During the early days of Christianity, various models of worship and belief squabbled amongst themselves for primacy of position. One popular movement took its lead from the Mystery cults which were popular at Eleusis, Delphi and throughout the eastern Roman Empire. Instead of pistis (πίστις) or faith, they relied on gnosis (γνῶσις) – knowledge based on experience of the Divine. They sought salvation not from sin but from ignorance: redemption came not from mere belief but from direct personal revelation. But alas, those who favored faith won the backing of Constantine and his successors. By the end of the fifth century their Gnostic competition had largely been reduced to a heretical footnote in the history of the True Religion.
Near the end of the 19th century, a number of occultists became interested in the Gnostics. The most important occult thinker of the period, Helena Petrova Blavatsky, was particularly enamored of Gnosticism, believing it a direct link to the “ancient wisdom” which had been preserved since time immemorial by the “Secret Chiefs.” Her devotees and detractors alike followed her lead: G.R.S. Mead translated numerous Gnostic texts, while Aleister Crowley named the central ritual of his Ordo Templi Orientis the “Gnostic Mass.” Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung devoted particular study to Gnosis, recasting its doctrines and rituals as techniques for analytical psychology and self-integration. And this interest only grew stronger with the 1945 discovery of many long-lost Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi and their subsequent translation.
The various Gnostic sects had little in the way of dogma – indeed, dogma was shunned as a creation of the evil “demiurge” who was responsible for the creation of the material world and who closely resembled the Old Testament’s Jehovah. But they were united in believing that man contained a spark of Divinity which, when awakened, would be freed from its stupor and from its prison. In being awakened, they would return to the Oneness of the Godhead. This awakening could only neither through reason nor faith but only by a direct revelatory experience that transforms the Gnostic. This experience would free them from the constraints of time and space. The mundane world we perceived through our five senses was not something to be worshipped or even honored, but rather a trap from which only a select few might escape.
But where the Gnostics saw the world of the senses as a pitfall keeping us from Reality, most modern philosophy sees it as the only thing worthy of consideration. The idea of a “higher reality” was so much silliness and superstition. That which is Beyond All Words is beyond all meaning; that which cannot be weighed, measured and quantified directly or through its impact on our world is of no importance.
Using the materialist/scientific approach, one can describe the various sensations one has during a mystical experience and measure its effects on the mystic’s life through various tests. One can discuss how this mystic’s experience is shaped by various sociocultural and historical factors. One can give the mystic a thorough physical examination to check for signs of disease, and examine electroencephalograms in search of any aberrations from the norm. But one cannot answer (or even ask) the most important question of all: during this experience Who is communicating with the mystic?