The Gnostic New Age by April D. DeConick, subtitled ‘How a countercultural spirituality revolutionised religion from antiquity to today’, is an authoritative and fascinating study that traces the influence of ancient Gnostic thinking on modern spirituality as a transgressive force. Transgression is defined as ‘breaching a norm that has become recognised by a powerful group as a prescription, law, or custom. It is the act of crossing a line, stepping over a boundary, moving beyond convention, straying from the straight and narrow, overstepping a limit.’ (p. 289) This quotation already encapsulates one of the central themes of the book in the relationship between the Apostolic Catholics and Gnostic groups. The former developed political power to enforce sanctions against what they regard as deviant views, creating a norm and defining orthodoxy over against heresy. Faithful sinners subordinated themselves to the Church while errant Gnostics were insubordinate in asserting that they do not need the Church as an intermediary in order to have direct access to the Divine. They claim that our essential human self or spirit ‘is nothing less than God’s very own life essence’ waiting to be reawakened through gnosis.
In her historical treatment, the author characterises early expressions of spirituality in Babylon, Egypt, Greece and with the Hebrews as ‘servant spirituality’, reflecting the society of the time with dominant elites controlling a subservient populace. This then evolves to ‘covenant spirituality’ in the Old Testament and in initiatic traditions to ‘ecstatic spirituality’. By insisting on the God within perceptible through the nous and in the experience of gnosis, the Gnostics inverted this message of servitude, which represented a major transgression to the dominant orthodoxy. A Hermetic hymn by Asclepius refers to:
Mind (nous) by which we know you,
Reason (logos), by which we seek you in our dim suppositions,
Knowledge (gnosis), by which we rejoice in knowing you.
Two central theological chapters address the influence of Paul on both Apostolic Catholicism and Gnosticism and the controversy over Gnostic and orthodox readings of the Gospel of John. Paul defined himself in contrast to the Jewish law and the church in Jerusalem under James, and his own conversion is described by the author as an extra-ordinary Gnostic incident. Significantly, he does not consider the father of Jesus to be the tribal God Yahweh but the One God Yahweh who transcends the tribe. This dual understanding is central to the two readings of John, where the old tribal god becomes the adversary. The author characterises Jesus in the Gospel of John as the Descendent Light and his early followers as Children of Light. She makes an interesting case that the Gnostic Cerinthus (pp. 156-7) was the author of the Gospel and discusses the role of Simonian Samaritan converts, characterising the worldview of the Gospel as ‘a unique cognitive blend’. She explains how the orthodox author of I John asserts the doctrine of sacrificial atonement, rejected by the Gnostics. Irenaeus in his Against the Heresies claims that the apostle John wrote the fourth Gospel in order to stamp out Cerinthus’ teachings, and the final chapter containing the statement of authorship is added later to showcase the faith of Simon Peter. However, reviewing the evidence, the author concludes that Cerinthus’ views on the fourth gospel are in line with the Children of Light and that his ‘interpretation of the fourth Gospel matches theirs point by point. In fact, it represents the oldest reading of the fourth Gospel and aligns perfectly with the Gnostic predisposition of the gospel.’ (p. 157) This is hugely significant and she sums up the overall scheme, commenting that we become friends of God rather than servants, and that it is our ability to love that makes human beings transcendent.
The Gnostic story is the story of the human self with its transcendent origin and the inherent dynamic of a fall into dark and dense matter involving separation and ultimate return, falling asleep and awakening, forgetting and remembering, descending and ascending from darkness back into light. The author identifies and illustrates different therapeutic ritual dramas involving purging, recovery and integration of the fallen spirit merging with God ‘in a bath of Being or in an embrace of the sacred erotic.’ (p. 175) These are described in some detail and what I found most fascinating was Gnostic incubation in silence, which represents ‘both the primal state of the ineffable God they seek and a bodily practice in which they engage to withdraw into this primal state as they return to the source of life. The primal God in Gnostic myths is a silent God, and the goal of the Gnostic journey is to withdraw back into this original silence, rest, and stillness. Silence is considered the state of utter transcendence, the very essence of ultimate reality in its original condition.’ (p. 182) Living silence is a state of silent light. I found this an extraordinary description of a non-dual state attained in meditation, but the author does not mention this word or draw such comparisons with modern forms of spirituality. The initiated is one who has ‘come to know the immortal spirit of light in silence’, surely a very good description of enlightenment. Chanting was also used to attain ecstatic states.
In a chapter on spiritual avatars, the author describes the lives and ideas of the brilliant Valentinus and his followers Heracleon, Ptolemy and Marcus. There are three categories of people are hylics, corresponding to matter and the biblical Cain, psychics, corresponding to the soul, Abel and the faith of Apostolic Catholics, and pneumatics, corresponding to gnosis, the spirit and the biblical Seth. The implication of this categorisation is subversive in that pneumatics are spiritually more advanced than psychics, an assertion that gave rise to orthodox criticisms of arrogance or hubris and an evolving insistence on plain or literal readings of Scripture. As the author rightly indicates, this is a struggle over the value of different kinds of knowledge - gnosis and pistis (faith), esoteric and exoteric, mystical and doctrinal. Here it might have been useful for the author to quote the work of Clement of Alexandria writing in the mid-second century and establishing a progressive continuity rather than contradiction between pistis and gnosis, although he writes as what one might call an orthodox Gnostic. The life, teachings and influence of Mani are also described, including a poem where he writes: ‘I knew him, and understood that I am he from whom I was separated. I have witnessed that I myself am he and (we are) the same.’ A classic statement of gnosis. His religion survived in the West until the sixth century - other movements covered include the story of Jeu and the developments of Mandaeism (manda means to know).
This brings us up to the present, and I should mention that throughout there are interesting parallels drawn between Gnosticism and the message of contemporary films. The final chapter describes four gnostic awakenings - or, strictly, reawakenings: the first in the mediaeval period involving Paulicians, Bogomils and Cathars, the second in the Renaissance rediscovery of Hermetic texts by Ficino and others, the third during the 19th century with the discovery of the Bruce and Askew codices and the translation of Pistis Sophia by GRS Mead and the fourth, ongoing, following the discovery of the Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi. The author summarises the significance of the shifts involved and their parallels with a new-age or spiritual but not religious orientation that ditches the focus on sin and retribution, bringing in instead the God of love that Gnostics claimed to know. The detail of the modern manifestation would require another volume with more extensive discussion of the contribution of CG Jung. However, the author has performed a great service by showing the historical and continuing role of transgressive spirituality based on personal experience and representing a massive Gnostic awakening in our time.