So the question's are: What is Gnostic Christianity? How did it begin? How does it differ from Orthodox Christianity? And finally, what relevance does it have towards the current New Age movement?
So, the first question: What is Gnostic Christianity?
Well, quite simply, there was not one singular Gnostic Christian group / sect, there were many, and using the term Gnostic to cover them all can be quite deceptive. Scholars make a rough division between Syrian/Egyptian Gnosticism and Persian Gnosticism. However, there are some basic features of Gnosticism which have become well know, and some I might suggest that are overall a misunderstanding or misinterpretation. The 3 most well known basic principles that define Gnostic Christianity are:
1) GC does not rely upon the view of Jesus as the "One and Only Son of God". Various views exist of Jesus as an Enlightened Teacher, a good man, and as Spirit that never took incarnation in the Physical world. Overall, in GC the exact identity of Jesus and the details of his life are far less important than the following of the teachings given by him. (In direct contrast to Orthodox Christianity where the Identity of Jesus and his death and resurrection (and consequent Substitutory Atonement) are the very heart of the Religion itself.) The understanding which I suggest has the most evidence to support it is that the founders of GC chose to create a series of myths so as to use the universal language of symbols to portray complex metaphysical truths, which can be otherwise quite difficult due to the limitations of language in comparasion with extra-dimensional reality of the Spiritual worlds. Thus they created a Hero, a wise teacher with disciples. Countless similar Mystery Cults sprung up all over the ancient world, many predating Christianity by a significant period of time. Gnostic Christianity is therefore the creation of a new Myth, culturally significant to the Jewish race, although under heavy influence from Greek culture. The context of a Dialogue between Guru and Devotee is found frequently in the Mystical texts of many traditions (Vedic and Greek to quote a few). (The perfect examples for this are the Bhagavad-Gita, the focal point of the Mahabharata, in the Dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, or the writings of Plato, with his Dialogues with his teacher Socrates). The Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdelene for example are wholely composed of saying's of Jesus, given to his disciples, and feature nothing else about the life (or death of Jesus).
2) The teaching that the Material World is somehow a "lower" world, and that there exists "higher" spiritual worlds to which one should aspire to reach. Now, this aspect has been specifically highlighted and twisted due to the bias of many who have reported on this. Frequently we here the accusation that Gnostics hated the material world, and aimed simply to escape it. In conjunction with this is the concept of a "Demiurge", which in this context is seen as a "lesser god" or even an "evil god", created by the Supreme Being for the creation of an "imperfect" world. Thus the most common dismissal of Gnosticism is that it held a very negative Dualistic Cosmology. Now, as this is known as one of the hallmarks of Gnosticism, I think this requires explanation, especially since overall, I believe it is a gross misinterpretation.
Now, before the finding of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945 and the subsequent translations and publishing of such (that took place over a period of time due to political considerations), most of what was know about Gnostic doctrines, was what was written about them by their opponents, early Christian Apologists such as Irenaeus. In these cases, what was written was very negative, and it can be argued that we should not trust these sources as an accurate depiction of Gnostic doctrines, any more than one would trust a writer from the Spanish Inquisition to give a balanced portrayel of medievel, peasent pagan practices.
Now clearly, there were many different Sects being referred to under the title of Gnostic. It is known that they weren't all identicle, they had different beliefs and practices. Some of these sects reinterpretated the Old Testament from a Dualistic perspective, portraying Yahweh as an "Evil God" (admittedly, it's not hard to see where they got that idea, considering some of the content of the Old Testament (ie Yahweh demanding the death of innocent children, babies, women and animals). Generally the Persian Sects were known as emphasizing Dualism, as they borrowed heavily from Zoroastriansim, which is by definition Dualistic. However, it can be argued that some of the Syrian/Egyptian strands were in fact Monistic / Non-Dualists, and that any complex myths relating to the creation of the different worlds can be seen as a Relative emanation from the Absolute, in much the same way that in Advaita-Vedanta (Hindu Philosophy), Brahman is the one and only, yet He creates beings / yet He dreams the concept of emanations from Himself that take on roles in expanding creation / expanding the dream within His Mind.
Now, have a look at the picture below, as I believe that this is strong evidence that the concept of the Demiurge is being mistranslated in at least some of the cases. Whilst the exact identity of the figure is not comfirmed, there is good reason to believe that it is a depiction of the Demiurge / Yaltaboath. Now, the pictures depicts a Serpent with the head of a lion with the sun shining behind it, and the moon on one side, and a star on the other. This picture very closely meets the depictions of Kundalini (Sankrit: meaning coiled serpent), suggesting a link between Gnosticism and Vedic knowledge, something that is quite apparent when actually reading the Gnostic Gospels.
