The Serpent’s Gift

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J Kripal.

Kripal The Serpent's Gift

In a 1978 essay in Understanding the New Religions, Robert Bellah mentioned that “religious intellectuals are, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in American history, cut off from large religious bodies which, theoretically, represent the majority of the religious population,” and he went on to speculate whether academic “religious studies itself is, in a sense, ‘new religion’.” In The Serpent’s Gift, Jeffrey Kripal seems eager to emblemize Bellah’s verdict and to vindicate his speculation. 

Kripal’s book is something of a manifesto on method in religious studies. It is made up of insightful explorations of “eroticism, humanism, comparative mysticism, and esotericism” in religion as approached through academic research. The aggregate effect is to outline what he calls “academic gnosticism.” But it would probably be more accurate to call it “gnostic academicism,” since the institutions and traditions on which it depends are those of the academy, while the themes and perspectives that it champions are the ones Kripal has chosen to gloss as “gnostic.” In contradiction to some 20th-century Neognostics, Kripal appreciates the essentially elitist nature of ancient gnosticism, and he is acutely aware of its initiatory dimension.

As in his earlier work Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, the author takes an intimate and somewhat confessional approach to his material. The endnotes are a rich mixture of textual references and authorial asides, and his conversationally annotated bibliography is matched with a preface on his textual sources of inspiration, called “Digging Up My Library.” This apparatus, and the introductory essay on method and theory, are some of the best parts of the book. No interested reader should overlook them.

The main body of the text is made up of four essays. The first of these is the most conventionally “gnostic” in its historical scope, and it treats a variety of sexualized representations of Jesus that are rarely given a popular hearing. Kripal acknowledges the ordinary celibate Jesus, and introduces readers to the bastard Jesus, the queer Jesus, and even the ‘straight’ Jesus, discussing both the venerability of such assessments and the consequences of the question itself. 

The second essay is centered on the thought of 19th-century German antichrist Ludwig Feuerbach, with an admittedly creative reading to which I am very sympathetic. He sums this reading as “a type of erotic (post)modern gnosis whose final goal ‘is to make God a man and man a God.’” (89)

In the third essay, Kripal addresses the methodological conundrums of comparativism, and the ways in which the comparative enterprise produces “heresy.” Here he rewardingly takes up the neologism ‘mystics’ (c.f. ‘physics’) from de Certeau translator Michael B. Smith. I was also gratified to read here his engagement with Steven Wasserstrom’s assessment of the mid-20th-century comparativism of the Eranos school, since Wasserstrom’s book had been important in my own return to the academy and work on religious studies earlier this decade. 

Kripal cheerfully transgresses the boundary between high culture and popular culture with his fourth essay, which is constructed around a proposal that the X-Men comics be read as an allegory of his idealized vision of the post-secondary study of religion. It is true, as Kripal claims throughout The Serpent’s Gift, that the university setting can and in many cases does incubate the sort of thought he espouses. Indeed, a certain amount of academic training is helpful even to approach Kripal’s book. But the current fragility of the academic institution, especially with respect to the humanities, does not inspire great hope here. Traditional tenured roles are being replaced with more contingent forms of faculty, the economic proposition of the four-year undergraduate degree is increasingly shaky, and there are growing assaults on the academic protections for freedom of speech and opinion (some of which Kripal addresses in his third essay). I came away from the “Mutant Marvels” essay with a renewed belief in the importance of a robust “academic gnosticism” outside the academy: a network of parallel institutions with their roots in various countercultural movements ranging from Freemasonry (18th century) to occultism (19th century) to Human Potential (20th century), and hardly limited to these. 

The book’s conclusion does reach past the confines of the academy to make programmatic statements about Western religious values. I take issue on a basic level with Kripal’s final assertion that “We do not die because we have sex and reproduce.” (179) While I concur with his dismissal of the Augustinian notion that the act of sex in itself is morally culpable and divinely punished, it is nevertheless true that we are programmed for death through a sexual procreative process that makes earlier generations give way for just the sort of future mutations (physical or spiritual) that Kripal exalts. The error is in considering death to be ‘a bad thing.’ I recommend this book strongly to those who have no faith to obstruct their curiosity, and who have the power to imagine their religions–or their universities–going under.