Mysticism and Gnosis

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that there is an essential difference between mysticism and gnosis.

On the surface, both deal with the phenomenology of spiritual experience — direct encounter with the Divine Other, and/or the experience of Union with the Divine. But then there seems to be an essential ingredient that differentiates mysticism from gnosis, or vice versa.

Gnostic spirituality seems to imply that direct personal experience always trumps the received wisdom tradition (if the church tells me to serve the poor, but my own gnosis directs me not to interfere with the poor because they have their own spiritual karma to unravel, then as a gnostic I will ignore what the church says and follow my inner teachings). By contrast, conventional religion suggests that tradition always trumps experience — which is why the Catholic Church will only accept mystical teachings that are fully and completely consistent with official church teaching. Perhaps mysticism is the golden mean between these two positions. Mysticism dares to suggest that personal experience and received tradition must always inform, enlighten, critique, and shape each other. Gnosis and tradition are equally valuable, equally marvelous and miraculous arenas where the Holy Spirit can and does act. Likewise, both are subject to scrutiny — from each other. It is in this arena of mutual humility and shared vulnerability that God can do God’s mighty work of shaping us — and the community — in ever new ways.

I’m not sure if this is all that there is to understanding the difference between mysticism and gnosis. But it’s a start.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Is Mysticism Genetic?
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Teddyshark

    See comment on “Redeeming Gnosis.” This entry makes for an adequate beginning but is a long, long way from a successful ending. I salute your courage to address the very difficult. It’s where most of the “real work” gets done. Teddyshark;-)

  • Rev. Troy Pierce

    I have used a similar description to explain the difference between Mysticism and Gnosticism. For the Mystic, that which is considered orthodox remains primary. So that, insights from mystical experience are either kept within the framework and bounds of orthodox teaching, or the insight/experience is discarded. Whereas, for the Gnostic, Gnosis is primary. So when mystical experience that is outside of or contradicts received teachings, it is what is kept.

    Gnosis, however, is not arbitrary. Gnosis in the sense of redemptive or liberating Gnosis is a knowing through growing, a knowing through becoming.

    Nor is it something that can be easily formulated in language. There is always a process akin to translation, of trying to bring Gnosis into language, that always leaves room for uncertainty. Gnosis and Doxia are in this way different aspects of knowledge. Gnosis cannot be formulated as Doxia, nor vice versa. While there are differences between these types of knowing, they exist within all of us.

    The orthodox strategy is to hold onto the doxia that has been determined to be correct (“ortho”) in some manner. The strategy of Gnosticism is for each individual to seek Gnosis. In both of these enterprises, tradition is important. Likewise, what is contrary to Gnosis, for one, or ortho-doxia, for the other, is not considered useful. In the absence of a contradiction, tradition provides a guide.

    In describing this difference, I often say that Mysticism is the expression of Gnosis within an orthodox framework.

    I hope this reflection from the other side of these considerations may be useful.

  • Peter

    It seems clear that there will always be a tension between these two.
    It may be that the “side” one takes or the preference one has between the two is not arbitrary but is a result of psychological or spiritual influences: psychological in that those who have been wounded through tradition may react by going further into gnosis, whereas those who have been nourished by traditional structures may end up more orthodox. And spiritual in that there is always the God factor: God Himself is a wild card, the great Unpredictable, the Sovereign Author of Undeserved Grace, of Infused Contemplation–and great mystical writers such as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing advise seeking the answer to the question whether you have received a sovereign call of this Uncontrolled God to the mystical or contemplative life. In the ultimate sense (Henri Nouwen, The Beloved) all mystical or gnostic or contemplative life is a RESPONSE to the movement of the Beloved Initiator, and our discussions or arguments about these topics (apophatic, cataphatic, and all the rest) pale in the expectation of the fulfillment of the great Beatific Vision of which all mystical or spiritual experience is but a foretaste, a prophecy, a promise.
    Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!!

    Peace and love to all,

  • Yvonne

    My problem with gnosticism is that it seems to want to escape from this world and ignore the suffering of others. Mysticism, by contrast, is more about empathising with the suffering of others and seeking the raise the consciousness of all. I prefer the Eastern Orthodox Church’s ideal of theosis (the Catholic equivalent is sanctification by grace, apparently).

    It’s analogous to the difference between the Theravada ideal of nirvana for the individual Buddha, and the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva who helps others to enlightenment.

  • Carl McColman

    Well…. I see where you’re coming from, Yvonne, but I think Christian mysticism has within its own bounds both Theravada and Mahayana dimensions. The cloistered monk (of the Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian variety) would represent the “Theravada school” of Christian spirituality, while beginning with the friars and the “mixed life” orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits) we begin to see more of a “Mahayana” spirit.

    But maybe all I’m saying is that cloistered monasticism is more “gnostic” than other forms of the religious life?