The Looming Triumph of Gnosticism

October 1992By Robert N. Bellah

Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, and senior author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. The latter book was the focus of Bill Moyers’s televi­sion series “Listening to America” for four consecutive weeks in August. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Georgetown University in May.

The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Chris­tian Nation.  By Harold Bloom. Simon & Schuster. 271 pages. $22.



The American Religion has been widely and rather skepti­cally reviewed. My advice is to throw away the skepticism. This is the most important book on American religion in a long time. It is not that there are no problems with the book — I will get to them later — but the central argument is to me, at least, convincing. If American Gnosticism has not already become the national re­ligion, as Bloom asserts, it is well on the way to it. What Bloom means by Gnosticism is pretty clear: “The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the free­dom to know God by experi­encing a total inward soli­tude…. In perfect solitude, the American spirit learns again its absolute isolation as a spark of God floating in a sea of space. What is around it has been created by God, but the spirit is as old as God is, and so is no part of God’s creation. What was created fell away from the spirit, a fall that was creation. God or Jesus will find the spirit, because there is something in the spirit that already is God or Jesus, but the divine shall seek out each spirit only in total isolation.”

In his opening chapter Bloom uses Sheila, the woman whom Habits of the Heart de­scribed as inventing Sheilaism (the religion she named after herself), as a point of departure. Pushing beyond the sociology of religion, Bloom of­fers something he calls “reli­gious criticism,” which con­cerns itself with the spiritual validity of a religious position, just as literary criticism con­cerns itself with the aesthetic value of a text. While Bloom would certainly disavow theol­ogy and does not discuss “truth claims,” he is with his religious criticism making judgments about the spiritual validity of various religious positions. This I find wholly admirable. That so established a literary critic as Bloom in so establishment a university as Yale would take religion seri­ously enough to discuss the validity of various forms of it is definitely a step forward in our secular educational institutions. Perhaps he rightly exposes the timidity of the authors of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society in leaving their religious criticism just below the surface.

Bloom is not a critic of Gnosticism. He describes him­self as “a Gnostic Jew, who has his own quarrel with nor­mative Judaism.” Indeed, he says, “The standard of value in this book is the religious imag­ination, and the American religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” It will come as some surprise that Bloom’s two great heroes of the American reli­gious imagination are the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, whom he considers the most underrated religious gen­ius in American history, and E.Y. Mullins, of whom I, at least, had never heard before reading this book. Edgar Young Mullins, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is, according to Bloom, the Luther or Calvin of Southern Baptism, and remains the guiding light of the minority moderates of the Southern Baptist Convention to this day. Bloom forces us to see the spiritual creativity of these two expansive movements (and their most creative leaders) that usually remain marginal to mainstream students of Ameri­can religion. On the other hand, Bloom’s prediction that these two movements, con­sciously antithetical but, ac­cording to him, deeply conso­nant in their underlying orientations, will before long divide all America between them seems inordinately apocalyptic.

Along the way Bloom gives briefer attention to Chris­tian Science, Seventh Day Ad­ventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and New Age spirituality, all of which illustrate his Gnostic theme, though with less power than his major examples. Readers of the NOR may be particularly interested in Bloom’s assessment of Mat­thew Fox, a Catholic, whom he takes as typical of New Age spirituality. Bloom admits to having successfully navigated thousands of pages of nearly unreadable prose in the course of working on this book, but Fox is one of the few authors who defeated him: “Several attempts on my part to read through The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (1988) have failed, as no prose I have ever en­countered can match Fox’s in a blissful vacuity, where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea.” But Bloom argues persuasively that Gnosticism (like Sheilaism) is not to be found only in marginal sects, but that it permeates American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, as well as our secular culture.

While Bloom is concerned with distinguishing levels of insight in different versions of Gnosticism, he is prepared to celebrate American Gnosticism itself — except at one moment where he slips into sociological reflection, and only begins a critique I would want to push much further: “The religion of the spark or pneumatic self consistently leads to a denial of communal concern, and so perhaps to the exploitation of the helpless by the elite…. What I have called American Orphism has led on to what is most distinctive in our cultural and aesthetic achievement, but it may have had a miserable fallout on our political morali­ty. The Church triumphed over ancient Gnosticism because of its greater social efficacy. American Gnosticism, now in­distinguishable from our na­tional triumphalism, continues to rejoice in its social inutility.”

If Joseph Smith and E.Y. Mullins are the prophets of American Gnosticism, Emerson and William James are its sages, and Bloom clearly feels more comfortable with the latter two. But in putting the notoriously slippery Emer­son (Christopher Lasch has offered us a quite different Emerson in The True and Only Heaven) and James at the heg­emonic center of our culture, Bloom leaves out a great deal. He dismisses Jonathan Edwards as part of the prehistory of The American Religion, which only begins with the Cane Ridge revivals of 1800, and ignores the more civic and even (Lasch) Calvinist Emer­son, as well as most of the classic American philosophers other than James, who had a much more social view of human beings (Dewey, Mead) and Christianity (Royce). The Niebuhr brothers do not figure in his story, nor does any major American Catholic thinker. Indeed, Bloom over­looks the tradition of social philosophy and social theology that the authors of The Good Society took as central in their effort to think about American social and spiritual renewal.

Granted, Bloom is one-sided and polemical. So was, as one reviewer pointed out, D.H. Lawrence in his Studies in Classic American Literature. Yet just as Lawrence brought a gale of fresh air into American literary studies, Bloom does the same for the study of American religion. Gnosticism has entered the gates and if we are indeed a post-Christian nation the triumph of Gnosti­cism has much to do with it. Bloom’s book is an enormous help to anyone who would understand our contemporary spiritual condition.



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