Now, most Spiritual philosophies have a teaching that we should be "in the world, yet not of it". Certainly New Age pushes this point, encouraging the elevation of Consciousness to Higher states, and the application of Higher truths in ones life, whilst still living an active life on Earth. Orthodox Christianit also has a concept of the Earth as being "Fallen", and they aspire to reach Heaven after death. Yet, they aspire to following God's commandments whilst on Earth. The point is this, that Christians have assumed a negative portrayel of the Gnostic concept, whilst pushing a positive understanding of their own. In this respect, I believe it is unfair to label Gnosticism as having a negative Dualistic Cosmology, with a negative perspective on the Physical World.
The Gnostic Gospels that I have read *(see at the bottom of the article) seemed very cohesive with the Hindu Scriptures & the New Age worldview, which teach that the physical world is the lowest level of a series of emanations from the Divine, and that life on this planet has purpose & meaning, whilst there is much pain and suffering in this place, there is also the potential for much joy, love, adventure and learning. Ultimately, the hardships of this plane are a drop of sand in the ocean compared to the transcendent joys of the Higher Spiritual Worlds. The Gnostic Gospels teach that we should rise above the temptations to become lost in this world, and fall victim to the tendencies of the Ego (anger, hate, jealousy, envy, fear, doubt, gossip, pride etc), and that we should aspire to attain the qualities of Spirit (unconditional love, joy, compassion, forgiveness, faith, modesty etc).
So, overall, I believe that Gnostic Christianity should be interprated as one particular cultural and mythological offshoot of Perennial Philosophy, of which New Age is attempting to sum up. That doesn't mean that every Gnostic Sect was identicle, or that every Gnostic figure was an enlightened Sage. Just as today there are offshoots of Hinduism which have a mixture of beliefs, the lower human qualities of the Ego can degenerate and infiltrate any philosophy.
3) Gnosticism has a completely different model of "salvation" then Orthodox Christianity. Whereas in the Orthodox creed Salvation is the forgiveness of our Sins through Grace by the Substitutionary Atonement which is seen to allow us to enter into Heaven after death, Salvation within Gnosticism is similar to enlightement in the Eastern Philosophies (or New Age). It is taught that one must attain "Gnosis" to attain complete freedom from the miseries of the physical world. Now Gnosis is usually translated as "secret knowledge", which has brought on the accusation that Gnosticism is Elitist. However, I see a strong argument for the translation of Gnosis as "Direct Perception", a knowing that is beyond an intellectual concept, something which is a universal concept amongst the worlds Mystical traditions.
Many Gnostic sects taught reincarnation, so failure to achieve Gnosis does not necessarily imply Damnation, so this sheds light on the accusation of Christians that Gnosticism is Salvation through works, rather than Salvation through faith, as Salvation through works is only a dirty concept if you hold the Dualistic belief of Eternal Heaven or Hell as do Christians (also some Jews and Muslims).
Whilst I'm here, I'll quickly mention. Many people also bring up the point that some Gnostic sects used drugs and were sexually promiscuous. In relation to this, it's quite possible that some of them did, but this should not be considered a general distinguishing feature of Gnosticism, as there were many differing Sects, in the same way that one bad Yogic Guru should not diminish the Advaita-Vedanta tradition.
Now, the second question: How did Gnostic Christianity begin?
Well, there are three main versions of this story, none of which have absolute consensus (although the Conservative Christians will tell you that they do!) about the course of History. Briefly outlined, the three version of events are as follows:
a) The Orthodox Christian version: That Christian history began with the well known story of events with Jesus and his disciples, and that after his ascension his Disciples (and Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus) started preaching the Gospel and forming Churches. Soon afterwards splinter groups started forming as abberations/deviations from the Apostolic teachings, and started changing doctrines and fusing elements of "Pagan" traditions into this new version of Christianity, essentially in the minds of Orthodoxy, taking Christian concepts into a Pagan context.
b) Gnostic version 1) That along with the well known aspects of Orthodox Christianity, Jesus gave his disciples "Secret Teachings" to be passed only to those who were shown worthy. Accordingly, mainstream Christianity is seen as the outer layer of the Religion - the exoterical part, whilst Gnosticism is seen as the inner layer - the esoterical part. Accordingly, the masses are given symbolic stories (in the forms of parables) regarding morals, ethics, basic psychological principles and the worship of God. Whilst, those followers who show a thourough understanding of the above are initiated into the deeper metaphysical aspects of the tradition, including Meditation and a more advanced cosmological model.
