Bloom on the New Age
California, for most of this century, has been our new Burned-over District, replacing the western reserve of New York State, which was the religious hothouse o the nineteenth century. Though the New Age cults have no more than about thirty thousand members, their fellow travelers are an untold multitude. Virtually all our bookstores feature a New Age section, ranging from Shirley MacLaine recallijng her previ9us incarnations to the memoirs of prehistoric warriors, Schwarzkopfs of 35,000 years ago. Networking in our America, these days, takes place either among the politically correct acedemics of the high camp of Resentment, or among the dank cranks of the belated Aquarian Conspiracy, trying to float our planet off into cosmic consciousness.
Religious criticism cannot be applied to Scientology, or to the Moonie Unification Church, any more than literary criticism can find its texts-for-discussion in Alice Walker or in Danielle Steel. The New Age is a borderline case, like Allen Ginsberg or John Updike. The warlocks and the mediums of California Orphism aren't exactly Emanuel Swedenborg or even Madame Helean Petrovna Blavatsky, of whom W. B. Yeats sublimely remarked: "Of course she gets up spurious miracles, but what is a woman of genius to do in the nineteenth century!" The spurious miracles of the New Age are the comic outreaches of the American Religion, and might yield a few amiable insights to a properly disinterested religious criticism.
Bloom 'The American Religion' pp 181,182
Bloom on Mormonism and Southern Baptism as compontents of the American Religion
Since this is a study in religious criticism, I will center upon what I judge to be the two most American of our faiths, those of the Mormons and the Southern Baptist Convention. I approach both of these, in the pragmatic spirit of William James, as varieties of religious experience, and will emphasize equally questions of irreducible spirituality and of the temperament of the believer in her or his encounter with God. The Mormons rightly stress their indubitable status as an American original, with a precise genesis in the visions granted to their prophet, seer, and revelator, Joseph Smith. The Baptists, true to the American grain (as are the Mormons), trace their origin in a great American myth, the primitive Christian Church of ancient Israel. I follow religious historians in relocating Southern Baptist origins in early nineteenth-century America, but I break with those historians in finding the true and belated father of Southern Baptism to have been Edgar Young Mullins (1860-1928), who redefined the faith in his great manifesto of 1908, 'The Axioms of Religion'. So far as I can tell, Mullins invented the term "soul competency" for the most crucial Baptist freedom, when he insisted that "the doctrine of the soul's competency in religion under God is the historical significance of the Baptists." Mullins prevailed in that judgment until the current takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by Know-Nothings masking as Fundamentalists. Ironically, much of the Mullinsesque or Moderate Southern Baptist heritage now so severely jeopardized by the supposed Fundamentalists may well have been of African-American Baptist origin, as I will show much later in this book. That makes it all the more appropriate that Texas Know-Nothings are destroying the Southern Baptist Convention, and so are obliterating the last organized stand of a religion of the Inner Light in the United States. The priesthood of the believer is being replaced by a hierarchy that will be at once more dogmatic and less intellectualized than the structure of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. A highly individualized, even eccentric religion of Enthusiastic experience will dwindle down into a vapidity.
Bloom, 'The American Religion' pp 46,47
Bloom on Joseph Smith, the Bible in American Religion and Christianity
Joseph Smith was a religious genius, though only a mixed orator and an indifferent writer. His followers, for at least a century now, have backtracked from his radical newness to a public stance sometimes difficult to distinguish from Protestantism, but Smith himself was in no traditional sense a Protestant, or indeed even a Christian. Mrs. Brodie saw the truth when she beheld the rleigion of her ancestors as having the same relation to Christianity that Christianity had to Judaism, or that Islam had to both the religion of the Book and the religion of the Son of Man. The two crucial branches of the American Religion, in my judgment, are the Mormons and the Southern Baptists, violent opponents of one another, yet each American to the core and neither having anything accurately in common with what historically has been considered Christianity. Both insist otherwise, but so does nearly every other American sect and denomination, every American variety of our pragmatic and experiential religion. To myself, culturally an American Jewish intellectual but not an adherent of normative Judaism, nothing about our country seems so marvelously strange, so terrible and so wonderful, as its weird identification with ancient Israelite religion and with the primitive Christian Church that supposedly came out of it. The largest paradox concerning the American Religion is that it is truly a biblical religion, whereas Judaism and Christianity never were that, despite all their passionate protestations. Normative Judaism is the religion of the Oral Law, the strong interpretation of the Bible set forth by the great rabbis of the second century of the Common Era. Christianity is the religion of the Church Fathers and of the Protestant theologians who broke with the Church, and Catholics and Protestants alike joined in the rabbinical sages in offering definitive interpretations that displaced Scripture. The American Religion, unlike Judaism and Christianity, is actually biblical, even when it offers and exalts alternative texts as well.
