Editor’s Note: In the recent issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, Stephen Bush offers an essay entitled, “The Philosophy of Religious Experience and the Nag Hammadi Texts: A Response to Kaler and Tite.” In this blog, Bush outlines his own take on the positions of Philip Tite, who discusses the Nag Hammadi texts in relation to attachment theory, and Michael Kaler, who is interested in the rhetoric of the notion of “experience” as an object of study.
by Stephen S. Bush
What do ancient Gnostic texts and an infant’s whining appeal for his mother’s embrace have in common? According to Philip Tite’s provocative proposal, a great deal. Tite asks us to read the Nag Hammadi texts (Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt) with the psychology of attachment in mind. Attachment theory derives from psychological studies of children’s attachment to their parents (or other caregivers): their desire to find comfort and security in being close to their parent and their anxiety when their parent is absent.
Tite points out that the comfort that comes from the attachment figure’s care and protection is not limited to children, but also occurs in adults. Moreover, he asks us to consider the possibility that religious experiences are a product of our desire for attachment to a figure who can provide comfort and protection. And in particular, he asks us to think of the Nag Hammadi texts as reflecting this desire for attachment.
How do the texts reflect such a desire? The Nag Hammadi texts are experiential in nature. That is, they report and intend to elicit experiences of divine figures. And, says Tite, such experiences are explicable in terms of our psychological need for attachment to caregivers. God, and the various divine figures described in the Nag Hammadi texts, serve as the ultimate Caregiver. Tite’s contention is that the experience of attachment to such divine figures results in the formation and strengthening of group identity.
But does it make sense to speak of texts reflecting religious experiences? Religious experiences are seemingly inscrutable, tucked away in the private consciousness of individuals, inaccessible to the scholar. So, some say, they are illegitimate as a topic for scholarly inquiry.
Michael Kaler tackles these issues head on, and challenges the prevalent tendencies in the academic study of religion to avoid talk of experiences themselves and to focus instead on the rhetoric of experience. Kaler wants to correct these tendencies and advocate for the study of experience, and not just the rhetoric of experience. He adds to this idea the suggestion that perhaps the Nag Hammadi texts reflect a type of religious experience that is universal in nature.
All these ideas merit serious consideration. We should agree with Kaler that experiences as well as discourse about experiences are fit topics of scholarly discussion. But the appeal to perennial experiences raises complicated questions about the relation between experiences and the particular social context in which they occur. As for attachment theory, the link that Tite wants to make between experiences of a divine Caregiver and group identity is provocative, but problematic in terms of attachment theory itself. It is not at all clear that the psychology of group identity has anything to do with the psychology of attachment.