“The Hand of the Mysteries” by J. Augustus Knapp from The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928)

The New Age and Gnosticism

The needs of today’s New Agers echo those of our ancient ancestors

Mitch Horowitz
36 min readNov 26, 2019

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The term “gnosticism” exists today in the eye of the beholder. I repeatedly have to correct the auto-spell function that capitalizes the word, because gnosticism, in my view, can no longer sustain a strict historical and religious meaning. This reflects its innate quality as a heterodox, syncretic, and questioning spirituality.

Indeed, gnosticism is a frustrating term for many scholars today due to the sometimes diffuse manner in which it is simultaneously used to describe practices in early church history and various modern mystical pursuits. For the purposes of this paper, I define gnosticism as a late-ancient religious attitude that regards spiritual traditions, practices, and liturgy as largely combinative, flexible, and open to broad reinterpretation and realignment. Gnosticism is, in a sense, a tradition of anti-tradition and, historically, a collection of loosely encamped seekers and syncretic movements stemming from the early Christian era and drawing upon Hellenic, Jewish, Persian, and Eastern religious currents.

In that regard, the gnostic thread has much in common with the recent culture of New Age spirituality. New Age is another term that has become largely amorphous but, in my view, can be defined very simply as a radically ecumenical late-twentieth and early twenty-first century culture of therapeutic spirituality. I continue to capitalize New Age because of its specific meaning and relation to our time. Some scholars and critics deride the New Age as “cafeteria religion,” which, to my mind, does not necessarily signify a disingenuous or unserious quality, but rather suggests New Age’s appeal and suitability to the lives of contemporary people facing variegated religious and psychological needs, and for whom a wide array of spiritual and religious options are available. I should note that the term gnosticism, at its scholarly inception in the seventeenth century, was also used pejoratively.

Because of how New Age is often meant to connote a fickle, shallow, and trendy spiritual outlook, one of the oddities of the current New Age movement is that, popular as it is — media expressions range from the blockbuster movie The Secret to bestselling books by Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer…

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Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China