I used to answer this question, and variations thereof with, “That beliefs aren't very important.” I was never quite satisfied with it, except that it does serve to turn the question in on itself, and show that it is the wrong question. I've since changed my answer to, “That beliefs are usually deceptive.” Which serves the same purpose, but is much more satisfactory—since beliefs can be very important, as things to watch out for.
Gnosis is not beliefs (for more, see my earlier post What Gnosis Isn't), and we're not just saying that because our beliefs are somehow special and we give them the code-name “Gnosis.” Gnosis is of a different order to beliefs, and beliefs can be the biggest barrier to achieving Gnosis.
Living without beliefs would be both insane, and incredibly time consuming. It would be like living without any functional memory. For a belief is a place-keeper in our minds for things that we are not currently verifying or in a position to verify. If I look out the window and my car is gone, I will be surprised, because the last time I was in a position to see it, it was where I left it. And in general there is no problem with beliefs as such, for why should I continually look out the window at my car, to live as if it were there?
The problem is that people become so enamored with their beliefs that they no longer treat them as place-keepers for verification, they become of primary importance and no amount of evidence to the contrary can dislodge them. This is another form of insanity, one that seems the norm in the world we live in. The examples inundate us, from a recent news story of a couple starving their infant children because they believed that only a strict raw food diet was healthy for them; to, the newspaper clipping I keep in my copy of the Nag Hammadi, about a man who starved to death snowed in his truck, who believed God would rescue him, and so didn't walk the few hundred yards back to a road that was plowed regularly and lead to aid.
That is why one must first become an Agnostic before one can become a Gnostic (see post). How can you possibly free yourself from the real world, if you haven't freed yourself from the world as an idea, a realm of make believe, within that world? The same goes, of course, for freeing yourself of major psychological complexes, as well: which are often the reasons for our beliefs when they trump reality.
So, while it is possible to come up with a list of beliefs associated with Gnosticism, they are of a different order, and serve a different purpose than most other religious beliefs. They are place keepers for what we have come to know ourselves, and ways of expressing that Gnosis. There are many similarities across time and space because Gnosis is real. There are many differences even within a particular time and place, because Gnostics are also real.
Things that I would expect from anyone with the perspective of Gnosis (and what else might a Gnostic be?) can loosely be grouped into two categories: one that I'll call a Gnostic attitude, and the other what Rt. Rev. Stephan Hoeller calls a Gnostic World-View: recognizable Gnostic stories, descriptions, story elements, etc. They are both indirect evidence, symptoms if you will, of Gnosis. They are not Gnosis, and you could have all of them without Gnosis.
At it's most basic, a Gnostic attitude can be described/summed up as:
Recognition of a reality external to oneself. This is where Gnosticism and the New Age have irreconcilable differences. You don't make your own “reality.” The ego is not its own Demiurge, except in fantasy land. You can transform yourself, your consciousness, and you can act in and on the world, but you aren't that world. This is the point that some self-identifying, but not actually, Gnostics take exception to, either directly or pragmatically. However, Gnosis is “Gnosis of” something, and that something is real and not made up by us, or, it is meaningless.
It also follows from this that one must be diligent and careful in one's exploration of that reality, to make sure that it is reality, and not something else.
Recognition of a very real and distinct difference between what we can learn, or accept from others, and what we can learn or verify for ourselves (in a way that involves consciousness and inner confirmation via our truest nature), i.e., some sense of Gnosis. The idea of “Gnosis” isn't necessary, but living Gnosis is.
In ways this follows from 1. There is an external reality, so there are different ways of knowing about it. However, it goes beyond the mere recognition of the psychological aspects of knowing, in that it recognizes a way of knowing that is deeper still.
Recognition that the condition we find ourselves in is fundamentally alien to our truest selves. This is the sense of having “fallen” that we all feel. The Buddha stated this as his first Noble Truth, “life is fundamentally unsatisfactory.”
