Gnosticism is the practice of spiritual inquiry independent of established religious dogma. The term derives from the root, Gnosis, which refers to intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths or mysteries as originally possessed by ancient Gnostics. An essential aspect of Gnosticism is the confirmation of spiritual truths through reflection and personal experience. We might think of it as a form of “freelance religion.” Coming from actual experience, both inner and outer, the knowledge is subjective and varies from one individual to the next, a situation quite different from the abstract knowledge of learned dogma. This is why mainstream Christian churches regard Gnosticism as heresy.
Gnostics practice a kind of “freelance religion.” They shun dogma and seek confirmation of spiritual truths through intuition and personal experience. (photo: public domain)
Its subjectivity, intuitiveness, and emphasis on actual personal experience make Gnosticism an artist’s or creative person’s way of approaching spirituality. Dogma, in stark contrast is more objective, impersonal, and learned by rote. It originates from an institution by way of other people and may not be modified if it is found wanting.
Today, with the breakdown of organized religion, many spiritual seekers are actually Gnostics without consciously identifying with the term. These independent spirits carry on the ancient tradition as they search for spiritual knowledge that comes from within or that they may perceive in the world around them. As of old, they insist that the knowledge must be confirmed by an inner sense of correspondence with their own experience. What they believe has to have an intuitive sense of “rightness.”
All Gnostics assume that God is active in the world and calls to those to whom He wishes to speak. They believe no institution should stand between the individual and the voice of God. By stressing contact with God, Gnosticism devalues the visible world and a places great emphasis on the sphere of the unknowable. The ancient Gnostics viewed the soul (self) as a tiny manifestation of the limitless divine presence. In a unique reciprocal relationship, the soul contained the divine, yet was itself contained by the divine.
Starting with Carl Jung himself, Jungian psychology has interpreted Christianity from the gnostic perspective. In the gnostic celebration of the Eucharist, for example, the participant vicariously experiences the death of the personal ego as symbolized by the crucified Christ. The subsequent resurrection represents the emergence of an integrated unified ego-self, revealed by identification with the risen Christ.
The true self is personal and definite. It is not nebulous but made up of a unique and definite set of emotionally important ideas. What dies, what is crucified is ego’s false image of itself – the false persona – along with the false, erroneous, or destructive values that ego tries to live by. In this view, Gnosticism seeks not perfection but wholeness.
Carrying the Jungian interpretation further, Gnosticism promotes the integration of the shadow (repressed “negative” aspects of the personality) by progressively exposing and dealing with the ignorant and destructive aspects of our nature. To approach wholeness, the gnostic practice seeks the “bringing together of the fragments.”
Naturally, whether this Jungian take on Gnosticism seems valid must, like all other spiritual truths, depend upon its sense of intuitive rightness.
22 thoughts on “Gnosticism Is Freelance Religion”
I enjoyed this — a very interesting take on gnosticism.
Thanks, Emily. I’m always delighted when someone enjoys a post!
Found it stimulating too.
Thomas, I really enjoyed this post. For years I haven’t found fulfillment in organized religions but didn’t feel that “Atheist” described my spirituality either. I appreciate the view that Gnosticism is a logical and valid practice and enjoy the idea that I am in good company on the seeker’s path.
For some years now, I have been watching weekly church attendance decline in America. The US is the last major Western nation to go through the process. I don’t know if you were ever a regular attendee, Puravida, but as you turn away from organized religion, you are joining an ever-growing tide of people who, rather than abandon faith altogether are looking for more-palatable spiritual paths. It is perhaps ironic that Gnosticism was a rich and viable alternative to dogma when the early Christian Church was founded, but the church Fathers chose to dismiss it as heresy and work aggressively to stamp it out.
Interesting post, Thomas. A question: I know that you are an atheist, but do you believe that religious sensibilities, Gnostic or otherwise, may serve a useful function in terms of psychology, personal happiness and fulfilment, and so on?
I am an atheist, Mari, and a rationalist as well. Both positions arise from a powerful need to see the cosmos as something that makes sense and that is, therefore, ultimately understandable. However, I recognize that these are my personal tools for relating to the world around me. Atheism and rationalism are two of my emotionally important ideas.
Others have dissimilar emotionally important ideas and therefore see the world in different ways. Humans are inescapably subjective when it comes to what we value. If someone has the emotionally important idea that a supreme being is behind everything, then that person is very likely to be overtly religious or practice what amounts to a Gnostic approach to spirituality. Albert Einstein needed the universe to make sense, just as I do, but he obviously believed there was a divine plan behind that orderliness.
I think “true believers” are misguided, but I respect their right to follow their own lights. Only by doing so can they become whole, achieve authenticity, and enjoy a sense of happiness and personal fulfilment. It is interesting to remember that believers have often pointed out that atheists and rationalists are seriously misguided! The big problem here is that both believers and unbelievers are so often unwilling to tolerate the opposing point of view.
This seems to me to be quite the opposite of true. The Gnostics of history always claimed hidden, objective knowledge. What you are describing is the rather hollow “I’m spiritual but not religious” tripe of the age.
