Go here for Part I.
Gnosticism: a pivotal profile
So, to recap, Gnosticism:
- involved a good-evil dualism that was often also a mind-matter dualism
- tended to believe in complicated hierarchies of deities or angels, one of whom was usually the fallen creator of matter
- offered liberation from evil primarily in terms of secret knowledge and postmortem escape from the world, not forgiveness of sins or final resurrection
- did not accept Christian doctrines like the Incarnation, the Passion or the efficacy of the sacraments
- tended to distinguish between a predestined spiritual elite, who were capable of enlightenment, and a greater mass of humanity who were not
- tendency to encourage an ascetic moral code (for example, most often avoiding sex, violence, and alcohol)1
As mentioned earlier, Gnosticism was more a collection of themes than a coherent school of thought. There were many specific incarnations of it, and their beliefs often contradicted each other. And again, this was mostly a second century movement. There were religions like Manichaeism which were obviously related both in beliefs and sources; there were later sects that took up similar themes, notably the Cathars2; but Gnosticism proper was a phenomenon of the pre-Constantine Roman Empire.
So where do modern people get away with calling this and that and the other “Gnosticism”?
The terms of the problem
The short answer is: many people are imaginative, ignorant, conceited and lazy, all at the same time and in varying proportions. These qualities become relevant to this conversation when you:
- give someone a fancy term that sounds clever, eg, “gnosticism”;
- tell them it’s important and give them a very simple outline of what it means; and
- let them go without further constraint or information.
This is nothing new, of course. Technical terms are always abused in this way – Catholic apologists have a lot to answer for on this front.3 And in this way, to call things “Gnosticism” when they are not is not remarkable; if the fashionable word were not “Gnosticism”, it would be something else, and it often was. The internet is also partly to blame: it has always been easy to take facts out of context or present theories as if they were fact, but with modern technology these irresponsible tactics can be shared instantly with millions of people. (These tools make checking easier than before, but see “most of us are lazy” above.)
What is a bit strange and very annoying is something that we can loosely call “gnostic spirituality”. is real, and is a bad thing. It just has nothing to do with things labeled Gnostic. The modern crew of intellectuals who feel entitled to join the Inquisition before receiving baptismal instruction are, surprise surprise, often wrong.4 But what is this amorphous thing, about which I keep saying “Not like that!” while waving my hands in a general direction to the right?
From some common doctrines of extinct Gnostic sects, we can identify some theological and spiritual themes that can truly edify us. I see five as particularly relevant to modern culture:
- Dualism: there is not, and there can be, no moral shade of grey.
- Apocalypticism: what I do is good because I am on the side of good; my enemies are evil because what they do serves the side of evil.
- Pseduo-docetism: sexuality is banal.
- Gnosis: Orthodoxy constitutes holiness/salvation.
- Election: Personal enlightenment/autonomy trumps Church authority.
All of these have superficial expressions, usually on both “sides” of the culture war. But looking at these things through the prism of Gnosticism doesn’t tell us much. Unduly black-and-white moral opinions are not unique to Gnosticism, or even to religious people in general. And many people have pointed to the more bizarre aspects of Scientology as a modern parallel to Gnosticism.5: good; so what?
But I think there are certain elements in American culture—both inside and outside of Christian circles—that stand out and make more sense if we place them alongside Gnosticism. Let’s take the five points above, one by one, and dig a little deeper.
1This often included vegetarianism. Today, we tend to associate vegetarianism and veganism with opposition to cruelty to animals. This aligns, loosely, with the Indian principle of ahimsah or complete non-violence (shared by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists); this may have been developed or influenced by the doctrine of reincarnation.
Vegetarianism in ancient and medieval Europe was quite different. Some ancient schools adopted it simply as a specific type of fasting – it was common among early monks. However, the Gnostics (and later groups with similar beliefs) abstained from meat because it came from sexual reproduction.
As for alcohol, besides the ascetic motive of “giving up that fun thing” and the prudential motive of “giving up that thing that can make you do silly things”, I can’t say why some religions turn to alcohol. abstinence. Maybe these two reasons are all there is really to do.
2The Cathars (from the Greek katharoi or “the pure”) were a common heresy in the High Middle Ages, mainly in the south of France, whose city of Albi gave them their other name of Albigensian. The Albigensian Crusade was a holy war proclaimed precisely against these heretics and, predictably, involved some of the ugliest moments and maxims in Catholic history.
3As do the Protestant apologists. However, since the purpose of so many Protestants is an explicit distrust, or at least distrust, of clerical expertise and authority, there are far more excuses for them than for Catholics.
4It might be rude to cite examples like James Lindsay and Jordan Peterson here. Maybe very rude. Excessively, perhaps, rude.
5In my opinion, the most accurate modern heir of Gnosticism is the infamous Heaven’s Gate Cultalmost all of whose members committed mass suicide in 1997. archons Some Gnostic sects – diabolical beings who rule the planets and attempt to prevent humans from ascending to Divinity by trapping us in the material realm – show an uncanny affinity with the malevolent extraterrestrials that some sects believe in. To a superstitious person like myself, the traditional belief that human ideas are partly guided by Powers, some of which are fallen, inevitably comes to mind…