Editor’s note: Part 1 of this essay was published on September 28th and can be read here. This essay is adapted from Behold the Messiah: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road, 2019 [forthcoming])
Gnosticism and Religion
Contemporary Gnosticism, then, is a totalizing ideology that brooks no opposition and tolerates no dissent. Now ideologies pretend to be philosophies, but they’re not. A philosophy, in principle, is flexible; it reacts to Truth. It can adjust itself as its adherents use their reason to wrestle with the ultimate Reality it attempts to approach. A philosophy is not doctrinaire. An ideology, by contrast, is inflexible, believing it has the ultimate Truth of Reality. Its adherents do not engage in deep, rational reflection, for their ideology is a projection of their deepest desires. They simply think they know with absolute certainty that they’re right because their feelings about their identity and their picture of the universe is so strong. Philosophies involve convictions, but one of those convictions is the freedom to explore Reality and adjust one’s philosophy as needed. Ideology, by contrast, believes the answers are already known, that there’s nothing left to explore, and so it coerces belief in others.
Contemporary Gnosticism therefore employs all sorts of techniques in service of coercion, from mass media to law. It wants to separate humans from all tradition and social locations (family, community, and so on) which serve as natural points of opposition. Separated from tradition, family, culture, and nature, the individual becomes a subject of the State facing the stick of coercion. But there’s also a carrot. Like all ideologies, contemporary Gnosticism entices postmodern men and women with promises of a perfect utopia, a heaven on earth in the here and now, if only we trust elites to run with their plans for us. Gnostic ideologues promise to rip heaven down to earth, to force the eschaton now, but quite apart from Jesus. As such, ideology is idolatry: the State replaces Jesus, forcing a false heaven for the true one, the kingdom of heaven his Second Coming will bring. In short, elite sophisticates replace God.
Gnostic ideologies therefore deceive. The result is that the individual is set against nature. The order of the cosmos philosophy seeks and finds is replaced by the false order asserted by the ideologue. Disorientation results; on a practical level, subjects of totalitarian societies, such as ours is becoming, are pulled between what they perceive to be the truths of nature and what the State asserts must be the truth. In totalitarian societies, such as communist eastern Europe in recent memory, people either become true believers in the ideological system, or they come to realize that they are living under an enforced lie. Those who take the red pill either suffer under the lie, or join the resistance.
That’s the totalizing way of the sexual revolution: most people believe in men and women, but that’s fast becoming a belief that will get one written out of polite society and penalized by the law. Those of us who recognize the lie either keep our heads down (which for some may be a justified, advisable, prudential path), or engage in acts of subtle or overt resistance.
Finally, like ancient Gnosticism, our contemporary spirit of the age seeks to reimagine Jesus as a mascot for its ideology. Modernist Christianity, rooted in the Enlightenment, sought to adapt its understanding of Christian faith to the latest knowledge in secular domains—the sciences hard and soft, as well as philosophy and ethics. It therefore was, and is, embarrassed by the miraculous and the sacrificial, both of which belonged to an unscientific premodern age. And so modernist Christians sought to save the faith for modernity by purifying it of all that modernity rejects. What is left over is ethics; Jesus is preserved as a great moral teacher of enduring relevance through demythologization, that is, stripping away the miraculous and sacrificial myths that grew up around his legend and going behind the Gospels to find a historical Jesus congenial to the spirit of the age. Even here, however, with regard to ethics, Jesus was understood to teach what the Enlightenment believed anyway, and so Jesus was remade in the image of (say) the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant.
So too now in our postmodern age. We make a malleable Messiah in our image, a tolerant, inclusive Jesus, a breaker of all boundaries who does so purely for the sake of transgression, and all those who would insist on maintaining religion’s traditional rules and rituals are written off as rigid, pilloried as Pharisees. Far from seeing him as our Master, the postmodern age makes Jesus our mascot, the one who affirms our favored causes and affirms us in our deepest selves, where we find ourselves defined by our severest desires.
But that means we’re trapped; in our desire to escape from all constraints, we’re constrained by desire. We’re trapped by our very selves, slaves to our passions, even making them the determiners of our very identity. Trying to find an escape from our bodies, we find ourselves trapped even deeper, by the passions that define our very selves. And as St. Augustine famously said, “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?”
St. Augustine’s solution to self-entrapment in one’s own passions is the gospel: God, both the Creator outside of us creatures and yet also inside us, closer to us than we are to ourselves, comes to us in Jesus Christ to reorder or disordered passions and restore us to our true selves found truly in Christ.
This, I think, is the way of St. Matthew, who in his Gospel tells how the God of Israel came to us in Jesus to be Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23), to give us back our truest selves, to rightly order our passions, to form us body and soul to be like Christ himself through Christ’s own power. He gives us the gifts of his new messianic Law and indeed himself in the sacraments, in and through the Church he founded. Following the broad way that leads to destruction, we can remain slaves to the self, or following the narrow way that leads to life, we can become servants of Christ.
The Appeal of Gnosticism
If Gnosticism is so bad, why have so many people through the ages found it so appealing? The Gnostics tell a captivating counterstory to the Christian story of salvation history, and Gnosticism allows one to reject traditional Christianity while still claiming the name. In the time of the early Church, as we have seen, the Gnostics proclaimed that a wicked creator god trapped divine spirits in the evil of material bodies, and so for them salvation consists of the escape from the body and indeed all of material creation, an opportunity provided by the higher kind and loving god, the father of Jesus Christ. That god sends the divine Son to appear like a man to teach the spiritual elite, the pneumatics, the secret to spiritual liberation.
