This paper attempts to redefine what we mean by “gnosis.” It begins with a critique of scholars who—in order to maintain their supposed objectivity—avoid wrestling with the subjective experience of gnosis. They reduce gnosis to its literary, political, and religious contexts, and their explanation of these influences passes for our scholarly understanding of gnosis. Yet gnosis remains unknown to them. Once we dare to explore gnosis as a transforming experience, we can recognize it outside of the historical context of the late antique world. What, then, is the gnostic experience? Following Frances Yates, I suggest that there are two kinds of gnosis: the pessimistic, dualist, and anti-cosmic gnosis, and the optimistic, non-dual gnosis that sees the material cosmos as divine. I trace the lineage of this non-dual gnosis from Neoplatonic theurgists who speak of an “innate gnosis” that allows us to see the world as theophany, to its expression in our own American Gnostic, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
April D. DeConick
This paper owes debt to the field of study known as sociology of knowledge, which is interested in the social location of groups and their constructions of knowledge and reality. This project, however, is not about ordinary knowledge, but how gnosis, the direct knowledge of a transcendent God beyond the traditional Gods, became the foundation of a new form of spirituality in antiquity, and how this form of Gnostic spirituality has reemerged in modern America, impacting traditional religious communities and fostering new religious movements. Several social factors are involved in the emergence of Gnostic spirituality, including the dislocation of the founders and collaborators of Gnostic movements, the prominence of the seeker response, the revelatory milieu in which they find themselves, their reliance on revelatory authority, their push for alternative legitimation, and their flip-and-reveal and do-it-yourself constructions of new knowledge. Gnostic countercultures arise when Gnostic spirituality is mobilized. Much of religion and society are overturned so that we find constructions of the counter-self, calls for counter-conduct, the establishment of counter-cult, the deployment of counter-media, and the emergence of modes of Gnostic esoterization. The final section turns to the awakening, transport, and occulturation of Gnostic spirituality into modernity in America via artifact migration and alpha channels like Blavatsky.