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Orientation Essay 

Approaching Gnosticism

Through the Eye of the Heart


Approaching Gnosticism is rather like entering a sharp curve on a mountain road: you’re wary of the manoeuvre, but intrigued by the promise of a spectacular sight around the bend. This short essay is intended to get us around the bend.

Many people attracted to Gnosticism are apt to be put off by the difficulty of defining it. The problem of definition is so bad it can almost immediately spoil interest in the subject. It must be said, we’re in good company with the problem. To date there is no scholarly consensus on how to define Gnosis or Gnosticism. The definition proposed at the Messina Conference in 1966 has not proven useful, and is now disregarded. Yet that definition carries erroneous notions about Gnosticism, disinformation deriving from attacks on Gnostics by Christian ideologues 1600 years ago, and continues to have currency. To make matters worse, the lack of a clear consensus hides the fact that routine assumptions are always applied to Gnosticism, as if scholars did agree on how to define it. These assumptions concern the historical origins of Gnosticism, the Gnostic "redemption myth" of Sophia, and the heretical critique of salvationist religion.

Historical origins

The earliest scholars (no longer cited) regarded Gnosticism in the broad sense as a monumental spiritual movement of Asiatic origins, long predating Christianity. There is now a slight tendency to return to this view. See, for instance, the Introduction by James Robinson in NHLE 1990: “This debate seems to be resolving in favor of understanding Gnosticism as a much broader phenomenon than the Christian Gnosticism documented by the heresiologists.” Most scholars writing today, however, insist that Gnosticism was the mystical philosophy shared by a loose confederation of cults that sprang up between 50 and 350 CE in the milieu of early Christianity. In this view, Gnosticism was a marginal and even parasitic movement that only existed in response to genuine religious impulse of Christianity.

Karen King argues that Gnostic views were merely differences of opinion among early Christians who debated the Gospels, the identity of Jesus, the doctrines formulated by Saint Paul and Saint John the Divine, and so on. This argument is particularly misleading because the emphasis on difference tends to conceal the real issue, which was dissent. Gnostics did not merely differ on Christian views (of creation, sin, salvation, etc.), they dissented from those views. Certainly, many different views on Jesus and his message were discussed in the communities where Christianity arose, but this atmosphere of tolerance was not due to the generous spirit of the first Christians, as King would have us believe. Tolerance was the mark of the Pagan religious attitude, and the more Christianity came into power, the less tolerance there was in the classical world. But the Church ideologues who condemned Gnostics as heretics were not merely intent on eliminating diversity and difference so that they could impose uniform totalitarian doctrine, as they eventually did. They were far more intent on eliminating dissent, especially the informed dissent of Gnostics from the Mysteries, such as Hypatia, who argued brilliantly against salvationist doctrines. Paganism was made illegal by the Emperor Theodosius in 391 when Hypatia would have been about twenty one.

salvationism: The totalitarian belief system that asserts divine intercession in history, and imbues suffering with redemptive value. Includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three dominant mainstream religions. Assumes superhuman rescue of humanity from its problems and off-planet, remote-control authority on morals, and divine retribution. (From the Glossary in Not in His Image)

King's praising view of the rich diversity of early Christianity fudges the real issue: it was the dissent of the educated heretics, not merely different views in the Pagan community, that so threatened the Church's rise to power that draconian measures were taken to eradicate Gnostics and destroy all their writings. I might say it was the brutal clarity of the dissenting arguments that drove the Church Fathers and early converts to violent reactions.

Augustine portrayed "refuting" a heretic. When seers of the Mysteries confronted early Christians with lucid arguments against the messiah and the salvationist agenda, the response came with a sword. The telestai of the Pagan world were demonized and murdered to bring the state religion of Christianity to power.

There is so little evidence left of the Gnostic movement that scholars find it difficult to believe it had vast scope, uniformity, and autonomy. Some scholars like Birger Pearson, who sees Gnosticism as an heretical offshoot of Judaism, view the movement more sympathetically on its own terms, but still consider it to be largely derivative. Pheme Perkins, writing from deep within the Christian fold, is unusually bold in asserting the pre-, non- and anti-Christian elements in Gnostic writings. Other orthodox scholars also give credence to the pre-Christian and Pagan origins of the Gnostic movement, but without developing their arguments because (as explained below) they cannot do so without going outside their special fields of expertise.

