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Three Grains of Salt

Stuart Holroyd: The Elements of Gnosticism. Element Books Limited, 1994. 121 pp.

In 1945, near a place in Egypt called Nag Hammadi, two brothers unearthed a large clay vessel which proved to contain a veritable treasure trove of ancient gnostic literature. Although the collection of texts sat for a time in a heap in the family's kitchen, and although the mother of the discoverers reputedly lit up pages now and then as kindling for her stove, the bulk of the Nag Hammadi find eventually made its way into the hands of European scholars and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.

The chance discovery in Egypt has led to a burgeoning of academic interest in gnosticism. But not only that: it has in some measure resuscitated gnosticism as a mode of belief among many Western seekers. For devotees, the Nag Hammadi texts are the scriptures of a new/old religion, one they are currently championing against the supposedly more oppressive Christian faith that has formed and dominated the West since late antiquity.

Stuart Holroyd's Elements of Gnosticism is a book that sets out to present the teachings of the ancient gnostics and to trace the legacy of their beliefs over the centuries. As far as the first of these goals is concerned, namely his presentation of the major gnostic doctrines and movements, the book is worth reading. It is only when Holroyd sets his sights on finding gnostic thought in post-medieval Western society that he becomes markedly less convincing. In these latter chapters, he is usually reduced to exploiting as best as he can any thematic parallels he can discover between ancient gnostic texts and the major works of such writers as Goethe, Melville, and Sartre. After initially portraying ancient gnosticism, Holroyd is clearly trying to expand the territory of what may be considered "gnostic." A perpicacious reader won't give him all the territory he claims.

Holroyd's attempts to demostrate the centrality of gnosticism as a sort of underground driving force in Western literature are wrongly conceived. About the only convincing case he makes is William Blake, whose unique status as a kind of late-Enlightenment gnostic heresiarch actually merit him a more systematic presentation than Holroyd ends up giving. Holroyd should have given up on Goethe, forgotten about Nietzsche and Sartre and Hess, and worked harder to characterize Blake, the only truly gnostic thinker of the lot.

Rather than writing about the "Gnostic Revival" in the manner he has, Holroyd's book would have been better served by a more thorough consideration of the existential implications of gnostic theology for those who now choose to see it as a correct description of the relations between the divine and the human. What are the ethical, social, and pedagogical implications of gnostic theology? What is being said and taught by the people who now, at the end of the twentieth century, claim to be gnostics? Holroyd doesn't even touch on these interesting questions.

Another major flaw in the book stems from the writer's obvious grudge against the orthodox churches, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. One begins to suspect it is Holroyd's hatred of triumphant Christianity that has led him to champion gnosticism as an alternative. It seems to be a case of the grass is always greener. For example, if we are to believe Holroyd's frequent hints, there was something inherent in classical gnostic systems that would have precluded their followers from ever seeking and abusing temporal power the way the orthodox churches did. This is clearly nonsense. It is a belief akin to Marxist beliefs of the 1910s and '20s that the proletariat, once firmly in power, would never show the corruption characteristic of bourgeois governments. The world has learned many painful lessons concerning such delusions. In trying to assess Holroyd's claims for gnosticism, one need only imagine the Roman emperors converting to Valentinianism, then declaring some form of gnosticism to be the official state religion. One need only imagine this religion allied to the Roman state, as orthodox Christianity was allied. What would have been gnosticism's development theologically, hierarchically? Wouldn't gnosticism's tendency to theorize an elite of "knowing ones" have been abused under the pressure of imperial support?

By these remarks, however, I do not intend to dismiss Holroyd's book. Elements of Gnosticism is well written and well organized. Holroyd provides a good presentation of the ancient gnostic doctrines and the figures that forged those doctrines. That the book is written by a writer sympathetic to gnostic beliefs makes it even stronger in some ways. The reader receives something of a total effect, in that it is not simply a matter here of encyclopedia entries on Basilides and Mani. Rather there is an attempt at persuasion, what in theology is called apologetics. Holroyd is among the contemporary writers one may justly call gnostic apologists. It is a group that includes--to cite the most eminent--Harold Bloom and Elaine Pagels. The ultimate result of such apologetics is that Holroyd's book may be read as an historical or doctrinal account, but it is one that needs to be read with three or four grains of salt.

Eric Mader-Lin
February, 2000

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