At this point, “Gnosticism” is as much an accusation as a philosophy, a way anyone might identify him- or herself. Still, if contemporary writers are to be believed, everything from Jordan Peterson’s Jungianism, to New Age spiritualities, to Scientism are forms of a revived Gnosticism; the word does a lot of work. While I have my opinions on these ideas, I’m not terribly interested in how “gnostic” they are. Rather it seems to me (perhaps much like in the early Church) that the term has become a very powerful rhetorical tool. It allows us to categorize something as heresy, or at least as suspicious, from the git-go. That can be useful, but it’s not what I’d like to do here.
Of more interest to me is what we mean by saying that Christianity, in its orthodox version, is anti-Gnostic. What are we supposed to be against? And what does that mean for how we ought to practice the Faith?
Gnosticism, as its use today suggests, can mean a great variety of things; there have been many “gnostic movements.” They are all, however, united by an emphasis on “gnosis,” or a sort of (often secret) knowledge. Here’s a “bishop” of the (contemporary) “Gnostic Church”:
Gnosticism is the teaching based on Gnosis, the knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of interior, intuitive means. Although Gnosticism thus rests on personal religious experience, it is a mistake to assume all such experience results in Gnostic recognitions. It is nearer the truth to say that Gnosticism expresses a specific religious experience, an experience that does not lend itself to the language of theology or philosophy, but which is instead closely affinitized to, and expresses itself through, the medium of myth. Indeed, one finds that most Gnostic scriptures take the forms of myths. The term “myth” should not here be taken to mean “stories that are not true”, but rather, that the truths embodied in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the statements of philosophy. (Stephan A. Hoeller)
The designation gnosticism is a term of modern scholarship. It was first used by the English poet and philosopher of religion Henry More (1614–87), who applied it to the religious groups referred to in ancient sources as gnostikoi (Greek: “those who have gnosis, or ‘knowledge’ ”). The Greek adjective gnostikos (“leading to knowledge” or “pertaining to knowledge”) was first used by Plato to describe the cognitive or intellectual dimension of learning, as opposed to the practical. By the 2nd century CE, however, the name gnostikoi had been adopted by various Christian groups, some of which used it positively as a self-designation, though others criticized the practice as a presumptuous claim of exclusive access to truth. (Britannica.com)
With these two definitions in mind, it becomes clear that Gnosticism, whatever its other elements (myths, demiurges, hedonism, asceticism, etc.) found its basis in some idea of secret knowledge or learning. Of course, the term is inadequate. We can’t know exactly what all of the various sects we now call “gnostic” believed, but we can say that, as a category of understanding alive for five centuries and rooted in ancient sources, “Gnosticism” might be useful as a study in what orthodox Christians are to avoid.