Admit it: You've wondered now and then whether God might not actually be a very nice guy. And you've wondered what Jesus knew, how and when he knew it, and what he did with whatever he knew.
Well, the Gnostics wonder, too.
An ancient spiritual path veiled in mystery — some say it even predates the alleged birth of Christ — Gnosticism holds that an imperfect deity of not-entirely-determinate gender rules the universe and that a wealth of esoteric hidden wisdom awaits the earnest seeker, which can be obtained not through dogma or secondhand teachings but only through a highly personal pursuit and an epiphanic personal experience called gnosis, from a Greek word meaning "knowledge."
Because its precepts clashed with mainstream Christianity, Gnosticism went underground in a newly Christianized Rome, circa 325. "Other Christian groups and the Roman government outlawed it and persecuted its adherents," explained Mark H. Pritchard, a writer and teacher and the founder of an international group known as the Gnostic Movement. "It was eventually taught undercover until it pretty much disappeared."
Yet interest reawakened after twelve long-buried papyrus codexes containing ancient Gnostic texts were unearthed in Egypt in 1945. Modern-day adherents practice meditation, chant mantras, and explore the astral plane — while most folks would be startled to learn that 21st-century Gnosticism even exists.
"It is around," said Pritchard, who was brought up Catholic but was fascinated with the paranormal throughout his childhood. "You just have to go and search for it, unlike many faiths which have a larger, more visible presence." He became convinced while young that "the real message of Jesus had been altered and that much of his message was personal and had a lot to do with inner change."
Known as the Nag Hammadi Library, the 1945 discoveries "contain teachings of Jesus and his disciples not found in the Bible, and their rediscovery has allowed us to study these teachings again," Pritchard said. "So just as the Gnostics of ancient times did, we're able to not only study what Jesus taught but practice and experience what it has to offer ourselves, and this is what Gnosticism has always been about."
Although he senses a strong bond with early Gnostics, his faith feels anything but outdated or arcane. "Gnosis is a very practical teaching. It is practiced in everyday life and it can be applied to any situation in any society or moment in time," he asserts. "It is in fact a very effective and useful aid in combating the stresses and complexities we face in modern times." A Thursday, January 7 presentation at the San Francisco Bay Area Gnostic Centre (3201 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) addresses psychology as a spiritual tool.
As for the reactions from non-Gnostics when he tells them what he is, "usually it's about the same as they would have to anything that is different to their own faith," Pritchard said. "The difference with Gnosis, however, is that most people don't know what it is." 7:30 p.m., free. GnosticWeb.com/Berkeley-Gnostic-Center
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