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Gnosticism: Gnosticism from the Middle Ages to the Present


To a large extent Gnosticism in antiquity and later is part of a discourse meant to determine "the other" as "heretic" for the sake of shaping an identity for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic orthodoxies. Hence, when discussing Gnosticism in any period of the history of religions, it must be kept in mind that one is dealing with the construction of a worldview that always served to emphasize "difference" in order to exclude individuals and groups from the "legitimate." Since late antiquity, certain forms of thought and, in particular, combinations of certain forms of thought, have been perceived as undesirable and therefore heretical. The undesirable elements that made up Gnostic heresies were the division of the world and humankind into a realm of light and a realm of darkness, individual (i.e. not church-controlled) encratism, individual spiritual charisma, and sometimes a blurring of gender boundaries.

The Notion of Gnosticism in the Context of Western Culture

Although the emerging Christian orthodoxies succeeded in defeating the Gnostic trends inherent in their cultural and religious heritage, Gnosticism did survive and made considerable contributions to the European (including the Jewish component) as well as to the Islamic history of ideas.

Following the suppression of larger Gnostic movements from the second to the mid-fourth century ce, the earliest Gnostic-type heretic appears to be Priscillian of Ávila, consecrated as bishop in 380, done away with as a heretic in 385. The case of this very erudite Spanish nobleman shows how Christian orthodoxy confined itself by banishing from Christian thought and practice cosmological and anthropological dualism, unauthorized religious authority, non-institutional encratism, and the quest for class and gender equality. From this point, Gnostic patterns of thought and belief are particularly noticeable in subversive, counterculture movements. A number of historians of religions and philosophers share the opinion that Gnosticism as a form of thought ought not to be limited to the full-blown systems of later antiquity, but can also be applied to other currents. This opinion relies on a certain view of a mainstream Western culture. According to this view, Western culture is world-affirming in that, first, there is a link between the universe and a positively acknowledged God as its creator and second, divine providence has determined this world as the place for humankind. Against this background, Gnosticism is often defined as a Weltanschauung that rejects this basic affirmation, hence its countercultural character. Interpreted in this mode, Gnosticism appears as "foreignness of the world" (Weltfremdheit, according to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk) or "metaphysical revolt" (Sloterdijk and Macho, 1991).

The Dynamics of Monism and Dualism in Gnosticism

The impact of Gnostic thought on the Western history of ideas is most obvious in the appearance of dualistic heresies during the Middle Ages, but can by no means be limited to them. On the contrary, Gnosticism can only be understood fully when one gives weight to the dynamics of dualism and monism in this distinct type of world-view. This is particularly important in dealing with neo-Gnosticism, because most of the transmission of Gnostic themes from antiquity through the Middle Agesincluding medieval Islam and early modern Europeremains obscure. The subliminal but seemingly ever-present potential for new Gnostic uprisings may be explained by Gnosticism's basis in more acceptable mystical versions of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faith.

The core of Gnostic theology appears to be an all-encompassing God who is described in negative terms (such as immeasurable, invisible, and ineffable) and who therefore must be completely detached from the cosmos. The concept of an anti-God(often identified with the God of the Old Testament) evolves primarily out of a Gnostic group's identity struggle with its broader cultic milieu. This pattern can be detected throughout the history of Gnosticism and explains the sometimes sudden revivals of rebellious dualistic separatism. Whereas monism is usually expressed through philosophical speculation and theories, Gnostic dualism is communicated through mythsusually creation mythsthat transform the rejection and persecution members experience into a vivid metaphysical drama. These myths relate the origins of the Gnostic people in purely spiritual realms of the silent god, the fall of one of his creatures, and the subsequent evolution of psychic and physical layers of existence, where orthodox opponents reside. The fallen figuresthe Primal Man (in Jewish Gnosticism and in Manichaeism), Sophia or Lucifer (in Christian Gnosticism), Kūni or Iblīs (in Islamic Gnosticism)deserve special attention, for according to Gnostic understanding they can also provide salvation. This concept of salvation obviously points to the monistic matrix from which Gnostic dualism develops.

The peculiar dynamics of dualistic myths and monistic mysticisms may explain why some world-friendly religious movements have been characterized as Gnostic. Although Christian mysticism describes an internal path of the individual soul to God, the label "Gnosticism" has also been applied to attempts at knowing God and the spiritual through the world, emphasizing the word through. Actually, it would be more adequate to classify such efforts as "Hermetic." Gnosticism and Hermeticism were closely intertwined in late antiquity, and Manichaeism, as well as some texts found in Nag Hammadi (e.g. Asclepius; On the Origin of the World; The Paraphrase of Shem ), reveal a generally pro-cosmic attitude. Interest in Hermeticism was renewed in the Renaissance and taken up by Christian heretics. In early modern times this led to a new fusion of Hermetic ideas with Christian Gnosis, which was called Pansophy (Overall Wisdom) or Natural Philosophy.

Developments of Jewish and Islamic Gnosis in the Early Middle Ages

Jewish speculative and apocalyptic thought provided a rich source of semi-Gnostic cosmologies during the Middle Ages. Gnostic thought was communicated through the circulation of the Sefer Yetsira, edited probably in the ninth century. The text is essentially non-dualistic, showing the earliest roots of the Qabbalistic systems, which appeared in fully developed systems some centuries later.