Gnostic studies are so completely bogged down in specialist debate on obscure issues that no one pays attention to the unique and alarming message contained in Gnostic texts. On the whole, Gnostic scholarship is a dreadful scandal of selective oblivion.

Three Definitions

I propose three definitions of Gnosis, psychological, inspirational, and evolutionary, or shamanic. The psychological definition is:

Gnosis is intuitive knowing of the heart that liberates us from social conditioning and ego-fixation.

As such, it is a path of questioning and learning, open-ended and unlimited in scope. The evolutionary aim of Gnosis is to realize human potential so that we can co-evolve with all species and serve Gaia’s purposes.

In his massive Gnostical treatise, “The Exegesis,” science fiction writer Philip K. Dick says that Gnosis “consists of disinhibiting instructions” that allow us to access “the core content of knowing already intrinsic to us.” He believed that Gnosis enables the self-repair of “memory retrieval” circuits that exist uniquely in the human species, but have been damaged. This accords with my view that humanity provides a memory-circuit for Gaia.

Dick assumes, as I do, that Gnostic teachings and practices were preserved in the Mysteries: “The ancients possessed techniques (sacraments and rituals) used largely in the Greco-Roman mystery religions to induce firing and retrieval” of the memory circuits. He notes that these techniques had a restorative value for the individual, but Gnostics also “correctly saw the ontological value to what they called the Godhead itself, the total entity.” That is, Gnostics recognized that these practices were not for self-glorification but to contribute to the healing of God, or Goddess. ("The Exegesis," quoted in Valis, p. 108ff) This is consistent with the Gnostic assertion that we, the human species, are intimately involved with the "correction" of the Goddess Sophia.

The inspirational definition is:

Gnosis is the deep ecology of the human spirit.

In other words, Gnosis is to the religious experience of humanity what deep ecology is to our rapport with nature. This is close to the evolutionary definition:

Gnosis is a way of encountering the Sacred as it is known to the powers that inhere in the natural world, i.e., the animating powers of the earth and the cosmos at large.

Alternative History

Nearly all scholars maintain that Gnosticism arose historically with Christianity, but I take a different view, as follows: Gnosis was a spiritual path of millennial duration, closely related to, yet distinct from, well-known traditions of Pan-Asian mysticism, including Indian yoga and Buddhism. Gnostics were telestai, initiates in the Mystery Schools who broke their vows of anonymity to come out in the open and protest Judeo-Christian doctrines of Salvationism — doctrines that provide the ideological frame for the patriarchal/dominator agenda. Because the initiates emerged into the public eye during the first centuries of the Christian Era, scholars assume that Gnosticism must have been devised then and there.

I also depart from orthodox scholarship in looking outside the genre to develop an historical profile for Gnosticism. No scholar would say that Gnostics were from the Mystery Schools, because there is a disciplinary fence between Gnostic studies and Mystery School studies. Thus, Elaine Pagels insists flatly that there is no evidence (by which she means textual evidence) of such a link. But pioneer researchers, such as Theosophical scholar G. R. S. Mead, assumed Gnosis to be the core teaching of the Mysteries. “Gnostic forms are found to preserve elements of the Mystery-traditions of antiquity in greater fullness than we find elsewhere.” (The Gospels and the Gospel , p. 210.) This statement was written in 1901. Early scholars such as Mead are routinely ignored today.

Even the earliest evidence on Gnostics, such as the polemics of Hippolytus, state that the "heretics" drew their views from the Greek Mysteries. This link to the entheogenic cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries confirms my view that Gnosis was a refined form of psychedelic shamanism, a visionary path dedicated to the Earth Goddess. Such links are totally ignored by Gnostic scholars. This is selective oblivion.

