In a world that presents religion and atheism as the only possible outlooks on life—and pits them against each other—I rebelled by becoming a Gnostic… a very different option indeed.
I used to refer to myself as an agnostic—someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God. I used this as a safe haven to avoid the ridiculous debates between modern militant atheists and the radical religious right, both blindly believing in their own paradigms.
Ironically, my atheist peers repeatedly criticized my position on the spiritual fence, which I strategically used to avoid confrontation. I can thank them for forcing me to go well beyond my scientific education and my ambivalent agnosticism. I’m now pursing a newfound interest in studying the history of ancient religions with an inquisitive yet discerning mind.
I’ve now stopped referring to myself as agnostic after learning about the original meaning of the word. The word agnostic comes from the ancient Greek “ágnōstos,” which means without knowledge or ignorant. In contrast, the Greek word “gnosis” means knowledge or understanding. The more I learn about the roots of cultures and religions, the more I’m becoming “gnostic” in the many senses of the word.
“Ignorance is a slave, knowledge ( gnosis) is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us. If we join it, it will fulfill us.” – The Gospel of Philip, Nag Hammadi Codex.
The Wisdom of Gnosis
In Gnosticism and in many other mystical traditions, gnosis generally refers to a spiritual self-knowledge, a type of redeeming, revelatory inner knowledge that extends to the basic nature of man, his origin and destiny. This concept is also present in Hinduism, where knowing the “Atman” is synonymous with self-realization and God, as well as the secret to attaining the goal of enlightenment.
But who were the Gnostics? Until recently, only fragmentary information was available, mostly from their opponents the Roman Empire, and later the Orthodox Christians, who considered them heretics. They used the term “Gnostics” to categorize many different ancient religions, which shared common beliefs. The Gnostics were heavily persecuted… and their literature, a rich body of work spanning many philosophical and spiritual traditions, was systematically destroyed.
The Gnostic religions flourished between the 1st and 4th century, developing from a relatively independent Hellenistic religion of late antiquity into a Christian heresy. Gnosticism is thought to have first emerged in the Palestinian-Syrian region and then spread into Asia Minor, Greece and Egypt, Iran and even China. They were influenced by many pre-Christian religious and spiritual beliefs such as Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Buddhism, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions and Zoroastrianism.
The independence and fearlessness of the Gnostics was seen as a threat to those in power, yet the Gnostics had no political motivations or aspirations. The majority were ascetics and vegetarians, and had an attitude of world denial. This was a form of social protest—the most radical of its kind in antiquity.
Women often held leadership positions within the Gnostic sects as teachers, prophetesses and missionaries, as well as leading rituals, such as baptisms and exorcisms. These practices were barred to women in the official Christian church, which took offense at the special status of women in Gnostic communities.
“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.” – Gospel of Philip, Nag Hammadi Codex.
An Evil Creator God, and a True Higher Deity
The Gnostics believed that the world was created by an evil Demiurge, usually identified with the Old Testament creator God, Jehovah. The true, Higher God was unknowable, infinite, unchangeable and undefiled, and had a feminine counterpart, the creative force or Holy Spirit, Sophia. The True God existed before the Demiurge, which was an accidental creation of Sophia, thrown out of heaven but bestowed with the power of creation.
The Demiurge had entrapped the spirit into matter, and man was caught in a battle between good and evil here on earth. Gnosis, enlightenment or true knowledge could free humanity from the bondage of the physical world and redeem the spirit. The “Christianized” Gnostics believed that Jesus came from the True God and Holy Spirit rather than the Demiurge, and therefore revealed the Higher God to humanity.
Hidden Manuscripts Rediscovered Against All Odds
The Gnostic legacy was mostly eradicated from history, until the groundbreaking Nag Hammadi discovery. Previous to this, the main sources of information on the Gnostics were from their opponents. These accounts barely filled 50 printed pages, and contained biased and inaccurate information.
It is increasingly recognized that the Gnostics produced some of the first Christian theological literature, a body of work that was much greater than that of the Catholic Church. However, we are left with only fragmentary evidence of their history and beliefs, and it is impossible to sketch a complete picture of the history of Gnosis.
In 1947, a large clay jar with ancient manuscripts were discovered in a cave by a local peasant who was digging for fertilizer in the area of Nag Hammadi, on the West Bank of the Dead Sea in Upper Egypt. These manuscripts were concealed at a time of crisis around the 4th century AD.
Written in Coptic, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts had been translated from original documents dating back to the 2nd-3rd century. The modern translation and publication of the scrolls were only brought to completion around 1977. The Nag Hammadi discovery was one of the most important and extensive finds of recent times, and they are the best source of information that we currently possess about the Gnostics.
The contents of the library include many Hermetic texts, including parts of the Corpus Hermeticum, as well as early Christian apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Secret Book of John and the Gospel of Philip. They describe sayings and stories about the life of Jesus and of the apostles. Other writings deal with divine feminine spiritual principles, mythological texts about creation and salvation and commentaries on Gnostic themes.
“Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.” – Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi Codex
Ancient Wisdom in Modern Times
We currently live in a time of spiritual malaise, especially in the west. Excessive materialism and consumerism, rising rates of mental illness and a loss of the sense of community are just some of the symptoms. Rekindling a spiritual inner life and a Gnostic “heart knowledge” may be part of the cure to our modern unease and anxiety.
The modern “new atheists” believe that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” (Simon Hooper). However, I believe that this is extremely discriminatory towards the religious and cultural heritage of many peoples throughout history. Persecution and eradication of the rich literature of the Gnostics is just one example the catastrophic losses of knowledge and suppression of cultures by those in power.
Furthermore, the modern scientist often forgets that religion and spirituality has been irrevocably indispensable to the development of modern chemistry, medicine, philosophy and psychology. My previous articles are filled with examples of this relationship (here, here, here).
Learning about the Gnostics has been a reaction to the modern atheist perspective, and is just one small chapter in my study of ancient spiritual traditions. Gnostic literature demonstrates both the diversity of the spiritual experience, and the close relationships with other spiritual and mystical traditions.
Thanks to my atheist peers, I have left behind my ambivalent agnosticism and come out of the spiritual closet with an integrative and tolerant perspective on science, religion and spirituality. I would say I’m now an “alltheist”—someone who believes in everything.
“In this world you see everything but yourself, but there [in the spirit], you look at yourself and are what you see.” – The Gospel of Philip, Nag Hammadi Codex