Gnosticism is a term used to describe a variety of ancient religious and philosophical beliefs once found throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. It is important to realize that the people who held these beliefs did not refer to themselves as “Gnostics” or label their faith as “Gnosticism.” as was the case with Buddhism. Rather, scholars at a much later time applied these terms to a diverse collection of sects and teachings. Gnostic beliefs are marked by a strong dualism, recognizing sharp distinctions between good and evil, for example. Perhaps most important for them was the division of the material world from the spiritual. Gnostics taught that people had a divine spark which had fallen from a perfect, spiritual state into a corrupt physical world. Because of this, Gnostics downgraded the value of material possessions and even the human body itself.
The term Gnosticism comes from the Greek work “gnosis,” which literally means “knowledge.” More specifically, it means special mystical knowledge not known to people outside the belief system. Many Gnostics used ritual as part of their practice, but what set them apart was their emphasis on the importance of gaining particular “spiritual knowledge” as a means to salvation. The leaders of a movement kept this knowledge secret, and revealed it to new members as part of an initiation process. One example of this kind of knowledge was the Gnostics’ view of God and the cosmos. From their perspective, the “true God” of the universe was a remote mystical presence, and what other people worshipped as God was actually something the Gnostics called a “demiurge.” This demiurge was a secondary type of God, credited with creating the physical cosmos. Some Gnostic sects considered the demiurge to be a complete illusion, while others saw it as a kind of assistant created by the true God.
Early Christian theologians disagreed with many Gnostic teachings, including those regarding the demiurge. Christianity sought to be a universal faith, open to all, while the Gnostics tended to be closed groups with elitist principles of membership. As such, these theologians sought to purge Gnostic elements from the newly forming Christian faith. This very activity of eliminating heresies is what, in part, led to the creation of the label “Gnosticism” as a generic term applied to many different groups, all of which had similar unorthodox elements.