Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 12: Modern Gnosticism.

Though titled “Modern Gnosticism,” the final lecture for my Gnosticism class covered more than the past century. We examined medieval forms of Christian Gnosticism, as well as Jewish and Islamic analogues, and some expressions of Gnosticism in modern literature, including Philip K. Dick and, well, Harry Potter. Our course textbook, Nicola Denzey Lewis’ Introduction to “Gnosticism,” does not cover this material, so I had students prepare for the class by reading Richard Smith’s essay, “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism,” featured as an appendix to James Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library collection.

We began with an overview of gnostic groups who came into existence after the demise of the Manicheans, tracing a path from the Paulicians, an Armenian sect operating from the 7th to the 10th centuries that combined aspects of Manicheism and Marcionism, through the Bogomils active in Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzogovina from the 10th to the 12th centuries, to the Cathars in France and Italy from the 12th to the 13th. For the Cathars we looked at the circumstances of their origin and their eradication in a Crusade called by Pope Innocent III. When asked what to do with the inhabitants of the town of Beziers when it became apparent it would be difficult to distinguish faithful Catholics from Cathars, Innocent famously said “Kill them all. God will know his own”—words remembered even today when someone says, “Kill ‘em all. Let God sort ‘em out.”

But that was not the end of Gnosticism. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought challenges to church tradition and new ways of thinking about old problems. One of these was the nature of evil. We discussed Voltaire’s response to the views of the Optimists (God is perfect and always does what is best; therefore, the world as we have it must be the “best of all possible worlds”) in his novel Candide. In the novel, the protagonists’ boundless optimism in the face of evil is challenged by a character named Martin who introduces himself to Candide as a Manichean. “I cannot think in any other way,” he says. “I think that God has abandoned this globe, or rather this globule, to some maleficent being.” After Candide we looked briefly at gnostic elements in Islam (the early ascetics known as the zuhhad and Ismaili or “Sevener” Shi‘ism) and Jewish Kabbalah as developed by Isaac Luria (1534-1572).

As for modern gnostics, we looked at the career of Harold Bloom (1930-present), a self-professed “Gnostic Jew” who, in The American Religion (1992), argued that at its heart America is decidedly gnostic in what he calls its “creedlessness” and emphasis on the “doctrine of experience.” Then we turned to modernity’s most influential Gnostic thinker, science-fiction writer Philip. K. Dick (1928-1982). Dick was a drug addict who suffered from debilitating psychological illness. In 1974 he began having psychotic experiences that led him to believe he was connected somehow with a first-century gnostic Christian living in the Roman Empire; he even began to wonder whether he was a 20th century man hallucinating about the first century or vice versa. His key works include VALIS, Minority Report, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted for film as Blade Runner), and the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (adapted for film as Total Recall). In previous years I have included a movie night in the course. Blade Runner was the most effective of the films I have used. This year we had to be content with a short treatment of Blade Runner I found on Youtube, though it wasn’t particularly effective for describing the gnostic content of the film. The first time I taught Gnosticism, back in 2002, we watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. At the time some religious writers and officials warned parents about the Harry Potter books. Rome’s chief exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth said Satan is behind the works: “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.” Some writers, such as Michael D. O’Brien and Dan Neyer, called the series “gnostic.” So I decided to use the class to test this accusation. Turns out the film is not really gnostic at all but the conflict over the novels demonstrates how imprecise the concept of Gnosticism has become.

Mention of the Harry Potter experiment was a useful segué into our discussion of Michael Williams’ Rethinking Gnosticism, the focus of the students’ final paper. It has been almost 20 years since Williams wrote his challenge to the continued use of Gnosticism as a category. Some students felt his argument was self-evident—Gnosticism is too broad a category to apply to all of the religious groups covered in the course—but their guide through the material, Denzey Lewis’ textbook (along with my own views on the texts) discusses Williams’ argument early in the book and continually challenges the gnostic identification of the texts covered within it. Nevertheless, opinion was split about the efficacy of Williams’ replacement category, “biblical demiurgical traditions.” It is elegant in its precision but any term for the literature it encompasses that does not somehow include “knowledge” seems peculiar. Some students thought it better to stick with Gnosticism because, as Morton Smith has said, it is a brand name with a secure market; so, we should continue to use it, they said, though with all the necessary qualifications.

Overall, I am quite happy with how the course went this year. I had a really enthusiastic core group of students who really engaged with the material and asked insightful questions. The course was a bit of a challenge, as I had to significantly overhaul my lectures to cohere with the content of the Denzey Lewis textbook and its arrangement of the material. I will use her textbook again; it is well-written and provides broad context for the concepts and images encountered within each of the texts. The only weak section is the chapter on Hermetic texts, which does not provide much more depth than what is found in the introductions to the texts Meyer’s collection (a real shame, since I know so little about the material!). It still seems odd for a book entitled Introduction to “Gnosticism” to focus almost entirely on the Nag Hammadi library. It is a shame not to include more from the church fathers, Marcionism, Manicheism, Mandaeism, and a little discussion of medieval and modern movements. But, as I have said before, their absence  just provides opportunities for the instructors to bring in some added value from their own knowledge or additional readings from other sources.

And that brings us to the end of this series of pedagogical “reflections.” I hope you have enjoyed reading them.

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