- The Serpent's Gift:Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion
Sometimes in academia a book comes along that speaks not just to a discipline or a community of specialists—a book that makes you raise your head above the back-and-forth of scholarly chit-chat, look around, take a deep breath, and say, "yes, this is what it's about." This is why I entered the field; this is why I chose to work across disciplines; this is what really brings us together as a community—not of specialists, not even necessarily of scholars, but as thinking, feeling, intellectuals who are interested in humanity at its deepest levels, in all its various forms and profusions, in all its facets that continue to astound, surprise, perplex, and escape us—intellectuals who are deeply committed both to the evolution of knowledge and to understanding how that knowledge impacts and shapes the cultural forms with which it is inextricably intertwined.
Long sentence. But what I want to say is that only so often does a book come along that can hold its scholarly salt while at the same time pushing, challenging, and provocatively, playfully, passionately testing and questioning the foundations upon which scholarly work is conducted—a book that uses the object of its scholarly gaze as a reflecting mirror turned back upon ourselves, [End Page 737] scholars and humans, as multidimensional, vulnerable beings who are in essence mysterious to ourselves, and that is why we pursue our inquiries within the human sciences. A book that not only uses the object of its scholarly gaze as a reflecting mirror, but also follows its ripples outwards, tracing the concentric circles of its cultural, historical, and psychological embeddedness outward until the whole of humanity is in sight as its outer ring.
I'll cap the lyricism for now, but really, Jeffrey Kripal's The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion does just that. At least for me. He's always been a bit of a groundbreaker—interdisciplinary, unorthodox, willing to rattle the cages of religious traditionalists and at the same time test and sometimes challenge the boundaries of the academic establishment. I was already extremely sympathetic to his work both in Kali's Child (1995) and in Roads of Excess (2001), the former for being one of the most skillful applications I have seen of psychoanalytic methods to South Asian religious materials, and the latter for pushing the bounds of what constitutes "proper" scholarly prose and for opening up all of the various not-strictly-rational factors that go into it. This book continues the work of its predecessors but in new, compelling, and timely directions, and, I would argue, with a much more global vision.
Gnosticism. Not just a dead, aborted attempt to claim the intellectual direction of early Christianity anymore, but a way of knowing for the postmodern era. Using the image of the serpent, hissing knowledge into the ear of woman in the Garden of Eden—and a jealous, petty god who would deny her and her male consort not only knowledge but the divinity implicit in their creation—Kripal weaves a compelling argument for a form of knowledge that uses reason to challenge, question, and critique, but also engages, opens, and explores that to which modern rationality has been closed. And this not just for scholarly purposes, but for existential, personal, ethical and political as well as intellectual reasons. Broad-visioned, but incisive. Skeptics, it is worth sitting down for two hundred pages to hear him out—there is much fodder for rumination, and occasional flashes of brilliance.
Kripal beautifully negotiates the potential pitfalls of a charged and complex domain, relentlessly pursuing the possibilities, cognizant of the limitations, critical of the misappropriations, unapologetic, even harsh where it is merited, and generous where it is likewise merited. He communicates a bold yet sensitive vision that encompasses world peace, the end of inter-religious strife, intra-religious violence, the resolution of chronic dichotomies that plague religious studies, and the engagement of academics in a...