I recently came across a reference to Robin Amis’ book A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought, published in 1995 by the State University of New York Press. Although I had a low opinion of what I had previously seen from Amis, I thought it might not be impossible that this would be a worthwhile read, after all, it was published by a reputable press.
Sadly, the event however, was quite different. My opinion of Amis’ work is, if anything, yet lower, and my view of that press has taken a torpedo shot. It is not a “different” Christianity, it is not Christianity at all. It is basically Gurdjieff’s ideas as taught by Ouspensky and rephrased by Mouravieff with an extensive but superficial covering of Orthodox writing. And to describe the book as poorly edited would be unfair to books which have been poorly edited.
Briefly, my criticisms are that (1) Amis makes many assertions without any support, (2) the more important assertions are precisely those which are least supported, and what references he does provide are poorly set out, (3) his understanding of Christianity is spotty and inconsistent to an extent which is bizarre – he knows abstruse texts but not the basics, (4) his method is fundamentally non-Christian despite his assertions to the contrary, and (5) his argument is often completely lacking in logic and in sense alike.
This ties in with the bad editing: had it been intelligently scrutinised by SUNY before publication, the book would not have survived. But that would have been a good result.
First of all, there are two decent points about this book. (1) Amis does draw attention to the Syriac writers on prayer and mysticism. That is good. He does provide some details I had not otherwise seen, e.g. that G.E.H. Palmer was a pupil of Ouspensky (p. 347, although it would have been nice if he had stated how he knew this) (2) He collects a number of good quotes which people might not otherwise see.
But now for my criticisms. It is not pleasant to review a book which one finds thoroughly distasteful, but it is something of a public service for people who do not have the resources to critique it. First, he states at p. xviii that the book is based on “twelve years of exact research.” Okay, so let us look at it from that perspective. As Amos states that it is indeed “exact research,” then let’s hold Amis to this standard.
I have said that (1) Amis makes many assertions without any support. Let us take his assertions that Ouspensky knew Father Nikon (347); and on the next page that “only a short time before his death Gurdjieff had arranged for a party to go to Athos in hope of ‘re-establishing contact with the tradition’ whose doctrines he had taught in such a novel manner. (The search was unsuccessful at that time.) These are all rather important matters for Amis’ thesis. So what is the evidence?
The first one sounds doubtful because Roles, Ouspensky’s successor, turned to India, not Mount Athos, but it could be true. I just don’t know. The second one does not sound impossible, but what does it mean: that wanted his pupils would burn his three series of books, forget his movements and inner exercises, and practice Athonite Christianity? And then, what happened? Did the pupils follow his advice or what? Evidence, please.
This also establishes my second criticism, that (2) the more important assertions are precisely those which are least supported. As for the references he does provide, in the absence of a bibliography, one has to plough through his other footnotes to find the book he is referring to, and even, then, as with his relatively lengthy and significant citations of the “Prayer of Joseph the Visionary” from the Syriac tradition (at 81-82 and 92-93), he does not descend to give the page number (for the record, this extraordinary prayer is found in Sebastian Brock’s The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1987, 355-361).
My third critique is that “his understanding of Christianity is spotty and inconsistent to an extent which is bizarre – he knows abstruse texts but not the basics.” Just take his discussion of the Fall, at 50-51. He says: “Once the soul has fallen, it is difficult for it to return to that different world where is found the Tree of Life. A long search is required.” Whatever this is, it confuses imagery and doctrine, and shows a fundamental departure from Christian teaching, which begins with baptism (and which for the Eucharist is critical), and involves conformity to Christ, and keeping His commandments.
Amis speaks of the “early church” when he means specific writers from different periods of Church history, e.g. at 19-24 where we find a confused and entirely unnecessary insistence on the phrase “the Royal Road,” which is barely to be found at all before the 16th century.
That his method is fundamentally non-Christian despite his assertions to the contrary, follows from the above, but is also shown in his desire to make Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and even Karlfried Graf Durckheim into Christians (see 52-53). That Durckheim was taken with Meister Eckhart is not in doubt, but that hardly makes him a “Christian.” He was, of course, far more influenced by Zen Buddhism than Christianity. So what is the point?
Finally, I say that Amis’ argument is often completely lacking in logic and in sense alike. Consider that he says the teaching he claims to have found aims to “cure the nous, the ‘eye of the soul,” and that the nous is then illuminated. But this is not the true teaching: Gurdjieff and the Neoplatonists who were so influential in Greek Orthodoxy, alike say that the problem is not the nous (the higher centres), but rather the lower faculties are disordered. The higher faculties are always turned to the higher world. But as we are, we cannot hear the voices which come from that level.
I am sorry to say it, but this book is basically a fraud. To be clear, I am not saying that Amis was a conscious or deliberate fraud. I am saying that the book is basically a fraud.
Joseph Azize, 18 August 2017, revised All Souls’ Day 2018