The Serpent's Hiss

Francis X. Clooney, SJ

In Review | Books  The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion, by Jeffrey J. Kripal. University of Chicago Press, 232 pages, $24.

Jeffrey Kripal's The Serpent's Gift is a fascinating meditation on gnosticism, sexuality, religious studies, and life in general. It will intrigue, challenge, provoke, and (possibly) alarm or offend the reader, but all for the sake of an important quest for a new way of thinking through, and drawing together, our currently disparate studies of religion, mysticism, theology, and human and divine realities.

Kripal describes his agenda in this way: "These four rather eccentric essays on the New Testament and Nag Hammadi texts, a heretical nineteenth century Lutheran theologian, a Hindu Tantric saint, and the superheroes of contemporary American popular culture were designed to communicate a self-confessed (post) modern gnosis in an erotic, philosophical, mystical, and finally mythical fashion . . . these were four creative misreadings, four heretical mistranslations toward my own still-developing thought . . . labored discoveries that moved, quite literally, from erotic scandal and troubling reductionism to genuine mysticism and marvel."

More specifically, the central chapters offer a series of interesting and provocative thematic studies: an inquiry into and reimagining of the homo- and heterosexuality of Jesus in accord with clues in the canonical Gospels and, more so, in the various gnostic scriptures; an extended religious, spiritual retrieval of Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity and his "heretical" revalorization of theology as anthropology; a reconstruction of religious studies as a gnostic discipline possessed of deep religious instincts and engaged in the holy work of saving traditions from their own conventional, restrictive self-containment; X-men, Spiderman, and other comic book heroes, like heroes of world mythology in ancient times, morphing from hidden identity to multiple forms of consciousness and (sexual) energy as varied as the heroes themselves. Each essay is well written and inviting, and most useful reading; cumulatively, they make the case that excluded, silenced, lost perspectives need to be heard in twenty-first century academe and also in our spiritual quests.

Kripal reflects interestingly on ancient and modern gnostic materials but also, strikingly, seeks to extend that canon by identifying himself as a gnostic writer. The Serpent's Gift aspires to gnosis—"at once a privileging of knowing over believing, an affirmation of altered states of consciousness and psychic functioning as valuable and legitimate modes of consciousness, and a critical-but-engaged encounter with the faith traditions themselves," as the author puts it—in its content and style. Yet how do we write as gnostics? By hissing. As Kripal retells one of our primordial myths, in the Garden of Eden it is the deity who is jealous, while the serpent is the one offering life to those who decipher his understated, elusive, hissed truths. And so, too, here: "The sensitive reader might hear a distinct hissing passing through my words. This is how the serpent speaks his gift: in whispered secrets that are never quite made explicit but are nevertheless there, hissing their whispers in both the form and content of the text. Obviously, such claims hardly constitute standard academic arguments. And, in truth, I have no desire to engage in anything standard here."

Both reason and faith must defer: "I seek not so much to communicate a rational message (reason) or undergird a particular system of belief (faith) as to transmit a sudden shock (gnosis), rather like what happens when you stumble upon a snake . . . talking to you through the hissing whispers of your own secret mind."

Gnosticism is one of the many things on which I am not expert, but still I must wonder if Kripal's forthright admission, published here in an attractive paperback from a major university press, is convincing. Even today, I would think, the gnostic writer remains secret and secretive, masking her or his discourse with calmer and quieter reflections, or writing for a most select audience, not highlighting this writing as gnostic. Were I a gnostic writer, I would not tell you about it at all, I would just write.

Whatever we make of The Serpent's Gift as a genre piece, we have much to learn from Kripal's thoughtful, carefully and clearly written reflections. We see today a vast expansion of our knowledge about religion and ourselves, an abundance of powerful new information on religion—ideas, images, sentiments, practices—that none of us has been able to catch up on; we are all at a loss for not doing so, as our learning keeps fragmenting into smaller, undigested data or barely understood insights that are nonetheless useful in academic debate and religious polemic. The book's value lies in Kripal's intention to retrieve gnosticism, sexuality, altered states, anger at institutions, the modern privileging of the human over the divine, and even the contemporary study of religion, for the sake of a more integral and potent form of religious reflection, no longer chained to the traditional mainstream management of such matters, nor to the quest for an entirely rational/rationalized academic study of religion. Indeed, this integral quest is or should be the core of the book: to rethink religious studies as a religious activity that has its own spirituality and can make its own unsettling—and humble, I would add—contribution also to the religious lives of practitioners. Insofar as Kripal is sketching how to move toward this new integration, we can be grateful to him; this book should remain a resource for years to come. (Along the same lines, he is also the author of the new book Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.)

But I still have to close with a series of hesitations that will, I hope, further our conversation on these important topics. First, whose gnosticism? My guess (again as a nonexpert) is that gnosticism works best when it is the gnosticism of a particular tradition; and Kripal, whose examples are so richly diverse, does not afford us sufficient sense of where his home is. We find here an uneasy relationship to the great exoteric traditions, and more than a bit of anger.

