In his Preface, Stephan A. Hoeller offers his readers a book that“is a concise and sympathetic presentation of the teachings and spiritual ambience of the Gnostic tradition” (vii). He fulfils his promise. His fourteen chapters, epilogue, and two appendices do offer a clear presentation of the myths and metaphors that underlie Gnostic cosmology.
He reminds us that “while consistently represented by its enemies as a historical oddity of purely antiquarian interest, Gnosticism has attracted friends and even followers of the stature of Voltaire, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, Hermann Hesse, and C. G. Jung” (2). Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, ideas about Gnosticism had to be derived from such Christian writers as Irenaeus who attacked it vigorously. These attacks were not restricted simply to theological debate. Think about the Albigensian Crusade and the ultimate destruction of Montségur.
I first met a different perspective on Gnosticism in the work of Elaine Pagels, particularly The Gnostic Gospels (1979)and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988), and in some of the writings of Harold Bloom. One of the attractions of a Gnostic worldview is its understanding of scripture as mythic and metaphorical, articulating a psychological and transcendental truth not literal history. Another of its attractions is its emphasis on the feminine and on Sophia as the archetype of wisdom.
I’m hesitant to try and summarise Gnosticism. Its major difference from Christianity seems to me to lie in its lack of a doctrine of original sin. Hoeller summarises Valentinus as follows: Somewhere, somehow, the fabric of being at the existential level of human functioning has lost its integrity. We live in a system that lacks fundamental integrity and thus is defective. Orthodox Christians as well as Jews recognize this to be true, but they account for the ‘wrongness’ in human existence as the effects of human sin—original or other. In contrast, and like all other Gnostics, Valentinus recognizes that the creation has lacked integrity since the beginning, and thus humans need not feel collective guilt for what has been called a ‘fall’” (114). Hoeller continues his discussion of Valentinus by emphasising, “ We don’t need to be saved; we need to be transformed by gnosis” (116). Earlier, Hoeller tells us “Gnostics do not hold that any kind of sin, including that of Adam and Eve, is powerful enough to cause the degradation of the entire manifest world. The world is flawed because that is its nature, but humans can become free from confinement in this flawed world and from the unconsciousness that accompanies this confinement” (64).
Gnostic creation myths outline a cosmology that sees the creator of the material universe as a demiurge ignorant of the full godhead. Nevertheless, the divine spark is in all of us, and it is through Gnosis that we become reconciled with the godhead. This apparent denial of the material world is problematic for some critics of Gnosticism. As too, is its emphasis on knowledge and transcendental experience, which has led over the centuries to accusations of elitism. Hoeller admits that Gnosticism “is disturbing and sometimes infuriating; it represents a challenge to what most have believed and practised” (223).
I’d recommend this book if you are at all interested in this kind of theological or pyschological contemplation, or if you are at all interested in any writers who are mystical or transcendentalist in their writings. Hoeller writes clearly without condescension. As he himself says, “This book is not primarily a work of academic scholarship” (x); it is an “introduction to the subject” (xi). As such, I found it very interesting; I appreciated the illustrations and his comments thereon, particularly on the Gnostic symbolism of the cross.
Given that my own interest in Gnosticism has always been academic, what was most fascinating to me about the book was the fact that it is written by someone who professes Gnostic beliefs not by someone who simply studies and considers Gnostic beliefs. There is a difference. If you want to examine contemporary Gnosticsm further, you might want to go to http://gnosis.org.
Image “Roses on the Rood of Time” © 2014