Introduction to Gnosis
Experience provides a special kind of knowledge that is alive and profound. It does not depend upon books or outside authority of any kind. When one has experienced, one knows. The Greek word Gnosis refers to this special, experiential knowledge, especially in regards to the fundamentals truths of existence. Real Gnosis comes from the conscious experience of the Truth of life, death, and all the mysteries that surround us. By “conscious experience” is meant a form of active, awakened perception that penetrates far more than what is physical.
The consciousness—when awakened—can perceive other dimensions. It is here that real Gnosis begins to bloom in the mind and heart, revealing the truth to the soul. This kind of experience is possible for anyone. It does not matter what one believes, or where one comes from. You can be devoutly religious or deeply independent. yet acquire the personal experience of that which exists beyond the physical senses. Furthermore. it is not necessary to belong to any group or promise anything to anyone. And, even more scandalous, you do not have to pay anyone any money. Despite the outrageous demands of thousands of “spiritual” groups and teachers, you can experience and know the truth even if financially poor. Real Gnosis is for anyone who is willing to make the effort in themselves.
In order to arrive at the experience of the truth. there are required steps. Everything in nature works according to laws, and not according to our convenience. This is where most people become diverted from the truth: the truth does not comfort our illusions or accommodate our attachments. Therefore, due to fear and the desire for security, most people avoid the troth. preferring instead to remain comforted by their personal beliefs. even if they are illusions. Yet, for the one who is brave enough to face their own self-deception. the reality of Gnosis is quick to be seen. And. for the one who is brave enough to confront and change their own inner contradictions and mistakes. Gnosis—the knowledge that emerges from that inner investigation—becomes an illuminating light and a nourishing medicine.
By establishing a degree of stability in our mind, our life also stabilizes. Then, we are in a position to prepare ourselves to know the facts of existence: facts that are sometimes disturbing, sometimes painful, and almost always what we least expected. Yet, facts are facts, and once known, they become steps towards greater knowledge.
Very simply, if we am unhappy, only we know that and experience that kind of suffering; it is self-produced and self-experienced. If unhappiness is an internal experience, then happiness must also be internal. Therefore, first we have to face the fact of our unhappiness. Then we need to find the cause of unhappiness and exchange it for a cause for happiness. The only way to do this is by knowing ourselves in depth.
We need self-knowledge. Knowledge is power, and there is no power greater than knowledge of oneself. The power to change resides entirely in self-knowledge. Where we are lacking self-knowledge, we are lacking power to change. Thus, if we feel powerless in some area of our life, we need to acquire knowledge of that area, and in this book are the initial steps towards revolutionizing that situation.
The Oracle of Delphi stated: “Man, know thyself, and thou shalt know the universe and it’s Gods!”
Self-knowledge is the key to the knowledge of everything that exists, for by understanding who we truly are inside, we can then understand the experience of others, where we have all come from, and where we are going. We can only acquire this kind of knowledge on our own, by our own efforts, and in our own experience. In this way, there is no need to believe or theorize, for having experienced the truth, we know.
First Degree of Introduction to Gnosis
This is the introductory degree to the Gnostic philosophical studies or external degrees of Gnosis. It is natural that all students will begin with this degree and eventually continue with the first, second, third degrees, etc. One should keep in mind that these are not the esoteric Gnostic degrees. The esoteric Gnostic degrees, which are the authentic ones, cannot be revealed by anyone who has received them; this is forbidden.
Whoever says: “I have so many degrees, so many Initiations,” is being dishonest. If a person wants to become an engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc. he has to prepare himself for it. That person will go to school and study a great deal. After he has a good theoretical basis in the field he studied, he will begin to practice what he has learned.
Practice brings about perfection. The great sages, professionals, scientists, etc. have not merely had a theoretical knowledge of their respective fields of study, but have also put this knowledge to practice.
Theory by itself cannot bring about anything except an intellectual enjoyment on the part of those who understand it. Study these lessons, and study them with true incentive, with the desire to learn, with the desire of understanding the superior knowledge. But remember that you need to put into practice what you learn if you want to achieve the perfection of the work.
