Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Gnostic American Spirit

As I've discussed in this blog before, my wife April DeConick, in her book The Gnostic New Age has proposed a set of five attributes of Gnostic Spirituality. Paraphrasing them from her book they are:
  1. Experiential knowledge (gnosis) of a transcendent god.
  2. Ritual that is used to obtain these ecstatic states of gnosis.
  3. Belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that in the extension of this transcendence.
  4. A countercultural method of interpreting tradition religions that is transgressive.
  5. A willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources.  Gnostics tend to be open-ended with their beliefs and uses of religious ideas, and to remain "seekers."
Most American's would not identify themselves as Gnostic in any way (and would probably not know what the term refers to) but Harold Bloom, in his book The American Religion, finds that much of American religious experience and practice is something like a form of gnosticism.

That conclusion makes a lot of sense in terms of April's attributes of Gnostic Spirituality. Not that all the attributes are shared by American's, but that some spiritual views of Americans are more compatible with Gnostic Spirituality than any other form. The main thing that I feel makes this so is that Americans are so intense about our individuality that we actually celebrate rebels (with or without a cause), especially when they rebuke a powerful authority.

In a Covenant type Spirituality what is right and wrong is usually determined by an authoritative deity or a representative, or interpreter, of one. God, a minister, an Imam, a Pope, a prophet, a king, etc. Americans, though, seem to like to go their own way. We are very fixated on our individualism - individual rights - and celebrate the "self-made" person.

Our resistance to authority fits very well with Gnostic Spirituality's "countercultural method of interpreting traditional religion." Even people who identify as Christians in the U.S. often hold "new age" type beliefs in psychics, reincarnation, spiritual energy being located in physical objects and astrology. (According to this Pew Research Center poll, the majority of self-identified Christians in the U.S. believe in one of these four.) This also fits in with "a willingness to incorporate ideas and practices from many sources."

Finally the belief that humans have an innate spiritual nature that is an extension of this transcendence provides justification for our confidence in the value of individualism. We in America like to think that that we are all equal - that there is no one that should tell anyone else to believe and what "the answer" is. No one represents the transcendent God (or just transcendent universe) more than anyone else. And that flows very well with the idea that we all (not just some representatives) can have experiences of this transcendence and in fact embody it in some way.

Just like Unitarian-Universalism that I wrote about before, the only part of Gnostic Spirituality that is questionable in the lives of Americans is that there are rituals necessary to obtain ecstatic states of "gnosis." But if Gnostic Spirituality is looked at very broadly, if, as it is in some UU groups, we can conceive of the transcendent as being the mystery of the universe or human ideals, then if not "ritual" I think it is possible that Americans might believe that there are at least methodologies to understand and know this transcendence.

In any case, the Gnostic Spirituality framework is one that agrees well with everyday American sensibilities and is reflected in that sense in our art and culture.