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Gnostic Philosophy: From Ancient Persia to Modern Times [Paperback]

Tobias Churton
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

24 Feb 2005
Gnosticism was contemporary to early Christianity and its demise can be traced to Christianity's efforts to silence its teachings. The Gnostic message however was not destroyed but simply went underground. Starting with the first emergence of Gnosticism the author shows how its influence extended from the teachings of neo-Platonists and the magical traditions of the Middle Ages to the beliefs and ideas of the Sufis Jacob Boehme Carl Jung Rudolf Steiner and the Rosicrucians and Freemasons. In the language of spiritual freemasonry Gnosis is the rejected stone necessary for the completion of the Temple a Temple of a new cosmic understanding that today's heirs to Gnosticism continue to strive to create. The Gnostics believed that the universe embodies a ceaseless contest between opposing principles. Terrestrial life exhibits the struggle between good and evil life and death beauty and ugliness and enlightenment and ignorance: Gnosis and Agnosis. The very nature of physical space and time are obstacles to humanity's ability to remember its divine origins and recover its original unity with God. Thus the pre-eminent Gnostic secret is that we are God in potential and the purpose of bona fide Gnostic teaching is to return us to our godlike nature. Tobias Churton is a filmmaker and the founding editor of the magazine Freemasonry Today. He studied theology at Oxford University and created the award-winning documentary series and accompanying book The Gnostics as well as several other films on Christian doctrine mysticism and magical folklore. He lives in England.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Inner Traditions Bear and Company; New edition edition (24 Feb 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594770352
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594770357
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 62,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"We desperately need a solid historical overview of Gnosticism which is historically credible and yet not too academic to put it out of reach of the average reader and this book is it. To get a good handle on what Gnosticism really is (and isn't), a great place to start is with "Gnostic Philosophy" by Tobias Churton."

About the Author

Tobias Churton is a filmmaker and the founding editor of the magazine "Freemasonry" "Today." He studied theology at Oxford University and created the award-winning documentary series and accompanying book "The Gnostics," as well as several other films on Christian doctrine, mysticism, and magical folklore. He lives in England.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is an insightful read, explaining in great detail the philosophical strengths of schools of Gnosticism founded on various personalities, philosophers. It goes into personalities too, explaining historical context, and brings the truth of Gnosticism to the twenty-first century reader with great aplomb. I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone on a spiritual journey of enlightenment (as I have been, these decades!).
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everpresence of Gnosis 25 Oct 2007
By calmly
Format:Paperback
A wonderful book.

The breadth of coverage is great: over 2000 years of Gnostic groups and individuals, among them Cathars, Sufis, Jacob Bohme, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Carl Jung, and Rudolf Steiner.

Within each topic, there's suprising depth of coverage. The coverage of the Sufis is beautiful writing. The coverage of Aleister Crowley is enthusiastic and complex. This is in no way a dry survey. Nevertheless, the writing is backed up with 42 pages of footnotes and a 7 page bibliography. Altogether, many pointers to further reading on Gnosticism.

There were some surprises for me about who could be considered Gnostic: for example, the coverage of the Troubadours and, more recently, Jimi Hendrix. Churton is able to define Gnosticism through those he has selected to represent it. It's a long way from Valentinus to Hendrix, to be sure, but Churton quite capably threads together the many individuals and groups he considers Gnostic. In doing so, he moves from history to presence, so that he may, as if he did for me, provide you a vital sense of how Gnosticism may be relevant today for you.

"Gnostic Philosophy" may inform and entertain, but, due to the deep care and warmth with which Churton has written it, it may also call to you. This book is a brilliant presentation of why Gnosticism matters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This book: a good starting point? 2 April 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This review is written by someone whose knowledge of gnosticism is minimal: whose understanding of it is zero. How well did it advance both?
My urge to understand both was aroused by The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, which looks at how "orthodox" Christianity was established. Ehrman's major thesis was that the ultimate victors in the raging dispute between the many different strands of Christological thought was based as much on establishing a rejection of those other strands as an on an objective understanding the earliest text (whatever that was)of the New Testament.
Gnosticism proved one of the most difficult: much of the "orthodox" thinking was in line with gnostic thought.
Given that, how well did it succeed for me?
Several readings were, and still are, needed for me to get a satisfactory handle on it. But that is not a judgement of the book: it shows merely that I have a long way to go. The history of gnostic thinking starts well before the establishment of Christianity.
It is fortunate that the author in his Introduction says (p2): It does not matter where one begins reading; the centre of the circle will always be there.
Maybe, if I reach a, to me satisfactory point of understanding, then, after reading the thoughts of others whose theses are in conflict with Churton's, then my review will be based on a comparison.
Don't hold your breaths waiting for that!