It is necessary to be successful in life. If you want to be successful. you should begin by being sincere with yourself; recognize your own errors. When we recognize our errors. we are on the path to correcting than.
Everyone who corrects his own errors is inevitably successful. The businessman who daily blames others for his own failures and never recognizes his own errors will not be successful. Remember that the greatest criminals consider themselves to be saints. If we visit a penitentiary we will prove to ourselves that none of the criminals consider themselves guilty. Almost all of them say to themselves. I am innocent’ Don’t make the same mistake: have the courage to recognize your own errors. Thus will you escape greater evils. Whoever recognizes his own errors can make a happy home.
The politician, scientist. philosopher, and the religious person. etc. that comes to recognize his mistakes can coma them and be successful in life. If you want to triumph in life. don’t criticize anyone. Whoever unitizes another person is a weakling. The one who critkizes himscl revery moment is a giant.
Criticism is useless because it hurts the pride of others and provokes the resistance of the victim. who then seeks to justify himself. Criticism provokes an inevitable reaction against its maker. If you want to truly triumph in life, listen to this advice: do not criticize anyone. The man or woman who knows how to live without criticizing anyone does not provoke resistance nor reactions on the part of his fellowmen. and consequently creates an atmosphere of success and progress.
On the other hand, he who criticizes others has many enemies. We have to remember that human beings are full of pride and vanity, and this vanity inherent in them produces a reaction (resentment. hate. etc.) that is directed towards the one who criticizes them. He who wants to comet others should best begin by correcting himself.
This gives better results and is kss dangerous. The world is full of neurasthenic persons. The neurasthenic type is a faultfinder. irritable. and intolerable. There are many causes of neurasthenia: impatience, anger, egotism. arrogance. etc. A mediator exists between the Spirit and the body: the nervous system. Take care of your nervous system. When your nervous system is irritated by something that exhausts you, it is better to flee from it. Work intensely but with moderation.
Remember that excessive work produces fatigue. If you do not pay attention to fatigue. if you continue with excessive work, then fatigue is replaced with stress. When stress turns morbid, it becomes neurasthenia. It is necessary. to alternate work with pleasant rest so as to avoid the danger of falling into neurasthenia.
Every employer who wants to succeed should be careful of not falling into neurasthenia. The neurasthenic employer criticizes everything and becomes unbearable. The neurasthenic despises patience and as employer becomes the executioner of his employees. Workers who must work under the orders of a neurasthenic and fault-fmding employer end up hating the job and the employer. No discontented worker works with pleasure. Many times enterprises fail because the workers are discontented, dissatisfied, and do not work efficiently in such circumstances.
The neurasthenic, as worker or office employee, becomes rebellious and ends up being fired from his job. Every neurasthenic worker seeks any occasion to criticize his employer. Every employer has pride and vanity and it is obvious that he feels offended when his employees criticize him. The worker who lives criticizing his employer ends up losing his job. Take care of your nervous system. Work moderately. Enjoy yourself healthily. Do not criticize anyone. Tiy to see the best in all human beings.
According to the Gnostics, the “secret” to knowing God lies in the Gnostic’s knowledge of himself which is achieved through the wisdom of a perfect teacher. Gnosis, however, should not be confused with the spiritual perfection sought by the contemplatives and mystics of the period.
The mystics perceived this state as a gift from God; an ability to “know” God through the opening of one’s mind and heart in prayer, followed by the acceptance of this gift of love. It is a state of “higher understanding” that goes beyond the words of Scripture, entailing a deeper understanding of the written word to the extent of attaining communion with God.
However, this knowledge of God is in some respects fundamentally different from the knowledge of the self required by the Gnostics. In Confessions, Augustine describes the ecstatic state of meditation as “the very soul grew silent to herself and by not thinking of self mounted beyond self’.
In other words, the process of attaining knowledge of God necessitates a life of asceticism, namely, a renunciation of the self, whereas for the Gnostics, it is through the agency of man that God shows His power,60 placing man and the self at the center.