Gnostic, Manichaean, Jewish, and Christian messianic ideas are likely to have influenced the first representatives of Shīʿah Gnosis. Just as Simon Magus was the archheretic of Christian Gnosis, the archheretic of Islamic ghulūw ("exaggeration") was ʾAbdallāh ibn Sabaʾ al-Hamdānī. The only available biographical information about him says that he was of Jewish origin, a follower of the prophet Muammad's son, the martyr ʾAli. He taught in the Iraqi town Kūfa that ʾAli had not really died but would reappear as the Mahdi in order to establish the kingdom of God.

Shīʿah movements, such as the Ismāʿīlīs, tend to endow their inspired messengers and salvational figures with cosmological significance. The Kitāb al-Kashf (Book of Disclosure ), for example, relates the Ismāʿīlīs doctrine of the seven imāms (interpreters of divine teachings and themselves of otherworldly origin) to a cosmology with Qabbalistic traits, according to which God first created the letters of the alphabet. He creates them initially in two heptads (lines of seven). The first one corresponds to the prophets acknowledged widely by Shīʿah movements: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muammad, and the Mahdi, who is still to come. The second heptad corresponds to the seven Ismāʿīlīs imāms. As in the Qabbalah, the cosmos is symbolized by script. Another early Ismāʿīlīs tractate, the Book of the Heptad and the Shadows (Kitāb al-haft wa al-ailla), describes how God creates seven heavens and paradises, which are also, although more vaguely, connected to the imām s.

Christian Dualistic Heresies during the Middle Ages

After the case of Priscillian in the fourth century, the Byzantine as well as the Catholic orthodoxy succeeded in suppressing features considered Gnostic, but when people started to question the socio-economic order and the religious and intellectual premises upholding it, interest in ancient alternative forms of Christianity was renewed, particularly in the major European cities.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, adherents of Gnostic ideas who were fleeing church persecution sought refuge in Armenia. By the end of the seventh century, the Paulician movement emerged in Armenia and the northern regions of Syria. The movement's name was probably derived from their high regard for the apostle Paul. The first Paulician known to us by name was Constantine of Mananalis; he was said to have received his teachings in Samosata on the upper Euphrates. The Paulicians combined radicalized Pauline ideas with strong, even militant, demands for the Byzantine church to act in accordance with the early Christian idealization of poverty. Persecuted by both Christians and Muslims, the Paulicians were nearly destroyed in the eighth century but managed to gain importance again under the reformer Sergius Tychikos (d. 835). A large number of them were killed during the reign of the Byzantine empress Theodora, but Paulicianism survived in remote areas of the Byzantine Empire. The last retreat for Paulicians was Thrace, where their presence was still recorded in 1116.

Another dualistic movement containing unequivocally Gnostic elements burst forth in medieval Bulgaria under the influence of the Paulician mission. This heresy was named after its founder Bogomil, who was a village priest in the region south of Skopje, today belonging to Macedonia. The Bogomilian uprising took place in the second half of the tenth century, when southern parts of Bulgaria (which during the Middle Ages included wide areas of the Balkan between the Black and the Adriatic Seas) were being reconquered by Byzantium. As in the case of Paulicianism, the struggle of the Bogomils was not only one of heresy against orthodoxy, but also involved politics and social concerns. Paulicians and Bogomils were mostly peasants, whereas the Byzantine orthodoxy represented the land-owning ruling classes.

Cosmological and anthropological dualism, antinomianism, docetism, anticlericalism, encratism, and dietary restrictions characterized Bogomilism. Its mythic repertory clearly shows a derivation from ancient sources. According to the Bogomilian story of creation, God brought forth the four elements of fire, water, earth, and air and established his divine kingdom, which consisted of seven heavens inhabited by the angels. The angels were supposed to serve God and to fight on his behalf. One of them, Satanael, rebelled against the creator and therefore was banished to Earth. As a result, Satanael created a world for himself, separating water and earth. Although sunlight was of divine origin, Satanael brought forth the other forces of nature, such as rain, wind, and thunderstorms. Then he created life-forms and human beings as his servants. In the process, he managed to confine a number of angels in material bodies. As a consequence, human beings partake of the divine as well as the satanic creation, so that the cosmic dualism of good and evil is inherent in each person. Like Gnostic movements of antiquity, the Bogomils had their own Christology. Christ was one of the divine ambassadors sent out to humankind to promote its salvation. He took human shape through his mother Mary but was never human in his essence. In order to prevent Christ's mission, Satanael arranged for his crucifixion, but Christ's suffering was only superficial. Three days after the crucifixion, Christ appeared on Earth again, put Satanael in chains, and cast him into hell. Nevertheless, Satanael escaped and renewed his reign on earth, with the help of worldly rulers and orthodox theologians.

