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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A. Hoeller (Quest Books) Important popular introduction to the central teachings of the Gnostics and how they still can inspire us to seek for the divine. The Greek word gnosis means "knowledge." The Gnostic worldview developed alongside JudeoChristianity two thousand years ago. But while Christianity emphasizes faith, Gnosticism emphasizes a state of consciousness for knowing God directly--an aim which mainstream Christianity finds heretical. Stephan Hoeller's comprehensive overview is an unfolding historical drama filled with passion, political intrigue, martyrdom, and mystery. It also reveals Gnosticism as the indigenous mystical tradition of the West. We learn about:

The Gnostic view of the Divine and the manifest world, Good and Evil, and the essence of the human soul
The Gnostic Christ as the messenger of Light and the guide to sacred mysteries
Sophia, the Gnostic archetype of Feminine Wisdom
The scriptures, sacraments, and rituals of Gnostic religions such as the Mandaean, holding secret wisdom traced back to John the Baptist; the Manichaean, founded by the great third-century Persian prophet, Mani; and the Cathar, the glorious and persecuted movement in medieval southern France
Gnostic literature and its influence on cultural giants such as Voltaire, Blake, Yeats, Hesse, Melville, and Jung
Gnosticism West and East, what constitutes a Gnostic, and how Gnosticism can guide us into the twenty-first century

The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity by Hans Jonas (Beacon Press) This epoch setting book set the terms from which scholars first considered the great Nag Hammadi discoveries. Written in the 1930s the work was the most sustained philosophical account of the meanings of Gnostic religion. Jonas deliberately decided not to revisit his thinking on the subject when the Nag Hammadi material became available for study. Though there is a more diverse understanding of gnostic style religions now the essential philosophical explorations that Jonas offers still set the background for grappling with the meaning of this religious phenomena.

Rethinking "Gnosticism"by Michael Allen Williams (Princeton University Press) Most anyone interested in such topics as creation mythology, Jungian theory, or the idea of "secret teachings" in ancient Judaism and Christianity has found "gnosticism" compelling. Yet the term "gnosticism," which often connotes a single rebellious movement against the prevailing religions of late antiquity, gives the false impression of a monolithic religious phenomenon. Here Michael Williams challenges the validity of the widely invoked category of ancient "gnosticism" and the ways it has been described. Presenting such famous writings and movements as the Apocryphon of John and Valentinian Christianity, Williams uncovers the similarities and differences among some major traditions widely categorized as gnostic. He provides an eloquent, systematic argument for a more accurate way to discuss these interpretive approaches.

The modern construct "gnosticism" is not justified by any ancient self-definition, and many of the most commonly cited religious features that supposedly define gnosticism phenomenologically turn out to be questionable. Exploring the sample sets of "gnostic" teachings, Williams refutes generalizations concerning asceticism and libertinism, attitudes toward the body and the created world, and alleged features of protest, parasitism, and elitism. He sketches a fresh model for understanding ancient innovations on more "mainstream" Judaism and Christianity, a model that is informed by modern research on dynamics in new religious movements and is freed from the false stereotypes from which the category "gnosticism" has been constructed

Careful and critical attention to all the texts of the Gnostic tradition requires sustained attention. His point of view, however, is very welcome. Gnosticism has been rather too easily straight-jacketed into a monolithic & dogmatic form: elitist, dualist, either puritanical or libertine, world-hating and earth-hating. On the other hand, it has been romanticized by the hermeneutics of victimization as a feminist harbor in a sea of patriarchy. What Williams concludes is that the common thread among the "Gnostics falsely so-called" (pace Irenaeus) is "biblical demiurgism". This means first, a deep attachment to the biblical narrative and second, a deep dissatisfaction with the biblical deity. The use of myth, imagination, subversive re-reading of texts and the primacy of experience are common, too, as ways of retaining the story and transcending the deity. Gnosticism has too often served for orthodoxy the role that Modernism played for early 20th Century Catholicism; it was given far more ideological coherence & unity of purpose than really existed. I am a great admirer of Gnostic tradition, but the revulsion of matter and the physical creation always stuck in my craw. The sin of Balaam: beating the donkey which saves you from the avenging angel you can't see. Anyway, this book enables me to inhabit that tradition more integrally, being myself a "biblical demiurgist". It encourages a more respectful reading of the texts, without readymade lenses. And while I'm at it, despite Christian assertions of the goodness of creation and its enshrinement in the sacramental system, Christian practice --along with the practice of many religions-- performs a functional equivalent of "Gnosticism" in demonizing matter as the sinful flesh...forgetting that in the Story, it was a proud and beautiful angel who engineered the fall of the universe. I'll read this book again with more care and I encourage anyone with an interest in the subject and some familiarity with the tradition to do so, too. It did not erase the Gnostic tradition for me, but opened it up. Great work, Professor Williams.

