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Gnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.
For gnostics, our physical bodies are also of the material world, and part of the evil snare that traps us here. Gnostics, therefore, sometimes tend toward asceticism. Although full-blown gnosticism was rejected by the early Christian church, it did leave its mark on the development of Christianity. The notion that material pleasures are sinful, and that life should be about preparing one’s immortal soul for a heavenly afterlife, has a decidedly gnostic ring to it.
The basic gnostic ideas are also present in some eastern religions. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, the material world is deemed to be an illusion (maya) that binds us down karmically and delays or prevents our liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.
Gnostic ideas are also woven into popular culture. The movie The Matrix presents a quintessentially gnostic view of the world, with the ancient gnostic mythos updated into a high-tech futuristic dystopia. The “new age” or metaphysical community, while not tied down to any detailed doctrinal system, nevertheless frequently plays with gnostic ideas, to a greater or lesser degree.
The relationship between modern Paganism and gnosticism is a complex one. On the one hand, many of our metaphysical ideas and magical practices derive from the Western mystery tradition and forms of occultism connected with it. This tradition has always had a heavily gnostic coloring. The “great work” of alchemy and high magic, returning the self to its divine source, comes straight from the gnostic-influenced Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic era. Some Pagans have a spiritual practice involving eastern-style meditation designed to lift consciousness out of an ego-bound and body-bound mode. Many of us would not take issue with the bumper sticker that says “I am a spiritual being having a physical experience.”
On the other hand, I think the core sensibility of modern Paganism is anti-gnostic. We feel at home in this world, and we revel in the physical experience of it. We feel at home with the plants and animals, with the changing weather and the strong earth beneath our feet. We love the pleasures of the body, and embrace sexuality as sacred. For most Pagans, the divine is not a distant light we must struggle to reunite with, but rather is as near as our own breath and flesh.
For myself, I find some gnostic ideas to be enriching. It is good to occasionally step out of my immediate experience and see it as mere “clothing” over a more universal spiritual reality. There is wisdom to be gained by transcending the details of physical life. For me, though, such transcendence is a tool, not an end in itself. It means little to me until I return and engage this life once again, enjoying its pleasures and making the most of my time here. Although I think there is a spark of spirit in each of us that is not bound to this earthly existence, I do not see the earth as a prison or an evil to be denied. Rather, experiencing this world is the great joy and calling of the spirit, it is what I am about.