Non-Gnostic Mysticism

Many people who are frustrated with orthodox Christianity, at least in the form they’re familiar with, turn to Gnosticism as a way of seekingout deeper spiritual experience.

And when they do this, they often speak of the shift in polarised terms, as a turning from exotericism to esotericism, from institutionalism to inner life, from religion to spirituality. Why, only last night I read this: “…well from what i know Orthodox Christianity doesn’t agree with Gnosticism because they often have different views on what happened to Jesus and his teachings. Gnosticism has a more mystical approach to things and orthodox doesn’t like it.”

But I don’t buy into that metanarrative so easily. In response to that comment, I said “It’s misleading to put the difference down to ‘Gnosticism has a more mystical approach to things and orthodox doesn’t like it.’ Because the fact of the matter is there are many varieties of orthodox / non-Gnostic mysticism within Christianity. So you’re statement only holds true for some streams of Christianity at best, not all.”

I highlight this because I think it’s important to sort between false and genuine differences at this point. There are differences between Christianity and Gnosticism, but it’s not in the mysticism.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Matt!
    I think I mentioned in a previous comment that I’m exploring the world of “big-O” Orthodoxy at the moment, and experiencing something of that paradigm shift myself. In that tradition, mysticism (trinity, incarnation, and theosis, experienced through sacrament and symbol) is the very heart of it all! It’s only in the West that that was replaced by the framework of legal justification.
    As I understand the history, it was the gnostics who fought against this mysticism by rejecting the physicality of Jesus.
    http://cmbryan.com/blog

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  2. Mysticism is one of those words that bothers me, at least as it’s currently thrown around today. What does it really mean? What does it mean to be a mystic. I pray to my gods and talk to them. They talk back. Does that make me a mystic? Or does it just make me a person who has a good relationship with my gods?
    My personal issue with Gnosticism is its tendency to create a hard duality between physical/mundane existence and spiritual/mystical experience, usually resulting in the latter to be declared superior to the former. Of course, I’ll note that this doesn’t seem to be a problem within merely Gnosticism, but tends to get into many forms of (both Christian and non-Christian) mysticism, and even some branches of orthodox Christianity.

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  3. I think Elaine Pagels (author of “The Gnostic gospels”) put the difference between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism best when she wrote:
    “Orthodox Christians were concerned – far more than gnostics – with their relationships with other people. If gnostics insisted that humanity’s original experience of evil involved internal emotional distress, the orthodox dissented. Recalling the story of Adam and Eve, they explained that humanity discovered evil in human violation of the natural order, itself essentially “good.” The orthodox interpreted evil (kakia) primarily in terms of violence against others (thus giving the moral connotation of the term). They revised the Mosaic code,
    which prohibits physical violation of others – murder, stealing, adultery – in terms of Jesus’ prohibitions against even mental and emotional violence – anger,
    lust, hatred.
    “Agreeing that human suffering derives from human guilt, orthodox Christians affirmed the natural order. Earth’s plains, deserts, seas, mountains, stars and
    trees form an appropriate home for humanity. As part of that “good” creation, the orthodox recognised the processes of human biology: they tended to trust and
    affirm sexuality (at least in marriage), procreation and human development. The orthodox Christian saw Christ not as one who leads souls out of this world into enlightenment, but as “fullness of God” come down into human experience – into bodily experience – to sacralize it.”
    Now if you see “mysticism” in terms of leading souls out of this world into enlightenment, then of course gnosticism is far more “mystical” than Orthodox (or orthodox) Christianity. Gnosticism is characterised primarily by its elitism (and not being for the hoi polloi) and by its denial of the value of the material world. And many people do see mysticism as a denial of the value of the material world.

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