What is Gnosticism?

One overriding theme in Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is that the deeper philosophy of Freemasonry comes from Gnosticism—an early Christian belief system whose adherents accepted the knowledge of Pagan religions as helpful in discerning the truth about the nature of God. Indeed, the term “Gnosticism” is derived from the Greek, Gnosis, which means knowledge—a word specially employed in religious inquiry to designate the science of things divine.

What is perhaps less known is that the term Gnosis was originally used by a sect of Jewish philosophers belonging to a school in Alexandria calling themselves the Peripaticians, who endeavored to show that all the wisdom of the Greeks was derived from Hebrew Scripture. For instance, they argued that any passage of the Old Testament could be interpreted allegorically so that any sense one desired could be attained from any passage of scripture. In this way they showed that Plato, on his sojourn to Egypt, had actually been their scholar. A single production of this Jewish sect has come down to our time. It is the ‘Book of Enoch,’ whose main object was to make known a description of the heavenly bodies and the true names of the same. Thus, to this sect of Gnostics, the beginning of perfection may have been the knowledge of man, but absolute perfection was definitely the knowledge of God.

A review of the teachings of Gnosticism guides one to conclude that it held itself above a paradigm that had slipped into so many religious creeds--that man had turned God into the image of himself. That is, the true nature of God had been diminished so that the human mind could better relate to Him in man’s own terms.

The Gnostics held this to be the greatest error of human nature. So they devised a way in which one could be a Christian while holding to the ancient, purer and truer ideas about the nature of God. And their approach was tied to the Ancient Mysteries. As every division of sectarianism tended more to corrupt the pure nature of God, and as idolatrous forms of worship became more established and popularly regarded as true and real in themselves, the Gnostics practiced and secretly taught an esoteric theology of which the corrupted forms of religion and worship were but the exoteric form of their faith. One could be an “immature” Christian in public and a “mature” Gnostic in thought.

Hence, the Gnostics taught that there was a mystery which related to the real and ineffable God; and those consciously initiated into this mystery held to a purer creed. Thus, the Gnostics preserved the old teachings while encouraging sectarianism itself. This enabled them to be Christians on the outside, while on the inside accepting all religious systems as having some basis of truth, and extracting from each what brought harmony to their ideas.

In short, the Gnostic spirituality was about looking within. The Divine aspect was immanent as well as transcendent. Thus, there was no real chasm separating humanity from its creator. God is within His creation. This offers the possibility that self-knowledge and knowledge of God can be one thing--that the Self and the Divine are identical.

Needless to say, religion as a matter of personal exploration didn’t play too well for those who were otherwise doing quite well at organized religion. So Gnosticism quickly became a heresy. By the sixth century, it was pretty much extinct as a religion as far as Europe was concerned. But it left behind deep traces in the writings and symbolisms of the magicians, astrologers, kabbalists, and seekers after the grand arcanum throughout the whole of the middle ages and through the renaissance.

The Ancient Mysteries continued to quietly flourish, although authorities of the church didn’t worry much about it, feeling they had successfully discredited it as being wrought with too much philosophizing and over-imagination. Then, in 1945, an Egyptian peasant stumbled upon an earthen vase full of papyrus books stored in a cave at Nag Hammadi. It turns out there were more gospels to the gospels than the early church had led everyone to believe. One of them proclaimed Jesus to be a Gnostic teacher. Another, the Gospel of Phillip, describes the initiate as “no longer a Christian, but Christ!” What the writer meant was that a man’s maturity in spirituality can become so intimately joined to Christ that he becomes Christ-like.

Dan Brown’s claim in his latest novel that organized religion has subverted the original meaning of the Bible is hardly surprising. Nor is it new news. He is simply using the message of the Gnostics as reflected in the Buddha who said, “You are God yourself,” and as taught by Jesus, who said, “the kingdom of God is within you,” and as quoted by the first antipope, Hippolytus of Rome, “Abandon the search for God…instead, take yourself as the starting place.” Novelist Brown simply chose to focus on Gnostic teaching as the underlying treasure to be discovered in the search for the Lost Word.

So the question becomes: Does this have anything to do with Freemasonry? In a historic sense, very little; since there is not a shred of evidence that Freemasonry evolved from the Ancient Mysteries. There are very few Gnostic symbols and talismans that have been borrowed by the authors of our craft Masonic ritual. The only such connection the operative fraternity may have made with the mysteries was that the mason marks of the stone masons were often the same as those used in Hindu religious practices; which can be traced back through Gothic retention, Gnostic usage, through Greek and Etruscan art to their ultimate Hindu source.

But the speculative side of the craft is another story. Many of the early writers on Freemasonry held the view that the Craft, particularly the Higher Degrees, was a continuation of the Ancient Mysteries; that is, Freemasonry was not a lineal descendent of the mysteries, but was a continuation of the mystery tradition. As an example, one of the cryptic themes so prevalent in our Degrees is that Initiation can lead to a personal epiphany and transformation. This is a Gnostic idea. Similarly, the comment above from the Gospel of Phillip that one must be resurrected in life is a symbolic parallel to the raising of the Master Hiram in the allegorical drama of the Third Degree. Indeed, one of the fraternity’s most respected writers, Walter Wilmhurst, defined the aim of Initiation as bringing into function that dormant and submerged faculty that resides at the depth and center of our being which is the vital and immortal principle of our personality. The goal is to regain our spiritual consciousness, that higher world and life within us—our soul consciousness. In Masonry, this goal is sought, at least in part, through the search for the Lost Word.

The bottom line is that progress in initiation is gnosis. It is not rational knowledge that we seek. Nor is it accumulation of information. Neither is it theoretical knowledge. What we seek is insight, or knowledge gained through direct experience; for gnosis involves a process that embraces both self knowledge and knowledge of ultimate, divine realities. It is the path of the psychology of being. It is about keeping the faith in the religious tradition of our choice, while having faith in our own intuition, the personal experience of our own inner liberation. The inner work of Freemasonry, and particularly the Scottish Rite, is to effect a significant change in consciousness that transports the knower to a higher awareness of himself, his nature, God’s nature, and his intimate and immortal connection to the divine.

Dan Brown in The Lost Symbol has helped us understand and accept the premise that we are all divine, and that we can all access the divine within us. What is above; is below. Knowledge is freedom. “If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us.”


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