A few months ago I attended the “New Antiquities” conference at the Free University of Berlin, co-organised by Dr. Dylan Burns (see his academia.edu profile), who has kindly agreed to be this month’s interviewee here at Albion Calling. Currently a research associate at Leipzig University in Germany, Dr. Burns is a specialist in the ancient religions that we now call Gnosticism, having previously received a PhD on the subject from Yale University. As well as having produced a variety of research articles on the subject, his first book, Apocalypse of the Alien God, has recently been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Furthermore, he is a co-director and founding member of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism and takes an active interest in contemporary religious usages of ancient Gnostic texts. Here, he talks about his life and career, and gives us an insight into a fascinating area of study that I must admit to knowing very little about.
EDW: Born in the city of Rochester, New York, you were then raised in Jacksonville, Florida and Boulder, Colorado by Zen Buddhist parents. This being the case, I’d like to ask what the formative influences were that led to you becoming an academic specialist in religious studies and focusing your research on Gnosticism?
DB: My parents met as very serious students of the early wave of Sanbo-Kyodan Zen that was transplanted to the United States in the 1960s. It is a structured, hierarchical, and patriarchal lay tradition, but also emphasizes independence, particularly as a path to powerful experiences of personal insight (kenshō). For many years I thought Zen had little effect on my upbringing. Yet when I was 25, I read a monastic text in Coptic—the Rules of Pachomius, I believe—and it hit me: “hey! These people are just like my parents!” So it was through my study of Christian monasticism that I realized that monastic elements of Zen had formed the contours of our home life. Yet I have also been circumambulating the fringes of Judaism and Christianity as long as I can remember: My mother is of Jewish ethnicity (her father fled Germany in 1938) and all my maternal aunts and cousins are practicing Jews. On the other hand, I attended Christian elementary schools as a boy, so I had to learn to pray, sing hymns at chapel, and, of course, read and discuss the Bible.
As a teenager in Boulder, Colorado, I devoted myself to learning about East Asian languages and literature, especially Japanese. Yet when I got to college, and I was forced to drop my Japanese course, due to a chance (providential?) scheduling conflict. The only class I could fit into the newly-empty slot was “Worlds of Early Christianity,” a topic in which I thought I had no interest whatsoever. At the end of the second week, the lecture on the Fourth Gospel segued into the Apocryphon of John and the Gnostic texts discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. It completely blew my mind. I walked out of that hall and knew that I wanted to study Gnosticism. To my parents’ horror, I quit Japanese, and began studying Greek, German, and topics in Religious Studies. They’ve forgiven me, not least because Gnosticism, in the words of Dr. Michael Kaler, was like a “paranoid Buddhism”—although I would say “paranoid Zen”! It was a school of thought that arose within a deeply hierarchical and patriarchal tradition, but seems to have attracted individuals who distrusted some of these hierarchies, instead emphasizing moments of awareness, and acknowledging the alienation that an insightful human being can experience in this chaotic world. So of course I found myself interested in Gnosticism! It’s a convoluted path to Nag Hammadi, but it’s mine.
EDW: After gaining a BA in religion from Reed College, Portland in 2003, and then an MA in religious studies from the University of Amsterdam in 2004, you went on to gain your PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2011; what was it that your doctoral research devoted to?
DB: Despite my “conversion” to Gnostic studies, in my Bachelor’s studies I focused on Greek literature and philosophy—particularly a technical, later school of Greek thought often called “Neoplatonism.” In Amsterdam I explored other ancient religious and philosophical currents which are associated with Neoplatonism but do not fit well into our tidy category of “academic” philosophy, such as theurgy, the Hermetic literature, and Gnosticism. Thus I was brought back to the Nag Hammadi texts, which are replete with all kinds of Gnostic, Hermetic, Platonic, and apocalyptic literature. I went to Yale to acquire the requisite training one needs to become a Nag Hammadi specialist, diving into Biblical studies, theology, church history, Roman history, and, of course, languages dead and alive, particularly Coptic (the final stage of ancient Egyptian, in which the Nag Hammadi texts are written) and Greek.
EDW: Although you were born, bred, and (predominantly) educated in the United States, you have since crossed the pond to join us here in Europe, taking up a position at Leipzig University in Germany. How did this international career trajectory come to pass and do you feel that there is a noticeable difference between the academic cultures of the two continents?
