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Gnosticism: Ancient and modern

Beliefs & practices

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Gnostic beliefs:

The Nag Hummadi find revealed that there was a broad range of beliefs among the various independent Gnostic systems or schools. However, the following points are believed to be generally accurate throughout the movement:
bulletTheir Role: They believed that they alone truly understood Christ's message, and that other streams of thought within Christianity had misinterpreted Jesus' mission and sayings.
bulletGnosis: Knowledge to them was not an intellectual exercise; it was not a passive understanding of some aspect of spirituality. Rather, knowledge had a redeeming and liberating function that helped the individual break free of bondage to the world.
bulletDeity: The Supreme Father God or Supreme God of Truth is remote from human affairs; he is unknowable and undetectable by human senses. She/he created a series of supernatural but finite beings called Aeons. One of these was Sophia, a virgin, who in turn gave birth to an defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. (Demiurge means "public craftsman" in Greek.) This lower God is sometimes called Yaldabaoth or Ialdabaoth Jaldabaoth -- from Aramaic words meaning "begetter of the Heavens." This is Jehovah, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). He is portrayed as the creator of the earth and its life forms. He is viewed by Gnostics as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion, and prone to genocide. The Demiurge "thinks that he is supreme. His pride and incompetence have resulted in the sorry state of the world as we know it, and in the blind and ignorant condition of most of mankind."
bulletDuality of spirit and body: Spirit is of divine origin and good; the body is inherently earthly and evil. Gnostics were hostile to the physical world, to matter and the human body. But they believed that trapped within some people's bodies were the sparks of divinity or seeds of light that were supplied to humanity by Sophia.
bulletSalvation: A person attains salvation by learning secret knowledge of their spiritual essence: a divine spark of light or spirit. They then have the opportunity to escape from the prison of their bodies at death. Their soul can ascend to be reunited with the Supreme God at the time of their death. Gnostics divided humanity into three groups:
bulletThe spiritual, who would be saved irrespective of their behavior while on earth.
bulletThe Soulish, who could be saved if they followed the Gnostic path.
bulletThe carnal who are hopelessly lost.
bulletEvil: They did not look upon the world as having been created perfectly and then having degenerated as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. Rather the world was seen as being evil at the time of its origin, because it had been created by an inferior God.
bulletSnake: Some Gnostic sects honored the snake. They did not view the snake as a seducer who led the first couple into sinful behavior. Rather, they saw him/it as a liberator who brought knowledge to Adam and Eve by convincing them to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and thus to become fully human.
bulletSnake Symbol -- the Ouroboros: (a.k.a. Ourorboros, Oroborus, Uroboros or Uroborus) This is:

"... an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail and forming a circle. It has been used to represent many things over the ages, but it most generally symbolizes ideas of cyclicality, unity, or infinity. ... In Gnosticism, this serpent symbolized eternity and the soul of the world. 1

bulletChrist: The role of the redeemer in Gnostic belief is heavily debated at this time. Gnostics seem to have looked upon Christ as a revealer or liberator, rather than a savior or judge. His purpose was to spread knowledge which would free individuals from the Demiurge's control and allow them to return to their spiritual home with the Supreme God at death. Some Gnostic groups promoted Docetism, the belief that Christ was pure spirit and only had a phantom body; Jesus just appeared to be human to his followers. They reasoned that a true emissary from the Supreme God could not have been overcome by the evil of the world, and to have suffered and died. These beliefs were considered heresy by many non-Gnostic Christians. Some Gnostics believed that Christ's resurrection occurred at or before Jesus' death on the cross. They defined his resurrection as occurring when his spirit was liberated from his body. Many Gnostics believed that Jesus had both male and female disciples.
bulletThe Universe: This is divided into three kingdoms:
  1. The "Earthly Cosmos": The earth is the center of the universe, and is composed of the world that we know of and an underworld. It is surrounded by air and by 7 concentric heavenly spheres: one for each of the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Although the planet Uranus is visible to the naked eye, it was not recognized as a planet in ancient times.) Within these spheres live demonic, tyrannical entities called Archons. Beyond them lies Paradise which contains the "Tree of Life", the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", and the flaming, turning sword of Genesis 3:24. Beyond Paradise was the sphere of the fixed stars, divided into the 12 signs of the zodiac.
  2. The "Intermediate Kingdom is composed of an inner blue circle of darkness and an outer yellow ring of light. Within these rings is a sphere which is the realm of Sophia.
  3. The "Kingdom of God" consists of two spheres: an outer one of the unknowable Supreme God, and inner ring of the Son.

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Gnostic practices:

Little is known about the rituals, organizational structure and practices of the ancient Gnostics. Almost all Gnostic texts were destroyed during various campaigns to suppress the movement. Although some of their religious writings survive, there is little information about how the groups actually functioned. Religious historians believe that:
bulletMany Gnostics were probably solitary practitioners. Others were members of mainline Christian congregations, probably forming a clique within each church.
bulletThere was no consensus on a "canon of Gnostic scripture." Many books were circulated in different versions; various schools within the movement had their own preferred rendition.
bulletMany Gnostic texts were written by (or attributed to) women. Mary Magdelene played an important role in many Gnostic writings, often being second only to Jesus in status. They used both female and male images for the Supreme God. Theologians speculate that they probably treated women members as equal (or of almost equal status) to men in their communities.
bulletSome groups poured a substance over the head of a member when they were dead or dying, and recited certain ritual phrases. This was intended to help the individual's soul ascend through the dangerous heavens of the Archons towards the Supreme God.
bulletSome Gnostic groups had a ritual in which new members were baptized saying: "In the name of the Father unknown to all, in the Truth, Mother of All, in the One who came down upon Jesus, in the union, redemption and communion of powers."
bulletChristian writers who attacked Gnosticism sometimes reported conflicting accounts of sexual behavior among Gnostics. Some wrote that some Gnostic groups appeared to have suppressed all sexual expression; their membership were expected to remain celibate. Other Christian writers  criticized other Gnostic groups for allegedly practicing ritual sex magic. Where the truth lies is anyone's guess.

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Reference used:

  1. "Ouroboros, Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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Copyright 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-JUL-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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