Gnostic or Manichaean mythology must have survived in the frontier districts of the Roman Empire and mixed with local religious traditions, particularly with a pagan belief in spirits, which appear as demons in the Bogomilian belief. It is impossible, however, to determine more precisely what forces shaped the Bogomilian world-view. From the Bulgarian regions, Bogomilism spread to Thrace and Asia Minor and reached the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century as an underground movement. Here it changed its character and spread among members of the middle classes and even within monastic communities. Bogomilian missionaries had a great deal of success during the twelfth century, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, where orthodox church structures were weak. The Bogomils began to develop a church-like hierarchy themselves, but as a consequence they lost their attractiveness for the peasantry, which had made up the core of the movement. Hence, in the thirteenth century it started to decline. However, the final extinction of Bogomilism in Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor only took place with the conquest of these areas by the emerging Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile Bogomilism had also spread westwards, probably mainly through refugees from the Balkan areas, to northern Italy and the South of France and contributed to the emergence of the Cathar movement. Like Bogomilism in the East, Catharism in Western Europe was a reservoir of heretical and folkloristic currents, loosely bound up by Gnostic-type cosmological mythologies that located metaphysical evil on the side of the Catholic Church. However, a lot of eleventh-century sectarians continued to go to the official church and to take sacraments. Their somewhat ambiguous attitude has been called crypto-heretic. Cathars also strongly venerated parts of the scripture. Although they rejected most of the Old Testament, they used the Gospel of John and the Apocalypse of John for dualistic and allegorical exegesis. In addition, the Cathars used apocryphal texts.

Although the Cathar myths and theological creeds closely resembled those of the Bogomils, they were less opposed to organization and more inclined to form their own well-ordered, although decentralized, communities. Cathar churches were established in northern Italy and southern France. They consisted of two classes of people: the pure perfecti, who could not get involved in any worldly affairs, did not marry, and were strongly committed to a selective vegetarian diet. Even the permitted plants had to be prepared by the credentes, the ordinary adherents of Catharism, who were allowed to marry and work for the sake of the community.

Despite local persecutions during the eleventh century, the Cathar churches spread widely through the southern and central parts of Western Europe. A particular stronghold emerged in the area of Toulouse, where the popularity of Catharism coincided with a supportive political situation. Because of power shifts in France, a political vacuum developed in the area of Toulouse. A local ruler tried to fill the void and made Catharism the state religion of his territory. This situation provoked a massive response against the Cathars. A crusade was organized against them in 1208 and a second one in 1227. The latter resulted in the fall of Montségur in 1244, the last place of refuge for a large Cathar community. Small, scattered groups survived in the southern European mountain regions for about another century.

Medieval Qabbalah

Medieval Qabbalah, which reached its climax at the end of the thirtheenth century with the Zohar (Book of Glow), clearly shows Gnostic tendencies but never resulted in a mature cosmological dualism. On the contrary, the Zohar presents the construction of the universe as a (however fragile) harmony of divine forces. No element was viewed as essentially evil or satanic, but there was an inherent danger within the system that one of the sefirot (aspects of God) might become independent. Gnosticism claimed that this had already happened in the creation process, but the Zohar did not.

The Qabbalist who came closest to Gnostic concepts was Isaac Luria (15341572). He taught a small circle of adherents in Safed. Lurianic Qabbalah was very influential for its doctrine of tsimtsum. According to this doctrine, God "contracts" within himself, thus creating a space that is deprived of God and can be filled up with creation. In his description of the further process of creation, Luria employed the Gnostic dualistic pattern of the fundamental opposition between light and darkness: The first human being (Adam Kadmun ) emerges from the divine light that radiated into the space emptied by tsimtsum. Out of Adam Kadmun's face flashed the sefirot -lights, which were supposed to be collected in vessels prepared for them. Some of these vessels, however, broke and were then filled up with dark matter, while their fragments fell down, void of creation.

Pansophy and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern Times

Renaissance scholarship and philosophy in Western Europe was profoundly influenced by Qabbalah and Hermeticism but did not develop the world-denying and rebellious overtones typical of dualistic Gnostic mythologies.

Mythic, dualistic gnosis was once more recognizable in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Germany. There the enormous influence of Paracelsus (c. 14931541) had created an intellectual climate that offered a fertile soil for Gnostic currents. Paracelsian Pansophy (Overall Wisdom) prepared the way for German natural philosophy, which was mainly concerned with integrating nature into Lutheran theology. To natural philosophers, it seemed obvious that not only humankind, but also nature as a whole, is incomplete when measured against the original divine plan for creation. In order to explain this gap and to develop a strategy of salvation for fallen nature, the philosophers drew upon Gnostic mythology. The most creative and impressive new version of Gnostic cosmogonic myth was put forward by Jakob Böhme (15751624) In his visionary exegesis of biblical texts, Böhme resembled ancient Gnostic authors. According to him, nature had been born out of the original abyss and developed in seven stages. These stages corresponded to the Qabbalistic sefirot, which Böhme also referred to as Source-Spirits (Quellgeister ). The first Source-Spirit to emerge from the abyss of nothingness was Desire; followed by the goad of Sensibility (Stachel der Empfindlichkeit ); then by Anxiety (Angst) or Feeling (Gemüt); by Fire or Spirit; by Light or Love; by Resonance (Hall), Word, or Mind (Verstand); and by Body, Being, or Material Nature. The Godhead, in this process of unfolding, shows itself as a dynamic, dramatic, and even dialectical primal aetherical substance from which the immaterial as well as the material world take form. However, God is not fully responsible for the existence of matter. Matter came into being as a result of the fall of the rebellious angel Lucifer, who refused subordination to a higher will, just as the primal androgynous human being would do later. In his theology, Böhme avoided cosmological dualism. The fall took place within the one and only essentially divine realm. Instead of making Lucifer and the primal androgyn genuinely evil forces, Böhme emphasizes the role of divine freedom that can be used in accordance with the will of the Godhead or against it.

Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (17021782), another important representative of German nature-philosophy, studied Böhme thoroughly and was also acquainted with Lurianic Qabbalah. For him, God represented life as a unity and interplay of different forces and possibilities. In the Godhead, the components of this complex interplay are indissolubly interwoven, whereas in nature they can be separated. The human fall, according to Oetinger, has no cosmological grounds but was rather a misperception. Oetinger's emphasis on insight as a prerequisite for salvation could be construed as Gnostic, Oetinger's definition of insight is different. Oetinger's Gnosis is one of synopsis (Zentralerkenntnis ) in order to perceive the inherent unity of nature and God. Gnosticism in the narrower, dualistic sense, on the contrary, means by Gnosis the recognition of the two fundamentally opposing realms of light and darkness.

The Theme of the Revolutionary against God

The metaphysical revolt that is often ascribed to Gnosticism is a rebellion not against God's creation, but rather against the limitations of knowledge. In Genesis, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The snake, who convinced Eve to violate this prohibition, was often interpreted as the devil or Satan in younger sources. In their typical mode of re-evaluating biblical traditions, some Gnostics interpreted Satan as a positive figure who wanted to bring human beings divine knowledge, which the Old Testament God maliciously withheld from them. In various biblical and apocryphal traditions, Satan is equated with Lucifer, or the Islamic Iblīs. Other despisers of God's law, Cain in particular, also evoked Gnostic sympathy.

The theme of the light-bringing revolutionary has inspired several prominent authors. John Milton (16081674) and Johann Wolfgang Goethe (17491832) both show a great fascination with the rebellious angel who become the devil. In his epic Paradise Lost (1667), Milton described with a great deal of empathy Satan's expulsion from the heavenly realm, his renewed advance toward it, and his seduction of Eve. Goethe, who throughout his life was dissatisfied with Christian doctrine, created a personal theology. At the end of the eighth book of his autobiographical work Dichtung und Wahrheit (18111833), he introduces a myth that is clearly an imitation of Gnostic models: A primal Godhead creates another Divine Being as a reflection of itself and then a third one as a reflection of the two. When the fourth being is created, it no longer resembles the three preceding ones, thus introducing difference and contradiction to the divine world. The fourth being is Lucifer, who then creates his own worlds and forgets his origin. His pride and conceit finally cause his fall. In Goethe's drama Faust (17901832), the figure of the devil, here named Mephisto, plays a crucial role and is considered important for humankind's search for knowledge and spiritual development, although in the end he shall not triumph by possessing the human soul completely.

The fallen angel appears again in Alphonse de Lamartine's La Chute d'un ange (1838). Here the angel Cédar asks God to let him become a human being, because he wants to win the love of a woman. The epic was conceived as the first part of a comprehensive account of the fate of humankind from its divine origins through the many failures recorded in history. Apart from La chute d'un ange, Lamartine wrote only the final part of this epic, Jocelyn (1836), about a woman who dies as a result of caring for those sick with the plague.

Victor Hugo (18021885) undertook a similar narrative of human history in his La légende des siècles (1859), but the story lacks the typically Gnostic idea of light before darkness. However, Hugo's interpretation of history as a mythic battle between two hostile principles and his empathy for the Cain may remind the reader of Gnostic attitudes.

Gnosticism and Romanticism

Natural philosophy was still of considerable importance in the age of European and North American Romanticism. Emphasis had shifted, however, from the concordance of God and nature to the power of the self, which could be equated with the human being, the divinity, or nature. By viewing the self as the creative source of everything, the Romantics transcended the traditional Christian boundaries separating the individual, God, and the world. Their aim was a new unity centered in the self, which led them to face yet another dichotomy, that of the personal and the all-self. The Romantic experience of a multifaceted, at times fragmented, human self gave rise to new dualistic concepts that could be extended to the whole cosmos. Again we see that dualistic Gnostic systems are products not only of speculative pessimistic minds, but also of social unrest. In London, the Gordon Riots of June 1780 were suppressed in an effort to avert a larger revolutionary movement such as that which soon followed in France. English authors took up Gnostic metaphors to serve as mouthpieces for revolutionary ideas. William Blake (17571827) developed a unique allegorical approach to biblical texts and rewrote various aspects of the creation story in a Gnostic fashion. Blake avoided cosmological dualism, but his esteem for the free and independent human spirit, which he shared with many other Romantic poets, let him take up the typical Gnostic motif of the Divine Man. The Divine Man was in essence God himself and provoked the envy of some of the angels. In Blake's works, this figure is named Albion (a symbol for England) Orc (another name for Lucifer), Jesus Christ, or Prometheus. Orc rebels against Urizen, who represents both George III and his rule in Britain and also the Father-god of the Old Testament. Orc brings the new social order that is expected to be established with the return and reign of Christ. In his most highly acclaimed poetic work, Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley (17921822) presents Prometheus as a symbol of hope for the suppressed and wretched masses in English cities during the time of industrialization.