DB: I went to Amsterdam for my MA for two reasons: I had been told it was a place where I could pursue my study of Neoplatonism from the standpoint of ancient religions (rather than academic philosophy), and because, at the time (2003), it was very affordable indeed when compared to American MA programs. There and later, in my doctoral studies, I noticed that scholars from the Continent had a distinct advantage over most Anglophones in terms of their mastery of research languages, especially the ancient ones we need to understand our primary sources. I figured the best way to overcome my linguistic failings was to spend some time living and working abroad. Between my time in the Netherlands and then as an exchange student in Heidelberg, Germany (2009–10), I found I enjoyed many aspects of daily life in Europe, and I forged many strong friendships throughout Central and Northern Europe. So when I finished my doctoral studies in 2011, I was very happy to take up European postdoctoral work, first in Copenhagen and now in Leipzig.
There are so many differences between academic lives on the two sides of the pond, and within Europe itself. Each nation’s academic culture has its advantages and disadvantages. Many of the clichés are true: teaching is increasingly all-important in the USA, while technical skills and research are generally prized more in Europe; hierarchy is generally a bigger deal on the Continent, while American professors are very often on a first-name basis with their students and colleagues. Unfortunately, the serious problems plaguing academic culture are universal. Wherever you go, humanities are being defunded, and long-term positions in the university are increasingly hard to find. Nobody is really quite sure what the “right” career path looks like anymore. Here a larger socioeconomic difference between Europe and the USA must be noted: strong social welfare systems mitigate the risk of pursuing a career in the humanities, just as with art and music. If your postdoc or adjunct position leaves you out in the cold, you’re in less trouble here than there.
EDW: Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania Press brought out your first solo book, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. Could you tell us more about this project and how you came to write it?DB: Even during my BA years I was interested in the relationship between myth and philosophy—more specifically, of philosophizing through narrative. Later, I read about the so-called “Platonizing” Sethian apocalypses of Nag Hammadi—texts that use the genre and literary traditions of Jewish apocalypses (i.e., revelatory narratives like Daniel or 1 Enoch), but whose content is replete with the jargon and conceptual framework of later Platonism (what is often called “Neoplatonism”). This is a sui generis literature that at once tastes intensely of two worlds of thought mutually exclusive for most scholars: technical Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian pseudepigrapha. I wanted to understand why on earth someone would write a “Platonizing” apocalypse. In Apocalypse of the Alien God, I offer an answer to this question, and evaluate the significance of this rather bizarre literature for the history of philosophy and religion—and they are significant, as these texts contributed enormously to the “parting of the ways” between Christian and non-Christian (or “Pagan,” if you will) Platonists. After the “Platonizing” apocalypses circulated in a third-century philosophical seminar and caused a fuss, non-Christian Platonists came to distinguish themselves entirely from their Christian counterparts both on philosophical grounds and as a social enterprise. In terms of intellectual history, I argue, this is when Pagan and Christian worldviews split for good. Conversely, this Sethian literature belongs to a distinct Gnostic literary tradition whose origins and contours I call into question, particularly regarding its relationship to Jewish mystical literature. So these “Platonizing” apocalypses are interesting for historians of Judaism, as well.
EDW: You have also looked to some extent at some of the modern movements which are sometimes covered under the broad category of “Neo-Gnosticism”, publishing an article examining New Age and Neo-Gnostic commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas. Do you have a particular research interest in the Neo-Gnostic movement and how do you see this as relating to the study of ancient Gnosticism?
DB: Neo-Gnosticism (perhaps “contemporary Gnosticism” is a better term for it?) is a great, undiscovered country just crying for doctoral students to map it out. Academic study of it is practically non-existent, although it is beginning to pop up on the radars of scholars in several disciplines, notably New Religious Movements and Western Esotericism. How it relates to the study of ancient Gnosticism is complex. Many of my colleagues in Nag Hammadi Studies are ambivalent about the fact that there exist many people who consume the translations and studies we produce in the service of their personal spiritual edification. The roots of this ambivalence are diverse—some dislike “Neo-Gnosticism” due to their own religious or ideological proclivities, while others distance themselves from popular scholarship in hopes of seeming more technically astute—but it is all very silly, because the popular interest in Gnostic literature (for whatever reason) is one of the primary reasons that Gnosticism is a subject that merits historical study in the first place! Professional scholars with technical knowledge about ancient Gnosticism and Nag Hammadi have enormous potential to contribute to the study of how these ideas and texts are being received and used today. It is my hope that they will use this potential, ideally in concert with their colleagues who work on contemporary religious life. Co-organizing the New Antiquities workshop was an attempt to build a little momentum in that direction.
EDW: What projects are you currently working on, and are there others on the horizon that we should be keeping an eye out for?
