Longtime readers of this blog may know that I don’t like the word "cult," at least as it is commonly used (i.e., bad religious group). The reason that I don’t like it is that, although every "cult researcher" will try to formulate a definition of what a cult is, these definitions invariably include elements that are (a) arbitrary (e.g., if you don’t believe in sola fide, you’re a cult), (b) objectively unverifiable (e.g., saying that a group is "too" this or "too" that, which makes it a matter of opinion), or (c) applied selectively to groups that the user doesn’t like but not to groups that he does (e.g., did you know that those Christians are supposed to be willing to give up their lives rather than deny the founder of their group? and that they’re supposed to believe all of his teachings? and that he’s God? How cultlike!).
In the end, I find that using the term "cult" (in the "bad religious group") sense adds more heat than light. It just starts arguments over who is or is not a cult, stirs up bad feelings, and in general distracts from a discussion of the merits or demerits of whatever religion is under consideration.
As far as I can tell, the word "cult" in its colloquial sense is just a term of contempt used to refer to religions that one doesn’t like. "Cult" = "religious group I don’t like," esp. "smaller, newer religious group I don’t like."
(BTW, yes, I know all about its other, historical, positive use, but that’s not the usage I’m concerned with here.)
Another term I don’t like–but that is often used in "cult studies" is "mind control." This is a scare word introduced by "cult researchers" to refer to what historically has been referred to by the word "persuasion."
But we can go into those topics in more detail another time.
I’m writing today to talk about another word that is commonly misused: "Gnosticism."
Today I was reading the excellent publication Catholic World Report, which is very much worth reading, and I recommend that you subscribe if you haven’t (SUBSCRIBE HERE).
As readers may know, I get almost all of my information electronically these days, and so for me to actually read a print publication says something very special about it. Catholic World Report is one of a handfull that I even bother with, so it’s quite special indeed.
And the July 2008 issue has a very nice article on Reiki by Anna Abbott (whose name has the interesting quality of having all of the consonants doubled, making it very easy to spell; kudos to her parents and ancestors!).
The article is quite well done, and I especially like the way Anna uses a particular passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to show the incompatibility of Reiki with Catholic practice (it’s paragraph 2117, in case you’re wondering), and I’d highly encourage you to get the July issue just to read this article.
But it does have one part about which I have concerns. That comes when the article states:
Reiki appears to be a form of Gnosticism. Its practitioners assert "secret" knowledge, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Reiki practitioner in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at one of the "power symbols"–which bears an uncanny resemblance to the musical treble clef–she perceived it differently than I did because she’s initiated.
After the first sentence, my spidey sense was going off, because, unfortunately, it is very common for writers in the religious press to label things as being "Gnostic" or as "Gnosticism" when, in fact, they are totally unrelated to the historical heresy of that name. As soon as someone claims something modern to be Gnosticism, I cringe, because it’s usually wrong.
The second sentence doesn’t improve my confidence level. It appears to be justifying the claim that Reiki is Gnosticism based on the fact that "its practitioners assert ‘secret’ knowledge."
This is not enough. All kinds of people claim secret knowledge–or at least knowledge that other people don’t have. That doesn’t make them Gnostics.
I think the root of the problem may be that historical Gnosticism was a pluriform heresy that didn’t have just a single set of beliefs. As a result, it is difficult to say "This is what a Gnostic believed" in the same way that it is hard to say "This is what a New Ager believes" or even "This is what a Protestant believes." There was no single, official statement of Gnostic belief–no Catechism of the Gnostic Church–any more than there is an official Catechism of the New Age Movement or an official Catechism of the Protestant Church.
To really say what Gnostics taught, you have to note that certain ideas were characteristic of different Gnostic groups but that not all Gnostic groups shared them. You have to do the same thing with the New Age Movement and Protestantism, too, since they also are doctrinally diverse groups that have certain common characteristics among their different branches but do not have a single, official position on their distinctives (e.g., not all New Agers believe in reincarnation, and not all Protestants understand sola fide or sola scriptura the same way).