Joseph Smith's alternative texts-the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price (itself made up of several rather distinct works), and the Doctrine and Covenants -- are all stunted stepchildren of the Bible. I need to say something like "stunted" because what we now call the Bible is the result of a complex process of canonization for which the criteria were surprisingly aesthetic, or at least reconcilable with the aesthetic. The Song of Songs is in the Bible because it had enchanted the great Rabbi Akiba, and somethin in that enchantment was not altogether different from my bewitchment by our Song of Songs, Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Blom'd" But all of Mormon Scripture is the work of Joseph Smith, and his life, personality, and visions far transcended his talents at the composition of divine texts.
Bloom, 'The American Religion' pp 81,82
Bloom on Gnosticism as a componenet of the American Religion
What is so tentative here has become consistent, fierce, even raging in the Enthusiasm of the American Religion, where Southern Baptist or Pentecostal conversion invariably is felt, manifested, and exuberantly communicated. Wesley, in the American perspective, must now be seen as a bridgine figure between a more resttrained English mode of Enthusiasm and the violence, both internal and external, of the American Religion. Experiential faith, largely divorced from doctrine, would have left an emptiness in America but for something more vibrant that replaced doctrine, a timeless knowing that in itself saves. Wesley still believed that God had performed in history, but the American knowing cancels history, even the history of God before he discovered America. Gnosticism, ancient and American, has gotten a bad name, from Saint Irenaeus down to Tom Wolfe, but here I dissent. President Eisenhower is notorious for remarking that the United States was and had to be a religious nation, and that he didn't care what religion it had, as long as it had one. I take a sadder view; we are, alas, the most religious of contries, and only varieties of the American Religion finally will flourish among us, whether its devotees call it Mormonism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, or what-you-will. And the American Religion, for its two centuries of existence, seems to me irretrievably Gnostic. It is a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or self-within-the-self, and the knowledge leads to freedom, a dangerous and doom-eager freedom: from nature, time, history, community, other selves. I shake my head in unhappy wonderment at the politically correct younger intellectuals, who hope to subvert what they cannot begin to understand an obsessed society wholly in the grip of a dominant Gnosticism.
If you have a religious temperament, or a yearning for religion, and yet you cannot accept Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim explanations as to why an omnipotent God permits the perpetual victory of evil and misfortune, then you may be tempted by Gnosticism, even if you never quite know just what Gnosticism is, or was. Personal experience and meditation upon history alike make me impatient with all attempts at justifying the was of God to man. The God of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad seems indulgent toward schizophrenia and the Holocaust. There is also the God of the Gnostic speculator Valentinus of Alexandria, and of the Kabbalist rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, and that God is estranged or withdrawn from our world of hallucinations and death camps. The Alien God of Gnostic vision can be regarded as the projection of an ancient heresy, if you wish, or as a living reality, though one to whom no churches or temples are overtly dedicated. Gnosticism, to me, seems less of a fossil than are our organized, socially accepted mainline religions, but I scarcely intend this book to be either a Gnostic manifesto or a treatise upon conversion.
Bloom, 'The American Religion' pp 49,50
I think where this conversation is lacking is in a fundamental misunderstanding between the words 'espouse' and 'critic'. Bloom writes on the American Religion and what he defines as a kind of contemporary Gnosticism as a critic, an analyst -- not an apoligist.
As a critic he writes about what exists -- or what he sees -- in the culture -- not about what should be -- as a critic he may give his 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' to things he sees here and there but doesn't ultimately make any reccommendations or prognostications.
It is understandable, interloper, why -- as a Southern Baptist -- that you find his critique irritating. I'm sure the Mormons would too -- as well as New Agers, Christian Scientists, and everyone else critiqued in his book including practicing Gnostics.
This started out not when you accused Bloom of espousing New Age religion -- but me. Again a fundamental misunderstanding of the word espouse.
You have pointed out that Gnosticism is hard to define -- as does the Encarta entry I posted a link to -- and this is because most of what was written about it was written by the detractors of it after destroying all the original texts. The Naj Hammadi texts appear to be close to originals (of the Christian Gnostics) but may have, in fact, been written by ascetic Monks in Egypt as a treatise against it as well.... we don't know -- but -- one can obviously write about a subject without espousing it -- or else in your own detraction of Bloom and Gnosticism -- you would be espousing it.
At one point you, and others, wanted to say that America is a Christian Nation. If that were true then there must be some common thread that weaves through the religious fabric of the country. Bloom, with whom I agree on this point, suggests there is a common thread, but that it more resembles Gnosticism than Christianity.
Since I am an Agnostic -- which is clearly pointed out in my writings -- it is nonsensical to assume I am espousing Gnosticism in my agreement that it seems to be the prevailing force in the American dynamic.
But, overall it's been a fun thread.