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Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teaching of the Original Christians. Harmony Books (AKA Crown Publishing/Random House)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

As the authors admit right up front, this book is rather a different sort of beast than that to which it forms a sequel. The Jesus Mysteries (1999) was mainly a historical reconstruction job, a powerful demonstration that there was very likely no historical Jesus, but that the character was based on a sectarian Jewish adaptation of pagan god-men such as Dionysus, Osiris, and Attis, a view I happen to share. As the Jesus thus disclosed functioned as an allegorical cipher for a specific kind of ancient spirituality (the Gnostic/Mystery cult variety), it was necessary even in that book to devote some space to the exposition of that spirituality. And since the authors plainly espouse it, a good deal of space was devoted to advocating it, too. (Surely that should not seem strange to anyone who is used to works of New Testament criticism written by devout Christians, like Joachim Jeremias, whose own piety suffuses their pages, to no disadvantage.) This sequel, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, reverses the proportions: the historical is kept to the needful minimum, while exposition and exhortation take the lion’s share (“Blessed is the man who eats the lion…”). This fact is important to keep in mind since this time around, as they warn the reader, Freke and Gandy are employing the term “Gnostic” in a much wider sense, referring to any ancient or modern religious people who transcend scriptural literalism in favor an esoteric reading tending toward nondualist mysticism.

In a strange sense, then, they are giving us the mirror image of Karen King’s recent disdain for “Gnosticism” as a pejorative, sneaky synonym for “heresy” that ought to be abandoned by Politically Correct New Testament scholars, a view I for one regard as hopelessly silly. King also decrees that the ancient “Gnostics falsely so-called” (not her quote, but it ought to be) constitute a label too broad to fit any particular bottle, that it blurs the differences between different groups. But King has, like many of her colleagues, forgotten what an ideal type is supposed to be: you outline the common elements and use the resulting yardstick to measure where the various specific phenomena diverge from it, so as to understand each one better in terms of its uniqueness. She might as well argue that there is no such thing as Buddhism or Protestantism. Well, anyhow, Freke and Gandy have widened the scope of Gnosticism far beyond what historically descriptive usage would allow. But they are only doing what has long been done with terms like “docetism,” “encratism,” and “adoptionism,” or with brand names like Xerox, Jello, and Kleenex, for that matter. And this broadening is important to recall for another reason: our authors will be recommending their brand of “Gnosticism” as a modern approach to spirituality, and they don’t necessarily mean you ought to do everything the Phibionites or the Carpocratians did.

Having issued all these warnings, I must still register a bit of dissatisfaction with the lingering suggestion, actually, the repeated assertion, that Freke and Gandy have herewith excavated “the secret teachings of the original Christians.” That seems to me something of an extravagant and immodest claim. There is an analogy between their effort here and that of the late John M. Allegro in his much-scorned (though I do not scorn it) The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Allegro argued that the earliest Christians were a Jewish version of Vedism, centered upon Soma mysticism. Freke and Gandy are telling us that the first Christians were a Jewish version of Vedanta, of nondualism. For them, it is hardly too much to say, earliest Christianity was Mahayana Buddhism and Neo-Platonism. This is a dangerous game.

The authors are in danger of engaging in what Derrida called “the dangerous supplement,” supplanting a thing by pretending/trying merely to elaborate it. One takes aim at a product of culture, making it suffer by comparison with its newly discovered “natural, original” counterpart—while forgetting that this hypothetical “original” has not been found via time travel but only fashioned by research, thus no less a product of culture, albeit perhaps counter-culture. Thus does every “historical Jesus” (re?)construction seek to supplant traditional Christology with what is only a newer Christology (at least as far as we will ever be able to verify). Every mysticism performs this operation, claiming only to restore the original profundity of the parent tradition by interpreting it non-literally. The Sufis, Philo, and others made such claims, but how plausible are they? Usually such hermeneutical attempts are really efforts at modernizing an outmoded faith which has become an embarrassment to its latter-day adherents. Was the belief of the Stoics really older than that of Homer and Hesiod? I doubt it. Freke and Gandy may well be offering us a better version of Christianity, but that is a very different matter than offering us the original version.

