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What is Gnosticism: About

Good question, right? Well, it's also one that's not so easily answered - so let's start with the basics.*

The Gnostic traditions first emerged in Late Antiquity as syncretic and at time countercultural spiritualities that were often built around the radical reinterpretation of earlier texts and traditions, alongside the message of a divine Saviour. 'Gnosticism' itself, rather than being a single religion, is more correctly described as a family of mystical spiritual traditions (each of which took the below points in their own particular directions, see the menu above for more information on these) with certain definitive traits in common. It can be defined in one of two ways, either socialogically as a family of inter-related traditions with a possible common source, or typologically as a set of spiritualities defined by common traits - spiritual ideas that, to Gnostics, are common truths. Both approaches have merit, but neither is perfect - that said, for the sake of both clarity and brevity, let's take a look at it using the latter.

1. A belief in hidden salvific knowledge, and in personal experiental revelation of the divine - gnosis.

2. A pronounced spirit/matter duality with a negative view of the latter. In most Gnostic traditions this duality was produced by a divine mistake or catastrophe that resulted in both the genesis of the material world and its imperfect nature (see the fall of Sophia and other such accounts).

3. A 'Demiurgic' figure(s) responsible for shaping the material cosmos - who is not only seperate from the highest transcendent God (the Monad), but in fact quite far removed from such.

4. An descending emanationist scheme of divine beings (Aeons) that stretches from the highest unknowable God, down to the material world.

5. A belief in a Saviour/revealer figure(s), who has descended from the Pleroma (the divine, spiritual world) in order to help free humanity and teach salvific gnosis.

6. A belief in a 'divine spark' (Pneuma) carried within us all. A piece of the divine sundered from its source, which in station is exalted far above the material world in which it finds itself, and which longs to escape the cycle of incarnation in order to return to its home in the Pleroma above. As such, to the ancient Gnostics, knowledge of God and knowledge of the self were but one and the same.

The late, great scholar Gershom Scholem had this to say on the subject: "We can suggest a concept of three stages in the development of religion. The first stage is mythic consciousness, where the gods, man, and the cosmos are fused together in an indistinguishable unity. the second stage is the religion of revelation that breaks the mythic unity and opens a huge abyss between man, God, and the cosmos. The third stage is when mysticism seeks ways of overcoming the gap and restores to some extent the unity of the mythic stage. Mysticism becomes therefore a resurgance of myth, challenging the main achievement of the religion of revelation. This 'revenge of the myth upon its conqueror' corresponds exactly to one of the main characteristics of Gnosticism."

Now that you've read the above points regarding what Gnosticism is, take a look at our page on what Gnonsticism isn't.​

*With thanks to professors Birger Pearson, April DeConick, John Turner, Cristoph Markschies and Dylan Burns, whose views have been taken into account for the above. Luminaries, all.

What is Gnosticism: About
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