For the mystics, it is the “knowledge” of God that ultimately leads to knowledge of the self, whereas the Gnostics emphasize knowledge of the self as the portal leading to knowledge of God. The distinction here is crucial as both traditions seem to aspire to a similar goal—revelation. Both gnosticism and this particular view of mysticism claim to seek an explanation for an unreadable world but while the former wishes to arouse and articulate a dormant knowledge.
In other words, though there are similarities and their sources at time converge, there are clear-cut differences between the mystics and the gnostics. The “traditional” mystics acquire their divine vision through ar absence of images and an obliteration of the self. And while the mystics do not necessarily require mediator in their process of contemplation, the gnostic requires the heir of the mediator to awaken him from his worldly induced stupor in order to reunite with himself and vicariously with God.
Moreover, for the mystic the process of ascension as well as the final vision and union with God lead to an external revelation that ironically makes its presence known through its absence. That is, by forgetting the material state, by forgetting the self, revelation may be achieved. For the gnostic, it is an internal achievement culminating in the ultimate discarding of the body. The process entails foregrounding a form of knowledge that was consciously absent into conscious presence (i.e., a remembrance of the self), which would then lead to salvation. In this manner, the dream vision, as the locus of said knowledge via its liminality, enables the desconstrucive structure of centralizing the margins in the sense that it seeks to reveal a heretofore hidden Truth. The Gnostic is in constant search for this elusive self.
‘To ascend to God is to enter into oneself, and not only to enter the self, but in an ineffable way to pass through oneself into the interior depths’.
The Gnostics ‘ gnosis was a type of secret information , something never before revealed and never to be revealed . It was a saving knowledge concerning the self ; it was a form of self – knowledge , “ an intricate self – understanding of who they were, how they came to be here, where they came from and how they could return.”
Though scholars tend to differ among themselves as to what the Gnostics actually meant by knowledge. they generally agree what the Gnostics did not mean. They did not mean the absence of ignorance. They did not connote general knowledge, a general fund of facts, such as those that generate entertainment with Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit. This gnosis had nothing to do with rational knowledge or with philosophical reasoning and had nothing to do with technical know-how or philosophical wisdom.
Though their writings and texts were important to them, these “scriptures” did not, in and of themselves, impart the knowledge that saves. The Gnostics’ posh was a type of secret information, something never before revealed and never to be revealed. It was a saving knowledge concerning the self; it was a form of self-knowledge, “an intricate self-understanding of who they were, how they came to be here, where they came from and how they could return.”
Elaine Pagels translates Gnosis as “insight.” a term suggesting a kind of psycho-logical self-knowledge or a self-awareness that is intuitively attained.’ She cites the Gnostic teacher Monoimus: “Abandon the search for God and the creation and the other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says ‘My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate … if you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.”‘ Other examples abound in Gnostic literature: “I tell you this that you may know yourself”‘; and “Everyone who seeks the truth from true wisdom will make himself wings so as to fly, fleeing the lust that scorches the spirits of men.”
In the Gospel of Truth, Gnostic scholar Pheme Perkins notes how salvation, particularly in the writer’s interpretation of the sheep parabks and images, is associ-ated with possession of insight. She elaborates: “For the Valentinian author of Gospel of Tru th, for the author of Dialogueof:he Savior, as well as for the compiler of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, understanding the true teaching of the Savior is the key to salvation.
For Gnostic believers the clue to the quest for immortality lay in the self-knowledge, or ‘insight,” that comes to one only when the Kingdom of God is discovered within. One cannot discover the spirit unless one first possesses the spirit.” ‘
The center of gravity of this system is individual salvation. For the Gnos-tics, personal knowledge rather than behavior, is the focus of salvation. This is particularly demonstrated in the Gospel of Thomas where poverty is associated with those who dwell in the world without knowledge of wisdom and not a lack of material goods.” However, this knowledge was only for an elite few, those who were gnostic or, as Ehrman so aptly phrased it, “in the know.”” This knowledge was not for everyone and not available to everyone:
“Blessed are the solitary and elect, for you will find the kingdom. For you are from it and to it you will return.”
This secret knowledge was hidden from the populace and available only to those who were capable of receiving and understanding it. Since the material world was evil, this knowledge could not come from the world or from humans.
