Book Review - The Gnostic Mystery

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 09, Number 2, pages 251-252. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Gnostic Mystery. 

Andrea Grace Diem. Mt. San Antonio College Press, Walnut, CA, 1992, 66 pages.

Over the years many people have tried to "get a handle" on the religious cults by diagnosing them as, among other things, "gnostic." That judgment is the result of the perception that (a) they are elitist and (b) they present themselves as having some special "inside" knowledge about the meaning and purpose of human existence. This brief book, which will be of interest to those who can afford the time to explore the subject of gnosticism a little further, appears to be the fruit of a doctoral dissertation, in which the author weighs two examples of gnostic religion or spirituality. The first, the Sant tradition, was found in northern India in medieval times. The second is from the 3rd and 4th centuries in Egypt; however, the documentation has come to light only quite recently, known as the Nag Hammadi Library, for the place of its discovery in 1945.

Diem shares the common opinion that gnostics, though never an organized religion, were rather numerous in the infancy of the Christian church and that they saw mankind as being caught somewhere in the middle of a struggle between the forces of light and darkness, the contending powers of good and evil. For those who have studied the spiritualities of India, it will come as no surprise to read that it is knowledge--esoteric and mystical knowledge--that provides the key for unlocking the doors to union with the All, and that asceticism and meditation are the chief instruments for promoting mystical insights. Diem does not waste time over the probably futile effort to date the origins of Indian spirituality. It is sufficient to acknowledge that it was already highly developed by the time Christianity arose. Although Indian spirituality was not then "gnostic," as far as we know, it already saw the fundamental task for mankind to be the harmonizing or identifying of the human and the transcendent.

When, in 1945, the Nag Hammadi Library was uncovered in upper Egypt, it afforded scholars a window on the world in which Christianity was establishing itself. A tension between the gnostics and the orthodox quickly developed, and as a result each expelled or excluded the other.

James Robinson, editor of the English edition of the Nag Hammadi, remarks that although the gnostics might see the world as "good in principle," they actually judge that "evil has been given a status as the ultimate ruler of the world." For them, he writes, "a mystical inwardness undistracted by external factors came to be the only way to attain repose, the overview, the merger into the All, which is the destiny of one's spark of the divine" (1981, The Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson, Ed. San Francisco: Harper and Row).

The infection--if it be seen as that--persists through the centuries in many forms: Manichaeism, Jansenism, and Puritanism among others. Now in this century we seem to find it manifesting itself with added twists that involve manipulation and control.

In her thesis, Diem limits her objective. She wants to make some comparison between these two examples of gnosticism in India and in Egypt, but she does not attempt to referee the longstanding opinion that it all originated in Persia long before the Common Era--not even in the face of the fact that Zoroaster is explicitly mentioned in Nag Hammadi. The subtitle of her book, "A Connection Between Ancient and Modern Mysticism," constitutes a promise that is not too thoroughly fulfilled in the text. It is the opinion of this reviewer that the roots of gnosticism are older and go deeper than any of the theorists have yet ventured to suggest. Dare we speculate that they are to be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh? That would be about two or three millennia before Christ!

The hero of that story is himself two parts god and one part man. The latter was inherited from his father's side and that inheritance included mortality. Gilgamesh undertook a journey in search of wisdom and immortality. Since the trip proved to be unsuccessful, he was forced to accept his mortality. Crossing over the waters of death, he found Utnapishtim, who had succeeded in entering the assembly of the gods. He asked him, "How shall I find the life for which I am searching? ... Tell me truly, how was it that you came to enter the company of the gods and to possess everlasting life?" Utnapishtim replied, "I will reveal to you a mystery: I will tell you a secret of the gods. Build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life; despise worldly goods and save your soul alive" (1960, The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandare, Trans., pp. 106-107. Baltimore: Penguin Classics).

Diem, concluding The Gnostic Mystery, observes: "To gauge accurately when, where, and how the cultural pipeline through time operated would be of great interest and value to sociology in general and religious studies in particular, since then we could have some inkling of how theological ideas and spiritual practices evolve."

Within the limits it sets for itself, this book is a praiseworthy effort to comprehend something of the strangely persistent movement which promises mankind a path through the "no-man's land" that lies between the contending forces of light and darkness. It may not be that very many readers of the Cultic Studies Journal will budget the time to probe into the ancient history of gnostics; but, for those who do, it may prove to be a necessary step toward understanding the modern forms into which it has evolved. The shepherding movement, for example, is characteristically elitist and promises special insights for those who enlist in its war against evil. In the subtlety of its manipulation, however, it has come a long way from its origins.

The techniques of manipulation have been refined for our technological age. Where they are employed to advance influence in the religious realm, they falsify religion. In that case, the judgment is verified that "along with a lack of respect for other persons the deepest source of all manipulation is the lust for power."

Rev. Walter Debold

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

Seton Hall University

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1992