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Author Topic: Can We Come Up With a Definition of Gnosticism?  (Read 716 times) Average Rating: 0
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Justin Kissel
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« on: November 14, 2009, 06:50:48 AM »

In another thread it was pointed out that no one has yet produced a definition of gnosticism--not one people can agree on, anyway. I don't claim to be able to do that either. However, I would draw a distinction between definition and description. And, while I don't claim to be able to define gnosticism, I think I could give a description of it that covers the overwhelming majority of gnostics through the centuries.

I admit, I am approaching this without having devoted myself to a lengthy, serious study of the subject. But fwiw, I've read a half dozen modern books on gnosticism, read a half dozen lenthy articles online, and I've also read large chunks of what Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus had to say about gnosticism. The only gnostic group that I took enough of an interest in to really delve into deeply was the Carpocratians, a rather minor group in the history of gnosticism.

So, what do I hope to achieve? Again, not provide a definition. However, I think I could list some characteristics that at least 80% of gnostic groups throughout history have held to. I don't claim that this would be easy, nor do I claim that I have checked every single teacher or group to make sure the characteristics I'm going to mention match. Just to give you an idea of how difficult that would be, here's a list of just some of the teachers/groups that have been labeled gnostic, just in the first three centuries of the common era:

Quote
Nasaraioi/Nasoraean (1st century BCE)
Sethians (1st century CE)
Simon Magus (1st century CE)
Dositheos (1st century CE)
Menander (1st century CE)
Saturninus (1st century CE)
Theudas (1st century CE)
Ophites (1st-2nd centuries CE)
Thomasines (1st-2nd centuries CE)
Naassenes (1st-2nd centuries CE)
Valentinus (c. 100-160 CE)
Cerdo (2nd century CE)
Colarbasus (2nd century CE)
Cainites (2nd century CE)
Basilides (2nd century CE)
Cerinthus (2nd century CE)
Isadore (2nd century CE)
Carpocrates (2nd century CE)
Epiphanes (2nd century CE)
Marcellina (2nd century CE)
Heracleon (2nd century CE)
Marcus (2nd century CE)
Monoimus (2nd-3rd century CE)
Bardaisan (c. 154–222 CE)
Mani (216–276 CE)

That's not even all of them from the first three centuries, and gnosticism lingered in places for centuries longer, popped up later in history (e.g. some of the Cathars), and there are some gnostics even today (e.g. the Ecclesia Gnostica, based in Los Angeles, CA). So, I would agree with the main point that I think Jetavan was making: that you're not going to be able to define gnosticism. There are simply too many people, who taught too many contradictory things, to come up with a definition that everyone will agree with. But, like I said, that's not my goal. I only hope to list characteristics that the great majority of gnostics (say, 80%) agree with. So, with that lengthy and somewhat redundant disclaimer, here are the characteristics that I would say covers the great majority of gnostics:

1. Belief in a God, though the terminology used to describe that God can vary greatly. God might be called the uncreated creator, the absolute, the one, the source of all, the monad, etc.

2. God emanated other beings, considered gods, or divine beings.

3. The universe (including humanity) was not created by the true God mentioned in (1), but rather created by the lesser gods, or in many cases by one particular lesser god (e.g. the Demiurge)

4. The lesser creator God is mistakenly thought of by much of humanity as being the true God. This is partially because the lesser God makes the false claim that there is none higher.

5. Humans are seperated to some extent from the true God, but have a spark of the divine in them. The material aspect of the world weighs down our spiritual understanding, and lulls us into a spiritual slumber, leaving us in need of a spiritual awakening, what is commonly called salvation.

6. Salvation comes through gnosis. This can mean many things, however. For three examples, sometimes this means coming to understand your divine origin, sometimes it means receiving the correct understanding of knowledge which was given by a redeemer figure (e.g. Jesus Christ), and sometimes this means receiving certain intellectual/spiritual knowledge that has been secretly passed down.

7. The spiritual reality is what is truly real, or put another way: it is what is divine in us that is most real. On the other hand, the material aspect to reality is merely the creation of a lesser god and is less real.