There is ample historical evidence for cross-cultural exchange between Gnostics and Asian mystics, such as Brahmins and Buddhist monks. From the 4th Century BCE Alexandria was a melting-pot where diverse cults met and mixed. The Church Fathers attest the presence of Druids and Brahmins in Egypt at the dawn of the Christian Era. Gandhara art from the Hindu Kush demonstrates the fusion of Greek and Indian cultures from the 4th Century BCE, and Buddhist scholars such as David Snellgrove and Paul Williams see Gnostic ideas affecting early views of Mahayana. In a hallmark essay published in 1967, renowned Buddhist scholar Edward Conze outlined 17 key similarities between Buddhism and Gnosticism. But comparative studies of this kind are totally out of fashion today, and comprehensive historical perspective on Gnosticism is non-existent.

The result is, a fog of ambiguity. On approaching Gnosticism, we naturally want to locate and label this movement, to get a sense of where Gnostics were coming from, culturally, historically, and geographically. Not a chance. Narrow-mindedness and denial dominate the subject. We must approach Gnosticism knowing beforehand that its origins are under-researched and misrepresented.

To make matters worse, my claim that Gnostics came out of the Mystery Schools throws the entire issue into perplexity, because no one knows what went on in the Mysteries! When I make this link, I set myself up to explain what the Mysteries were, which is about as difficult as explaining what Gnosticism is. (Actually, it is not so difficult, but building an adequate picture takes time.) I cannot fail to link Gnosticism to the Mysteries, even if this leaves people in bafflement. These abstruse matters are crucial to recovering the lost spiritual heritage of Europe (i.e., the West), and it takes a lifelong commitment. It is not just an obscure episode in history we’re contemplating here. What Gnosis really was, and what happened to it, determined the most decisive shift in the moral and spiritual life of Western civilization. The story of the Gnostics is the crucial missing chapter of that part of our collective story.

See also Gnostic Origins.

Lego Method

No scholar today regards the actual content of Gnosticism to be worthy of discussion. The message of the Gnostics is lost in endless debate over the textual meaning of the surviving materials. Scholars assume that Gnostic texts are valuable for what they tell us about the origins of Christianity, period. But using Gnostic texts to legitimate Christianity is contradictory to its radical message. The Gnostic protest against Judeo-Christian religion is written clear and large in the surviving materials, chaotic and fragmentary as they may be. I use what I call the “Lego method” of Gnostic scholarship to select those elements from the surviving materials that build into a consistent and coherent message, distinct from Judaic and Christian doctrines. Scholars also use the Lego method, putting together selected pieces of text to highlight a specific doctrine or viewpoint, but without admitting they do so, or why they do so. They take no interest in recovering the message of radical Pagan Gnosticism on its own terms.

My intention in reworking the Gnostic materials is fourfold:

    First, to show what is valid in the Gnostic protest against the patriarchy and the salvationist agenda

    Second, to describe the rich spiritual heritage of pre-Christian Europe, destroyed in a centuries-long rampage of sexual, spiritual and intellectual genocide;

    Third, to restore and redevelop the Sophia myth, treating it as a story to guide the human species toward a sane and sustainable future;

    Fourth, to propose a corrective view of certain paranormal aspects of human experience, based on Gnostic writing about the Archons

This is quite a tall order, I know. Nevertheless, I believe that nothing less than this is acceptable where genuine experience of Gnosis is concerned. There is huge responsibility involved in knowing what Gnostics knew. I am convinced that the way for the human species to co-evolve with Gaia can best be discovered, and perhaps only discovered, on the visionary path of Gnosis.

"Religious Pessimism"

The disinformation regarding Gnosticism has persisted for 1600 years. Needless to say, it is not easy to dispel. (A difficult but important book that has tackled this problem is Rethinking “Gnosticism” (1996) by M. A. Williams. The author shows that the negative hype attached to Gnosticism is unfounded and the evidence routinely cited to support it, unreliable.) The presumed contents of the Gnostic worldview are routinely derived by selecting from the pathetic heap of surviving texts certain elements that are not even the prominent factors in those texts, yet are favored by scholars because they carry assumptions that cast Gnosticism in a negative light, just as the Church Fathers intended. These assumptions usually are stated in language like this:

    Gnostics regarded nature and the material world as flawed, corrupt, if not downright evil. They believed that the human soul belongs to a higher world, but has fallen captive to the realm of the senses, and so must extricate itself and return to the Source, the Light. Gnosis is the recognition of the presence of the Higher Self, the spark of Divinity trapped in matter, but only an elite few can realize this awareness and liberate themselves from the enslavement of this world. (Loose paraphrase of the Messina declaration.)