This saving knowledge could come only from outside the material world. It could come only from God.” To sum up, this saving knowledge came from God and only to certain elite individuals who were capable of grasping its esoteric content. This is, however, an oversimplification.
There is much more to Gnosticism, which will be explained later. But in essence, the key concept is Gnosticism’s saving knowledge available only to those capable of understanding. Those not possessing this saving knowl-edge arc not saved, thus, they arc damned. This understanding of salvation polarizes. It creates knowers versus unknowers, saved versus unsaved, a mindset of exclusion versus one of inclusion.
Salvation is based upon one’s understanding of knowledge (gnosis), how it came to earth, to whom it came, and who was qualified to receive it and pass it on. Only those with Gnostic credentials were candidates. How could this be right? How could this knowledge be accessible only to cer-tain special individuals? If it possessed the capacity to save, why could it not save more people? Would not a God of creation want more people saved? The answer requires analysis of other Gnostic principles.
GNOSTIC WORLDVIEW AND METAPHYSICAL DUALISM
For Gnostics, reality was composed of two basic elements: physical (material or corporeal) and spiritual. There was no middle ground. Spirit was everything; any-thing material or physical was unessential. Any substance that was not spiritual was matter and therefore evil. This was called dualism. Dualism leads inevitably to more than one god.’6 The Gnostic universe from the beginning was depressing. Creation was flawed: “The cosmos is an abortion; humanity, in the fleshly sense, along with all mate-riality, is a mistake.” The world was flawed because it was flawed when it was created: “For the Gnostic Christians, the material world itself was part and parcel of the human tragedy.” Like Buddhists, Gnostics portrayed human life as one filled with suffering and most of it comes from the defective cosmos. People are responsible for some of the suffering, but most of it comes from the original defects in an imperfect cosmos.
According to Gnostic wisdom, these gnostikoi have been elected because they are worthy of election. Their divine spark was prepared for enlightenment, or Gnosis, which meant liberation. Gnostic Christians, for example, considered the teachings of Jesus reserved only for the elect, or pneumatics: “Only the pneumatics, the Gnostics themselves, could truly understand the revelation from God; on the basis of that revelatory knowledge, they were destined to escape the material world. . . . The writings of Jesus’ own Apostles conveyed secret revelations not accessible to the literal minded psychics of the church. . . . Only true Knowers could unravel the meanings embedded in seemingly unrelated details of the text, meanings that comprised the secret teachings of the Gnostic system.” Due to their elevated spiritual status, the pneumatics engaged in a more flexible, sym-bolic interpretation of scripture. This form of spiritual teaching led to multiple
THE BASIC TENETS OF GNOSTICISM
interpretations, all of which seems incongruent with their inflexible understand-ing on salvation.
Salvation from sin, original or otherwise, was not a goal of Gnosticism. Their goal was release from unconsciousness and ignorance, or incomprehension. Humans who possess the divine spark can find their freedom only in learning of its source, how it came to be entrapped in the material world, and how it can escape to return to its original realm. This important theme of gnosis takes us back to the beginning of our search. Gnosis is the liberating knowledge that enables release from the material evil world. This knowledge was “special” and qualitatively dif-ferent from, and transcendent over, the simple faith of the Church. But like the faith of the Church, it was a saving knowledge; and, like the faith of the Church, it required a savior. For the later discussion on Gnosticism and Fundamentalism, it is significant to note that salvation was potential in everyone. It was not vicari-ous, but individual. Individuals saved themselves.
Some scholars assert that the most important principle Gnosticism derived from Christianity was its core idea of redemption.” There are strong arguments to support this. However, by their own dualistic premise (spirit is good, matter is evil), anything material is alien to a supreme God. Thus, by default, Gnostics automatically dismiss any concept of incarnation.” Because flesh was inherently evil, their divine Christ could never come “in the flesh.” It is important that this contradiction be fully grasped. If they do not become incarnate, born in the flesh, can a God or Redeemer save? The Gnostics answer is the Redeemer. This Redeemer was not flesh but took on the “appearance” of flesh. To ordinary senses he looked real, seemed tangible flesh and blood. But Gnostics with the divine spark, with elevated insight, saw pure pristine spirit. Those without the spark saw a physical appearance, a sem-blance or dokais (Greek for “appearance”), from which we get Docetism, an early form of Gnosticism that alarmed the early Church fathers.°
The Gnostic Redeemer was a divine being who came into the world to save his entrapped subjects. It was Christ himself, but what kind of Christ? It was not a real Christ. So how could the divine Redeemer come into the world and NOT be human. Gnostic Christians understood how this could happen in basically two different ways.’ The first was the docetic view previously introduced. Some scholars 42 con-sider the letters oflohn to be an attack on this form of Gnosticism.
