Stephan Hoeller’s book ‘Gnosticism – New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing’ is a very readable, interesting and comprehensive account of the content and history of Gnosticism. It is also very relevant to the contemporary renewed focus on human spirituality.
As Hoeller eloquently points out, our current understanding is materialist and mental. Physicalism and rationality are taken to explain all phenomena, including humanity itself. This is a reductionist view and in any case is not conclusive, as physicalism so far has no account of metaphysical realities, for example of consciousness, and rationality does not determine virtue, value, or what we consider reasonable. It does not explain how rationality originates.
Religion itself has become a mental assertion to creed and doctrine. Gnosticism’s attention to spirituality, its pursuit of the transcendental, its focus on a gnosis which generates self enlightenment and inner transformation, is therefore a welcome, holistic, and potentially liberating view. The attempt to eliminate Gnosticism through a long history of persecution highlights the inadequacy of the orthodox doctrinal Christian position.
The complaint of Irenaeus is that Gnosticism denies incarnation. This may originate as a theological complaint, but does have wider significance since it renders Gnosticism other-worldly, specifically disinterested in political engagement. Gnosticism critiques the world, and then disengages, rather than campaigning for reform. It opts out of human social responsibility.
Stephan Hoeller points out that there is much gnostic material in orthodox Christianity. The apostle Paul’s conversion encounter on the Damascus road is a clear case. John’s gospel is gnostic in tone. Christ’s resurrection is only temporarily corporeal, and is as a body which defies physical reality, rendering the resurrection more of a spiritual than a physical event. Moreover, the creedal doctrinal version of Christianity which became evangelical orthodoxy is itself highly gnostic in its insistence on special salvific knowledge revealed to a chosen elite. The modern charismatic phenomenon includes much gnostic experience – it is a ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’.
Hoeller portrays Gnosticism as liberating. If it represents a free spiritual journey then this may be so, but in attempting to define Gnosticism, he then ties it down. A spiritual gnosis is now required, rather than being permissive. He sets out 14 points which define Gnosticism, and then claims that ‘At least the first ten of the fourteen points may be considered wholly authoritative… the absence of any of them from a person’s worldview might disqualify him or her as a Gnostic’. Along with the view that Gnosticism is knowledge revealed to an elite, we now have a constraining, strictly limiting spiritual religion. We are back to where we started.
Far better is the emphasis on Gnosticism as myth. Myth as an interpretation of religion offers meaning which is powerfully relevant to the human condition. But it is best as an open narrative, not one which insists on anything, but offers everything. Herein lies a renewed spirituality for our materialist mentalist age.