This is simply being honest about our experience of the world. While there are “rainy day 'Gnostics,'” that is, people who have a greater affinity to Gnostic descriptions when things are going badly in the world for them, and are more Calvinistic when things are going well for them; that isn't being honest. The world is a place of mixing, there's good and bad, beauty and horror, and while some of it may satisfy for a time, not all of it does, and certainly not all of the time.
The recognition, or intuition, that there is a way out of this condition through a transformation of ourselves, i.e., liberation occurs at the individual level and cannot occur without individual transformative work. Again, echoing one of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, number four.
This comes from 1, 2, and 3, yet also contains something new. This is the difference between the Gnostic's and the Existentialist's attitudes (along with 5) that there is a way out of this state, and furthermore, a larger meaning.
Recognition that there is Divine/transcendent aid available, that is both useful for, and necessary to, attaining Gnosis—and ultimately, liberation. This aid is experienced and therefore described in different ways, but is ultimately beyond our comprehension: we cannot 'grasp' it with the mind, only experience it.
This, again, just comes from being honest about our experiences, and being open to them.
A pragmatic and individualistic approach to transformative practice. What works, works. What doesn't, doesn't. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. This doesn't mean that anything goes, or that we are setting up orthodoxies of one, those are just ways of setting up yet another church of the ego. But rather, that the deep effects are what are important—Gnosis is the point to all of it.
At the first ordination to the priesthood that I attended, in his homily Rt. Rev. Hoeller said of the ordination process, “Some of you may be wondering if all this is necessary. And you may be surprised by our answer... it may not be necessary, but it sure does help!”
A poetic non-literalist interactive approach to stories and symbols. This goes beyond the Joseph Campbell understanding of Myth in that it includes the ability to play with the myths, stories, and symbols the way a Jazz musician plays with old standards. To make them so much your own that they include counterpoints, variations, improvisations, and contradictions. Because they aren't the point, they are tools to attaining Gnosis, and indirect expressions of Gnosis.
A sense of humor and playfulness. This goes with 7 and beyond it. As William James pointed out in his magnum opus The Varieties of Religious Experience, the solemn has always something of a twinkle in it's eye. The opposite of taking religion solemnly is to take it grimly, and taking Gnosticism grimly is to miss the whole point of Gnosis—liberation. Being grim about religion takes it back to its worst common denominator—defensive egotism, and we don't need any more churches to honor that. Missing 8 is like missing 1, it's just setting the ego up as a new (and disproved) Demiurge.
A grim Gnostic is an oxymoron, either they've missed the point entirely and are just enamored with Gnostic myths, or they're just missing it while they're being grim, and we should try to get them to laugh. After all, humor is liberating: you can look and see prison bars, or, with a sense of humor and play, you can see monkey bars. What the Archons fear most is real laughter.
This is by no means a check list for seeing who is a Gnostic, though it may give you a good idea of who isn't. Think of them as representing necessary attitudinal elements, not as sufficient criteria to make one a Gnostic. It has the same staggering limitation that all such attempts have—it is a description of the signs of something that cannot be described; a translation into the rational of a process that is truly one of recognition. Being a Gnostic is not a matter of beliefs, it is a way of living that is focused on attaining liberation through Gnosis: and also, something deeper as well, but much harder to describe. Given what these things indicate, a Gnostic can come up with a description of their condition in story form, a mythos, entirely on their own that would ring true to other Gnostics (and therefore satisfy the World-View approach): however, it would be like being a writer without access to the work of other writers—a very small and limited literature indeed.
We tend to think in terms of beliefs, even among Gnostics, and speak of what we construe this or that Gnostic group to have believed. Yet a true expression of a Gnostic mythos can be found in a movie, a comic book, in a sixteen hundred year old codex, or the dream you had last night. And you can use any or all of them to your heart's content, and not be a Gnostic, or understand your experience in a form so idiosyncratic that it may never be shared, and still be a Gnostic.
Asking, “what do you believe?” of a Gnostic as if the answer could be given in the same way as an orthodox believer, precludes the possibility of Gnosticism, since its point is far beyond belief—it is Gnosis.