature is that there is never ever an absorption into the source. The spirit can get to the first emanated aeon, and peek out over the abyss, but never cross it to the Great Spirit. In fact the whole point of the Gnostic narrative seems to me to be God differentiating himself, hypostasizing himself into many forms. Then these forms have to perfect themselves in God's image, this includes the aeons and the human spirits. And then the perfected human spirits-images return to the source (Godhead-Pleroma), to bring the source into fullness or completeness. But these perfected images of God retain their individualities. It is like God multiplying himself, then perfecting these, and then living with thousands of himself for eternity. It is pretty narcissistic. But that is nothing new. We have known that about the Gnostic systems for a long time. Gosh, everything starts with God looking at himself or pleasuring himself!

J. K. Gayle said...

the gnostics started out in a lodge movement in Alexandria

Dr. DeConick,
Would these first gnostics have had much access to the libraries in Alexandria, and then to all the discussions around "knowing" and "believing" of "Dissoi Logoi" and of Plato (i.e., in his Gorgias where he has Socrates questioning epistemologies) and of Aristotle (who tutored Alexander, who the conquered Egyptian city is named after)?

Unknown said...

There are 2 "Richards" who blog here. I like what "twin" said! This is all very fascinating. I'm learning a lot and can't wait to learn more.

April DeConick said...


Very likely. These appear to me to be the city's intellectuals and people of some leisure.

Unknown said...

Hello everyone,

I just thought I'd drop my two cents into the mix...

Anyone who has studied Hermeticism as it continues today can infer a connection between the gnostic groups with the hermetic strain of though.

This also plays out during the hermetic renaissance of the middle ages where gnostic and hermetic ideas begin trickling back into the political, philosophical, and scientific currents of the day.

Many magicians such as Agrippa would have been rather comfortable with the concepts unearthed through study of the Gnostic material.

As for "eastern mysticism" and gnostic thought, Mircea Eliade dicusses this in "Yoga, Immortality and Freedom."

Memra said...

Modern Rosicrucians and Freemasons tap into the Hermetic tradition at several points in their initiations.

And they are both essntially lodge movements.

Bull said...

Some interesting thoughts here, but I am not convinced about the "lodge" at all, and would like to pose two questions:

1. Several times I have seen references to a "hermetic lodge in Alexandria". Where in the texts do you find anything pointing to such a lodge? There is certainly no external references to this lodge. What do you even mean with the term "lodge"? And why must it be in Alexandria?
My impression is that this thesis comes from purely phenomenological comparisons with contemporary masonic lodges; but the hermeticism espoused here bears little resemblance to antique hermetism.

2. Why should participants in this hypothetical hermetic lodge consider themselves jewish? Besides Poimandres, there is little judaica in the hermetica.

Answers would be highly appreciated.

Unknown said...

The real beauty of Gnosis is that no two people with have the same interpretation. If I were to ask 10 people to draw God, what would I get? You got it - 10 different pictures. Same with Gnosis. My view is that true Gnosis is simply the realization that
1. God is real,
2. The spiritual plane is real,
3. This world is imperfect and not the end of it all. Not by a long shot.