Gnosticism: the Original ‘Woke’ Culture

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Today we begin a multi-part series on Gnosticism. It will gradually show how this ancient movement is very much alive today, albeit clothed in different types of garments, most notably in those of ‘science.’

It’s also worth mentioning that every modern Occult movement or figure we’ve mentioned thus far––esoteric Freemasonry, Theosophy, Jungian psychology, Crowleyite magic, etc.––has some sort of reverence for ancient Gnosticism.

The word ‘Gnostic’ is very elastic, much like ‘Protestant,’ as it is often applied to many things. It can be a bit tricky to define. It has mutated over time and people still fight today over its meaning. Rightly or wrongly, many things end up under the Gnostic umbrella, but what sparked such debate in recent times?

Nag Hammadi Gnosis

Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, a shift occurred in ‘the matrix’… or so the story goes. No longer was it necessary to read the writings of St. Irenaeus or St. Epiphanius (or other heresiologists) in order to gain access to the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics. Now the scholars had access to raw data––without the hegemony of Roman Catholic interpretation tied to it. Now ‘the people’ could finally ‘wake up’ and see what Christianity was really like without the Church defining it for them. Now Western Civilization could re-think everything it’s ever known about Jesus Christ and His Church.

Now the dust of the 1945 gnosis-rush has finally settled. Those in search of Nag Hammadi gold have since produced an abyss of academic studies from these texts. Brill academia alone has published over 100 volumes and counting on Nag Hammadi and Manichaean studies (see What is the Occult?).

Despite such bold claims as ‘changing Christianity forever,’ the Nag Hammadi studies have shown noteworthy things for Catholics. First, they show that the Serpent’s enmity towards the Woman (Our Lady and the Church) is and was even greater than previously understood; second, that Church Fathers like St. Irenaeus expressed the Gnostic’s views fairly and accurately enough, especially for the context of the times. Maybe the Church Fathers spoke a bit more harshly than we would today. Maybe they conflated a sect or two and called something ‘Gnostic’ that perhaps wasn’t. However, the underlying issues pointed out almost two millennia ago are no less relevant today; in that the Church Fathers have been vindicated.

But many scholars say otherwise. Some even suggest that the term Gnosticism should be abandoned altogether,[1] implying that the Church Fathers lumped far too many unique and diverse groups into a single polemic; that they highjacked Christianity by unfairly slandering the Gnostics in turn, distorting or mis-categorizing them with sects that should not even be considered Gnostic (e.g. the Encratites).[2] Nevertheless, for them, the results were monstrous: a monolithic Church was created that was openly hostile to the ideas of others. It created ‘dogmas’ to be pitted against ‘heresies,’ all to impose a particular worldview upon diverse peoples scattered across the globe for a thousand-plus year reign of ‘Dark Ages’ tyranny. At least, this is the more dramatic version of the tale, and usually the one found in Occult literature.

Although most scholars tend to give a more toned-down version of this narrative, the extreme approach is more like straining the Gnostic gnats while swallowing its anti-Catholic camels (Mt. 23:24). It still begs the question, how do we define Gnosticism? Setting aside radical academics who’d rather eliminate the term altogether, the majority of Nag Hammadi scholars do in fact provide us with excellent definitions, even if the scholars themselves have little love for the Church Fathers.

Academia Answers

Here we’ll cite several scholars on Nag Hammadi, all of whom are far more enamored with Gnosticism than with Catholic Fathers (lest we be accused of an Irenaeus-esque bias). First, we have the Dutch theologian and historian Gilles Quispel (d. 2006). Here’s his definition of Gnosticism:

Today Gnosticism is defined as a religion in its own right, whose myths state that the Unknown God is not the creator (demiurge, YHVH); that the world is an error, the consequence of a fall and split within the deity; and that man, spiritual man, is alien to the natural world and related to the deity and becomes conscious of his deepest Self when he hears the word of revelation. Not sin or guilt, but unconsciousness, is the cause of evil.[3]

The implications of Quispel’s definition for Catholicism are that:

  • The Creator in Genesis, Yahweh or the Demiurge, is not the true God. Thus, Catholics worship Him in a state of ignorance (an important Gnostic ‘buzz term’).
  • The Creator of Genesis made our material world in an “error.” Thus, Catholics worship a God that failed: one that is not all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing.
  • The “fall” is a result of God’s error and own “split” personality. Thus, humans are caught in a dualistic struggle between spirit and matter. Mankind did nothing wrong; he’s merely a victim of his environment, which renders Christ’s bodily suffering, death and resurrection as essentially meaningless.
  • Mankind is trapped in an alien material body that is a prison. Therefore, gender roles and distinctions are also “an error” (or prison), all of which is deemed an unnatural byproduct of the creation error.
  • Guilt, associated with Catholic teaching, related to sin, is simply an illusion (another Gnostic ‘buzz term’).

In short, if you believe Catholic teaching on the nature of sin and morality you are ignorant and the God you worship is an illusion. By default, this understanding also applies to our Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish brethren.