c) Gnostic version 2) That the first Christians created myths that were culturally appropriate for the Jewish people, some of whom were then increasingly under the influence of Greek and Egyptian culture. As with previous Mystery Cults, the myth served as a vehicle for the transmition of advanced metaphysical concepts and practices. Over time many different factions formed, and started competing amongst themselves for followers, hence was born the Catholic Church with Irenaeus. (Peter, Clement and Ignatius are considered the founders of the Catholic faith, but I have seen reason to doubt the genuineness of the letters ascribed to the above, more info later when I go back to apologetics). As I have previously stated, I think this model has the evidence to support it, but this leads me back to the study of Apologetics, which I will need to go much deeper into.
Question 3: How does it differ from Orthodox Christianity?
Well, the primary elements are these:
1) In Orthodox teachings, the exact nature of Jesus is essential, and His very being is primary, and Salvation is primarily through faith in Him, whilst all teachings come as natural expressions of this faith. In contrast, in Gnosticism the exact nature of Jesus is relatively unimportant, it is the teachings and the realization of Gnosis that is important.
2) Orthodox cosmology proposes that we have 1 human life, with either an eternity in Heaven with God, or an eternity in Hell, seperated from God as the consequence, depending on whether we accept the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins, and thus give our life over to Him. In contrast, differing Gnostic sects had various beliefs in this regard, however at least some of them followed closely with the Mystic/Occult belief in Reincarnation and the existence of a multitude of intermediate realms. Discussion of this area is very complex, but the creation myths of many Gnostic Sects involved parallels with what could be considered Mental, Spiritual and Astral Planes, as did the works of Plato and Pythagoras from whom many Gnostic sects derived many of their concepts.
Regardless of how you believe Gnosticism began, there are clearly a lot of common teachings and concepts between Gnosticism and Christianity. For example, the Gospel of Thomas contains many sayings and parables that are also found in the Canonincal Gospels, yet it also contains verses which say that the Son of God is found in everybody, not just in Jesus. In the canonical gospels, there are many verses which can be interpretated from the Gnostic perspective, and also a handfull of verses which specifically sound like Gnostic concepts. In Orthodox Christianity Jesus alone is the Son of God, and by God's grace his Spirit can dwell in us. In Gnostic Christianity Jesus is one who is fully self-realized as the Son of God, the potential lies dormant in all of us. Gnosticism say that "The Son of God dwells within all" in much the same way that Vedanta says that "The Atman dwells within all", and then Gnosticism states that "The Father and the Son are one", as Vedanta states that "The Brahman and Atman are one and identicle.
And finally: What relevence does it have towards the current New Age movement?
The archetypal understanding of Gnosticism that I have briefly laid out above is very similar to other Mystical traditions, and thus becomes part of a cohesive, syncretic Universal Mystical tradition, understanding of course that not all Gnostic sects were identical, and that it might in fact be misleading to the the term in a general sense. Most New Age figures tend to interpret New Testament Scriptures from a Gnostic perspective (assuming the second version of History as laid out above), and try and argue therefore for cohesion between New Age and Christianity, with Gnosticism as the common ground.
I personally don't think that this will work, I think New Age should take a stand and acknowledge Christianity most likely begun as a myth and slowly became frozen into the belief of a historical reality. I think New Age should debunk Christian Apologetics, and then show how the spiritual experiences of Christians can be understood from a New Age worldview. I understand that denying the historical existence of Jesus is very controversial, and generally tends to offend and upset people. This is unfortunate, as my goal in all of this is to promote love and peace, however, I think it is essential that we make the point solid, so we can all move forward.
I apologize to everyone for the length of this post, I also hope that it is readable (I'm not so sure personally). Any comments, criticism or corrections? I'd love to hear them.
*( The Gnostic Gospels" published by Sacred Texts / Watkins, a selection mostly from the Nag Hammadi Library, including: The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel Of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Melchizedek, The Gospel of Phillip, Poimandres, The Apocalypse of the Great Power, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, Human Suffering, The Gospel of Truth, The Greatest Human Evil is Forgetfullness of God, The Secret Book according to St John 1, 2 & 3 & finally Thunder. I would recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read the texts for themselves, then follow it up with a reading of the New Testament, than compare it to some Eastern texts, such as the Bhagavad-Gita)