Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gnosticism, Then and Now

This post is at the request of my wonderful small group, at which the subject of gnosticism came up last night. I volunteered to do a quick survey of gnosticism and its presence in the early church and the modern world.

Gnosticism is a belief system that originated before Christ and is particularly known for its relation to heresies in the early Christian church. Like Christianity, it taught that we live in a fallen world with evil; unlike Christianity, it concluded from the existence of death and suffering that the creation of the material world was a mistake and the creator deity, the "demiurge", was imperfect or even evil. The demiurge, identified as one of many beings (including Satan), was viewed as lesser or subordinate to the true, supreme God, who was viewed as remote, unreachable, and having nothing to do with the evil material realm.

Because of this theology, gnosticism was strongly dualistic, believing the physical world to be evil, and the spiritual world to be good. Gnostics did not see any hope of redemption for this world and put their hope in the salvation of their souls to the spiritual realm through gnosis, the attainment of esoteric or intuitive knowledge. Jesus was either seen as an emanation (or "aeon") of the supreme God who came to bring gnosis, or as a man who attained divinity through gnosis and taught others the way. In either case, they had a lot of trouble with the idea of God tainting himself by putting on evil flesh. Gnosis came from an inward journey of self-knowledge, "finding the kingdom of God" both inside and outside oneself. To be clear, gnostics didn't believe in salvation of their bodies or anything in this sinful world; they only sought freedom for their souls in the remote spiritual realm where the supreme God resided.

In practice, early gnostics were generally ascetics, trying to minimize their attachment to material things, but the belief that the flesh was beyond redemption made it hard to justify behavioral rules and they were accused of living wildly. Their confusion about how to live in this world was understandable since they didn't believe they were supposed to be here in the first place.

Gnosticism is never mentioned by name in the Bible, but the apostles seemed to be aware of it and its dangers to the early church.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. - 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul delivers an implicit rebuke to anyone who might be buying into the gnostic school of thought. His eschewing of "lofty speech and wisdom" would have been abhorrent to gnostics who values spiritual wisdom above all else. Instead, Paul decides to "know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified." His rebuke of Corinthians claiming "freedom in Christ" in 6:12-20 could also apply to gnostics. Also 1 John 1:1-3:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The concrete verbs John uses make it crystal clear that Jesus was indeed God and did indeed come in the flesh. And John's fellowship is with "the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ"--there is no concept of a remote, unreachable God here, but a close and personal one.

So gnosticism was a school of thought that tried to syncretize itself with early Christianity. What does it matter now? Because the key ideas of gnosticism live on in our culture. The idea of "finding the divine spark within" is strikingly similar to the new age movement of spirituality. They seem to keep discovering new "gospels" such as the Gospel of Thomas and, more recently, the Gospel of Judas that are pervaded by gnostic thinking. Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code did more than either of them combined to bring gnostic thinking into public acceptance.

But none of these hit terribly close to home for me. I don't know any new agers. I'm well aware of the skeptical nature of the new "gospels" as authentic Biblical text, and of the dangers of believing the research of The Da Vinci Code as factual. As our worship pastor Tim Johnson, who has a keen eye for patterns in culture, pointed out, gnostic thought also influences the modern church today. The example he cited was of Christians who equate "worship" with an inward-looking spiritual experience, trying to make some sort of private, personal connection with God. God is indeed close at hand, but we won't find Him within ourselves. (Well, the Holy Spirit does dwell within us, but that isn't the part of ourselves I'm talking about, and seeking the Spirit draws us out of ourselves towards God and others, not inward)

One other way I see the church picking up elements of gnosticism today is in the "lifeboat theology" or some churches. This view, as James Hunter puts it, "[sees] the world as a sinking ship on the way to judgment and hell; the goal of the Christian is to rescue as many people as possible on the lifeboat of salvation." Somewhat related to this is the belief that our final destination is a cloud in heaven, away from all the troubles of this world. Does this sound anything like the gnostic belief that this world is evil and our goal is escape for our souls? I think so. in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul assures us that our final destination is in renewed bodies, and Revelation, for all its metaphor and nonliteralism, does make clear that we will live on the (new) earth. God made us and the rest of creation and saw that it was good, and He does not give up on His creation even when we do. As Christians our task is to participate in God's ongoing renewal of creation, not escape it for something better.

May you know the Truth and be kept from all falsehood.

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