DB: Aside from the usual studies on Gnosticism, Nag Hammadi, and the apocalypses, I have three projects in development. One is a book project that I began during my postdoc at the University of Copenhagen, which will deal with the emergence of what I would call a particularly Christian concept of divine providence in the first three centuries CE. Providence is a fascinating concept, because it is used to articulate fundamental philosophical problems of human existence—our experiences of a personal relationship with god, of evil, of free will. I have several studies on this in the pipeline, and hope to publish a book in the next few years. I am also editing two collections of essays. The first is an issue of Aries: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, which will address the problem of “esotericism and antiquity.” It is my hope that the issue will clarify, through case studies, whether or not the term “esotericism” is useful for scholars in ancient studies, and, conversely, what scholars of Western Esotericism can learn from specialists in antiquity. The second collection of essays will be the volume of papers from the New Antiquities conference (discussed below).
EDW: You are a founding member, and current co-director (along with Sarah Veale) of the Network for the Study of Ancient Esotericism (NSEA), one of the various thematic networks that is associated with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). What brought about the formation of the NSEA and how did you come to be co-director? Furthermore, what do you see as the importance of its role in encouraging the investigation of ancient esoteric currents like Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Hermetism?
DB: “Western Esotericism” as a phenomenon could be largely described as emerging from the modern reception history of a very particular body of ancient Platonic and Gnostic literature, yet very few students of Western Esotericism have taken much time to read this material extensively, much less in the original languages. So NSEA was founded initially as a way to just take stock of who was interested in scholarship on Esotericism but also working on antiquity, and get people connected. This remains one of its two chief purposes. The other purpose came about later, when Dr. Egil Asprem [EDW: who was interviewed here in November 2013] put me in touch with Sarah Veale, a plucky student of the classics with a strong background in web design, and thus ancientesotericism.org was born. The goal for the site is to serve as a research portal to the dizzying array of online tools one can use to study ancient materials associated with “Western Esotericism,” whether we are talking about Gnostic texts, magical papyri, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. My guess is that there are lots of people out there who would like to go a little deeper into these and other subjects, but are a little bewildered as to where to begin, or whose bookmarks are out-of-date—so my hope is that the site gives them a leg up. I certainly learn a lot just by updating it. We also post information about pertinent conferences and publications.
EDW: In June 2014 you co-organised a workshop at the Freie Universität Berlin with Professor Almut-Barbara Renger on the subject of “New Antiquities: Transformations of the Past in the New Age and Beyond.” I was at that conference and have offered my reflections on it elsewhere on my blog. What brought about the decision to organise it and what do you hope that it achieved?
DB: Reception-history of antiquity is Prof. Renger’s specialty, so I was intrigued by this when we first met, given my longstanding interest in the popular reception of the Nag Hammadi literature. I was hoping to gather people working on contemporary alternative religious groups who authorize themselves with reference to ancient Mediterranean religions (e.g., “Neo-Pagans” and “Neo-Gnostics,” amongst others), and to begin a conversation about such phenomena and where they come from. I was happy to discover that many who participated in the workshop also had some (at times strong) background in philology and/or archaeology, which meant that we were often able to get into technical details about the ancient sources themselves even as we discussed how modern practitioners deal with them. Needless to say, I also learned a lot myself, as much regarding the reception of scholarship in archaeology in contemporary Pagan religion, as regarding Neo-Gnosticism. These and related trajectories of research have potential to be very fruitful indeed, so it was—and remains—exciting to pursue them along with the other participants in the workshop.
EDW: I like to end my interviews here at Albion Calling by asking my interviewees where they see the future of their subject heading. That being the case, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of research into Gnosticism and the Western esotericism(s) of antiquity, as well as the study of “Neo-Gnosticisms”?
DB: We are witnessing the early stages of a growth spurt in each of these subfields. “Gnosticism” as a field suffered something of a “Nag Hammadi hangover” in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but now there are many, many younger scholars working with the topic with great energy and insight. Old paradigms are being reformulated or overturned outright, even as new texts are being discovered and edited. “Esotericism” in antiquity, meanwhile, is only just becoming something people are talking about, since scholarship on Western Esotericism has focused almost entirely on the Renaissance and beyond. Yet it is my sense that there is a great interest amongst scholars dealing with ancient sources in formulating an efficacious use for the term “esoteric” to deal with some of the sources we work on which just happen to be instrumental to the development of the currents that some would say fall under the rubric of “Esotericism” today. Conversely, others are interested in showing why “esotericism” is the wrong word to talk about certain ancient currents sometimes referred to as “esoteric.” So that conversation is just starting up. As for “Neo-Gnosticism,” the sky’s the limit, but if it is to really take off, I imagine we would have to see some serious collaborative work between the historians of antiquity, on the one hand, and anthropologists and historians of new religions movements, on the other. In the words of David St. Hubbins: And why not?
EDW: Thank you Dylan for this wonderful interview; I wish you all the best in future.