To Gnostics, Christ represented only an appearance of being human. Not surprisingly, St. Paul became one of the Gnostic sources of support and they would often quote him. In Romans, for example, it states that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). There were other aspects of Paul’s letters, such as his animosity toward the law that Gnostics embraced. An alternative view for Gnostics of God becoming human without actually becoming flesh was called the Separationist position.
The man, Jesus, was a real flesh-and-blood person. Yet, another heavenly being inhabited Jesus’ body for a period of time. This was the heavenly, divine Christ that entered Jesus’s body at his baptism (the dove descending from heaven) but departed prior to his death. According to this theory, Christ did not suffer. Pain and death are foreign to Gnostic thinking. Following his death, the heavenly Christ returned and resur-rected the earthly, human Christ, empowering him to spread the gnosis that his disciples and others would need for the heavenward journey home. Some Gnos-tics who held this theory had a particular fondness for the Gospel According to Mark.
This evangelist depicts Jesus’s ministry beginning with the reception of the Holy Spirit at his baptism and ending on the cross with his words: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mark 15:34). Considered by Gnostics to be Jesus’s last words, their interpretation is unmistakable. The divine spirit departed his physical body. The spiritual Christ, who could receive no physical pain, would escape crucifixion.
Gnosis means knowledge, and it is knowledge that saves. For Gnostics, salva-tion lies in discovering the truth of their identity, their origin, how they came to this earth, and how they can return to the divine heavenly realm, which is their ultimate destination and goal. This is the knowledge, the truth that leads to salva-tion. But it is grasped by only an elite few who are “in the know.” Gnostic cosmogony, or worldview, is dualistic.
Reality is composed of spirit and matter. Spirit is good. Matter is evil. Because there is evil in the world, it could not have been created by the one True Divinity, or God. Therefore, evil came about through a catastrophic cosmic disaster. As a result, the spirit became trapped in the evil, material world.
In order for this spirit, represented as divine sparks in certain humans, to return to its heavenly divine realm it must acquire saving knowledge. This saving knowledge comes from a divine redeemer. This divine redeemer came into the world to save the lost sparks of the spirit. So far, all of this sounds vaguely Christian.
Then comes the significant fac-tor, or hermeneutical key, that differentiates Gnosticism from Christianity: flesh is evil; therefore, the Gnostic redeemer is all spirit and never became flesh. For Christians, “the word became flesh.” For Gnostics, the word became spirit. No flesh was involved.
From the Christian perspective, the Gnostic divine redeemer was impotent. He (or she) lacked humanity. Gnostic Christians were active in Christian Churches but did not believe all Christians would be saved, primarily because they did not have access to the saving knowledge. Because many belonged to the Church, and because of their insistence that the one true spiritual God could not have been human, Gnosticism posed a very real and major threat to the existence of the young struggling Church. Their ascetic ethic was another serious challenge.
The word apocalypse (from the Greek apokalypsis) means “unveiling” or “revealing.”‘ Apocalyptic, therefore, is esoteric revealed wisdom, and the knowledge it reveals has an immediate relation to redemption. The notion of immediacy relates to mysticism.
The eschatological (end of time) slant the Gnostics gave it included a pronounced dualistic-pessimistic world, one no longer governed by God but by his enemy, the devil and his angelic powers. The world and history were left on an automatic course. Salvation from this material entrapment was achieved by gnosis. “The knowledge of God’s mysteries guarantees salvation; knowledge and cognition, and redemption are closely connected.” This knowledge, or wisdom, was accessible only to the initiated … the saved.