An Alternative Understanding of Gnosticism
An Extract from John Lash's "Approaching Gnosticism"

Nearly all scholars maintain that Gnosticism arose historically with Christianity, but I take a different view, as follows: Gnosis was a spiritual path of millennial duration, closely related to, yet distinct from, well-known traditions of Pan-Asian mysticism, including Indian yoga and Buddhism. Gnostics were telestes, initiates in the Mystery Schools who broke their vows of anonymity to come out in the open and protest Judeo-Christian doctrines of Salvationism — doctrines that provide the ideological frame for the patriarchal/dominator agenda. Because the initiates emerged into the public eye during the first centuries of the Christian Era, scholars assume that Gnosticism must have been devised then and there.

I also depart from orthodox scholarship in looking outside the genre to develop an historical profile for Gnosticism. No scholar would say that Gnostics were from the Mystery Schools, because there is a disciplinary fence between Gnostic studies and Mystery School studies. Thus, Elaine Pagels insists flatly that there is no evidence (by which she means textual evidence) of such a link. But pioneer researchers, such as Theosophical scholar G. R. S. Mead, assumed Gnosis to be the core teaching of the Mysteries. "Gnostic forms are found to preserve elements of the Mystery-traditions of antiquity in greater fullness than we find elsewhere." (The Gospels and the Gospel, p. 210. This statement was written in 1901.)

Even the earliest evidence on Gnostics, such as the polemics of Hippolytus, state that the "heretics" drew their views from the Greek Mysteries. This link to the entheogenic cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries confirms my view that Gnosis was a refined form of psychedelic shamanism, a visionary path dedicated to the Earth Goddess. Such links are totally ignored by Gnostic scholars.

There is ample historical evidence for cross-cultural exchange between Gnostics and Asian mystics, such as Brahmins and Buddhist monks. From the 4th Century BCE Alexandria was a melting-pot where diverse cults met and mixed. The Church Fathers attest the presence of Druids and Brahmins in Egypt at the dawn of the Christian Era. Gandhara art from the Hindu Kush demonstrates the fusion of Greek and Indian cultures from the 4th Century BCE, and Buddhist scholars such as David Snellgrove and Paul Williams see Gnostic ideas affecting early views of Mahayana. In a hallmark essay published in 1967, renowned Buddhist scholar Edward Conze outlined 17 key similarities between Buddhism and Gnosticism. But comparative studies of this kind are totally out of fashion today, and comprehensive historical perspective on Gnosticism is non-existent.

The result is, a fog of ambiguity. On approaching Gnosticism, we naturally want to locate and label this movement, to get a sense of where Gnostics were coming from, culturally, historically, and geographically. Not a chance. Narrow-mindedness and denial dominate the subject. We must approach Gnosticism knowing beforehand that its origins are under-researched and misrepresented.

To make matters worse, my claim that Gnostics came out of the Mystery Schools throws the entire issue into perplexity, because no one knows what went on in the Mysteries! When I make this link, I set myself up to explain what the Mysteries were, which is about as difficult as explaining what Gnosticism is. (Actually, it is not so difficult, but building an adequate picture takes time.) I cannot fail to link Gnosticism to the Mysteries, even if this leaves people in bafflement. These abstruse matters are crucial to recovering the lost spiritual heritage of Europe (i.e., the West), and it takes a lifelong commitment. It is not just an obscure episode in history we're contemplating here. What Gnosis really was, and what happened to it, determined the most decisive shift in the moral and spiritual life of Western civilization. The story of the Gnostics is the crucial missing chapter of that part of our collective story.

No scholar today regards the actual content of Gnosticism to be worthy of discussion. The message of the Gnostics is lost in endless debate over the textual meaning of the surviving materials. Scholars assume that Gnostic texts are valuable for what they tell us about the origins of Christianity, period. But using Gnostic texts to legitimate Christianity is contradictory to its radical message. The Gnostic protest against Judeo-Christian religion is written clear and large in the surviving materials, chaotic and fragmentary as they may be. I use what I call the "Lego method" of Gnostic scholarship to select those elements from the surviving materials that build into a consistent and coherent message, distinct from Judaic and Christian doctrines. Scholars also use the Lego method, putting together selected pieces of text to highlight a specific doctrine or viewpoint, but without admitting they do so, or why they do so. They take no interest in recovering the actual message of Gnosticism.

My intention in reworking the Gnostic materials is transparent: to reconstruct the Pagan, pre-Christian teachings of Gnosis that were preserved in the Mystery Schools. If I have not been merely wasting my time, my efforts (underway for 30 some years, and counting) might contribute to four results that would impact deeply on modern spiritual life:

First, we see the Gnostic protest against the patriarchal/Salvationist agenda for what it was: an attempt to impart the knowledge that can free us from blind enslavement to that agenda;

Second, we recognize the rich spiritual heritage of pre-Christian Europe, destroyed in a centuries-long rampage of sexual, spiritual and intellectual genocide;

Third, we rediscover and reclaim the Sophia Scenario, a myth to guide the human species toward a sane and sustainable future;

Fourth, we acquire a unique corrective view of certain paranormal aspects of human experience, closely related to the mind control games of patriarchy.

This is quite a tall order, I know. Nevertheless, I believe that nothing less than this is acceptable where genuine experience of Gnosis is concerned. There is huge responsibility involved in knowing what Gnostics knew. I am convinced that the way for the human species to co-evolve with Gaia can best be discovered, and perhaps only discovered, on the visionary path of Gnosis.

Copyright 2002-2004 John Lash

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