Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Paperback – 1 Jul 2002
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On the negative side, the book is brief, after all it is only an introduction, and will need to be supplemented by other reading before a modern reader can get a true idea of what Gnosticism was in history, and is today. I would reccomend supplementary readings of "The Allure of Gnosticism" Ed Robert Segal, for an overview of Gnosticism from a genererally psychoanalytic, Jungian perspective, and Elaine Pagels "The Gnostic Gospels" for a scholarly, but very readable treatment of the ancient gnostic literature. I would genuinely suggest a modern beginner should read this supplementary work before launching into a reading of the Nag Hammadi Books because they are confusing and off-putting until you can approach them with a good idea of the "Inner language" or jargon of the times.
Thus we get contradictory statements such as:
"Another important question is whether the elements of the Gnostic worldview are to be understood literally or symbolically. Literalism and dogmatism ... are distinctly unGnostic views. Gnosticism has a worldview, but it has no theology and no doctrines to believe in." (page 24)
Which appears to leave the door pretty wide open. Unless you are reading the book from front to back, in which case you will already have seen the claim that:
"We live in an eclectic age ... When encounterring Gnosticism at the psychospiritual supermarket, we might be tempted to accept some parts of its worldview and to discard others. ... The Gnostic worldview, however, is an internally consistent whole; when we remove parts of the whole, its integrity suffers." (page 24)
In other words, you CANNOT take the bits you like and discard the rest without loosing the sense of the whole. We aren't really being offered freedom from dogma at all - "it" MUST be taken as a whole, or it isn't really worth taking "it" at all.
Later on, referring to the Nag Hammadi texts, the author digs himself even deeper in when he states that:
"... there are six major and several minor treatises containing primarily liturgical and ceremonial material."
What kind of "worldview" has "liturgical and ceremonial" materials?
And what exactly is "it"?
Since this is supposed to be an introduction to Gnosticism one might reasonably have expected at least a brief summary of the Gnostic myth at the start of the book. But we don't. It comes in dribs and drabs so that it is unlikely that any genuine novice could make much sense of large portions of the book without going forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards over and over again.
As regards Gnosticism itself the author gives descriptions one might almosrt believe are designed to undermine any respect for Gnosticism as a field for serious study.
For example, at the very start of the book (first page of the Preface), the author jumps on the "new revelations" bandwagon when he writes:
"Only fifty years ago, the majority of those presently involved in Gnostic studies would have shied away from serious consideration of Gnosticism." (page vii)
Which may or may not be true. What this implies, however, is that we are witnessing a new dawning of overt Gnosticism after a hiatus of nearly 2000 years (excepting the Cathars of the 1100's). And that certainly is NOT true. On the contrary, if we went back 100 years, or even 150 years, we would find that Gnosticism was widely studied, Gnostic texts were widely available, and Gnosticism was widely discussed by those interested in such subjects. In fact the subject was so far out in the open that there was even an SPCK edition of the "Pistis Sophia". The SPCK was and is, of course, the "Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge," and they were quite happy to ensure that their customers were kept fully informed as to what the fuss over gnosticism was all about.
Unfortunately this oversight is hardly surprising if we check Appendix A, "A Gnostic Reading List," and the "Bibliography of Modern Books Cited Other than Those in Appendix A."
Whilst the author makes it clear that this is not intended as a scholarly work it seems quite incredible that he mentions not a single recent study of Gnosticism from a Christian perspective.
But then again, why should he - unless he wanted to present a realistic and accurate picture of events?
Because this book seems to be entirely based on the belief that Gnosticism was an offshhot of Christianity, yet the book shows a remarkably poor understanding of orthodox Christian teaching.
For example, we are (erroneously) told that:
"Another Gnosticizing (that is, akin to Gnostic) apostle was St. John, who frequently wrote of knowing (gignoskein) God or Christ. Anyone who reads the beautiful Gospel of John is struck by its similarity to the poetic and visionary style of the writing of the Gnostics."
So is the author really trying to imply that if the FORM of different writings is similar then the CONTENTS are somehow related?
In practice, as this author himself makes clear, whilst the vocabularies of Christianity and Gnosticism overlapped at many points, the actual *meaning* of the individual terms were seldom alike. In practice, even the absolute basics - "Jesus" and "Christ" - didn't mean the same thing to Christians and Gnostics.
Which raises another very important question about this book:
"If Gnosticism pre-dated Christianity, as seems very likely, why try to harmonise the two? Why insist on talking about 'Christian Gnostics' if no such animal ever existed?"
By having such a heavy emphasis on Christianity, even allowing that he is often talking about pseudo-Christianity rather than the genuine article, the author gives the impression that Gnosticism was little more than Christianity's "poor relation" which pretty much faded away when the Christian religion became institutionalized and its leaders cast Gnosticism in the role of "heretic."
In short, a pretty mediocre book, poorly organized for its apparent audience, competently written but with little or no flare, poorly researched, and far too pre-occupied with Carl Jung and Christianity to give a worthwhile account of Gnosticism itself.
I started out giving the book 3 stars, but by the time I'd finished this review I couldn't see it being worth even that.
A skillful blend of history, esotericism and spiritual insight, Stephan Hoeller reveals the limitation of the orthodox Christian and Jewish world view and proposes the Gnostic alternative with simplicity and poise. Emphasizing the need for each and every one of us to transcend our limitations and those of our imperfect world with the aid of the great spiritual advanced beings of all cultures (especially Jesus), Hoeller proves the relevance of the myths, sacraments, depth psychology as espoused by the Jungian school and an enlightened spirituality in our secularized world.
A brilliant introduction to a cherished spiritual tradition that deserves to be heard.
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