The Gnostic Temptation


“Ascension” by Nick Keller

Neo-Paganism represents a challenge to the Gnostic temptation of much of contemporary Western and Eastern religion. The “Gnos­tic temptation” refers to a tendency in religious thought toward denying the goodness, or even the reality, of physical exist­ence. Michael York explains that most world religions have a transcendental or “gnostic” bias, by which he means that they see the material world as illusory or as having less value than the spiritual world. In much of Christianity, for example, physi­cal reality is seen as something fallen, from which we need to be redeemed.

In contrast, in the Neo-Pagan understanding, the spiritual is intertwined with the physical. Divinity is more immanent than transcendent for Neo-Pagans. To the extent the Neo-Pagan divin­ity is transcendent, it is a lateral transcendence, rather than a vertical one; the divine encompasses physical reality (panenthe­ism), rather than being separate from it.

The Gnostic temptation in Christianity is expressed as the con­demnation of the body, sex, and the material world as the king­dom of the Devil. Many Christians seek to escape this world, either by returning to an Edenic state of atonement or by ascend­ing the ladder of being to a heavenly realm. The Gnostic tempta­tion in Eastern religions is expressed in the view of physi­cal real­ity as a mask or a veil concealing the divine Reality be­hind it. In many Eastern religions, the body is seen as a prison for our spir­its.

Neo-Paganism, in contrast, has a this-worldly focus. For Neo-Pagans, this world is real, not illusory. Nor is it fallen. Neo-Pagans do not seek to escape or transcend the world, but rather to deepen their experience of it. Neo-Pagans are skeptical of spir­itual abstraction or otherworldliness. While some Neo-Pagans be­lieve in reincarnation, they embrace rebirth and celebrate the great round of nature, unlike the Eastern religions in which the wheel of reincarnation is something to be escaped from.

Religious studies scholar, Graham Harvey, has observed that the Gnostic temptation does sometimes find its way into Neo-Pagan discourse too. This is due, in part to the influence of West­ern esotericism* on Wicca, and through Wicca on Neo-Pagan­ism. It can be seen in ritual forms, like the casting of a rit­ual circle, which can seem to separate participants from their physi­cal environment, rather than re-connect them with it. An­other source of the Gnostic temptation in Neo-Paganism is the New Age, which is sometimes conflated with Neo-Paganism. In contrast to Neo-Paganism, the New Age looks to spirit rather than earth and denigrates matter and darkness.

* “Esotericism” refers to a nexus of related quasi-religious movements, the common trait of which is the notion that secret or hidden knowledge is available only to a small, elect group and only through intense study. This knowledge often takes the form of a system of hid­den correspondences between levels of reality.

Updated 2019

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