Many Romantics were engaged with the dark side of beingwith night as the fold of existence, and with death and its various stages of fading and decay. In some cases this resulted in a semi-Gnostic denigration of nature and the conditions of human life, which became the typical features of Romantic Weltschmerz (pain or melancholy about the world). For example, in Dialogue of Nature and an Icelander, Giacomo Leopardi (17981837) depicts nature as a pitiless persecutor of desperate humans and concludes that it is impossible to discover the meaning of a universe that sustains itself by regularly killing its inhabitants. Because of this conclusion, Leopardi cannot be called a Gnostic. Gnostic pessimism typically features a refractory dualism: The good and meaningful exist in the realm of light and in souls that become aware of their divine origin. Leopardi, however, rejects not only the goodness of this-worldly creation, but the existence of goodness and meaningfulness anywhere. Lord Byron's (17881824) poetry, too, lacks the rebellious spirit of mythic Gnosticism that believes that a better world can be achieved. Byron's Cain is guided by Lucifer to see a meaningless world that is created not by demonic forces, but by the human self.

Other important representatives of Romantic Weltschmerz were Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), whose philosophy was inspired more by Buddhism than by Gnosticism, and Mihai Eminescu (18501889), who praised the Romantic genius as the only possible surmounter of the weary world.

Gnosticism, Anti-Semitism, and Racism

By the end of the nineteenth century, extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic groups emerging in Germany co-opted Romanticism for their own purposes. They reshaped the Romantic worldview so that the decisive force in the world was no longer the human self, but race. In the 1920s and 1930s various trends culminated in a mixture of racism and esotericism, called Ariosophy (Wisdom of the Aryans). The Aryan myth was very simple. In its various versions, it told a story about the original dwelling places of the Aryanseither Thule (an island in the North Sea close to the pole but also equated with Iceland) or Shambala (located in Central Asia, most often in the Tibetan mountains)to which they had come as survivors of Atlantis. The Aryans were characterized only by their physical appearance: they were supposed to have light skin and blond hair, and their only "ethical" requirement was to keep their race pure. Their racial purity made them superior to all other races. Hence, the Aryans were called to fight the forces that could contaminate their pure race, which meant that they should fight other races. The Aryans considered the Jews, who, according to the myth, had begun to infiltrate the Aryan race with alien blood and spirit the race most hostile and dangerous to them. According to Artur Dinter (18761948), an author who wrote extensively about religious ideas coming out of the Völkische Bewegung, the Jews were the lowest incarnations of originally spiritual beings after the fall. Therefore, Dinter explained, the Jews were intensely inclined to the material world and bound up with it. Thus, the racial battle between Jews and Aryans was interpreted as a battle between matter (darkness) and spirit (light). The hijacking of a mythic pattern known from Gnosticsm for an ideological foundation of radical anti-Semitism is not as surprising as it may seem, for the Jews were shown as descendents of the demiurge, the Old Testament God and antagonist of the realm of light in Gnostic myths from the second and third centuries ce.

Gnosticism in Modern and Postmodern Philosophy

A number of important currents and themes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy have been related to patterns of thought derived from Gnosticism: the Hegelian theory of consciousness and knowledge, the Marxist doctrine of dialectical rather than logical progress in history; the death of God proclaimed by nihilism, the epistemological arguments of phenomenology, the notion of the human self in existentialism, and several features of postmodernism.

Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (17701831) outlined a universal theory according to which history is a process of the Divine Spirit becoming conscious of itself. This process is executed in three steps: First the Spirit is enclosed in itself, second it separates from itself and recognizes itself as "other," and third of the Divine Spirit integrates his experience by means of a return of the formerly differentiated aspect, which leads to an affirmation at a higher level. The first step parallels the dwelling of purely intelligible beings in the Gnostic pleroma, the second parallels the alienation of the spirit as the psychic and material world, and the third parallels state of Gnosis, the spiritual knowledge of the self about itself.

Karl Marx (18181883) adopted the Hegelian idea about dialectical development but imbued it with a materialistic instead of an idealistic conception of the world. Moreover, Marx stated explicitly that the knowledge about dialectics was not to be promoted in order to analyze the world, but to change it. According to Hegel, knowledge as a concluding synthesis about dialectical progression was still possible for an individual mind, but for Marx and other intellectual leaders of the Communist movement it was only possible as a totality of social practice. Some interpreters (Eric Voegelin and Boris Groys, for example) view this practical knowledge or wisdomas opposed to various competing forms of analytical knowledgeto be in congruence with salvational Gnosis.