Let me not be misunderstood, though: I do think that Gnostic sects predated Christianity and that Catholic-Orthodox Christianity is a secondary form of the faith, combining elements from Gnosticism, Mystery Religions, and hero-cultism. But I cannot help suspecting that what the authors are doing is closer to Carl Jung and Hans Jonas than what the ancient Gnostics were doing. I think Freke and Gandy are skipping a step: they are demythologizing and psychologizing Gnostic mythology and then attributing the result to the ancients themselves. It is a slippery business, and they may be right. But there is reason to doubt it. Put it this way: as Paul Veyne once asked whether the ancient Greeks believed their myths, I ask whether the Gnostics believed in their myths of the Demiurge, Sophia, the Primal Man, the Aions, the archons, etc. I suspect that they did. What was the supposed esoteric truth of which the Gnostics boasted? Was it a psychologization such as this book expounds? If it was, my guess is that they would simply have interpreted our familiar gospels and epistles in an allegorical way (and of course that was going on, too). Whence all the super-extravagant mythology of multiple redeemers and cosmogonies? I picture the ancient Gnostics as no less superstitious than their Catholic cousins, just addicted to more elaborate theosophical fantasies analogous to those of Madame Blavatsky. Their gnosis, I imagine, was privileged possession of sophistical speculations of which outsiders were impatient and deemed unworthy. I imagine that their knowledge was like that of New Age believers today: just more elaborate and syncretic versions of what most people believed. Yes, Plotinus counted some Gnostics among his students, but I suspect that even this implies these few were looking for a more sophisticated, more genuinely philosophical, mysticism than Gnosticism offered them.

In the end, I think Freke and Gandy are offering readers the same sort of gospel as that preached by Stephan A. Hoeller in his Gnostic Church: a demythologization of Gnosticism for moderns, conducted along Jungian lines—which is fine by me. Like Jung, they are demonstrating the unsuspected contemporary relevance of ancient writings too easily dismissed as the delusional rantings of crazed hermits. If nowhere else, this modernizing element is surely evident in the world-affirming characteristic of this book. It is just hard to believe any ancient Gnostic would agree that the gist of the Gnosis is “Life is essentially good” (p. 183). Nor would you really need lists of the names of hermaphrodite angels for that. The great danger of allegorizing myth is to rationalize it by reducing it to acceptable platitudes. This is the ubiquitous process of “naturalizing” the text (as Jonathan Culler calls it) whereby we try to smooth away the rough edges of a puzzling text by making it mean something we can understand. We reduce its daunting strangeness at the cost of learning less from it, since we make it synonymous with something we already knew. Philo and Origen often did just this when they allegorized the Bible, reducing it to tepid moralisms or pointlessly coded typologies of the human psyche. Is this what the erudite moderns Freke and Gandy have done, appealing to ancient forbears in the manner of ecologists idealizing the American Indians?

Or think of the anxiety of the Gnostics preparing for their anticipated heavenward journey, rehearsing all their magic formulae to stammer at the interrogating archons trying to bar their way to the Pleroma. Can we imagine that these people were just tooling along in the laid-back manner prescribed in this book? People who looked at this world as if they were Steve McQueen in The Great Escape? It is as hard to believe Freke and Gandy are really describing the ancient Gnostics as it is to imagine the enthusiasts of ancient Corinth having anything in common with Bultmann or Burton Mack.

What is supposed to be so darn great about Gnosticism? That is a question some treatments of the subject can skirt. Elaine Pagels, in her classic The Gnostic Gospels, seems to invoke Gnosticism mainly as an ancient precedent for freethinking Christian modernism, as if to say, “Look! We have early Christians on our side, too!” But Freke and Gandy have obligated themselves to go a good second mile farther than Pagels did. They are heavily invested in rehabilitating Gnosis as “good news for modern man.” Set aside the essentially adolescent self-satisfaction of the gloater over secret mysteries. What is the enlightened life of the person who accepts the Gnostic evangel as preached by Freke and Gandy (literally, at traveling seminars, for which I applaud them)?

For one thing, as one might expect from the large-scale parallels to Oriental nondualism, a Gnostic lifestyle would include the Yogic element of detachment, “mere witness,” the distancing of oneself from emotional investment in the passing sideshow of life. Of course, Stoicism counsels the same. I think of an anecdote concerning, I think, Sri Ramakrishna, who once had to undergo sensitive throat surgery without benefit of anesthesia: he asked the doctor to give him a minute, then meditated into an inner zone in which he distanced the witnessing atman from the experiencing ego and successfully prescinded from the pain. Whether Freke and Gandy would offer us that power, I don’t know.

But, as in Buddhism, such detachment does not serve selfishness. Rather it frees the enlightened person from any vested ego interests so he can look upon all beings with impartial compassion and act gladly on their behalf. (If he were more compassionate than me, he might even take the trouble to use gender-neutral pronouns, if there are any.)

