Gnosis and the Politics of ‘Looking Within’

Dear Gillian 

You raise some very interesting points. Recently, I read the (1958) book entitled ‘The Gnostic Religion – The Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity’ by Hans Jonas. Its contents, although interesting and informative, seemed oddly unfamiliar. Last night, I read a thoroughly absorbing article entitled ‘The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism’ by Richard Smith. This was added as an ‘Afterword’ to the book entitled ‘The Nag Hammadi Library – The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume’ General Editor James M Robinson. Basically, confusion abounds because Western scholars are still developing an understanding of what exactly ‘Gnosticsm’ is and was, and because of this lack of clarity, we are all accessing this subject at different areas or ‘timezones’ of research, and becoming muddled through the use of a fluid terminology that has not yet settled, and disagreement as to the definition of what exactly ‘Gnosticism’ is and is not, etc. I have spent the last 20 years or so, studying the work (Enneads) of Plotinus (204-270). Plotinus is a special person and his words led to a most beautiful experience as I walked through the grounds of Cockington Manner on one glorious Spring morning! I immediately saw the ‘truth’ of his analysis of the senses and how he ‘looked within’. Many people refer to the system of Plotinus as ‘Gnostic’ because he looks within with discipline and precision – whilst advocating an exact set of realised insights and levels of attainment – the next more rarefied than the one before. His travels inward and away from the material world in its gross, material aspect, and yet Plotinus is adamant that what he is doing ‘IS NOT’ Gnosticism in anyway. Although Plotinus never mentions ‘Christianity’ at all, he does spend time criticising Gnosticism as he encountered it in Egypt and/or possibly Rome, etc. He called it a false and corrupt teaching, and yet for many (including myself) ‘looking within’ to gain an insight to what is going on ‘outside’ is not only ‘Gnostic’ – but the essence of Buddhist and Christian monasticism. The problem seems to be that for Irenaeus and Plotinus – they are criticising not a ‘method’ of ‘looking within’ (as I assume that they both did that), but a ‘foreign’ Persian-type of religion with unfamiliar gods, goddesses, terms, attainments and definitions, etc. It seems that the method of meditation or contemplation that we now refer to as ‘Gnostic’, has also been applied to a Persian School of Thought that permeated Palestine around 30 CE, and seems to have infiltrated some aspects of early Christianity. I think the confusion might come from the early Church Fathers ‘rejecting’ the ‘foreign’ religion of Gnosticism – whilst advocating the Gnostic method of ‘looking within’ but not necessarily calling it that. Of course, we might be looking at this the wrong way around. It might be that the ‘foreign’ religion of Gnosis (from Persia) was the foundation of the original Christianity, and that once ‘purged’ of its more obvious ‘Persian’ elements, it eventually developed into the Christianity we know today. People like Irenaeus might have comprised a very small group of ‘modified’ Christians who rejected the ‘foreign’ religion of Gnosticism – whilst retaining its fundamental method of ‘looking within’ to gain ‘gnosis’. The Jewish roots of Jesus and all Persian influences were rejected by the emerging (gentile) Christian movement, which instead moved toward the inner work of Greek thinkers such as Plotinus. In the Acts of Peter, we see Peter feeling sorry for a tied-up dog and ‘releasing’ it from its binding chain. The grateful dog then develops the power of speech and assists Peter in finding Simon Magus – the false prophet (but by all accounts, a very good magician)! 

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