The popular religious academic Elaine Pagels gives us more insights. Here, she focuses on a particular group of Gnostics called the Valentinians. They were able to blend into the early Church more successfully than others,

What this secret tradition reveals is that the one whom most Christians naively worship as creator, God, and Father is, in reality, only the image of the true God. According to Valentinus, what Clement and Ignatius mistakenly ascribe to God…applies only to the creator. Valentinus, following Plato, uses the Greek term for “creator” (demiurgos), suggesting that he is a lesser divine being who serves as the instrument of the higher powers. It is not God, he explains, but the demiurge who reigns as king and lord, who acts as a military commander, who gives the law and judges those who violate it—in short, he is the “God of Israel.”[4]

Apparently, the Church Fathers, such as St. Clement and Ignatius, were mistaken when they inserted the lesser being of Yahweh––Old Testament God of Israel––into the Trinity with Christ.[5] Onlynaïve’ Christians still believe Yahweh is “king and lord,” and that his Laws are absolutes. None of this applies to the Gnostics however, for they follow the “higher powers.” Yet they may use such lower conceptions of deity as an instrument for whatever purpose. Pagels continues,

Through the initiation Valentinus offers, the candidate learns to reject the creator’s authority and all his demands as foolishness. What gnostics know is that the creator makes false claims to power (“I am God, and there is no other”) that derive from his own ignorance. Achieving gnosis involves coming to recognize the true source of divine power—namely, “the depth” of all being. Whoever has come to know that source simultaneously comes to know himself and discovers his spiritual origin: he has come to know his true Father and Mother.[6]

The “demands” of Yahweh’s Ten Commandments are “foolishness.” Any authority based on them is to be rejected. Such laws only derive from  one’s ignorance of the true god, who is androgynous (father and mother). Mankind ‘knowing himself’ reflects the image of the latter, not the former (i.e. ‘gender fluid’ vs. distinct genders and roles). Only then is he free to discover his true origins.

Another scholar, Tuomas Rasimus, tells us more of androgyny. He uses the views of the Ophite Gnostics as his model,

The snake’s advice to eat from the tree of knowledge is considered positive, the creator and his angels are turned into demonic beasts with specific names and the true God-head is presented as an androgynous heavenly projection of Adam and Eve.[7]

We see that the ‘heavenly’ Adam––the true man––was “androgynous.” This was before Yahweh split the sexes by taking Eve out of Adam’s rib. Eating of the gnosis tree is the way back to humanity’s primordial, genderless state, while Yahweh and His heavenly host are actually “demonic beasts” trying to prevent it all from happening. The “specific names” assigned to YHVH (God the Father) are Ialdabaoth, Saklas (the fool) and Samael (the blind God). In certain Ophite systems, the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael are also part of this ‘demonic’ crew.[8]

This is where the Jewish heritage of the Gnostics becomes apparent, but the views are hardly orthodox; rather, they are in direct rebellion against it. In short: the ancient Gnostics took the name of a demon in Judaism––Samael––and assigned it to their own Creator––Yahweh.

Therein lies the key: the God of Israel is Satan to the Gnostics; He is the Adversary of mankind. Ialdabaoth––Yahweh’s most common Gnostic name––is likely a complex mish-mash of various names of God the Father (YHVH, Adonai, etc.). It is perhaps even tied to Pagan practices that invoked various divine names for magical purposes.[9]

Summed up, these are the ‘archons,’ sometimes called the ‘authorities.’ It is they who attempt to keep mankind trapped in bondage and ignorance, in physical bodies and a so-called objective reality fashioned by the Demiurge. By extension, those that serve the archonic forces––such as  Christendom’s kings and priests––are the earthly ‘authorities’ to be resisted and rebelled against at all costs.

Finally, we turn to scholar Wouter Hanegraaff for his summation of the Gnostic mythos, who brings it all together,

According to basic gnostic mythology, those human beings who carried the spark in themselves were rebelling against the demiurge, an ignorant or evil deity (often associated with the God of the Old Testament) who had created this lower world of darkness and ignorance as a prison for the soul, and therefore sought to prevent human beings from waking up to their true divine identity. By attaining gnōsis (knowledge) of their divine origin, gnostics were set on their way to escape from the world of the demiurge and his demonic helpers, the archons, who would try to prevent them from rising up through the heavenly spheres after death and ascending their way back to their divine home of Light.[10]

As we can see, the Gnostics were the original ‘woke’ culture warning of the evils of the God that built Western Civilization.

The Search for Gnostic Origins

There are many more parallels we can apply to the modern world using these definitions of Gnosticism. We’ll refrain for now, but in the meantime readers can use their imagination.

In summary, we know what Gnosticism is, taken directly from the scholars themselves and not the ‘biased’ heresiologists. We know that Gnostics are ‘woke’ to the alleged ‘fact’ that the God of Israel––and by extension the Catholic Church––is the enemy of mankind.

But the Gnostics do not stop there, they are also keen on finding humanity’s true origins apart from the story of Genesis creation. We’ll explore how these origins relate to Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary theory in our next installment.


[1] Wouter Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism, p. 20.

[2] Gilles Quispel gets particularly upset when the Gospel of Thomas is called ‘Gnostic’ when, for him, it is ‘Encratite.’ But he only seems to care when Christian scholars conflate Thomas with Gnosticism. Pagels book The Gnostic Gospels talks a good amount about Thomas, she even calls it a ‘gnostic’ work. Yet I’ve never read a critique on her coming from Mr. Quispel (unless I missed it).

[3] Gilles Quispel, Gnostica, Judaica, Catholica, p. 156, emphasis mine.

[4] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, p. 37.

[5] Remember, Jesus is a positive and divine figure in Gnosticism, but divorced from Yahweh, and without a bodily incarnation as God.

[6] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, p. 37

[7] Tuomos Rasimus, Paradise Reconsidered in Gnostic Mythmaking, p. 3

[8] Ibid., ch. 3.

[9] Ibid., p. 105. This is based on Origin’s refutation of Celsus’ views of Christianity in his Contra Celsum 6.30.

[10] Wouter Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism, p. 20.

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