Many spiritual seekers today seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for Gnosticism, an ancient religious movement that, until recently, had mostly died out. In part, I think, their affection for the Gnostics is based on the fact that traditional Christianity strongly opposed the Gnostic movement, branding it a heresy. Anything opposed by the hidebound, patriarchal church must be pretty cool - or so the thinking goes.
There's also the appeal of subscribing to a body of "secret," "hidden" wisdom that is revealed only to a few select adepts. People have always enjoyed being in on a secret that is withheld from the rest of mankind. The huge sales figures of Dan Brown's mediocre thriller The Da Vinci Code are best explained by this phenomenon; people thought they were getting inside information.
The trouble is, when you really look at Gnosticism, it isn't all that appealing. In fact, it's rather disagreeable, at least to me.
Consider this brief summary presented by N.T. Wright in his recent book Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, about the newly discovered "Gospel of Judas." To set the Judas Gospel in context, Wright presents the essentials of Gnostic Christian thought. (It is true that Wright is no fan of the Gnostics, but as best I can tell, his summary is accurate; it dovetails with what I know of the movement from my own reading, notably Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Paul.)
Wright tells us:
The most striking feature of Gnosticism, marking it out against the main line of Jewish and early Christian thought, is a deep and dark dualism. The present world of space, time and matter is an inexorably bad place, not only a place where wickedness flourishes unchecked but a place which, had it not been for an evil god going ahead and creating it, would not have existed at all....
The world as we know it was made by a bad, stupid and perhaps capricious god. There is another divine being, a pure, wise and true divinity who is quite different from this creator god.... For Gnosticism, the god who made the world, along with various other intermediate beings who may have had a hand in the project at some stage, is at the least misguided or foolish, and at worst downright malevolent.
The main aim of any right-thinking human being, therefore, will be to escape the wicked world, and the outward [form of] human existence, altogether....
The way to this "salvation" is precisely through knowledge, gnosis.... [T]his special gnosis is arrived at through attaining knowledge about the true god, about the origin of the wicked world, and not least about one's own true identity. And this "knowledge" can come only if someone "reveals" it. [pp. 31-33]
Gnosticism, in brief, is a worldview that disparages all things material, including the human body, and seeks to lose itself in the revelations of specially appointed teachers, whose insights are to be withheld from the common herd. It is essentially an elitist philosophy, setting off the select few (called "pneumatics" in the Gnostic literature) from the mass of mankind, who are merely "sarkic," i.e., fleshly. (The "psychics," meaning people with some limited spiritual insight, occupy a middle tier in the hierarchy.)
Add to this the fact that Gnosticism offers a remarkably convoluted, rococo mythological scheme (or series of schemes), presented in coded language that is all but impenetrable to outsiders, and you have all the makings of a strange cultlike movement that proved to be a cultural dead end.
It is true that some modern thinkers, like Jung, have found deep psychological insights embedded in Gnostic writings. Possibly, if interpreted in this way, the Gnostics' teachings can have value. But when taken as a metaphysical (not psychological) system, Gnosticism strikes me as both mean-spirited and intellectually barren.
Yet nowadays it is making a comeback. Are its enthusiasts missing something ... or am I?