Major Survey of Harmonial Religions:

GNOSIS AND HERMETICISM: From Antiquity to Modern Times edited by Roelof van den Broek and Wouter J. Hannegraaff ($24.95, paper, 402 pages, notes, subject and name indexes, State University of New York Press, SUNY ISBN: 0-7914-3612-8) HARDCOVER

NEW AGE RELIGION AND WESTERN CULTURE: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought by Wouter J. Hannegraaff ($24.95, paper, 580 pages, notes, bibliography, subject and name indexes, State University of New York Press, SUNY, ISBN: 0-7914-3854-6) HARDCOVER

This is a masterful presentation of secular esotericism, putting New Age ideas into the historic stream of gnosis. Hannegraaff work will become as important as Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (Yale) in setting the tone for all future serious studies of New Age practice and belief. A work of this broad reach is hardly above reproach. Hannegraaff often blurs the historic connections between aspects of his studies. His selection of books as representative of New Age trends is often judicious but often lacks consideration major secular esoteric figures such as Manly Palmer Hall, and Gerald B. Gardner. also a misreporting of fact is occasionally present, for example saying the Matthew Fox became a Presbyterian in 1994 when he became Episcopalian. There is also only passing mention of the esotericism of perennialists such as Schuon or Guerdjieff’s Fourth Way. The curtailing of his study to only secular esotericism also does not reveal the important links with traditional esotericisms or bridge groups such as the British Beshara Foundation's 's links to Sufism. These reservations however are slight when compared to the careful marshaling of materials and mostly adept evaluations this work exemplifies.

A DIFFERENT CHRISTIANITY: Early Esotericism and Modern Thought by Robin Amis ($19.95, paper; 388 pages, State University of New York Press, SUNY, ISBN: 0-7914-2572-X) HARDCOVER

Amis offers an important introduction to the esoteric, experiential tradition of Christianity that is reputed to be a continuation of the original impulse that created the Christian community 2,000 years ago. Amis is the Director of the Praxis Research Institute that has published the esoteric writings of Mouravieff (featured below) as well as a practitioner of the interior prayer of the heart as preserved on Mount Athos in Greece. This work is a full range practical and theoretical introduction to this interior style of prayer and contemplation as well as palatable examination of orthodox religious practice.

GNOSIS: Book One Exoteric Cycle by Boris Mouravieff ($29.95, sewn paper; 261 pages, Praxis Institute Press, 2931 W. Belmont Ave.Chicago, IL 60618; ISBN1-872292-10-1)
GNOSIS: Book Two Mesoteric Cycles BY Boris Mouravieff ($29.95, sewn paper; 262 pages, Praxis Institute Press, 2931 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL 60618; ISBN: 1-872292-11-9)
GNOSIS: Book Three Esoteric Cycle by Boris Mouravieff ($29.95, sewn paper; 226 pages, Praxis Institute Press, 2931 W. Belmont Ave. Chicago, IL 60618; ISBN: 1-872292-12-7)
This edition, translated from the French, is an esoteric classic on par with Schwaller-de Lubiz’s work on Egyptian esotericism derived from studies of the Temple at Luxor, or of the translations of Bulent Rauf of commentaries on ibn ‘Arabi published by the Beshara Foundation and the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society of Oxford and Istanbul. Praxis Institute is providing an important service in having these volumes produced. Probably one of the more original systemizations that integrates the Orthodox, Russian, Syrian, and Greek styles of mysticism, with disciplined modern philosophical reflection. This work is more to be studied and discussed than read casually and will appeal to those self-selected few who take their esotericism seriously. The work also integrates Fourth Way (Gurdjieffian and Ouspenskian traditions of practice), but more in passing than in the main. Basically this is a profoundly conservative work that advances systematically the esoteric tradition in stark and daring fashion. It should appeal to enthusiasts of Frithjof Schuon, who promises more systematization than he usually delivers. The last volume in the series turns out only to be esoteric in the sense that it expounds a theory of history that only a mystic could consider or think apropos to world historic cycles. The theory of correspondences is an abstract dialectic that follows the main lines of Christian neoplatonic experience with an orthodoxy inspired interior christology of consciousness.

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