Traditius, my post stems from the modern psychological understanding that scientifically non-verifiable spiritual beliefs are always subjective, regardless of how “objective” they may seem to their discoverers and / or followers.
There were numerous strains of Gnosticism, all of them independent, and while they may have shared a few basic beliefs, each went its own way. Many Gnostics were solitary believers who presumably had their own ideas. Little is known about any of this because the early believers in Christian orthodoxy ruthlessly destroyed virtually all evidence of Gnostic activities.
The notion of being spiritual but not religious is far from being “tripe.” The attitude is a valuable expression of a growing spirit of open-mindedness and tolerance where spirituality is concerned. It is recognition that spirituality is a personal matter.
If gnostic believers had their own individual beliefs then it is just as unfair for you to catagorize them as it is for me :). I respect your arguments, though they are the opposite of what I find rational. Science, constantly changing, is not a fair yardstick. And you must admit that at the extreme there is such a thing as being so open-minded that your brain falls out. If there is a connectedness between people of any kind, even a shared spirituality, then it cannot be wholly relative.
Traditius, my position is simply that modern spiritual seekers are like Gnostics in that they dislike the rigid dogma of organized religion and search for their own version of spirituality. Contemporary seekers are also turned off by the endless long-winded arguments about the fine points of dogma that so characterize the various churches and the more mystical strains of traditional Christianity.
My characterization – as opposed to categorization – of the Gnostic approach is based on what little is known of them and their practices. It is a useful approximation and nothing more. I think it is fair to say that many today have joined an ancient alternative to church-based spirituality without realizing that this is so. I included Jung’s views on Gnosticism and Christianity because I think they are an insightful and valid way of looking at the Christian faith.
I agree with you that it is possible to relativize yourself out of business. This occurs when you study many belief systems and then decide that each is equally meritorious. Since belief systems are often mutually exclusive (e.g. Christians have a single God, Buddhists and Taoists have no god, and Hindus have many gods), there is a tendency to end up believing none of them. The problem lies not with relativity but with unbelief.
I do believe in belief, but it has to be truly your own if it is to satisfy. Individuals must embark upon an inward search for personal beliefs that are already “on board.” Anything from “outside” must resonate with these personal already-acquired (when we were children) emotionally-important ideas before it is accepted. As we have seen, learned dogma wears off. In contrast, discovered genuine beliefs last a lifetime. This is the essence of true spirituality.
You are certainly free to characterize, and it is an interesting working premise. Further, the idea that unbelief is intellectually untenable is certainly shared.
I just posted a view on these topics over at my little blog (called Relative, at the top at the moment, http://www.traditium.com). My view, though, is that the search for personal truth is the one that wears off (being basically a relativistic journey from its very first step) and tends to leap from belief to belief with the whims of the ego, but that the discovery of objective truth is the one that lasts a lifetime :).
I enjoyed the discussion very much, and invite you to comment on my blog any time you please :).
I am a lower case ‘g’ gnostic in that I belong to no upper case ‘G’ movement, some of which, in my experience, aren’t gnostic at all as the members have just adopted an alternate belief system without understanding the ‘Inner Mysteries’. True gnosticism like true science is purely about knowing, not about having emotional attachments to beliefs, opinions or theories. The difference between the two is that gnosticism emphasises the inner world, while modern materialist science emphasises the outer.
The two key aims of gnosticism are the achievement of self-knowledge and conscious love within the individual (ultimately no different to any true mystical tradition of any culture). These two aims ultimately combine in the internal mystical (or alchemical) marriage, symbolised in ancient Gnosticism by Logos and Sophia. But we can equally say the union of the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine, or Yang and Yin, and so on. That union leads to a purer level of consciousness which is actually an octave above psyche. It is spiritual consciousness, but specifically the individual’s being of that consciousness in practical life. The great masters of all traditions achieved this state (and many others known and unknown besides), and it is where the evolution of human consciousness is leading.
But I’d like to make a crucial point about the use of the terms ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’. As has been discovered by at least some nuclear physicists, all human observation is ultimately subjective as all observations are the observations of a subjective human psyche. What we call ‘objectivity’ (as in scientific method) is really what I call the ‘primary subjectivity’ of objective observation. There are two ‘subjectivities’, primary and secondary, which I’ll try to explain as briefly as I can:
Secondary subjectivity within the individual arises through education (or psychological programming) and the culture one is raised in. Most individuals become emotionally attached to the positions taught them, and no amount of reasoning will convince them that their positions are illogical or without foundation. Richard Dawkins, who refers to himself as a fundamentalist atheist, is no freer from this dynamic than the fundamentalist religionist – indeed his emotional objection to religiosity is to me clearly what Jung would call shadow projection: he sees in those he emotionally dislikes the dark side of his own ‘dead’ right’ ego. His attitude is NOT scientific.
