Why a Gnostic Catechism?
“A Gnostic Catechism? What a preposterous idea and a contradiction in terms to boot!” Such and similar objections are likely to be forthcoming in response to the present effort. The word “catechism” readily conjures up visions of dogmatic belief, enshrined in rigidly formulated articles and designed to be memorized and mindlessly recited by children and by adults of childish minds. Yet a catechism is truly but a compendium of instructions, usually of a religious nature, arranged in the form of questions and answers. There is no necessary implication of dogmatism and even less of childish simple mindedness at all.
Still, when we attach the word “Gnostic” to “Catechism” we may encounter another problem. A Gnostic is by definition a knower, and since knowledge supersedes belief, a knower cannot very well be a believer. If a catechism is mainly a statement of beliefs, it is something that no Gnostic would have a need for. So far so good, but the issue under consideration is a bit more complex than that.
Throughout history there existed two principal ways of viewing Gnosticism. The first was rooted in the hostile critique of the heresiologist Church Fathers. It declared that Gnosticism was speculation and philosophizing resulting in a patchwork system of purloined parts from here and there. A catechism based on such a system would be worthless because the system itself would be worthless. The second way of viewing Gnosticism, which has been gaining in acceptance lately, is both more fair and more accurate than the former. In this view, Gnosticism is grounded in the experience of Gnosis, which is the salvific and revelatory experience of transcendence. The experience of Gnosis then receives expression in the Gnostic Mythos which allows the Gnostic to amplify and assimilate the experience of Gnosis and also makes further experience of Gnosis possible.
Rushing to conclusions on the basis of only the first portion of this definition, some people come to exaggerate the importance of Gnosis at the expense of the Gnostic Mythos. They come to feel that nothing other than Gnosis matters, and that a Gnostic is simply one who has experienced Gnosis.
It is no doubt true that without Gnosis there is no Gnosticism, but it is also true that without the context of the Gnostic Mythos the Gnosis of the individual loses its salvific character. Our world harbors many people who have had impressive spiritual experiences which, however, never yielded any significant meaning. (The specific salvific meaning the Gnostic derives from the experience of Gnosis is redemption, which means liberation from the necessity of earthly existence.) Only when Gnosis occurs within a particular meaningful context will the Gnostic obtain optimal results from his experience. This does not mean that Gnosticism posits any kind of dogma against which to measure the authenticity of the experience of the Gnostic. What it means is that Gnostic sages and seers have brought forth from their own original experiences of Gnosis a vast and meaningful Mythos which represents the theoretical matrix for our practical experience. This mythic matrix is of course not closed; rather it invites modifications and additions of an appropriate nature from other seers and travelers on the Aeonial paths of Gnosis.
The catechism which follows is a manual of instruction in the Gnostic Mythos. Its aim is to instruct not only in one variety of this Mythos, but in the entire heritage of the Gnostic tradition, whereby we mean the teachings of the Gnostic sages and seers as found in their original writings, including the Nag Hammadi collection. The less reliable accounts and recensions of these teachings found in the writings of the Church Fathers have also been taken into consideration. The non-Christian Gnosis of the Hermetic writings has been considered also. The teachings of the Prophet Mani are often included. (It is increasingly evident to scholarship that the Manichaean Gnosis is an organic part of the Gnostic tradition.) The spirit, if not always the letter of all known dispensations of the Gnostic tradition, finds its expression in this catechism.
Catechisms have been with us for a long time. It is believed that the first such compendia were based on the catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem in the Fourth Century A.D. The name originates in the Greek verb katexein, meaning to teach, and the first catechisms seem to have grown out of oral instructions given to those who were candidates for membership in the church.
Not only mainstream orthodoxy had catechisms, however. So called heretics, sometimes of a Gnostic or gnosticising orientation, often had their own catechisms. It was rumored that the Cathars of the Languedoc had a catechism, but no copy of this work has been found so far. The most famous “heretical” catechism was the one printed in 1498 (although existing earlier) which was used not by one but by three heterodox movements at once, i.e. the Waldenses of Savoy, the Brethren of the Common Life in Germany and the Unitas Fratrum in Bohemia. A catechism format was even employed by the renowned esoteric teacher of the 19th Century, H. P. Blavatsky, in her work, The Key to Theosophy. (Indeed one is tempted to interject that if such a non-dogmatic system as Theosophy could employ this format, surely modern Gnosticism could do the same.) The French Gnostic Church possessed a catechism, written by Bishop Jean Bricaud and published in 1907. (See our bibliography.) It would seem that there exists ample precedent for our present effort.
Let us state then once and for all: This catechism was not prepared in order to create a Gnostic orthodoxy or to proclaim Gnostic dogmas. Rather it is designed to meet a twofold need, one general and the other particular. There exists a general need for concise, clear and authentic information regarding the Mythos held by the Gnostic tradition. The present age is characterized by much shallow thinking and a tendency to reduce meaningful ideas to nebulous nonsense. With the increase of publicity attached to some teachings of the Nag Hammadi material, Gnostic ideas and terms are being appropriated by uninformed sources. The name Gnostic is often misapplied. When everything is “Gnostic”, nothing is Gnostic. Although far flung and poetic, the Gnostic Mythos is a specific one; one ought to know what it is and what it is not.
The other need is particular. It relates primarily to the Ecclesia Gnostica, a Gnostic church with which the author is associated, although other kindred churches might be interested also. Candidates for Gnostic Baptism, and for other sacraments, including Holy Orders, are in dire need of such information. Certainly they are not asked to blindly believe in the contents of the Gnostic Catechism. Rather, it is likely that they will be pleased to read a brief yet comprehensive statement of the Mythos to which they have been attracted. While few of them wish for some sort of litmus test of Gnosticism to which they are expected to conform slavishly, a compendium of ideas and ideals, used as a point of reference will be welcomed by all. May all practitioners of the Gnostic tradition profit from the fruit of our present labors and may the holy cause of the Gnosis be furthered thereby!
by Stephan A. Hoeller For Gnosis.Org