The Great Divide
Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).1
“Freedom” from “Otherness”
“Freedom, in the context of the American Religion, means being alone with God or with Jesus, the American God or the American Christ. In social reality, this translates as solitude, at least in the inmost sense. The soul stands apart, and something deeper than the soul, the Real Me or self or spark, thus is made free to be utterly alone with a God who is also quite separate and solitary, that is, a free God or God of freedom. What makes it possible for the self and God to commune so freely is that the self already is of God; unlike body and even soul, the American self is no part of the Creation, or of evolution through the ages. The American self is not the Adam of Genesis but is a more primordial Adam, a Man before there were men or women. Higher and earlier than the angels, this true Adam is as old as God, older than the Bible, and is free of time, unstained by mortality. Whatever the social and political consequences of this vision, its imaginative strength is extraordinary. No American pragmatically feels free if she is not alone, and no American ultimately concedes that she is part of nature. . . .
Creation as the “Fall”
“ . . . [Although t]he American Religion is pervasive and overwhelming, . . . it is masked, and even our secularists, indeed even our professed atheists, are more Gnostic than humanist in their ultimate presuppositions. We are a religiously mad culture, furiously searching for the spirit, but each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the Creation. . . .
“The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude. Freedom, in a very special sense, is the preparation without which God will not allow himself to be revealed in the self. And this freedom is in itself double; the spark or spirit must know itself to be free both of other selves and of the created world. In perfect solitude, the American spirit learns again its absolute isolation as a spark of God floating in a sea of space. What is around it has been created by God, but the spirit is as old as God is, and so is no part of God’s creation. What was created fell away from the spirit, a fall that was creation. God or Jesus will find the spirit, because there is something in the spirit that already is God or Jesus, but the divine shall seek out each spirit only in total isolation. . . .
Dangerous Gnostic “Freedom”
“One of the grand myths of the American Religion is the restoration of the Primitive Church, which probably never existed . . . When [adherents of the American Religion] speak, sing, pray about walking with Jesus, they mean neither the man on the road to eventual crucifixion, nor the ascended God, but rather the Jesus who walked and lived with his Disciples again for forty days and forty nights. . . . The largest heresy [over against orthodoxy] among all those that constitute the American Religion is . . . [that] the American walks alone with Jesus in a perpetually expanded interval founded upon the forty days’ sojourn of the risen Son of Man. American Gnosticism escapes from time by entering into the life upon earth already enjoyed by the Man who died and then conquered death. . . .
“ . . . [T]he presence of the American religion . . . [is characterized by] freedom from mere conscience; reliance upon experiential perception; a sense of power; the presence of the God within; the innocence of ‘one’s redeemed flesh and blood’ . . .
“ . . . [T]he American Religion, for its two centuries of existence, . . . [is] 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. . . .
Origins of the American Religion
“ . . . [The American Religion has its origin in the primitive] Gnostic myth: a vast cosmological emptiness, the kenoma, where we wander and weep, tyrannized by the Archons, who are lords of misrule, headed by the Demiurge, a deity who created the cosmos, and our bodies and souls, in one blundering act that was also a Fall. An act of creation that in itself constituted a catastrophic fall is hardly the vision of creation in normative Judaism or in any of the branches of Christianity. Sun and earth, Adam and Eve, all begin as disasters in some versions of Gnostic myth, which has nothing good to say about nature, and which has no hope either for our bodies or our outward souls, no hope indeed for anything confined within the limits of space and time. Yet Gnosticism, if we are to consider it a religion, or at least a spiritual stance, is anything but nihilistic or hopeless, which may be why it is now, and always has been, the hidden religion of the United States, the American Religion proper. Peculiar as this must sound, all any among us need do to begin to understand Gnosticism is to ask ourselves: What do I actually regard my innermost self as being? . . . [A]ny useful account of Gnosticism needs to commence with the history of a magic or occult self, ‘spark’ or pneuma as the Gnostics called it, rather than the soul or psyche. . . .
“Gnosticism takes its origins in a strong reaction against or creative misreading of an overwhelming precursor, the Hebrew Bible. The arch villain for the Gnostics was the Demiurge, a creator god. . . . [F]or the Gnostics, the Demiurge is the Yahweh (and Elohim), the Hebraic vision of the creator god in Genesis, a god taken by the Gnostics to be at best a botcher or ignoramus, or at worst a spirit of malevolence. The high god of the Hebrews is not the alien or true God of the Gnostics, who indeed was identified by many Gnostics with the primordial Abyss, the void and deep from which the Hebrew god or Demiurge stole or displaced the stuff for his false creation . . .
The “Self” and the God Within
“In his popular A History of Christianity (1976) Paul Johnson remarks that ‘America’s most typical churches tended to leap straight from the nineteenth century to the age of the New Testament, and to seek to combine both’ (p. 429). . . . If you are of the American Religion, then you never cease to yearn for the pure and primitive Church, for the faith of and in a perpetual earliness. An American now is convinced that God loves her or him. . . . If one reflects that two out of three Evangelicals . . . believe that God speaks to them directly, then one has the sense that American awareness of God, and of the relation between God and the self, is very different from that . . . of any Christianity the world has yet seen.
“Awareness, centered on the self, is faith for the American Religion. . . . The self is the truth, and there is a spark at its center that is best and oldest, being the God within. Is this Christianity?”6
The Gnosticism so profoundly embedded in the “American Religion” claims that the body and soul or “psyche” of mankind are the product of fallen Creation. The uncreated, divine spirit or spark — Real Me — alone is the inner, pre-existent self of mankind. Only this self can say:
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear,
Falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me,
And He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.7
In view of the great divide between the Gnosticized religions supported by unparalleled global power, on one hand, and the explicit biblical record, on the other hand, we must re-address the historic nature and implications of the Genesis “Fall.”
- Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, is available from Barnes & Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/american-religion-harold-bloom/1114230681?ean=9780671867379. (go back)
- Martin Buber, I and Thou (1923). Martin Buber, I and Thou, tr. S. G. Smith and Walter Kaufman, is available from Barnes & Noble at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/i-and-thou-martin-buber/1116688326?ean=9780684717258#/. (go back)
- Quoted in Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon, “Communion and Otherness,” at www.orthodoxresearchinstitute.org/articles/liturgics/john_zizioulas_communion_otherness.html. This is a shortened version of a lecture given at the European Orthodox Congress in October 1999. The full text is available from the Apostle Andreas Press, de Vrièrestraat 19, B-8301 Knokke-Heist, Belgium. (go back)
- Dr. Harold Bloom (1930-) is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University. (go back)
- See The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), pp. 15-54. Copyright 1992 by Harold Bloom. See also “A Summary of The American Religion,” Outlook (Prequel 1998.7). (go back)
- Bloom, The American Religion, pp. 15-54. (go back)
- C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1912), italics supplied. (go back)