All Agnostics Here

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 20-27, 1992, pps. 545-548. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Bloom declares that the American religion is not Protestant or Christian but Gnostic, that even most American Methodists, Roman Catholics, and even Jews and Muslims are more Gnostic than normative in their deepest and unwariest beliefs. Even our secularists, indeed even our professed atheists, are more Gnostic than humanist in their ultimate presuppositions.


The American Religion: the Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.

By Harold Bloom. Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $22.00.


Theologians, sociologists, historians and other standard commentators on religion are not likely to grow insecure reading this account of "the American religion." by Harold Bloom, who according to the dust jacket and a wide consensus is the country's "most distinguished literary critic." The book is a provocation, not a candidate for "standard" status. It is likely to find its place alongside books like Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther and Norman 0. Brown's Life Against Death—books that one must reckon with but are seen finally as idiosyncratic. Yet they luxuriously advance the industry of the interpreters who, without nudges from such creative probers, could easily grow complacent.

The thesis propounded by this self-described sometimes gnostic and sometimes agnostic Jew is that the American religion is not Protestant or Christian but Gnostic. It develops somewhat after the manner of the Gnosticism which spun off, challenged and sometimes fused with early Christianity. The subject and object of this Gnosticism is not God as God but God as or of or in the self.

That Gnosticism is pervasive in many American subcultures is a common observation. Many contend that it forms the basis of what the sociologists call the individualized, privatized, "invisible" religion of noninstitutionally religious Americans. Gnosticism is largely at the core of the "spiritual search" and the "spirituality" that are such great market items in the 1990s. And it takes no daring to generalize that Gnosticism is a feature of New Age and other alternative religions which lure many in an age that was supposed to have been secular. (Bloom's frequent comments about the religion-making character of the American imagination, our "religion-madness" is a service to the academy which so readily overlooks or dismisses evidences of religion.)

Bloom believes that the mentors of the American religion were people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. He speaks much about "Awareness, centered on the self, [as] faith for an American." But Bloom is not interested in criticizing this faith, certainly not in the manner in which Robert N. Bellah and team criticized "Sheilaism." That, for Bloom, is mere sociology of religion. It cannot go as deep as Bloom's self-styled "religious criticism."

Bloom dismisses the "orange squash called the New Age" as unidiosyncratic, while "every religion [including the mainline ones] discussed in this book is idiosyncratic almost beyond belief." Only once does Bloom slow down to exegete what he calls the California orange grove Orphism of the New Age of folks like Shirley MacLaine, "the handsomest of the movement's public figures." These "monistic ecologists of the spirit" are bad observers; they claim that "now is the acceptable time for a great leap forward in paradigms, despite one's gloomy sense that the era belongs to Reagan, Bush, and similar anchors of the Old Age." At best, says Bloom, the New Age is "a charming parody" of the American religion. As for a typical Christian New Age figure like Matthew Fox, "ostensibly a Catholic priest," Bloom terms him "one of my defeats." He admits that he failed to make it all the way through Fox's work, since "no prose I have ever encountered can match Fox's in a blissful vacuity, where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea."  

Where does the American religion find its clearest expression? The religious critic, as defined by Bloom, is allowed to play the prophet. He thinks two expressions will dominate the future. The "religion of the American West" will be Mormonism, and it will be matched by the "religion of the American South," the fundamentalist faction in the Southern Baptist Convention. At the heart of Bloom's American religion, and thus of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist fundamentalists, is the following understanding of the self and God.

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 [emphasis added].

In African-American religions, Pentecostalism, "and the other peculiarly American varieties of spiritual experience," one will find this "frequently terrible, sometimes beautiful" outlook condensed into a faith. But it is especially pertinent to the "Mormons and Southern Baptists [who] call themselves Christians, but like most Americans ... are closer to ancient Gnostics than to early Christians." Bloom's sweep is denominationally somewhat broader than this: most American Methodists, Roman Catholics, and even Jews and Muslims are also more Gnostic than normative in their deepest and unwariest beliefs."

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 of breath in us that we are convinced preceded Creation.

Bloom wastes little time commenting on non-Gnostic faith, though he occasionally allows partial exemptions to his generalizations. "The fundamental convictions as to relations between the human and the divine are sometimes different [from the American religion] among Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews in America, but nearly all else who are believers are American Religionists, whether they are capable of knowing it or not." One-fourth of America is Roman Catholic, but he gives it only a few lines. One third of America identifies with "moderate" or "liberal" Protestant denominations, but these barely show up. Beyond this Catholic-Protestant combination, which accounts for up to 57 percent of Americans, one must add figures for the Eastern Orthodox and the many forms of evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism that explicitly and implicitly profess classic faith in God over faith in the self-as-of-God or self-in-God Of Gnosticism. Thus more than two-thirds of Americans are heretical with respect to what is for Bloom the American religion.