Not surprisingly, the online Catholic Encyclopedia repeats the disinformation introduced by the Church fathers in the 3rd Century. It says that Gnostics "held matter to be a deterioration of spirit, and the whole universe a depravation of the Deity, and taught the ultimate end of all being to be the overcoming of the grossness of matter and the return to the Parent-Spirit, which return they held to be inaugurated and facilitated by the appearance of some God-sent Saviour." With the exception of the phrase in italics, this statement comes pretty close to the notion of Christianity as a religion of trans-worldly escapism.

Scholars use the term “anti-cosmic” to describe "religious pessimism" and the world-hating attitude ascribed to Gnostics. But these attributions are manifestly wrong. They cannot possibly reflect what Gnostics believed, because they contradict in two flagrant instances the sacred cosmology of the Mysteries:

First, the claim that Gnostics regarded the material world as "a deterioration of spirit" and a place of enslavement for the "divine sparks" cannot be true. The paraphrase of Gnostic cosmology found in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, Book 4, Ch. 2) says that the earth we inhabit was formed from the body of the goddess Sophia, the supreme divinity in the Gnostic worldview. If the very substance of the material world is the embodiment of this divinity, how can it be considered evil, degenerated, and worthy of rejection? Furthermore, Gnostic texts such as the Apochrypon of John state that Sophia, in order to achieve the "correction" by which she becomes realigned to the gods in the cosmic center (the Pleroma) depends in some sense on humanity. This being so, how can humans be viewed as "divine sparks" that have fallen into blind enslavement in matter? The genuine Gnostic teaching states that we are not in essence divine sparks but we have a spark of divine intelligence, nous, by which we can recognize the fallen goddess and participate in her "correction." Our mission is not to escape from the world, but to take part in its transformation, extending even to the cosmic level.

Second, the claim that "the whole universe a depravation of the Deity," or to put it otherwise, that the material world is a creation of the Demiurge, who is a false deity, also cannot be true. Several cosmological texts explicitly state that the Demiurge cannot create anything, but only imitate the workings of the true gods, the Aeons of the Pleroma — and imitate them badly, at that. (The kind of imitation involved here might be compared to a kaliedoscope that uses pieces of colored glass, i.e., inorganic material, to replicate the organic complexity of the seeding, budding, and blossoming of a sunflower.) The texts are explicit on this point: the Demiurge lacks ennoia, intentionality. Saklas, the blind god, suffers a delusion that allows him to think he creates the cosmos, but it is really Sophia working through him that permits this delusion. What he does "create" in his weird way is the stereoma, the planetary system exclusive of the earth, sun and moon — the "hebdomad" of the seven planets. Clearly, the pseudo-deity cannot and does not create the earth, because this planet is uniquely the metamorphosis of Sophia herself.

In his book The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Gnostic revivalist Stephen Hoeller notes that the surviving writings do not condemn the earth (KAZ in Coptic, from the Greek ge) as such, but the cosmos (Greek kosmos), the "system." In The Sophia of Jesus Christ (NHC III), KAZ occurs next to cosmos, stating a clear distinction between the earth and "the world" as we conceive it. The world or system is our conditioned perception of the earth, or human reality on earth. Hoeller's distinction agrees with the observation of Jacque Lacarriere that Gnosis is about deconditioning our minds to perceive reality as it is, rather than as we assume it to be. The illusion of this world, the earth, is not in its own nature, but in our perception of it. But such is the nature of the human mind that we live in the percpetual frame we construct, rather than in the reality it frames.

Disinformation on what Gnostics believed runs side by side by slander about how they behaved. “Antinomian” is the scholarly terms for the Gnostic’s alleged claim that in rejecting this world, they stood beyond its laws; hence they were free to ignore social and sexual mores. Gnostics were condemned by early Christians for gross immorality, including orgiastic sex magic, Pagan rites of "snake worship," and worse. The very suggestion that Gnostics were “anti-Christian” puts them in cahoots with the Anti-Christ. The treasure of Nag Hammadi is heavily booby-trapped. There are so many taboos and negative projections around the subject of Gnosticism that struggling for a clear orientation to it may look like more trouble than it’s worth.