David Cooper
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everpresence of Gnosis 8 May 2005
By calmly - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A wonderful book. I've felt happy since I read it yesterday.

The breadth of coverage is great: over 2000 years of Gnostic groups and individuals, among them Cathars, Sufis, Jacob Bohme, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Carl Jung, and Rudolf Steiner.

Within each topic, there's suprising depth of coverage. The coverage of the Sufis is beautiful writing. The coverage of Aleister Crowley is enthusiastic and complex. This is in no way a dry survey. Nevertheless, the writing is backed up with 42 pages of footnotes and a 7 page bibliography. Altogether, many pointers to further reading on Gnosticism.

There were some surprises for me about who could be considered Gnostic: for example, the coverage of the Troubadours and, more recently, Jimi Hendrix. Churton is able to define Gnosticism through those he has selected to represent it. It's a long way from Valentinus to Hendrix, to be sure, but Churton quite capably threads together the many individuals and groups he considers Gnostic. In doing so, he moves from history to presence, so that he may, as if he did for me, provide you a vital sense of how Gnosticism may be relevant today for you.

"Gnostic Philosophy" may inform and entertain, but, due to the deep care and warmth with which Churton has written it, it may also call to you. This book is a brilliant presentation of why Gnosticism matters.
45 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Do what thou wilt! It is the Law! 4 Oct 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although this book purports to be a history of a philosophy, Churton stretches definition of "gnosis" almost to the breaking point. In the minds of most today, "Gnosticism" refers to one of the many branches of Christianity. Following the work of Hans Jonas, Churton argues that the "gnostics" have roots far back in time, long before Jesus. The origins lie in Persia, and may reach into ancient India and the Upanishads. The author grants himself a certain breadth of view earlier scholars either didn't use or didn't possess. The result is a sweeping vista of various movements, most of which have but the most tenuous ties to one another. Woven into this rather tattered tapestry is the running theme of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons.

The dictionary cites "gnosis" as "an intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths". That rather vague meaning is applied here with a vengence. Churton views the Zarathustrans as the earliest gnostics. Their division of the world into two realms, the material and the spiritual, laid the foundation for many elements of Western European philosophy and religion. Good and bad, light and dark, body and spirit were the basic formulas by which the cosmos was viewed by successive gnostic movements. The appearance of Christianity was a major challenge to the gnostic dualist idea, since the Christ figure merged the demarcated elements. Gnostics, who had at least as many views of Jesus as did the orthodox Christians, ultimately rejected the corporeal aspect of Jesus. For that view, and the religious rituals Gnostic Christians adopted, a campaign of vilification and condemnation as heretics resulted. In fact, much of what was known of them for many centuries was through the voices of their enemies.

Churton, however, is able to trace the rise of many sub-themes of the gnostic idea through history. Besides the resistance to bishops and other forms of church hierarchy, the gnostics had a loftier view of deities. To them, the Judeo-Christian "creator" was a "demiurge" - a deceiver and trickster. A higher deity, a goddess figure, was the True God. Even that appellation was an insufficient description and this cosmic ghost become known as The One or The All. Knowledge of The One granted the possessor with immense spiritual powers. Thus, "Do As Thou Wilt" was acceptable in the framework of one who had achieved spiritual preeminence.

Following expressions of the gnostic ideal through the Knights Templars, the Romantic movement in art and philosophy, and other offshoots promoted by those feeling constrained by orthodox Christianity, Churton arrives at the key figure in this study. Aleister Crowley, one of the most bizarre figures in Western mysticism, is granted an entire chapter. Vilified and scorned by orthodox society, Crowley followed a lifestyle an Oscar Wilde would hestitate to adopt. Crowley incorporated nearly every mystical idiom available, finally setting convential norms aside with his proclamation of "sexual magick" in his "Book of the Law". In this, and other works, Crowley claimed not only to have achieved the highest spiritual realms, but was the personification of The One in the guise of Aiwass. Churton could not have imagined a more appropriate choice to end his book, but he goes a step further. As a conclusion fitting for the end of the 20th Century, he elevates Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon as the most recent expressions of the "spiritual all".