While these majorities go almost unnoticed, Bloom devotes much space to "Rival American Originals" —Christian Science, Seventh-day Adventism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostalism and African-American religion. (But only the last two merit sustained attention in his paradigm) The portions of this book confirm an observation I've been making for a generation. Historians and literary critics often complain that the "hegemonic," "dominating," "mainline" groups get all the attention while the "marginal" and "outsiders" are overlooked. Look at recent bibliographies, however, and you will find the opposite to be the case: one or two books on Methodist or Presbyterian or Lutheran history get written for every 20 on Mormonism, the Unification Church, alternative faiths or the New Age. 

For his treatment of Southern Baptists Bloom depends on historian Bill J. Leonard and a Deep Faith character he calls the Reverend John Doe. They lead him to the great 20th-century Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins, whom Bloom elevates at least on pragmatic grounds to a rank above Jonathan Edwards or the Niebuhr brothers. Southern Baptists, Bloom recalls, had no founder, no Luther or Calvin or Wesley. They just grew. But Mullins formulated, and Bloom credits him with providing an alternative to a creed for a creedless church.

Mullins is especially interesting for Bloom because he patented the concept of "soul competency." Bloom is dazzled by Mullins's Axioms of Religion (1908) and quotes this passage:

Observe then the idea of the competency of the soul in religion [which] excludes at once all human interference, such as episcopacy, and infant baptism, and every form of religion by proxy. Religion is a personal matter between the soul and God. The principle is at the same time inclusive of all the particulars.... Justification by faith is . . . simply one detail in the soul's general religious heritage, from Christ.... Regeneration is also implied in the principle of the soul's competency because it is the blessing which follows close upon the heels of justification or occurs at the same time with it, as a result of the soul's dealing with God.

It interests Bloom that Mullins, "the clearest voice ever among Southern Baptists," never could or did give an account of what differentiates Baptists from other Protestants. John Doe told Bloom that Mullins's and Baptist "soul competency only can be defined negatively, in terms of what it is not." This "experiential mode of negative theology" is crucial for understanding the largest Protestant denomination in America. "Gnosticism, the most negative of all ancient negative theologies, emerges again in the Southern Baptists, but with the American pragmatic difference." So it is that "each Southern Baptist is at last alone in the garden with Jesus, to cite one of the principal Baptist hymns." And, adds Bloom, "soul competency is remarkably like erotic competency (if I may be allowed that splendidly outrageous term), since there is no room for a third when the Baptist is alone with Jesus." John Doe whispers: "Everyone is competent to understand soul competency as she or he sees fit." In any case, there is in soul competency, says Bloom, the requisite element of isolation and of intense individuation. It is a very rough version of Emersonian self-reliance."

Why the recent split among the soul competent Baptists? Bloom speaks tenderly—and he frequently speaks tenderly and not only in "splendidly outrageous terms" about religious people—about the moderate faction, the losers in the Baptist wars. The religious critic sees them as Mystical Enthusiasts, while he calls the winners Evangelical Enthusiasts (and Fundamentalists). The difference? The moderates seek the inner light and read deeply in the Scriptures; the fundamentalists seek the inner light and defend the inerrancy of the Scriptures but do not read the Scriptures, which are iconic for them. For both parties, "conversion, or 'getting saved' or 'being born again,' is the frantic center of the spiritual life, and is wholly inward." That is why both kinds of Southern Baptists make so much of the Bible: without the Real Presence of Christ in a communion sacrament, the Bible suffices. "The Baptist is alone with an interpretation of the Bible, his own if he is a Moderate, or a lowest-common-denomination reduction if he is a Fundamentalist."

"Soul competency" is an expression far from the canonical writings of Paul, where Baptists would get it; far from Catholic-Orthodox-Lutheran-Anglican and other sacramental Real Presence and churchly forms of faith; far from Barthianism and neo-orthodoxy with their Wholly Other God; far from a theology of the cross, since the resurrected Christ alone is in contact with the individual soul. "The primacy of human feeling is not the dynamic of Paul's work, but it is of [William] James's and of Mullins's." They were "pragmatic, experiential and American." Mullins's "most startling single sentence is: ‘That which we know most indubitably are the facts of inner experience,’ a superb declaration," says Bloom, "but one closer to Shakespeare's Macbeth than to the Saint Paul of Romans." Yes, Mullins affirmed God's saving acts in history, but these mattered only because they were directed to what that Baptist scholar called "our capacity for subjective experience."  