Talking about what makes someone a Gnostic thus involves a decent bit of hard work and historical research, and many authors trying to do that work encounter oversimplifications of what Gnosticism was.
Often, rather than describing in detail the content of Gnostic thought, authors will oversimplify and try to explain what a Gnostic was by focusing on the name "Gnostic."
It’s easy to point out that the name is based on "gnosis," which was one of the Greek words for knowledge–which, back then wasn’t really secret either because the Gnostics talked and wrote all about it–and the Church Fathers critiqued it! (What was secret was not the content of the knowledge but more the way it had allegedly been preserved from Jesus’ time.)
Merely claiming to have knowledge that other people don’t have doesn’t make you a Gnostic. Christians claim that. We call that knowledge "revelation."
Even claiming that you should act on this knowledge that other people don’t have in order to be saved isn’t Gnosticism. Christians claim that, too.
You can even have knowledge that you don’t share with outsiders. That doesn’t make you a Gnostic. That just makes you secretive.
What was distinctive about the Ghostics was not that they claimed to have knowledge that others didn’t, it was not that they thought you should act on their knowledge in order for things to go well for you, and it wasn’t that they were in some measure secretive.
That describes every organized group of humans in world history!
Every group thinks that it has, if not the master key to the universe, at least a piece of knowledge that is true and that not everybody shares. Every group thinks that this knowledge should be acted upon in some way (even if it is by sitting passively by while Cthulhu eats up the world, in hopes of being eaten last). And every group has privileged or proprietary information that it doesn’t share with just anybody (like what the local pastor’s credit card number is, for example).
What made the Gnostics Gnostics was the content of their belief system–their views about God and the world and death and life and how to be saved and what salvation means.
If a modern author wants to declare a modern thing to be "Gnosticism," he needs to show more than that a movement claims to have some sort of privileged information that should be acted upon. Every diet book salesman claims that.
Instead, one must be prepared to show that the modern thing–whatever it is–has multiple (not just one or a few) points of contact with the content of the beliefs of the historical Gnostics.
And the article on Reiki doesn’t provide that.
Neither does the fact that a particular Reiki practitioner may say that a symbol means something different to her than to a noninitiate. Christians have had their own symbols historically, like the Chi-Rho and the Ichthus and, most of all, the Cross, that mean something different to them than to outsiders. In fact, during the age of persecutions, some of these symbols were used precisely because outsiders didn’t know or didn’t always know what they meant.
As part of my apologetic discipline, whenever I read claims about another religion, I try to turn it around and see if the same claims could be made about my own religion. It’s a way of being fair to other religions and weeding out unjust arguments against them (and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like the terms "cult" and "mind control" in their contemporary senses, because the definitions offered for them frequently are so vague that they can be turned around and applied to Christianity, evangelization, and apologetics).
So let’s take a look at how the paragraph quoted above might be rephrased:
Christianity appears to be a form of Gnosticism. Its practitioners assert "secret" knowledge that other religions don’t have, despite the fact one can find the symbols of it on the Internet with a few clicks. A Christian in Calistoga, California reported to me that when she looked at the Cross–one of the Christian "power symbols"–which bears an uncanny resemblance to the letter "t"–she perceived it differently than I did because she’s a Christian.
I wouldn’t think that this establishes that Christianity is Gnosticism, and so I don’t think that the paragraph as originally quoted establishes Reiki as Gnosticism.
I’m no expert in Reiki, but from what I have read about it, it doesn’t seem that Reiki practitioners have an elaborate cosmogony or message of how to have things go right for you after death that reads like the Nag Hammadi manuscripts with the names changed.
So I don’t, from my own knowledge, see Reiki as Gnosticism. Instead, I see it as a bunch of New Age snake oil that engenders superstitious beliefs about a mystical life/energy field for which there is no scientific evidence and that in its healing efforts combines the placebo effect with the facts that it is pleasant to relax and be touched by another person.
To conclude, the article on Reiki in the July issue of Catholic World Report is a good article, and I’d encourage you to read it. It’s only the three sentences dealing with Gnosticism that I find unpersuasive.
My compliments to the author!