Cultic Studies Journal
Manipulation and Society
Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society
Vol, 9, No. 2, 1992
- The Gnostic Mystery
- Andrea Grace Diem. Mt. San Antonio College Press, Walnut,
CA, 1992, 66 pages.
Reviewer: Rev. Walter Debold
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 knowledgethat 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 infectionif it be seen as thatpersists
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 Eranot 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
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. 106107. 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
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Seton Hall University