Theoretical Challenges in Studying Religious Experience in Gnosticism

A Prolegomena for Social Analysis


  • Philip L. Tite University of Washington



Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, religious experience, social psychology, attachment theory


Several theoretical impediments face the ancient historian who wishes to embark on the study of religious experience within ancient cultures. While many of these difficulties face other religious studies scholars, the historical quality compounds these challenges. This paper explores several of these theoretical difficulties with a specific focus on the Valentinian, Sethian, and other so-called “Gnostic” groups in late antiquity. Specifically, the study of religious experience tends to give privileged interpretative position to insiders (evoking the etic/emic problem) and psychological analyses due to the “personal” or “individual” quality of such experiences (typified by perennialist approaches) (Otto, Wach, Eliade, Smart), or, following James and Jung, focus on the initial charismatic moment’s effect upon subsequent social structures. In contrast to such tendencies I suggest, by building on Fitzgerald’s lead in the Guide to the Study of Religion and largely agreeing with constructivist approaches, that we re-direct our focus toward the external social forces at play that discursively facilitate, shape, and direct experiential moments within the confines of social identity construction. This article builds on attachment theory from social psychology. Such analysis will allow us to better appreciate the experiential aspects of “Gnosticism” while appreciating the individual, communal, and (most importantly) discursive quality of the intersection of the individual and communal. Specific examples of such social facilitation will be briefly explored from Nag Hammadi, where ritual, narrative, and mythological discourse function to enable, and thereby define, religious experience.

Author Biography

  • Philip L. Tite, University of Washington

    Philip L. Tite is an independent scholar living in Seattle, WA. He holds a PhD degree from McGill University (2005) and has authored several books and articles. His most recent book is Valentinian Ethics and Paraenetic Discourse: Determining the Social Function of Moral Exhortation in Valentinian Christianity (NHMS, 67; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2009). He was a visiting assistant professor at Willamette University and has held visiting research appointments at both Willamette University and the University of Washington. As a specialist in the study of early Christianity, in particular Valentinian Gnosticism, Tite has strong interests in elucidating social processes at work in the study of religious phenomena. He also has strong interests in method and theory, religion and violence, and pedagogical issues in the academic study of religion.


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How to Cite

Tite, P. (2013). Theoretical Challenges in Studying Religious Experience in Gnosticism: A Prolegomena for Social Analysis. Bulletin for the Study of Religion, 42(1), 8-18.