This was originally published on Titusonenine and picked up and excerpted by both First Things and Christianity Today.
Harold Bloom, an iconoclastic literary critic at Yale, wrote a book published in 1992, with the title “The American Religion.” Using an argument developed by Msgr. Ronald Knox in his magisterial work on “Enthusiasm” and by the Presbyterian theologian Phillip Lee in his book “Against The Protestant Gnostics” Bloom makes a convincing case that the real American Religion that is the unofficial but actual spiritual mythos which gives shape to the American worldview and energy to the American religious quest is some form of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, ancient and contemporary, teach that the true and deepest self is a spark of divinity which has become lost and imprisoned in a corrupt world. The drama of salvation is the drama of rediscovering this secret self and reuniting this spark with the divine one. This is accomplished by access to a secret knowledge or “gnosis” which is unavailable to the uninitiated. Gnostic versions of Christianity have been a problem for the church from the earliest times. The struggle with Gnosticism caused St. Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) to write his chief work “Adversus omnes Haereses.” Gnosticism is hard to kill and has many contemporary fans including the scholars of the Jesus Seminar who champion the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
Bloom thinks that it matters little what is on the label, the flavor of the product is more often than not Gnostic.
“Mormons and Southern Baptists call themselves Christians, but like most Americans they are closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians. I have centered on Mormons and the Southern Baptists than on other major denominations . . . but most American Methodists, Roman Catholics and even Jews and Muslims are also more Gnostic than normative in their deepest and unwariest beliefs. The American Religion is pervasive and overwhelming, however it is masked, and even our secularists, indeed even our professed atheists are more Gnostic than humanist in their ultimate presuppositions. We are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the creation.” (The American Religion, p. 22)
The quintessential American Religion is the quest for the true and original self which is the “pearl of great price,” the ultimate value. Finding the true self requires absolute and complete freedom of choice unconstrained by any sources of authority outside the self. Limits upon personal freedom and choice are an affront to all that is sacred to the American Religion. When the self determining self finds “the real me”, salvation is achieved and the ultimate self has achieved contact with the ultimate reality. Finding your true self is to the contemporary Gnostic the same thing as finding God. For the Gnostic the purpose of the religious community is to facilitate the quest and validate the results. The contemporary Gnostic church, which can appear in both conservative and liberal forms, is the community of those who know that they have found God because they have found their own uncreated depths. For both the Southern Baptist and the latest devotee of the New Age salvation is often reduced to the level of personal experience, which can only be validated by those who have had similar “deeply personal” experiences.
Notice how perfectly the contemporary presentation of homosexuality fits the American Religion. A person who discovers that he or she is Gay has recovered his or her true self and “come out” and come through what the Gnostics called the “aeons” in this case levels of personal, familial and social oppression that hinder and constrain the true self. It is a heroic and perilous journey of self-discovery which would be familiar to a first century Gnostic like Valentinus. That the means of liberation is sexual practice is even a familiar theme. Some ancient Gnostics were ascetic but others counseled sexual license. Both stratagems can come from the same contempt of nature and are different ways of asserting the radical independence of the self.
Here is the point. Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire not in spite of being Gay, not as an act of toleration and compassion toward Gay people, but because he is Gay and as such is an icon of the successful completion of the quest to find the true and original self. He has been chosen for high religious office because he represents high religious attainment. He is being recognized and receiving regard for being an accomplished practitioner of the American Religion. According to this Gnostic logic divorcing his wife and leaving his family to embrace the Gay lifestyle is not some unfortunate concession to irresistible sexual urges but an example of the pain and sacrifice that the seeker of the true self must be willing to endure. That natural, organic and conventional restraints must be set aside is time worn Gnostic nostrum. From the point of view of this contemporary Gnosticism, if the church does not validate such a noble quest for enlightenment then it invalidates itself and shows that is no help in the only spiritual struggle that counts, the struggle to be the “real me.” Because Gene Robinson has “found himself” he has according to the Gnostic logic of the American religion found God and is naturally thought to be a truly “spiritual person” and a fit person to inspire and lead others on their spiritual journey which is to end in a discovery of the true self which is just so the discovery of the only real god, the Gnostic god.
Seeing the elevation of Gene Robinson through the lens of the mythos of the American Religion explains some of the fanaticism of his defenders, explains why so many bishops of the Episcopal Church including the Presiding Bishop would be willing to take such institutional risks. Here is a paradigm of salvation that echoes deeply in the American soul and promises to restore a sense of purpose to a mainline church which has lost confidence in the story of salvation told by the orthodox tradition of the church. Inclusion becomes the fundamental value for the church because it allows the church to have a real purpose of validating that people have indeed found their true identity, and thus found God. Gay people become icons of hope. These people have “found themselves” and hence by force of Gnostic logic “found God.” To celebrate Gays in the life of the church, not accept but affirm and celebrate, is to celebrate the church as a truly spiritual community with real spiritual power which can facilitate and validate the salvation of souls. The church leaders who are risking everything for Gene Robinson are in their own way and according to an heretical but powerful vision trying desperately to find a spiritual vocation for the church that has some liveliness and connects deeply with the deepest yearning of the American soul. The Presiding Bishop and his company of supporters think they are regaining the lost keys of heaven. That these newly discovered keys are not the real thing but Gnostics imitators of the keys of St. Peter will be lost on those who are intoxicated by the promises of the American Religion of the true, free and uncreated self.
©Leander Harding+ 2004