By Brian George
This is my second comment to Miguel Connor on the Reality Sandwich forum for his piece "'Gnostic' is an Open Question; An Interview with Elaine Pagels":
Much thanks for the time and energy that you have spent in this luminous exposition of current trends in Gnostic scholarship! It would take an essay to respond to all of the issues you raise, but let me touch in passing on the following two:
1) Whether the term “Gnosticism” originated as an insult—in which case it would mean something like “know-it-alls”—and whether we should discard the term for this reason.
2) Whether the term “Gnosticism”—whatever its origin—should continue to be used because it points to an attitude that is rooted in the metaphysics of the texts themselves.
You wrote, “No extant ancient writing uses the term Gnosticism (although we can find Judaism, Christianity, Paganism etc). In fact, the word 'Gnostic' does not appear in the NHL. That does not mean scholars think there were no Gnostics. The Church Fathers wrote that many groups used 'Gnostic' as a self-designation.”
It is not really that unusual for a term that begins its life as an insult to be transformed into a general term of description. For example, “Impressionism,” “Fauvism,” and “Cubism” all originated as insults that were thrown by outraged critics. There was something about each of them that rang true, however; people chose to ignore the first negative associations, and the terms continue to be used.
So too, people continue to use the term “Gnosticism” because it is useful in giving form to a multifaceted phenomenon, and because it points to an orientation that is clearly visible in the texts.
Let us look, for example, at this famous statement by Valentinus: “We are liberated by the knowledge (gnosis) who we were, what we have become, where we were, whither we have sunk, whither we hasten, whence we are redeemed, what is birth and what rebirth.” The term “gnosis,” as it us used here, is of value not because Valentinus would have referred to himself as a “Gnostic,” but rather because he is arguing that we should reestablish a sense of direct contact with our origins.
In the “Nag Hammadi” texts, there is frequently a great emphasis put on terms such as “Nous”—“Mind”; “Ennoia”—“Thought”; “Pronoia”—“Forethought”; and “Epinoia”—“Afterthought.” What would, in other systems, be seen as abstract philosophical categories are here personified as independent actors or living cosmological forces.
In “Trimorphic Protennoia”, a presence says: “I am androgynous. I am Mother and I am Father since I copulate with myself and with those who love me, and it is through me alone that the All stands firm. I am the womb that gives shape to the All by giving birth to the Light that shines in splendor. I am the Aeon to come. I am the fulfillment of the All, that is, Meirothea, the glory of the Mother. I cast Speech into the ears of those who know me.”
This small voice in the ear is one mode in which Gnossis might be experienced. Other modes might be the sudden flash of illumination, the flood of other-dimensional imagery, or the non-verbal and non-visual sense of contact with the beyond—as by an infinite extension of the skin. At the tips of our fingers—which is also the circumference of space—we have access to the knowledge of the Primordial Female/ Male.
The tone of paranoia that we find in so many Gnostic texts may be more a function of the psychology of late empire—a theatrical trapping, which is not as central as we think. The key factor that unites these modes of knowing may be the reawakening of a-cosmic memory—of a form of memory that operates beyond (or beneath) the force-fields of creation.
A “Big Bang” does seem to have occurred between the first and fourth centuries AD, but my sense is that this was neither caused by, nor focused very specifically upon, what we would think of as the “person” of Jesus Christ. He was the particular instance of a universal form—like the youthful Krishna when he served as Arjuna’s charioteer.
Whatever we might choose to call them, and whatever they may have called themselves—whether Sethians or Telestae or Valentinians or Manicheans—these groups are “Gnostic” in terms of the emphasis that they place on the role of first-hand knowledge. Conversely, they often caution us as to dangers of belief—for beliefs can all too easily become the playthings of the Archons.
To “know,” as Valentinus says, is to remember where we have come from, and this frees us from any need to be dependent on external dogma.