Are U.S Christians “Gnostics” in disguise? Revisiting an odd old theory

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How do you feel about Professor Harold Bloom’s contention (1992 book) that all American religion is more Gnostic than Christian, [that Americans] believe in “God and me,” which is not historic Christianity at all.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This question regards the American literary critic’s book “The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.” When first published, many saw eccentric or crackpot thinking as Bloom contended that most Americans’ belief “masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian,” floating into Gnosticism.

One might  immediately ask, Do Catholics count? Two of his chief examples of a supposed indigenous “American Religion” were the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormonism). The two groups’ theologies are radically different from each other, and from the original “Gnostics” who were cast aside as heretics during Christianity’s early centuries.

Reactions were more favorable toward Bloom’s “The Shadow of a Great Book: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” published in 2011 (“a fascinating, intellectually nimble tour de force” — Washington Post).

To begin, we should sketch what the Gnostics of ancient times actually believed, guided especially by Pheme Perkins of Boston College and the late Dutch expert Gilles Quispel. Gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge.” There were numerous varieties, but the typical form of the faith was radically dualistic, presenting an obscure or unknown deity sharply different from the familiar and well-defined God of the Bible.

The central belief portrayed the material world as a realm of sin and error that is best ignored or escaped. Therefore, the movement embraced the failed 2nd Century attempt to have the young Christian religion reject the Jewish Old Testament as unworthy of scriptural status, and with it the Creator God of Judaism. Devotees cited what were purported to be hidden sayings from Jesus that had been preserved by spiritual elitists, rather than the publicly attested materials in the New Testament.

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound much like Nashville or Salt Lake City. Yet after the initial hostility, some later analysts figured Bloom was onto something regarding “The American Religion.” The late Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine grumbled that much of what passes for U.S. Christianity is indeed a “sub-Christian Gnosticism” that cannot sustain moral tradition. Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten agreed that such “neo-pagan religion” was gaining ground among U.S. Protestants.

Jeremy Lott offered another second look  in the evangelical magazine Books & Culture a decade after Bloom’s book appeared: www.booksandculture.com/articles/2002/novdec/19.36.html. (This periodical’s recent demise is a sad indicator of evangelical Protestantism’s thin intellectual commitments.)

Lott said Bloom too often substituted “invective for argument” and was often flatly wrong. And yet he saw some merit in the scenario of a typical American Protestant community not beholden to church traditions, anti-sacramental, and more devoted to experience than doctrine. Indeed, some Protestants embrace “no creed but Christ.”

Bloom was right, he felt, that Gnostic-style leanings can move Protestants “beyond good and evil,” as though the individual soul, “alone with Jesus” or “saved,” can slide past moral dictates. Also, “Bloom is right that the American sense of entitlement often extends even to God: He owes us.”

“For evangelicals in particular, the book should serve as a cautionary tale,” Lott concluded.

Some Gnostic sidelights:

— Many analysts think a form of early or proto-gnosticism was the target with some of the denunciations of doctrinal deviation found in the New Testament. Formalized Gnostic groups and such major teachers as Valentinius came to the forefront in the mid-2nd Century, contested by Bishop Irenaeus in his classic “Against Heresies.” Eventually, the Christian church formally condemned such esoteric sects.

— Modern-day scholars irked by orthodoxy have fostered a revival of interest and even fondness toward the Gnostics, for instance Princeton’s Elaine Pagels in “The Gnostic Gospels” (1979).

— A Gnostic revival is preached by a few small U.S. groups that expert J. Gordon Melton categorizes among religions that perpetuate supposed “ancient wisdom.” Rosicrucianism is a larger and better-known example of this type of religion.

— There is one authentic Gnostic group that has roots extending all the way back to the early Christian centuries, the much-persecuted and declining population of Mandaeans in southern Iraq and southwestern Iran. This religion reveres John the Baptist rather than Jesus. For more information: www.britannica.com/topic/Mandaeanism

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.