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The Gnosis and Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnosis and Christianity by William Kingsland.

Kingsland The Gnosis and Christianity

William Kingsland’s treatment of esoteric Christianity was written in the early decades of the twentieth century under the title Gnosis in the Christian Scriptures. It was first published posthumously in 1936 as The Gnosis or Ancient Wisdom in the Christian Scriptures. My copy is a 1975 paperback reissue under the title The Gnosis and Christianity. Although the early Christian gnosis (as heresiologically defined) receives some attention from Kingsland, he chiefly uses the term “Gnosis” to indicate a philosophia perennis. The essentialist “religion” (versus “religions”) that Kingsland identifies with the perennial current of initiation is also referenced as “cosmic religion,” and contrasted with the religion of a personalized deity.

Inasmuch as classical Gnosticism is represented in this volume, the chief textual reference is the Pistis Sophia, cited in the edition by Theosophist G.R.S. Mead. Kingsland classes the Essenes as “Gnostics” in his sensu lato. (He was writing prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls alike.) Buddhism is also taken to reflect “the Gnosis,” and represented through a profusion of quotes from Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Other comparanda for purposes of elucidating the perennial wisdom include the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine–or rather The Stanzas of Dzyan of which Blavatsky’s work purports to be the exposition.

The Hebrew scriptures are presented here as the work of genuine initiates, albeit ones pandering to the sensibility of a provincial and debased Bronze Age audience. The canonical writings of the “New Testament” are held to contain esoteric teachings, but obscured by later editorial impositions. The avowed purpose of this book is to clarify the biblical texts in the light of true initiated knowledge.

Kingsland’s frequently caustic treatment of exoteric Christianity is fair enough, and his promiscuous use of scare quotes keeps the integrity of his exposition in view. He stops at the verge of affirming Gospel mythicism, although he allows it as a reasonable position. Instead, he prefers the hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical initiate–indeed, an Essene–who had attained to the status of “Christ” by manifesting the logos. He also gives props to Paul and the author of the fourth Gospel as ones writing from the perspective of “the ancient wisdom.” Redemption through faith, vicarious atonement, and original sin are all derided in his analysis, and such doctrines are attributed to the later machinations of priestcraft. Teachings of metempsychosis and apotheosis are adduced in both the canonical scriptures and those of the Christian Gnostics.

Although it is dated in many respects, I still found The Gnosis and Christianity a surprisingly lively read, with trenchant criticism of popular Christianity. I was not sympathetic to the anti-ritualism and iconoclasm expressed by Kingsland, although I could see their fit with the Platonist and Buddhist-inflected Theosophical model of attainment that he wrote this book in order to advance. Most satisfying is the repeated presentation of esoteric religion as a matter of individual spiritual conquest, contrasting strongly with the pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by of those who adhere to the Christian “faith.”