Religions, though flawed and fallen, are not without invaluable aspects; they are not hapless, entirely misshapen or malevolent, and they survive, as mainstream and exoteric, for good reason. In them there are resources and remedies that remain valuable: Sunday Eucharist, synagogue and temple worship, Vaisnava devotion and Buddhist insight; canons and commentaries; well-informed and even scholastic theologies which, though acts of faith seeking understanding, remain critical of the traditions providing their own substance. We need at least to be able to imagine honoring and even belonging to such traditions. Kripal seems particularly disappointed with Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism in the United States, and we can admit that reasons for disenchantment abound. Yet surely we can find also additional ways to talk about even the Church—particularly as a global Church—which are also faithful and honest in enduring truths and values, beautiful things never overwhelmed by hierarchies, clerical arrogance, concealments, and abuses. It is worth adding that Kripal does not much advert to the voice of the poor, people marginalized in a terribly real way, men and women whose oppression and suffering expose the comfortable and overly secure lives of the intellectual classes, religious, gnostic, and secular. (I am aware that my own writing is rarely very explicit in hearing the voices of the poor, so I can throw no stones; but it is still fair to notice what seems missing in The Serpent's Gift.)

It is still the case in the twenty-first century that we—Western theologians and scholars of religion—need also to listen to the intellectuals, even the living ones, in the other traditions, religious thinkers who have differently configured versions of the concerns that Kripal places before us. It is striking that Kripal's appendix—"My Gnostic Library Before I Have to Bury It (Again)"—contains, among its monographs and essays, almost no work by an author who is not European or North American. The list is excellent, and here too we can be grateful to Kripal; but surely, in the twentyfirst century, we need to be able to signal much more directly that we are endlessly indebted to our peers in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, as well as to culturally marginalized groups in North America. If contemporary Hindu authors, for instance, have little to say in support of a gnostic, eroticized rendering of their religions and thus do not make it into the Gnostic Library, we should also be able to learn from the wisdom of their silence and refusal to write as we expect them to.

It is striking, too, how consciously sexualized Kripal's inquiries are, and how essential this move appears to be to the well-being of his new gnosticism. In the first essay, for instance, Kripal seeks "an openly 'heretical Jesus' who can provoke new thought, self-reflection, and revelation, not in the first- or second-century Mediterranean world, but here in America in us." What is this new heresy? "In the end, what I am after is a kind of sexualized gnosis, an erotics of the Gospel that can meet and learn from, on a very deep transgressive level, the erotic mysticisms of other climes and times, particularly the Tantric traditions of South Asia, the Himalayas, and China. I hiss and write, then, through a specific Tantric imaginaire. . . ."

Reading a specific Gospel through one or another specific Tantric text would be a really good project to undertake at length, commentaries, practices, lineages, and all; but given the complexity entailed even in Tantric classics, I am skeptical that the erotic will emerge as the defining insight. In the West, of course, the gnostic sensibility is often associated with the search for illumination beyond flesh, in flight from the resurrection of the body. Yet such moves—away from body, beyond body, afraid of body?—can surely still be counted as gnostic.

At the book's very end, Kripal offers a kind of homiletic appeal: "Once we accept —I mean really accept—this [serpent's] gift, we might begin to stop fearing the serpent of our own sexualities and so cease childishly obeying the imagined voice of a petty father-god who seeks to cruelly punish us for the biological conditions of our very existence, that is, death and sexuality. We might learn to love the wise snake, listen to his many hissing whispers, and realize finally that we are not cursed to die. We have not sinned. We have not fallen. . . . We have only eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that is, of our own sexual mortality."

Kripal admittedly writes in light of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and wants not to forget the abuse of power that aggravated the crisis so terribly. We certainly do not want to retreat to a naïve or arrogant flight from sexual responsibility—as a Catholic priest, I am acutely aware of our dangers and duties here—but from his reading of Jesus and Ramakrishna to his deciphering of comic book heroes as erotic figures, Kripal's concern for the sexual still seems also a preoccupation that does not necessarily aid his larger integrative project. The rather more soberly presented nine key features of gnosis in his chapter 4—the gnosticism of the many, the ambivalent sacred, society, power, the body, history, the outsider, the insider, reflexivity—provide a sounder basis for Kripal's whole project.

And perhaps there is too much hissing in The Serpent's Gift. I wouldn't be so quick to trust serpents: they do hiss, but they also bite and poison us; sometimes too, as Vedanta teaches us, they aren't serpents at all, just sticks appearing dangerous when the lights are dimmed. Yes, there is power in that initial question, it always works in the classroom: why does God eject Adam and Eve from the Garden, barring them from the Tree of Life? Yet Kripal, so generous in re-reading marginalized sources, seems to share Eve's enchantment with the serpent. He remains ever so ready to characterize the god of Genesis as of some lower class than the serpent and our own unfallen and nonsinful selves. But really: as we ponder life outside Eden, the exoteric traditions, the great communities, turn out not entirely blind, nor are their words impotent: we are sinners, yet justified; we are fallen, yet raised; we are sexual beings, but we have much else to say about who we are; the habits of modern scholarship can be harmful, but when chastened can serve human and divine purposes. We need to hear these words too. Perhaps the God of Genesis—not just a "petty father-god"—may turn out, yet again, to have been wise in coupling knowledge of good and evil with the further gift of mortality.

 

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is  Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and author, most recently, of Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Oxford).

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