Because the gnostic heresy is a social construction imposed by the early Catholics on religious people they identified as transgressors of Christianity, scholars are entertaining the idea that ancient gnostics were actually alternative Christians. While gnostics may have been made into heretics by the early Catholics, this does not erase the fact that gnostics were operating in the margins of the conventional religions with a countercultural perspective that upset and overturned everything from traditional theology, cosmogony, cosmology, anthropology, hermeneutics, scripture, religious practices, and lifestyle choices. Making the gnostic into a Christian only imposes another grand narrative on the early Christians, one which domesticates gnostic movements. Granted, the textual evidence for the interface of the gnostic and the Christian is present, but so is the interface of the gnostic and the Greek, the gnostic and the Jew, the gnostic and the Persian, and the gnostic and the Egyptian. And the interface looks to have all the signs of transgression, not conformity. Understanding the gnostic as a spiritual orientation toward a transcendent God beyond the biblical God helps us handle this kind of diversity and transgression. As such, it survives in the artifacts that gnostics and their opponents have left behind, artifacts that help orient religious seekers to make sense of their own moments of ecstasy and revelation.
Narratives of soul flights are common in ancient Mediterranean literature, sharing many similarities such as the movement of the soul along a vertical path that is associated with life and death. But they also display significant differences such as peculiar accounts of cosmic realms, idiosyncratic reasons for soul flights, and wild diversity of associated rituals. Historical critical studies of soul flights have been unable to address successfully this problem of comparison, which remains unable to explain structures that are engineered consistently in cultural productions. Cognitive explanations are more helpful in this regard. Yet current cognitive explanations struggle to account for the differences. How can both the similarities and the differences be accounted for within the same parameters of the operations of human cognition? This paper presents a model called cognitive ratcheting to address this problem. It is a theoretical formulation of the natural mental process through which concepts take shape and are innovated when they are mentally mapped onto spatial orientations, then ratcheted up with intuitive cognition, and finally elaborated into many cultural variations by reflective thought. This process acknowledges that, at the same time a concept is diversified through reflective elaboration and ratcheted up within different cultural contexts, it retains deep structures, especially with regard to spatial orientations, intuitive processes, and reflective recursion.