Gnostic attitudes that shaped Soviet ideology have also been detected in Russian philosophies of religion, particularly in the writings of Vladimir Solov'ev (18531900) and in nihilism. Friedrich Nietzsche's (18441900) nihilistic statement that God is dead can be interpreted as a rejection of the transcendent God of Judaism and Christianity for the sake of a self-divinization of humankind. Interestingly, critics of nihilism such as Eric Voegelin (19011985) and René Girard (1923) use religious terminology themselves when they label nihilism "demonic." Thus, their arguments against nihilism appear as the direct successors of those by the Christian heresiologists against ancient Gnosticism. Hans Blumenberg (19201996) claims that the philosophies of Hegel and Marx do not draw upon Gnosticism. For him, modernism has surmounted Gnosticism's world-rejection and replaced it with a world-affirming trust in a rational understanding of the cosmos and the human situation. Because postmodernism calls into question this trust in rationality, it has also been suspected of Gnostic tendencies. Peter Koslowski (1952) has advocated a Gnostic approach to the world, which he defines as an awareness of its fundamental deficiency. By acknowledging the world's deficiency and its need for improvement, humankind can, according to Koslowski, proceed in wisdom.

Although little attention has been devoted to the analogies between Gnosticism and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (18591938), with its aim at overcoming the differences between consciousness and Being, the Gnostic inclinations of Heideggerian phenomenology (existentialism) are generally agreed on. Hans Jonas (19031993), in his seminal study Gnosis und spätantiker Geist (1964), pointed to Heidegger's use of Gnostic terminology when explaining the situation of humankind as "thrown into the world." According to Jonas, the demonization of the universe combined with the idea of a transcendent acosmic self led to close parallels between exisentialism and Gnosticism. Moreover, a thorough analysis by Barbara Merker (Selbsttäuschung und SelbsterkenntnisZu Heideggers Transformation der Phänomenologie Husserls, 1988) showed that Heidegger's main work Sein und Zeit (1927) relied on Gnostic myths.

The Variety of Neo-Gnosticisms in the Twentieth Century

Other neo-Gnostic trends of the twentieth century grew out of the variety of Romantic conceptualizations of Gnosis. Optimistic outlooks focused on the sacralization of self that was prevalent in Romanticism, which grew out of the Gnostic belief in the divine origin of humankind. In Hermann Hesse's (18771962) novel Demian (1919) and the works of Carl G. Jung (18751961) the Gnostic path was reinterpreted as humanity's search its sacred origin. Insofar as recent esoteric currents, such as the New Age movement, have contained Gnostic themes and motifs, they were particularly attracted by the possibility of self-salvation, often coupled with a claim for self-fulfillment through an awareness of humankind's own divinity. An example of developed dualistic neo-Gnosticism in newer religious movements can be found in the teachings of Colombian Samael Aun Weor (19171977), whose ideas gained an audience outside his homeland. Not much is know about his life or the sources from which he drew his eclectic ideas. He obviously depended heavily on Theosophy and the "sexual magic" of Aleister Crowley and the OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis). But whereas Crowley had been an excessive libertine, Weor advocated sexual magic within "sacred matrimony," matrimony understood in its bourgeois sense. His dualism was not so much cosmological as directed against what he saw as flaws of modern societies, among them Communism, women's liberation, and homosexuality. Nevertheless, Weor believed in an "eternal battle between YHWH and Christ," which was reflected in occasional anti-Semitic utterances.

To counter the focus on human self-realization, some thinkers have proposed the idea of an unworldly, non-human, and remote God who resembles the God of Gnosticism. The late Max Horkheimer (18951973) wrote about God as "Completely Other"; Karl Barth (18861968) developed a paradoxical negative theology in which God was incomprehensible to human thought and religion; and Simone Weil (19091943) was convinced that God cannot be present in the realm of time.

In reaction to the more than 52 million who died in World War II, Theodor Adorno (19031969) wrote Minima Moralia (1951), which is in part a Gnostic work. Adorno criticizes the immorality, materialistic consumerism, and general corruption of the world and thereby resurrects several Gnostic myths (for example, the myth of the descent of Great Ignorance upon the world). But unlike Romantic representatives of Weltschmerz, Adorno still allows for hope. However, because his hope is for a Messiah rather than for self-salvation, it is not Gnostic. Romanian-French philosopher Émile Michel Cioran (19111995) presented a more pessimistic expression of Gnosticism. In his book Le mauvais démiurge (1969), he drew on fragments of Gnostic ideas in order to unfold his own post-Nietzschean nihilistic and perspectivist philosophy. However, it must be emphasized that Cioran's explicitly anti-systematic approach not only lacks the salvational hope of Gnosticism proper, but also the inner consistency of Gnostic myth. Fernando Pessoa (18881935) revived Romantic Weltschmerz and combined it with Gnostic motifs. His poem No túmulo de Christian Rosencreutz immediately reminds the reader of Gnostic myths of descent.

In such stories as La révolte des Anges (1914) by Anatole France (18441924) and Doktor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann (18751955), twentieth-century literature took up the themes of the rebellious angel, Satan, and the human seeker who follows his path. Mann's Doktor Faustus was meant to represent the situation of German intellectuals whose over-reflexivity had led to mental paralysis. To overcome the crisis, the lead character, Adrian Leverkühn, flees into irrational ecstasya gift from the devil, who takes him in the end. Mann criticizes Gnosticism by using Gnostic metaphors to describe Nazi Germany. In his controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1947) played with the theme of the fallen angel, blending motifs from the time of Muammad with those from contemporary London. Rushdie uses the images of archangel Gabriel and Satan (Iblīs in Islamic mythology) to draw attention to racist perceptions of immigrants in Great Britain.