I have never known a subject able to push people’s buttons as fast and hard as Gnosticism does. I believe this is because by its nature Gnosticism confronts us with our conditioning. (This is also the view of Jacques Lacarriere.) Yet without such a confrontation, we can never be free to know our own minds. We need “disinhibiting instructions” to penetrate the layers of lies that have been implanted in our minds.

Typical contemporary image of mind control, from a myspace page : "brake the mass hypnosis". Today the Internet provides an outlet for Gnostic-type dissent against mental and behaviour programming, while mainstream media supports and deepens it. This image features in an on-line gallery that presents over 1,000 images of mind control.

The Message

After thirty odd years of research and reflection, I am convinced that the Gnostics from the Mysteries had the key knowledge we need to shatter the historical framework of the patriarchal/dominator agenda, and thereby undermine that agenda for good and all. Gnostic ideas assume a central and imperative role in metahistory.org because they present the best chance we have to break away from the death-grip of the Western historical narrative and defeat the mass hypnosis of global mind control.

The unique knowledge Gnostics tried to impart to the world at large concerns the identity of Jehovah, the "father god" of Judeo-Christian religion. Gnostics claimed that the supernatural being billions of people take for God is insane and actually working against humanity. The core teaching specifies that Jehovah is really an alien entity, not just a bad idea or a delusional belief. It also specifies that Jehovah and his minions, the Archons, used the Jewish people to make an intervention into the human race. The Archons deviate us from our humanity through religious beliefs. Salvationism (i.e., reliance on a superhuman savior) germinated in the Jewish apocalyptic sect of the Zaddakim and went pandemic in Christian ideology centered on a transhuman messiah, Jesus Christ.

In short, Gnostics warned that Judeo-Christian religion is a deviant program implanted in the human mind, like a computer virus. Salvationism is an ideological virus, and its origin is not human. This is the core teaching of the gnostikoi, “those who know about divine matters.” Search where you will, I don’t think you will find this message anywhere else.

Gnosis is the knowledge of how we are deviated, by what, and for what.

So much for the bad news, the spooky part of the message. But Gnostics also had sublimely good news to impart. They had a beautiful message about what guides us, the insuperable power of knowing that inheres in us and cannot be deviated. (This I call the wisdom endowment, or Sophianic endowment.) They presented a grand cosmic story in which humanity is intimately allied with the Goddess Sophia of the Pleroma, She who becomes Gaia. This story describes how Jehovah and the Archons were produced by the “fall of Sophia,” before our world was created by Her embodiment. Then, when the earth emerged, it was captured in the planetary system, habitat of the Archons. Gnostics taught that these inorganic entities influence us by a kind of telepathic link. They use the power of suggestion when our attention is dulled by fatigue or over-stimulation. Gnostic texts contain vivid accounts of first-hand encounters with Archons, and they explain the motives and methods of the alien forces in explicit language.

But the message of Gnosticism is not "Blame it on the Archons." Far from it. The core teaching of Gnosis specifies that this alien species is not an autonomous force of evil that works against us. The Archons represent error, not evil. They do not cause mistakes in our learning process, but they affect our thinking so that our mistakes go undetected and extrapolate beyond the scale of correction. If we cannot correct our minds and redirect our actions, we cannot participate in Gaia’s process of alignment with the Pleroma, the celestial Gods.

Hence the Archons present a special test in our effort to recognize and actualize our divine endowment.

Contempary art and internet media present many images of the Archons, but not often enough (to my mind) with humor that can dispel their spooky over-hyped eminence. This carton is an accurate portrayal of the Annunaki myth that ETs came to earth and performed genetic manipulation of the native peoples, inseminating Eve with alien DNA. This thesis is widely promulgated by David Icke and others. But several NHL texts put the story differently. For instance, On the Origin of the World says that the Archons attempted to plant their seed in Eve, but failed: "And she laughed at them for their witlessness, and their blindness; and within reach of their clutches, she turned into a tree, and left before them a shadowy reflection of herself." Thereafter they corrupted the reflection, the iconic image of woman ("Sarkic Eve"), to deceive the world into thinking they had succeeded. (For a corrupted image of woman, see Lady Gaga.)

