Review: Living Gnosticism

Gnosticism, says Canadian Gnostic priest Jordan Statford (and blogger), is not a Jewish or Christian heresy, but stands alone, “too heretical for other faiths. . . . the Secret Church of the Holy Grail.”

His new book, Living Gnosticism: An Ancient Way of Knowing, defines it as “a pre-Christian religious tradition that fuse Judaism, Greek philosophy, and the Mystery Schools of the ancient world.

“Originating in the intellectual ‘café societies’ of Alexandria around 200 BCE, the original Gnostics were Greek-educated Jews, living in Egypt, on the doorstep of the Roman Empire. Theirs was the realm of diverse and interplaying cultures, of ideas and imagination. Gnostics unflinchingly explored the borders of myth and archetype, of metaphors and dreams, of creativity and poetic expression.”

(Sometimes he makes them sound like beatniks of the ancient Mediterraean.)

Also included are

• A dictionary of Gnostic terms such as archon and demiurge.

• A ritual calendar that starts with Candlemas, equating Bridget with Sophia, both as “goddesses” of wisdom and creativity, and runs through the feast of the apostle John, December 27. (Not real goddesses but “symbol[s] for an aspect of something greater.”)

• A question-and-answer section, viz., “Do Gnostics deny the historical Jesus?”

Answer: He is an archetype; “these stories don’t need to be historically true to be valuable.”

• An introduction to the various Gnostic churches of North America: the Apostolic Johannite Church, the Ecclesia Gnostica, the Ecclesia Gnostica Mysteriorum, the Gnostic Church of Mary Magdalene, the Order of St. Esclarmonde (a Cathar mystic executed by the Inquisition).

It’s an excellent introduction to the topic.

There is no original sin in Stratford’s Gnosticism; instead there is a story of loss. (I have suggested before that this story underlies the appeal of such fantasies as Anna Anderson’s claim to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.)

All Gnostics are in exile from heaven; they need to be reminded of their divine spark within; they need to be told that “the system” is not the world. And salvation comes not from faith-there is the rupture with orthodox Christianity-nor from works, but through enlightenment, gnosis.

Stratford wants to contrast Gnosticism with the “credal” or doctrinal religions. I think the opposite term to “credal” (following Harvey Whitehouse) is “imagistic” – not dependent on doctrine but on small-scale experience involving all the senses.

Stratford, in fact, wishes to link one of Gnosticism’s arms to contemporary Paganism, but I am not so sure of that.

Ultimately there is a chasm between them. Gnosticism cannot be separated from a belief that the world was simply made wrong: “There’s that certainty that something is wrong with the universe, and creeping paranoia that (a) this is somehow not the real world and (b) the forces in charge of this world are hiding something secret, something powerful.” It is a religion of psychic exile.

By contrast, Paganism allows sacred relationships “with the tangible, sentient, and/or nonempirical,” to use Michael York’s definition from Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion.

We may say that there is more to the world than This Side (the “nonempirical” part, but we don’t reject any of it. The gods pop up everywhere: Aphrodite in a shoe-store window display, as Ginette Paris once said.

Some Pagans may feel alienated (for good cause), but we have no reason to be in exile. This is our world, the parts that you can see and the parts that you cannot.