Ancient and Modern Gnosticism
…it was the discovery of a cache of ancient Gnostic scriptures at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert in 1945 that really set off the modern phase of the Gnostic revival.
Although their translation into English was not complete until the late 1970s, early access to some of the writings inspired the great psychologist Carl Jung to draw parallels between the ancient Gnostics and modern depth psychology.
The publication in 1977 of the Nag Hammadi Librarytranslations, followed in 1978 by religious scholar Elaine Pagels’ best-selling exposition, The Gnostic Gospels, guaranteed that Gnosticism would not go away anytime soon.
Christian aspirations to a universal faith, applicable to anyone with ears to hear, led many Gnostics to posit that God the Father, of whom Jesus spoke, must be a different God altogether: a hitherto Unknown God Who existed far above the earthly realm and was free of ethnic contracts or favouritism.
Christ functioned as the messenger from this remote and impartial God, and some Gnostic scriptures downgraded the Jealous God of the Old Testament to the role of Demiurge, a lesser creator-god who brought a flawed Creation into existence and mistakenly ruled it with a heavy hand as if he were the True God.1
Thus, in the Gnostic view, salvation from this diminished material realm of suffering and injustice depended less on one’s mere beliefs or on the following of religious laws that the Demiurge put in place, than on the individual’s inner experience of gnosis – a divine knowledge of the cosmic order and one’s true identity.
The Gnostic scriptures alluded to Christ’s secret teachings, which would aid the Gnostic to embrace gnosis, and armed with this knowledge, to escape the illusory realm of the Demiurge at the time of death.
The most common Gnostic revision of the Creation story spoke of Sophia (Wisdom), an extension of the True God, venturing forth from the Pleroma (the fullness of the ineffable divine realm), producing an aborted spiritual being, Ialdobaoth (the Demiurge), who in turn created the flawed material world.
Sophia, seeing sparks of the divine entrapped in matter, descended to try and free them and was herself entrapped.
It took the efforts of the Christ (pre-existing in the Pleroma) to extricate her and return her, past the Archons presiding over intermediate planes, to her rightful place beside Him: a tale symbolic of the plight of the soul enmeshed in illusion.
Finally, the indications in Gnostic scriptures, such as the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, that Mary Magdalene was closer to Jesus than the other disciples and received secret teachings denied to them, undercut both St. Paul’s misogynist version of Christianity and the Catholic Church’s claim to legitimacy based on St. Peter’s supposed selection as the “rock” on which the Church would be built.
The prominent role given to the Divine Feminine via the Gnostic veneration of the Magdalene and Sophia was partly recuperated by the Roman Church through the significance it later afforded the Virgin Mary, but this status was subsumed within the overall supremacy of a Church run by celibate males.
In ripping away the façade of normality, we come face to face with our true dilemma – we live in a maze of illusions and self-delusions from which we must extricate ourselves. This is, of course, a fundamentally Gnostic worldview.
The ancient Gnostics were aware that material existence is, at its root, a beguiling and temporary illusion. (Hindus called this “Maya”).
Modern physics has confirmed this at the sub-molecular level, where one can see that apparently solid objects are, in fact, composed of moving bits of energy that are neither wholly particle nor wave. The closer one looks, the less there is to see. The vast emptiness of outer space is mirrored by the vast emptiness within matter itself.
Esoteric traditions around the world teach that consciousness can exist independent of the body, and that the ability to deliver our consciousness from its addiction to sensory input and compulsive thought patterns can lead to an experience of divine consciousness (gnosis).
The message of the Christ of the Gnostics was not that he considered himself the unique and only Son of God, but that each person has the potential to expand their consciousness across the vast emptiness to the level of godhood or Self-realisation.
If the illusoriness of daily life was self-evident in the relatively simple world of two millennia ago, it is becoming even more so, for those with the eyes to see, in the present world of cybernetic virtual realities, Hollywood dream-worlds, instant messaging, corporate branding campaigns, and information warfare.
*The Nag Hammadi Library
… your light, give me your mercy! My Redeemer, redeem me, for I am yours; the one who has come forth from you. You are my mind; bring me forth! You are my treasure house; open for me! You are my fullness; take me to you! You are (my) repose; give me the perfect thing that cannot be grasped!