"The All" and its "Law" is the unifying theme of the book. The All, a deity, supra-deity or megadeity, replaced earlier forms of gnosticism. The expression leaves doubt, however, as to whether the dualist nature of original Gnosticism hasn't thereby been abandoned. Mysticism, of course, is boundless, permitting any form of definition and removing any restraint to practice. "Do As Thou Wilt" is perfectly permissible so long as you can claim spiritual approval for your acts. The concept should appeal to "all" humanity, but so far hasn't even displaced the various forms of monotheism. At the opening of the 21st Century, Churton's analysis seems disjointed. He cites many figures, such as Benjamin Franklin, as "gnostics", but the effect is Churton wedging anybody he can define as "unorthodox" into the Gnostic pantheon. With all his attempt at "unity" he omits the two men who truly unified life, Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. As an advocate of "spiritualism", Churton deftly sidesteps science, applying the usual disparagement of "materialism" as a dismissal. The book might have been a success in the opening years of the Enlightenment. Today, it's only a glaring anachronism. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gnosis and Jnana are of the same Root 21 Jun 2005
By OAKSHAMAN - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
_It is fitting that the author reminds us that both gnosis and jnana both come from the same root, i.e. knowledge. Specifically, in this application, it means knowledge leading to union with the divine.

_I read the author's previous book on this subject through at least three times over the years. I found his idea of the gnosis extending through history to the modern day as both valid and inspiring. No matter how overpowering was the dogma and worldly power of the age, a true spiritual path survived in the background down through the ages. A Golden Thread linked these ages. That is also true in this book, for as the author points out, you can start reading at any of the fourteen chapters and still find the Center, for the chapters mirror each other. This is because where ever this thread intersects with an age, that is where the Center is- stringing seemingly disparate and profane history together on a necklace of higher wisdom. All through history has the gnosis flowed, through the Vedists, Kabbalists, Magi, Neoplatonists, Hermeticists, Troubadours, Knights Templar, Cathars, through individual mystics, to modern day neo-gnostics.

_This is no soulless, academic, encyclopedic compilation of gnostic terminology, the inherent meaning of the subject shines through. The meaning of true Gnosis as union with god, or rather, the Divine spark and origin in all of us is repeatedly expounded. Moreover, it is shown that this is why mankind is different from other beings. We come here from beyond to grow through suffering and hard moral choices- and to ultimately awake to our Divine origins. The ultimate reason and purpose of this is that unconscious God may ultimately come to know Himself as conscious God. That was set in place from the beginning.

_One other small comment of my own on the gnostic concept of the lesser, deranged "creator god." I am not at all sure that at least some of the gnostic writers weren't referring to the Romans here. It is well known that the imperial Romans engineered cults for the purpose of social and political control. The divinization and cults of the emperors are prime examples. They claimed to be gods, demanded worship, and set up false religions to achieve this- sounds like the evil, deranged, lesser god to me, or at least his microcosmic reflection....

Oh yes, thanks to this book I now view the character and works of Aleister Crowley with considerably more sympathy and respect.

_This is a thick book, but it is uniformly a joy to read. If one were to have but one book in their library on this most profoundly significant of subjects this would be a fine choice.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This book is just not accurate 11 Jun 2006
By Richard S. Mitnick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I have to agree with Stephen Haines. This guy drags in everything but the kitchen sink. He makes Boehme a Gnostic, the troubadors, the Knights Templar, William Blake, the Masons, Jung, and finally, any physicist worth his salt.

I mean, some of these folks might not have been orthodox in their Christian practice, but being heterodox does not make one a Gnostic.

How did he forget Meister Eckhart, and Sabbatai Tzvi? If he has Boehme as a Gnostic, then these also are Gnostic.

He never distinguishes between Gnosticism as a group of sects, and gnostic practice, which pervades Kabbalah, Sufism,etc.

This is just not a good book.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Real McCoy 11 Aug 2005
By BPG - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Long dissatisfied with the modern Western worldview, Westerners are increasingly turning to the Eastern spiritual traditions. This is not a bad thing, and I am not for a moment suggesting that there is no value in such philosophies. However, unbeknown to many, there is a rich alternate spiritual path right here in the West, and, nobody ever entirely able to shake off their centuries of cultural heritage, Westerners could find deeper resonance in these philosophies.

The reason Gnostic ideas are often overlooked is that due to a history of authoritarian domination by the "official" Church, many gnostic movements had no choice but to go underground. Hence "esoteric" knowledge, rather than "exoteric". But the "Da Vinci Code" phenomenon has put gnosis centre stage, and currently there is an eager revival underway. Problem is, the field is saturated with quackery, and sifting through the wheat is no easy task.

Churton, founding editor of "Freemasonry Today", is an authority on the subject and comprehensively chronicles Gnostic History to its earliest origins. What is more, he does this in a highly readable format, his journalistic experience shining through in each chapter. If your curiosity of Western esoterica has been piqued of late, and you're looking to get the low-down on what it is actually all about, there is probably no better place to start.
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