The Gnostic story is compelling then and now because it squares with historic human experience. For most people, life is hard, and often miserable. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher of the 1600s, described the fundamental essence of human existence as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For most of human history, this has been the case. Ancient skeletal remains reveal over ninety percent of humans suffered from malnutrition. Famine and plague were regular threats. Many children, perhaps more than half, died in infancy, and many women died in childbirth. And this is not merely the situation in the ancient or medieval world. In Florence at the height of the Renaissance, sixty-one percent of children died before their first birthday. And we need say little about twentieth-century disasters, as they are well known. The year 1918 saw over one hundred million people die of influenza; five hundred million people were infected out of a world population of 1.8 billion. The two World Wars saw about seventy million dead, and Communism is blamed for another seventy million deaths. Stable food supplies and radically decreased mortality and morbidity resulted only recently in the postwar boom in the United States and Western Europe.
And so Gnosticism is appealing to the degree that one finds the world horrible, for it explains extreme pain and suffering in a coherent but extreme way, and promises a way out. Suffering is not our fault, but rather the Creator’s, and salvation is not found through suffering but is defined as escape from suffering and all that causes suffering.
The desire to explain and escape suffering is why various flavors of Gnosticism are so appealing today. Think of modern people, often affluent and pampered members of the upper classes, uttering statements like, “I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this horrible world.” That’s Gnosticism speaking, and that Gnostic attitude undergirds our contraception and abortion regime. Or think of popular televangelists who present a heretical Christianity promising freedom from suffering, health, and wealth in the here and now. That too is fundamentally Gnostic.
Confronting the Gnostic Empire of Desire
How, then, do we confront the Gnostic Empire of Desire? The Church has confronted Gnosticism before, especially in the time of the Fathers and in the middle ages during the Albigensian crisis. First and foremost, to use a healing metaphor, we need have an accurate diagnosis, knowledge of what the malady is, so that we might provide the remedy. Hopefully the foregoing has provided that diagnosis.
We then need, like the early Church, to proclaim our message without fear. But what might that message be? The more I teach, and the more I reflect on the situation of the Church and the world today, the more I think (for what it’s worth) that in some ways we need to talk about God the Creator as much as we talk about Jesus. The Father in the Trinity is in a sense prior to the Son, as he begets the Son, but the Creator is certainly prior to Jesus Christ. Further, talking of Jesus alone runs the risk of leaving people today with their inherited assumption that Jesus was a prophet and good teacher. Even when we do proclaim that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, people today do not have a sense of what and who God is. All Christian theology, I think, is really aspects of the doctrine of creation (which suffers the Fall, which is redeemed, and which is transformed at the eschaton), and the living God of the Bible is best contrasted with the divinities of the ancient world by understanding him as sovereign Creator. The Christian message is more than forgiveness of sins; that’s an instrumental good ordered to the intrinsic good of sharing in the divine Trinitarian life forever.
This will help with the next important thing: we have to make sense of pain and suffering and perceived evil. There is here both a conceptual, theological dimension and an existential dimension. (As the late Rich Mullins once sang, “And I know that it would not hurt any less/Even if it could be explained.”) For Gnosticism is appealing because it offers a radical solution to the perceived badness of the world. We need to move people from thinking of God as a “supreme being” who then is really perceived too much like us, just a greater version of us, himself operating from within space and time, to a vision of God as Creator outside of space and time, indeed the Creator not just of things visible and invisible but space and time itself. Understanding St. Augustine’s Confessions is indispensable here; we may not need to have everyone we address read it, but it is incumbent upon the apologist to know his or her classical theism, for understanding God rightly solves all conceptual problems. (Frank Sheed’s works, of course, offer accessible, if dry, introductions to the classical Catholic conception of God.) Put differently, we need to help our audiences move from a brute anthropomorphism to an allegorical understanding of Scripture that allows and nurtures a proper conceptual understanding of God.
The Gnostics are accidentally correct in one assumption: this world is not our ultimate home (as Plato and Jesus both taught). Pain and suffering affects people deeply because they believe that this world is more certain than the next world, and so they better find their happiness here. And of course that’s not possible: even the wealthy hurt in this realm, and no one can find true happiness apart from God. As C. S. Lewis observed:
If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic. (God in the Dock, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014], 41)
Good theology helps here: this world is not our home, and the deeper one accepts that, the more sense this world makes. It’s a fallen realm of sin, sickness, and death, and it’s meant to be an opportunity for us to begin our return to God.
Finally, there is the way of martyrdom. Given the way culture, politics, and business is going, it will be ever harder for faithful Christians to avoid the LGBT+ juggernaut, Gnostic at its core, and it will mean white martyrdom for many of us. For many corporations are beginning to evaluate employees in part on the basis of their commitment to diversity, and mainstream opinion will soon come to regard those not fully on board with the juggernaut as the same as racists and segregationists since the LGBT+ movement has claimed the mantel of civil rights. Martyrdom is often the way of the faithful in this world, which is not our home, but it has also been the way of winning others to Faith in the Creator, the Triune God.
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