Gnosticism in Fantasy Literature

Gnostic concepts are very often relevant in fantasy novels. J. R. R. Tolkien's (18921973) trilogy The Lord of the Rings (19541955) tells about a Manichaean-style battle against Darkness. Middle-earth, Tolkien's fictitious world, has to defend itself against a major attack from the army of Sauron the Great. Sauron resides in Mordor, a realm of shadows, and is called the Dark Lord. He is the chief henchman of the more abstract Dark Power threatening to absorb the light of Middle-earth. However, Tolkien also brings in other themes that are foreign and even opposed to Gnostic myths, such as the importance of compassion and the danger of power.

Philip Pullman (1946) comes very close to Gnostic views and attitudes in the trilogy His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, 1995; The Subtle Knife, 1997; The Amber Spyglass, 2000). Inspired particularly by the works of William Blake and Milton's Paradise Lost, Pullman takes up the Gnostic depiction of the Old Testament God who refuses to let human beings have a certain kind of knowledge. In contrast to historical Gnosticism, this knowledge is not about the origin and true nature of light-beings, but about the ultimate identity of spirit and matter. Lord Asriel plays the role of Satan, trying to gain access to the higher worlds. His daughter Lyra, who is called "the new Eve," disobeys God, as represented by the church.

Gnosticism in Recent Science and Scholarship

The term gnosis is often used to name an approach that refuses to exclude the spiritual dimensions of reality. Thus anti-positivistic methods in academic work are sometimes labeled Gnostic. Since some scholars in the sciences as well as the humanities concede only to so-called objective forms of knowledge, they try to stigmatize insights that are based on other methodologies. In the 1970s, for example, a circle of scientists in the United States who were concerned with "alternative" research methods that led to non-mainstream results were known as the Gnostics of Princeton. Arthur Young (1923), the founder of the Berkeley Institute for the Study of Consciousness, referred explicitly to Gnostic views when explaining cosmic developments and the significance of the human self.

The research on Gnosticism, and even the discipline of the history of religions has come under suspicion of inherent Gnosticism. In an article from 1987, Manfred Sommer (1945) characterized Hans Jonas's interpretation of gnosis as Endgestalt der Gnosis (the final shape of gnosis). The author observes a self-entangledness that is reflected no only in Gnostic thought, but even in research about Gnosticism. Similar observations can be made about the scholarship of Gilles Quispel (1916), who is heavily influenced by Carl Gustav Jung. Steven Wasserstrom in his book Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Henty Corbin at Eranos (1999) has pointed out that three major founders of this discipline were phenomenologists and therefore heirs to Gnostic traditions. Again, the use of the term gnosis by these scholars, and particularly by their interpreter Wasserstrom, is highly inconsistent. It shows once more that the label Gnostic is used to label any kind of dissatisfaction with mainstream ideologies, whether orthodox theology or orthodox academia (as in Scholem's fear of a "professorial death," for example), as well as for attacks and counterattacks from either side.

See Also

Cathari; Druze; Heresy, article on Christian Concepts; Manichaeism, article on Manichaeism and Christianity; New Age Movement; Qabbalah; Shiism, article on Ismāʿīlīyah.


