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]