I recall sitting in a classroom in a huge Southern Baptist seminary a quarter of a century ago, hearing my own favorite Professor John Doe explain all Mullinsism as being not only Southern Baptist but also "conservative [Wilhelm] Hermannian" (after a German theologian we had been taught to call an "I-theologian" more than a "God-theologian" ). And I then heard students respond positively, even as the professor was showing how far Mullins departed from what classic Christianity thought its God-talk had been about. Now Bloom is in on the conversation.

Focusing on the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, Bloom sees how "by a terrible irony Baptists, historical rebels against Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian creeds, wave the Bible as a compendium of unread creeds." He quotes W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas, "the Fundamentalist Vatican," expounding a version of inerrancy that "is not so much Christian as Muslim" and then comments:

The largest truth we can discover about the Fundamentalist war cry of "biblical inerrancy" is that it has almost nothing to do with anyone's actual experience of reading the Bible. Reading is a skill or at least an activity, and few ventures are as disheartening as trying to get through books on the Bible by Southern Baptist Fundamentalists, such as Harold Lindsell's The Battle for the Bible (I 976).

Bloom rarely lets his fear or rage show, but he does in the case of the fundamentalist Southern Baptists, whose "overwhelming urgency (and viciousness)" makes them "shockingly similar to Iranian Shiite Fundamentalism or the worst excesses of the Neturei Karta in Israel." While the moderates take Mullins's "soul competency" into the zone of scriptural probing, the "KnowNothing" fundamentalists do not. Thus "what is left is the Bible as physical object, limp and leather, a final icon or magical talisman." There is nothing Baptist about these Baptists, thinks Bloom, and maybe little that is Christian, but much that is Gnostic. They did not take anything from the creative side of Mullins. Mullins was "to be overwhelmed, not by other ideas, but by the contempt for all ideas that animated the Fundamentalist takeover."

I expect that Southern Baptist fundamentalists who notice Bloom's book will want to throw a "physical object, limp and leather" at him, regarding him as a secular humanist and naturally someone who would empathize with the moderates. But Bloom leaves the moderates with much homework as well. I look forward to finding out whether they think he locates and defines properly Southern Baptist "Enthusiasm" (a technical term for God-in-the-soul and the-soul-in God). My own observations over the years tell me that some in the fundamentalist party also believe in God, some do read the Bible, some attend to the crucifixion and not only to incarnation and resurrection, and that few in either party would fully recognize themselves in Bloom's portrait. There is among many Baptists more sense of the self as the Adam of Genesis than, as Bloom would have it, as the "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."  

One is tempted to take on Bloom line for splendidly outrageous line. I have space only to emphasize that Gnosticism—whether derived from Emerson or James, Mullins or Joseph Smith, the revivalists and enthusiasts of 19th-century America or early Christian texts—is only one side of American religion. Following the startling and creative theses of Jon Butler's Awash in a Sea of Faith and Nathan A. Hatch's Democratization of American Christianity, Bloom sees American religion as the product of a period beginning not in 1492 or in 1607 but at the Cane Ridge revival in western Kentucky in 1801. What followed Cane Ridge was the Christianization and Americanization of American religion through revivalism, enthusiasm, pragmatism and the notion of "the little me within the big me" that leads to solitude and notions of "soul competency."

Bloom's interest is in what I have called "private Protestantism," which has now spread to Catholicism, Judaism and who knows what else (to almost everything else, for Bloom). Over against this faith there is "public Protestantism," and now public everything else, which does derive from the colonial and especially the Reformed and Puritan experience, which Bloom slights; there is also the Enlightenment, which he never mentions; and Catholicism. There is in Bloom's American religion no "sacred canopy," no civil or public or societal religion, no law-making or ethos-shaping impulse or achievement, no objective witness to the God who orders and constitutes, no communalism, no sacramental element, no socially transforming faith.

A hundred million Americans are more at home with objective-sacramental, other-than-Gnostic faith than with the Emersonian-Jamesian tradition or the Mormon deification of the human or the Baptist emphasis on soul competency. Bloom may think that the classic faiths are "waning," but their adherents are statistically as significant as ever. Even those for whom this tradition is only a remembered ethos, not a matter of practice, reason about religion and public life in ways that answer questions unasked in Bloom's book. And they explicitly reject the versions he describes as emergent and normative.

These two strands of American religion—the private and public, the soul-competent and civil-competent, the subjective and objective forms of witness to God as God or God-in-self—are sometimes at war, and sometimes they form complementary relations within denominations and in the minds of most of us. Together they make up a kind of yin and yang of American religion. Bloom has provided an evocative, provocative and memorable account of the yin.