Well, those are the characteristics or beliefs that come to mind, that I think the overwhelming majority of gnostics would agree with.
« Last Edit: November 14, 2009, 06:52:44 AM by Asteriktos » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2009, 03:33:46 PM »

So, with that lengthy and somewhat redundant disclaimer, here are the characteristics that I would say covers the great majority of gnostics:

1. Belief in a God, though the terminology used to describe that God can vary greatly. God might be called the uncreated creator, the absolute, the one, the source of all, the monad, etc.

2. God emanated other beings, considered gods, or divine beings.

3. The universe (including humanity) was not created by the true God mentioned in (1), but rather created by the lesser gods, or in many cases by one particular lesser god (e.g. the Demiurge)

4. The lesser creator God is mistakenly thought of by much of humanity as being the true God. This is partially because the lesser God makes the false claim that there is none higher.

5. Humans are seperated to some extent from the true God, but have a spark of the divine in them. The material aspect of the world weighs down our spiritual understanding, and lulls us into a spiritual slumber, leaving us in need of a spiritual awakening, what is commonly called salvation.

6. Salvation comes through gnosis. This can mean many things, however. For three examples, sometimes this means coming to understand your divine origin, sometimes it means receiving the correct understanding of knowledge which was given by a redeemer figure (e.g. Jesus Christ), and sometimes this means receiving certain intellectual/spiritual knowledge that has been secretly passed down.

7. The spiritual reality is what is truly real, or put another way: it is what is divine in us that is most real. On the other hand, the material aspect to reality is merely the creation of a lesser god and is less real.

Well, those are the characteristics or beliefs that come to mind, that I think the overwhelming majority of gnostics would agree with.
What if the gnostics teach these ideas, but they interpret them symbolically, rather than literally? For instance, #3 could be interpreted by gnostics as a teaching that should not be taken literally. The "lesser gods" referred to, would refer to human perception that is not yet purified (by ascesis, humility, fasting, prayer, etc.). Such "misperception" would then create its own mistaken perception of existence, or -- in a sense -- its own universe. Humans take their misperceptions as "truth", or as "divinely correct", when actually the real God is clouded from their sight.
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Justin Kissel
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« Reply #2 on: April 04, 2011, 04:37:19 AM »

What if the gnostics teach these ideas, but they interpret them symbolically, rather than literally? For instance, #3 could be interpreted by gnostics as a teaching that should not be taken literally. The "lesser gods" referred to, would refer to human perception that is not yet purified (by ascesis, humility, fasting, prayer, etc.). Such "misperception" would then create its own mistaken perception of existence, or -- in a sense -- its own universe. Humans take their misperceptions as "truth", or as "divinely correct", when actually the real God is clouded from their sight.

I suppose there could be an allowance for symbolic interpretations/understanding, though (for example in the case of #3) I think that is beginning to get away from the description and muddle things a bit. Are you thinking of the Valentians view of the creator with your point, or some other group/idea? Also, would it be fair to consider many gnostics henotheistic?
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« Reply #3 on: April 04, 2011, 05:39:25 PM »

I wonder if the motivating factor for gnostics is the desire to be different, to stand out from others, to elevate oneself--that is,, pride? If so, can it be weaved into the definition?
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« Reply #4 on: April 04, 2011, 07:07:04 PM »

I wonder if the motivating factor for gnostics is the desire to be different, to stand out from others, to elevate oneself--that is,, pride?
Couldn't you say that about everyone?
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If you will, you can become all flame.
Extra caritatem nulla salus.
In order to become whole, take the "I" out of "holiness".
सर्वभूतहित
Ἄνω σχῶμεν τὰς καρδίας
"Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is." -- Mohandas Gandhi
Y dduw bo'r diolch.
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« Reply #5 on: April 04, 2011, 09:02:57 PM »

I wonder if the motivating factor for gnostics is the desire to be different, to stand out from others, to elevate oneself--that is,, pride?
Couldn't you say that about everyone?

Yes, but in their case, it may be stronger than most others'. It seems to me that gnostics come across as "know it all" types, smug in their superiority over those not in the know.
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