According to the Sophianic myth of the Mysteries, Archons are our cosmic cousins, the offspring of Gaia-Sophia, though in a different way than we are. They are not the only extra-human species with which we have contact on earth, but they are unique in their predatory role. Gnostics taught that not all that happens in our minds originates there. This is an occult observation, compatible with the most advanced theories of noetic science today. It is, I would say, the single most important concept in the entire field of cognitive psychology. It explains how humans can be programmed to act in deviant and destructive ways, contrary to good sense, compassion, gut emotion, personal conscience, and their sense of humanity. Since the agents of the global program of domination (the "Illiminati") use occult techniques of mind control, understanding the Archon thesis of the Gnostics can alert us to how we are being manipulated. The implications of “Archon theory” are profoundly practical and far-reaching.

Risking Sanity

All this strange business concerning Jehovah and the Archons is written large and clear in Gnostic texts, but ignored by scholars for obvious reasons. If we also ignore this scenario, dismissing it as a bizarre fantasy, a religious psychosis, or a remnant of Pagan superstition, we lose the opportunity to develop a coherent culture myth that connects humanity to its cosmic origins and to the future of the planet itself. Knowing how we are deviated could be the best thing that ever hapened to us, spiritually speaking.

Sometimes, you have to put sanity at risk to find out what it really means to be sane.

This is the startling message of R. D. Liang, who insisted that our very capacity for experience can be destroyed by conditioning that alienates us from what we intrinsically know. Alienation is also a theme that informs the best work of Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer whose genius is currently recognized worldwide due to cinematic adaptation of his books. Relating the work of R. D. Liang, Philip K. Dick and others such as Wilhelm Reich to the Gnostic message, helps us to realize its contemporary power.

The surviving Gnostic texts, thought to be Coptic translations of Greek-language originals, are skant and derivative. These materials are too fragmentary and incoherent to reveal the full scope of what the Gnostics had to say, although all the essential clues are there. It is unrealistic to expect the average seeker to plow into these obscure materials and come up with a clear understanding of the core teaching of the Mysteries. After hundreds of readings of the Nag Hammadi coidces and related materials, I can attest to how extremely difficult it is to extract a coherent message from these pitiful remains. Nevertheless, from these flakes of papyrus a powerful visionary system can be inferred. Everything that goes into my reconstruction of the core teaching of Gnosis is based on specific clues in the Coptic codices, although I do not always cite the textual clues because the proof process regarding these materials is tedious, meticulous and exhausting.

It’s much easier to find the core teaching in ourselves, in the intuitive knowing of our hearts where humanity dwells and our species' bond to Gaia is rooted.

The Plasmate

When all is said and done, approaching Gnosticism involves an act of faith, but not blind faith in received doctrines and supernatural agencies. There is another kind of faith, indicated by Gnostics by the term Pistis Sophia, “confidence in the indwelling wisdom.”

Have faith that you can discover innately, by your own inborn resources, whatever you might seek through an external quest for knowledge

Philip K. Dick believed this was so. This conviction informs his best writings, especially the Valis Trilogy, a masterpiece permeated with genuine, first-hand, re-invented Gnosticism. Dick said that the discovery at Nag Hammadi in December, 1945, was not merely a find of documents, but the release of a living impulse, something he called “the plasmate.” This is “the living information slumbering at Nag Hammadi century after century…. The plasmate had gone hiding at Nag Hammadi and was loose again in our world” (Valis, 180). It is a spiritual impulse charged with numinous content, a core teaching that lives and regenerates within those who learn it. This knowing within is Gnosis, not the assurance of a divine self, but the awakening of a faculty of higher cognition, a faculty that gives insight transcending the human condition. Whoever touches that core teaching is touched by divine revelation. An ever-new, ever-true, ongoing revelation.

There is no better way to approach Gnosticism than through the eye of the heart, where this revelation is perpetually in birth.


Original 2006 : Revised 11 October 2010 Andalucia

Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.