Freke and Gandy prescribe a life of working on one’s virtue and character development, punctuated by periods of blissful absorption into nondual consciousness. The first is life on the psychical plane, the penultimate existence as an individual reflecting the One but still distinct from it, still on the plane of Samsaric existence. The second is a series of adventures into the pneumatic plane where one experiences identity with/as the One. A la the dialectic of Nagarjuna, one rejoices in the ephemeral beauty of the Samsaric world because one can see through it to its Nirvanic Ground of Being. No longer falsely expecting Samsara to provide ultimate satisfaction, one can appreciate it for what it is, neither making it into an idol of maya nor ascetically despising it for not being what it is not.

And even everyday life, the longer periods of psychical existence, the neo-Gnostic learns to experience as living myth, noticing the pleasant coincidences of Jungian synchronicity and taking them as signs of hidden meaning (Ira Progoff devotes a fascinating book to this topic, Jung, Synchronicity, and Human Destiny). To me, this is getting uncomfortably close to the delusions of reference in which fundamentalists indulge when they take minor coincidences as “confirmations” of divine guidance, like God getting them parking spaces.

But ultimately, Freke and Gandy seem to take Gnosticism as more or less equivalent to liberal tolerance and a spirituality of seeking, and of openness to all traditions. I wonder if they are not so far from Pagels after all.

The authors are quite effective in conveying a coherent and clear account of nondualism as a realistic, almost commonsensical, outlook on the world. They are in this respect reminiscent of Alan Watts, the C.S. Lewis of Buddhism. But their presentation smacks more of Neo-Platonism (partly via Dionysius the Areopagite) than Buddhism. First there is the One, which is not even self-aware, since that would imply a subject-object distinction of which it is blissfully free. But for love to exist, as well as knowledge, on a lower level of reality/experience, the One bifurcates into Consciousness and Psyche, the Knowledge and the Knower. Further down the scale, the One is manifest in many fragmentary forms or images. Insofar as Consciousness occupies the standpoint of these images it begins to identify with them, and the illusion of individual ego-identities is born. But through Gnostic initiation these images may, like Freke and Gandy themselves, begin to slide back down the spokes to the central hub of Consciousness, and to remember their uniative mutual identity.

I find myself thinking of the recent New Age exploitation flick about quantum physics, What the Bleep Do We Know? In it we are told that the tantalizing bafflements of quantum physics, such as the alleged fact that subatomic particles can be in two places at once, ought to revolutionize our living of everyday life. Characters plagiarize lines that sounded impressive in Dune and The Matrix, fantasy movies in which characters “fold space” and cause flying bullets to drop from their trajectories. People in What the Bleep suddenly morph into younger versions of themselves or find themselves dribbling multiple basketballs all over the court at the same time, somehow because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I guess the producers hope the viewer does not notice that such things in fact never happen in real life and are not going to start happening to him after seeing this film either. The film jumps from the way things happen on a subatomic level to the way they supposedly might happen on the macro level where we live. But the film is wrong. Quantum physics is just trying to throw new light on the unsuspected inner workings of the same old mundane world we have always lived in. It is not telling us that things happen differently or that they might. B.F. Skinner said it well in Beyond Freedom and Dignity: “A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about.” A couple of times I saw Skinner strolling through Harvard Yard. He didn’t move like a robot because he espoused determinism.

Ramanuja, the great exponent of the leading alternative to Shankara’s Nondualist Vedanta, namely Visistadvaita (“Difference-in-Identity” or Qualified Nondualism), had the same reservation about nondualism: even if it’s true, why is it any more than an explanation of the way things are and how they work? Why isn’t metaphysics like physics? Why would understanding how things get from there to here be a warrant for going someplace else than here? Ramanuja admitted that nondualists could work their way into nondual awareness, but when they had done so, he figured, they had merely experienced the undifferentiated ground out of which everything emerged. But the articulated reality was where the action and the meaning are. Ramanuja anticipated Freud’s judgment on mysticism as merely a retrogressive attainment of the Oceanic feeling of the womb, no advance but a retreat. He was even closer to modern brain physiologists who say nondual experiences are simply a function of an induced malfunction in the temporal parietal lobe of the brain, whereby the little gizmo that comes on line in infancy to differentiate self from others goes temporarily back offline. For Ramanuja, that’s all you’re doing. Once you snap out of it, a mountain’s just a mountain again.

In the end, Freke and Gandy reduce (and expand) Gnosticism into a Socratic refusal to think one has everything all figured out. Their enlightenment is to gaze and gape at the Mystery of Being. And in that, I think they are very wise. But if anybody ever thought they had the whole thing figured out, it was the ancient Gnostics, whether they were the “original Christians” or not.   


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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