What is Gnosis?
By Miguel Conner @ AeonByteGnosticRadio.com – The term “Gnosis” has become popular in modern occultism, usually referred to as any type of direct knowledge with the divine. The problem is that all religions claim some type of direct knowledge with the divine, making the definition akin to having a mystical experience of the garden variety. A more serious problem is that it dilutes and marginalizes the message of those who actually conceived of the term Gnosis: the Gnostics themselves.
First, I should mention that the concept of Gnosis should evolve in a rapidly-evolving world of revelation and information. The ancient Gnostics would have wanted this, as they saw themselves as innovators of arcane traditions within Judaism and Hellenism. But a good dose of context and history can bring clarity, while at the same time dispel indolent spirituality so prevalent in an extroverted and tragically shallow society.
Gnosis comes from the Koine Greek word for “knowledge.” It truly meant mundane knowledge in Greco-Roman times, although its context took on more esoteric spectrums in the works of both Plato and Paul of Tarsus, two figures that fascinated the Gnostics. Thus, as innovators of past mystical traditions, they modified the word into a unique meaning, and made it the cornerstone of their movement (and it was also shared by other early Christians, as found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen).
In a recent article, I gave an abridged definition of Gnosis: “Salvific knowledge that ignites a cosmic awakening of an individual’s indwelling divinity, as well as stimulates the realization of surrounding false realities crafted and ruled by oppressive forms of consciousness (gods, the ego, earthly establishments, etc.).”
I contend it’s suitable, but I can make it even simpler by saying that Gnosis is any type of information that liberates an individual from the emptiness of the temporal and into the profoundly meaningful. Everything else is negotiable, and your metaphysical mileage may vary. This dovetails in what I also wrote in the article: “Ultimately, Gnosis is ultimately a personal experience that is best transmitted through the more subjective and even blurry mediums of art, allegory, and mythology.”
Yes, ultimately we will always fail at deciphering Gnosis as we become more successful at receiving it. Religions may have contradictions, but spirituality is full of paradox, as I like to say.
Beyond my views, what exactly did the Gnostics say about Gnosis? They certainly wrote volumes about this unique kind of downloading from the higher realms, in the Nag Hammadi library and beyond. But it is widely agreed that the Excerpta de Theodoto (Exhortation to Patience; or, Address to the Newly Baptized), a Valentinian Gnostic expression, captures the essence of Gnosis:
What makes us free is the knowledge (Gnosis)
of who we were
of what we have become
of where we were
of where we have been cast
of whereto we are hastening
of what we are being freed of
of what birth really is
of what rebirth really is.
In my view, this definition is simple yet elegant, poetic and yet practical. And again, everything else is negotiable (and has been throughout history).
Beyond that, it’s sensible and often inspirational to explore how other deep thinkers have defined Gnosis. Here are some examples:
-Elaine Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels: “Gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the Gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for Gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of Gnosis.”
-Stephan Hoeller, in Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing: “Salvific knowing, arrived at intuitively but facilitated by various stimuli, including the teaching and mysteries brought to humans by messengers of divinity from outside the cosmos.”
-Andrew Phillip Smith, in A Dictionary of Gnosticism: “Direct knowledge of the divine, which itself provides salvation. For the ancient Gnostics, Gnosis existed within the framework of cosmology, myth, anthropology, and praxis used within their groups. There Gnosis was not only illumination but was accompanied by an understanding, as expressed in the Excerpta de Theodoto (see above).”
There are certainly many definitions from other sage scholars and mystics, but with these we can already see how Gnosis isn’t just any mystical experience of the garden variety. It appears to entail the usage of the rational mind in conjunction with the higher mind—the one the Greeks called the Daemon and the Romans called the Genius. It is a deep discovery of the Self as well as an understanding of the universe around that Self; and the separation of what is false from what is beneficially authentic. It’s no wonder Carl Jung called the Gnostics history’s first depth psychologists!
Lastly, it should be noted, as Jeremy Puma pointed out in his book, This Way, that Gnosis is not the result but brings the results. Knowledge of any kind serves to expand awareness and consciousness, but lasting transformation happens beyond or at the end of processing all information and data. It’s the same with Gnosis, whether it leads one to salvation, enlightenment, grace, or simply a deeper comprehension of one’s environment. Your metaphysical mileage may vary.
So next time you hear or read about Gnosis, don’t forget where the term originated from, its primordial context, and how it relates to both you and the world that surrounds you. Somewhere within all this seemingly exotic information, you have the ability to find your true Self and the truth behind the questionable reality that has been presented to you.
The Gnostics pioneered and championed the concept of Gnosis, adopted later by Secret Societies and fringe traditions across history, and they all paid a high price. They pointed the way to new ways with their forbidden secrets that were never truly secret, so that all individuals could attain their own, individual liberation. By simply understanding them, one honors them and their sacrifices as well.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus perhaps says what Gnosis, as it was developed by ancient heretics, will grant those who have ears to hear:
“I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.”
Related Video: Watch an Interview on Gnosis and Gnosticism Between Moe & Miguel Conner