The Gnostic New Age by April DeConick.
This is a fascinating new book from April DeConick. It is probably fair to say that it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Gnosticism or early Christianity. To do this book justice, I will be making a series of posts on it.
The Gnostic New Age gives a broad survey of ancient Gnosticism, tracing it from its origins in Egypt, through its influence on Christianity, and culminating in the esoteric Christian Gnosticism we find in the Nag Hammadi codices.It shows how Gnosticism gave rise to the world religion of Mani and how it has survived to the present day among the Mandaeans. A major theme of the book are the links between ancient Gnosticism and the modern New Age movement.
The book starts each chapter with a brief synopsis of a film and then relates this to the topic under discussion. This makes for a lively presentation. However, readers expecting a serious treatment of modern Gnosticism and its influence on the wider culture will be disappointed. There is virtually no engagement with the New Age movement beyond the featured films. For example, Carl Jung spent years studying Gnosticism and had a major influence on the New Age movement but receives only the briefest of mentions. Philip K. Dick introduced gnostic ideas into science fiction, was fascinated by Christianity and had spiritual experiences from which he developed his Exegesis; yet he is not mentioned even once.
The Gnostic New Age is best approached as a book about ancient Gnosticism, and it is here that it excels. DeConick starts by affirming that there is such a thing as Gnosticism. This is necessary because many scholars now reject Gnosticism as a valid category for understanding early Christianity. This rejection is a reaction against previous generations who labeled any non-mainstream form of Christianity as “Gnostic” in order to dismiss it. Scholars such as Michael Williams and Karen King pointed out that Gnosticism was not an ancient religion, and that the individual so-called “Gnostic” sects often had very little in common with each other. DeConick, however, argues that such deconstruction does not help us understand early Christianity. Some groups crossed “transgressive” boundaries set by the mainstream, and it is valid to view these groups as “Gnostic”. Intuitively we recognise the characteristics of Gnosticism when we see it, in the same way that we recognise the characteristics of fundamentalism.
DeConick defines five characteristics by which we can recognise Gnosticism. I think everyone would agree with the first; that it involved direct experience of a transcendental God (it was this that was called gnosis); and with the third, that humans had a spark of the divine, a pneuma, as their innate spiritual nature. I am less sure about the others: that Gnostics used ritual to evoke religious experiences; that they were inherently transgressive in relation to conventional religion; and that they dipped indiscriminately into the religions and philosophies around them, including “everything but the kitchen sink”. Certainly, all these are true of the Gnostics of the third and fourth centuries but do they have to be true to define a Gnostic religion? What about the forms of early Christian spirituality, such as the Gospel of Thomas, that have some of these characteristics but not others?
The theme of transgression runs all the way through this book. As DeConick defines it, transgression is determined in relation to another religious group who reject the transgressors as heretics. However, every religion upsets someone or other, so is not every religion transgressive under this definition? Why should we single out the Gnostics? Christianity is transgressive in relation to Judaism, Judaism is transgressive in relation to Christianity and Islam is transgressive in relation to both. That is before we even get onto Protestants being transgressive in relation to Catholics, etc., etc, etc.. I think the author falls into a trap, without realising it, of adopting the group she calls the Apostolic Catholics as the gold standard for measuring transgression. As the Gnostics badly upset the Apostolic Catholics she regards them as uniquely transgressive.
As for that term “Apostolic Catholics”, something like the “proto-orthodox church” might be better. Although the author explains that Apostolic Catholics are not the same as the Catholic Church that was to emerge later, it still carries a whiff of a Da Vinci Code type conspiracy theory – the evil Catholic church against the heroic transgressive Gnostics. And “Apostolic” rather takes for granted that the mainstream church is descended from the Twelve Apostles in Acts.
We have got as far as defining Gnosticism! Hopefully, the future posts will go quite a bit further.