April D. DeConick


On her book The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today

Cover Interview of May 16, 2017

In a nutshell

In The Gnostic New Age, I tell the powerful story of how gnostic groups arose in the first century CE as countercultural religious innovators, offering people in antiquity a completely new way to look at themselves, their world, and their gods. I present gnosticism, not as a religion, but as a religious worldview or spirituality that engages multiple religions and affiliations, and remodels them in countercultural ways, producing new religious movements even to this day.

All the religions of antiquity – Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian religions – based their beliefs and practices on a type of spirituality that envisioned human beings as slaves or servants to very powerful and often capricious gods and government authorities who were their deputies on earth. These religions mainly served to keep the world orderly and the gods satisfied and happy, so as to avoid punishments like famine, disease, and defeat in war. People did this by providing the gods with sacrifices that fed them, worship that respected their power, and lifestyles that honored their rules and kept chaos at bay.

Gnostic spirituality interrogated this traditional understanding of religion by turning worship away from the gods of the nations to a supreme transcendent God whom they considered the source of all life. This made the gods of the nations, including the biblical God, lesser deities, even false gods and demons. Furthermore, this transcendent God of worship was not a God that could be described or learned about through some catechism or scripture. This supreme God beyond all Gods had to be experienced by each person or met face-to-face in a mystical embrace. Gnostic groups used rituals they designed to bring about this initiatory experience.

These practices significantly changed ancient people’s understanding of the human being. The human being was no mere mortal according to gnostics. Humans, they thought, contained an actual piece of the transcendent God within them, and they called it the human spirit. This piece of God is what makes humans transcendent, capable of journeying beyond their bodies, beyond their world, to a place of utter Good and Light, which is their source. This journey home and integration with God transforms and empowers the human initiates to externalize the God Within, to become gods on earth, to make their own choices based on conscience rather than obedience to gods and kings.

This meant that religion took on a specific therapeutic function that it did not previously have, to transform and empower human beings as gods, to give humans the power to conquer fate, resist the dominant authorities and traditions, and create a better world for themselves. This reorientation of religion features the rise of the individual and free thinking which became foundational to the history of the Western world and our own history as Americans.