There are very few one-volume works dealing explicitly with neo-Gnosticism. The most important attempt to comprehend the continuity of Gnostic motifs from medieval through modern times is Ioan P. Couliano, The Tree of Gnosticism: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism (San Francisco, 1990). For the intertwinement of monism and dualism in Gnostic thought, see Julia Iwersen, Gnosis zur Einführung (Hamburg, 2001). An interesting anthology of Gnostic writing in the religions, philosophy, and literature throughout history is provided by Peter Sloterdijk and Thomas H. Macho, eds., Weltrevolution der Seele: Ein Lese- und Arbeitsbuch der Gnosis von der Spätantike bis zur Gegenwart, 2 vols. (Düsseldorf, 1991). Various scholarly articles on Gnosticism in ancient and modern intellectual currents are collected in Barbara Aland, ed., Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas (Göttingen, 1978). Articles in the volume of special interest include: Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, "Sur 1histoire des influences du gnosticisme" and Gilles Quispel, "Hermann Hesse und Gnosis." Other resources on the topic can be found in Peter Koslowski, ed., Gnosis und Mystik in der Geschichte der Philosophie (Zurich and Munich, 1988), which includes contributions on Paracelsus, Böhme, Oetinger and many other important thinkers, as well as a particularly interesting article by Boris Groys on Gnosticism in Soviet ideology. The classic study by Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, Mass., 1964) can be used as an introduction to the Gnostic theme of otherworldliness, although it treats only the philosophical side and excludes the mythic dimensions of Gnosticism. For all other issues raised in this article, the reader needs to consult specialized studies on movements, writers, and philosophers, such as Martin Erbstösser, Ketzer im Mittelalter (Leipzig, 1984), which is very good on the social and economic roots of medieval Gnostic heresies. Relations between Shīʿah movements and Gnosticism are discussed by Heinz Halm in Kosmologie und Heilslehre der frühen Ismaʿiliya: Eine Studie zur islamischen Gnosis (Wiesbaden, 1978) and Die islamische Gnosis: Die extreme Schia und die ʿAlawiten (Zurich and Munich, 1982). A very good source for Gnostic trends in early modern times, with special reference to Goethe, is Rolf Christian Zimmermann, Das Weltbild des jungen Goethe (2 vols., Munich, 19691979; first volume reprinted in 2002). Albrecht Schöne, Götterzeichen, Liebeszauber, Satanskult: Neue Einblicke in alte Goethetexte (Munich, 1982) is an interesting examination of Gnostic theology in Goethe's Faust. Regarding Gnosticism and Romanticism, see Ioan P. Coulianu, "The Gnostic Revenge. Gnosticism and Romantic Literature," in Jacob Taubes, ed., Gnosis und Politik (Munich and Paderborn, 1984). For an examination of the Gnostic aspects of certain Romantic poets, see Patrizia Girolami, L'Antiteodicea: Dio, dei, religione nello "Zibaldone" di Giacomo Leopardi (Florence, 1995) and David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet against Empire (1954, 3d ed., New York, 1991). The best study of Gnosticism and Nazism is Ekkehard Hieronimus, "Dualismus und Gnosis in der völkischen Bewegung," in Jacob Taubes, ed., Gnosis und Politik, pp. 8289 (Munich and Paderborn, 1984). Another good resource is Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (New York, 1985, 1992), which takes a broader, less specific approach. Gnostic anti-Semitism within the full scale of history is examined by Micha Brumlik, Die Gnostiker: Der Traum von der Selbsterlösung der Menschen (Frankfurt, 1992). On Gnosticism in modern philosophies, see "Wissenschaft, Politik und Gnosis" (1959), in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, edited by Manfred Henningsen, Vol. 5, Modernity without Restraint: Political Religions; the New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, (Columbia, Mo., and London, 1999). The opposing view is offered by Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, Mass., 1985). Interrelations between Gnosticism and postmodernism are extensively treated by Peter Koslowski, Die Prüfungen der Neuzeit: Über Postmodernität, Philosophie der Geschichte, Metaphysik, Gnosis (Wien, 1989). For Gnostic influence on Heidegger's philosophy, Barbara Merker's Selbsttäuschung und SelbsterkenntnisZu Heideggers Transformation der Phänomenologie Husserls (Frankfurt am Main, 1988) is of special importance. Hans Jonas's Gnosis und spätantiker Geist: Erster Teil: Die mythologische Gnosis (Göttingen, 1934; reprint, 1964) was the groundbreaking study of Gnosticism in the light of existentialism. The English edition of The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity 2d ed. (Boston, 1963) is considerably shorter and therefore an incomplete presentation of Jonas's approach. Thirty years later, Kurt Rudolph edited the continuation of Jonas's work on Gnosticism, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist. Zweiter Teil: Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie (Göttingen, 1993). It is of particular interest for connections Jonas made between Gnosticism and Christian mysticism, and for his explanation of the transformation of dualistic myths into a monistic worldview. This volume also includes Jonas's important article "Gnosis, Existentialismus und Nihilismus," which was first published in 1973. In The Modern Revival of Gnosticism and Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus (New York, 2002), Kirsten J. Grimstad examines various intellectual trends at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century in their relation to Gnosticism. This work also includes remarkable chapters on Jung and Jonas, as well as a discussion of Gershom Scholem's treatment of Jewish mysticism. Grimstad's work shows a solid familiarity with relevant historical discussion. For Gnosticism in science, see Raymond Ruyer, La Gnose de Princeton (Paris, 1974) and Arthur Young, The Reflexive Universe: Evolution of Consciousness (New York, 1976). On Gnosticism within Hans Jonas's work, see Manfred Sommer, "Metaphysikkritik als Gnosis," in Willi Oelmüller, ed., Metaphysik heute? [=Kolloquien zur Gegenwartsphilosophie 10] (Paderborn, 1987). Gilles Quispel's important works are Gnosis als Weltreligion (Zurich, 1951); two volumes of Gnostic Studies (Leiden, 19731974) and Gnosis: De derde component van de Europese cultuurtraditie (Utrecht, 1988), which includes contributions by several authors on the meaning of Gnosticism in European culture. A condensed form of Quispel's views is found in "Gnosis and Psychology," in Bentley Layton, ed., The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, vol.1, The School of Valentinus (Leiden, 1980). Steven M. Wasserstrom's Religion after Religion: Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, and Henry Corbin at Eranos (Princeton, 1999) is a highly stimulating investigation into supposedly Gnostic epistemologies in the history of religions, although it obscures in a typically heresiological way its own ideological bases in Kantian and positivist philosophy. Wouter Hanegraaff's "On the Construction of 'Esoteric Traditions,'" in Antoine Faivre and Wouter Hanegraaff, eds., Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion: Selected Papers Presented at the 17th Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Mexico City 1995, pp. 1161 (Leuven, 1998) is valuable for its analysis of various interpretations of Gnosticism and esotericism, although the author seems unaware of the influence of Kantian metaphysics when proposing an "empirical method."

Julia Iwersen (2005)

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