Primary subjectivity on the other hand comes about through the individual’s emotionally unprejudiced direct experience of either the inner or outer realms of our experience. For example as regards the outer world, one knows that one has a nose (if indeed one does have a nose!), and no belief, opinion or theory is required. Equally, re the inner world, one knows that one dreams and one knows that not all dreams are remembered. Again, no belief, opinion or theory is required. Both knowings can rightly be called self-knowledge or gnosis. But that direct knowing can reach much more deeply into the realms of the psyche and also to what I know through decades of direct experience lays beyond. As Jung said, he didn’t need to ‘believe in God’, he knew.
I’ll finalise this self-unexpected comment by pointing out a very important simple truth which is so often missed: belief, opinion and theory all indicate not knowing.
Thomas, I did enjoy your article as it was so refreshing to see an item on gnosticism which was not garbled with ‘secondary subjective’ theological babblings! I cringe every time that I read “the Gnostics believed”! No they didn’t, they knew. If anyone wants to understand gnosticism, read the gnostics, not non-gnostic scholars who have studied them but ultimately don’t understand them. True gnosticism (or mysticism) always emphasises a practical approach to life – both one’s inner and outer life – and when something is found to be impractical, it should be chucked.
Many thanks, Princewao, for taking the time to make such a detailed and thoughtful comment. You have presented your gnostic knowledge very well indeed and I think spiritual seekers will find it very useful. I see some areas where my own knowledge and beliefs differ so I’m going to present a few more ideas for interested readers to chew on.
First, it may not be possible to separate emotions from knowledge. Recent cognitive research has shown that the human brain stores its “data” (sensory experiences, images, memories, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and so on) in what are known as emotional-cognitive structures. That is, each item has an emotional “tag” associated with it; said tag, or feeling tone, being a reflection of how the person felt at the time the item was stored. The brain organizes its emotional cognitive structures according to those emotional tags. It adds new items to structures with similar feeling tones. It retrieves items in the same way, which explains why it is easier to recall things if you are in the same mood as when you experienced (stored) them. The whole setup is irretrievably soaked in emotion. Our brains simply work this way.
I would interpret your marriage of Logos and Sophia from a more basic and practical psychological perspective. Logos is logic and awareness, the conscious mind, and Sophia is personal intuitive wisdom, the unconscious mind. The union of the two, Jung’s mysterium coniunctionis, leads to the wholeness and authenticity of an integrated psyche. This is not something for great masters or future evolution, but attainable by anyone with the courage to face the rigours of a journey of self-discovery and individuation. (Although Jung did say the journey was not for everyone.)
Your remarks about quantum scientists and subjectivity touch a sore spot with me. I feel that this particular branch of science is leading people astray with inappropriate mystical pronouncements based on an exaggeration of the significance of their rather obscure work. The trouble here is simply that obscure science attracts those in love with the mystical feeling tone. That most of the early quantum mechanics researchers were mystical types is well known. I have no problem with people being mystics, but I do object to the notion that science provides proof that mystical beliefs are true.
Like Richard Dawkins, I am a *devout* atheist. As I have pointed out above, we are all emotionally bound to our beliefs whether we realize this or not. There can be no “emotionally unprejudiced direct experience.” The way our brains work makes this impossible. However, this is not to say that we cannot know anything. It simply means we each know things in our own uniquely “flavoured” way. What we call objective knowledge lies in those areas where we are all able to share the abstract aspects of what we know. Two plus two is four regardless of how we feel about it.
This is the real reason why *everything* is ultimately subjective at some level. Each of us attaches a different feeling tone to particular bits of knowledge.
I think your annoyance with what you refer to as “secondary subjectivity” is an objection to passionately held beliefs. Whether or not we like it, there is no way to prevent people from forming strong emotional attachments to what they believe. They have every right to do this, and as creative people constantly demonstrate, the practice can be extremely productive and rewarding.
Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light and commented:
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Very interesting article, Thomas. What came to mind right at the start was a sort of “Christian Gnosticism” I’ve observed recently in American religious thought. This manifests to an extent in non-denominational church congregations, but most of them definitely adhere to at the very least Christian scripture as an authoritative source of knowledge, which doesn’t quite match your definition of Gnosticism as a freelance/individual spirituality. I would say it even more so manifests in the so called “anti-denominational” or “anti-religious” Jesus-ism movement. Jefferson Bethke’s hit video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” is the most prominent example of this. Jesus-ism, to an extent, fits the definition of Gnosticism because it revolves around personal discovery and individual revelation. Jesus-ists, then, are really just Gnostics who all arrive at a very similar spirituality. I guess the point of this comment is just to acknowledge what I’ve perceived as a recent gray area between Christian thought and Gnosticism.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jacob. I like your idea of a grey area between Christian thought and Gnosticism. Many Jesusists seem to reject traditional Christian doctrine or dogma where it has to do with God (the Father), yet they are willing to pledge allegiance to Jesus (the Son); or at least to his teachings. I think this may have something to do with present day morality with its emphasis on tolerance and good works (making a difference). Modern attitudes are much more in line with the gentler wisdom of Christ than with the harsher tenets of the Old Testament. We prefer to rehabilitate rather than take an eye for an eye. Self-discovery fits well with Gnosticism when it involves an honest and vigorous process of looking within, and today’s emphasis on the casual and unstructured leads inevitably to a do-it-yourself approach.