What is Gnosticism?

I said I wanted to take this from the top, so let’s start with the big terms. Gnosticism is one of those words with a lot of historical baggage. Despite or because of that baggage, it is one of those terms that is difficult to use to identify a practice. It can mean anything from a very specific set of early Christian movements to contemporary magical practices with Satanic overtones. While there is a structural unity to much of the term’s diverse applications, that structural unity only gets us so far. Part of the problem with structures is that they are prone to inversions and re-constellations of meaning over time and space and across cultural milieus.

So, getting down to it, what do I mean when I talk about gnosticism? Sometimes I do just mean the structural framework that allows us to put these practices into communication with each other. When I talk about my personal practice as gnostic, I do mean to imply it opens onto this common terrain of contested and mutable meanings which are nonetheless contests in common with other practices.

When I think about what it is that makes my practice speak to that common terrain, I identify a few basic aspects of it as gnostic. First and foremost, I take my practice to be gnostic in the sense that it cultivates forms of subjective awareness through which the divine manifests directly. While gnosis deserves a discussion all of its own it is these forms of awareness that constitute the knowing of gnosis. The forms of subjectivity that constitute gnosis are intimate, difficult to put into words.

Second and essentially, my practice is gnostic in the sense that it addresses the entanglement of that gnostic subjectivity with the substance of the material world, with what I often call ‘creation’ as a shorthand. That entanglement is both productive and problematic, both a point of possibility and a fetter of necessity. It is around this entanglement that the question of the fall, redemption, and sorcerous manipulation play.

It is also around this entanglement that gnosticism develops a sense for naturalism, for the way in which the material world constitutes a frozen image of the divine that it seeks to know. The naturalistic sensibility gives gnosticism a rich symbolic repertoire derived from our experience with the diversity of nature’s products and acquires both a scientific and sorcerous horizon, one animated by knowledge-giving spirits. This spirit-borne knowledge has a more ambiguous character, capable of furthering gnosis, but also capable of entrapping our awareness in forms that hedge out the divine.

In short, gnosticism stages the interplay of the practical and the mystical, with the practical giving birth to the mystical, the mystical giving birth to the practical, and the dangerous points where the practical and mystical cancel each other out in a dark materialism (aka the Black Iron Prison) or a demonic enslavement (bleak idolatry).

I also take gnosticism to refer to a specific and volatile historical genealogy, one that traces its roots to the holy ferment that gave birth to Judasim, Christianity, and Islam. As such, it shares in the deep time of those religious movements, a deep time that extends beyond the contemporary historical record, into a time that we are able to access only through the archaeologically-guided speculation that animates our understanding of truly ancient sites like Göbekli Tepe. While not necessarily monotheistic, gnosticism is inseparable from the emergence of these peculiar monotheisms, hence its tendency to take on satanic overtones.

Those polysemous rebellions within monotheism are of gnosticism’s essence, as is the interplay of order and disorder, which it is the task of gnostic to negotiate. The specific fashion in which this interplay is resolved defines the character of each gnostic doctrine and the way in which a common cast of characters is esteemed or reviled tells us much about the inclination of this or that gnostic practice. There is no singular gnostic doctrine or practice, but a diversity of competing doctrines across which practices were debated, shared, and transformed.

Okay, so that’s a start. I’ll pick it up from there soon.

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