Rice University Department of Religion

Gnosticism, Esotericism, Mysticism (GEM)


Traditional understandings of religion often focus on events, figures, and ideas that are more or less amenable to orthodox framings of what constitutes religious truth and practice. But what if we do not privilege these public “winning” voices, but look also at those heterodox or esoteric currents of the history of religions that have been actively repressed, censored, or simply forgotten by their respective cultures? What if, moreover, we privilege the psychology and phenomenology of religious experience over the authorial framing of these events by the faith traditions, even as we explore and analyze the profound ways the faith traditions shape these same “individual” experiences?

The comparative categories of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism are all modern constructs, each different in nuance but all designed to ask just these sorts of dialectical questions, to relate orthodoxy to heterodoxy, and vice-versa.

Fanger 1This area of concentration in the Ph.D. program at Rice provides students the opportunity to study the varieties and commonalities of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism as these phenomena are both shaped within and marshaled outside (or even against) discrete religious traditions. The Department’s approach to the study of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism is grounded in the rigorous study of single traditions, to the extent that it demands distinct philological and historical training in particular cultural areas. It is also explicitly comparative, to the extent that it draws on multiple traditions—from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the New Age—for its comprehensive materials and theorizing.

Parsons Mourning ReligionThe goal of the program is to train students to work independently on traditions of their choice and, eventually, to become professors and scholars in the study of religion. To do so, students will (1) become familiar with the histories and nuances of the comparative categories of mysticism, gnosticism, and esotericism in the discipline; (2) gain linguistic proficiency in relevant languages; (3) study primary materials, including texts and practices; and (4) become conversant in the history and material culture of their chosen traditions. The result is a unique community of scholars and graduate colleagues actively engaged in the historical-critical, psychological, philosophical, aesthetic, ritual, somatic, contemplative, and phenomenological exploration of some of the most intense, unusual, and interesting religious phenomena known to scholars of religion.

Faculty Contacts:


Marcia Brennan

April DeConick
Claire Fanger

Anne C. Klein
Jeffrey J. Kripal

Brian Ogren
William B. Parsons


Minimal Requirements for GEM Concentration

1.     Mentor in GEM Program

2.     Gem Seminar