Gnosticism – Living Faithfully in a Fallen World

Jimmy JoChrist and Culture, Sermons1 Comment

Our topic today is Gnosticism.  Gnosticism is a philosophy that arose around the time of the New Testament though the elements of Gnosticism were (probably) around for some time.  Citing the people who study this sort of thing, Eugene Peterson (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places) tells us that the major elements of Gnosticism include four things: 

  • Dualism:  Gnosticism supposes that there is a fundamental disconnect between the physical and the spiritual.  The physical world, including space, time, and matter are inferior and polluted.  The spiritual, however, is pure and sublime. 
  • Gnosis:  There is a secret gnosis (knowledge) that can save us from the condition of being trapped in the physical.  This knowledge has to do with the nature of the universe, the nature of god or of the gods, and the nature of ourselves. 
  • Escape: Related to the above (wherein Gnosis is the means or key), the goal is to escape the physical and temporal, to a pure spiritual being.  Because the self is the only thing that can’t be escaped, this essentially amounts to retreating into oneself.  Those who manage this, are or achieve a kind of divinity in themselves. 
  • Individualism:  Again related to the above, each person is free to assemble any ideas or stories or techniques at hand to accomplish this way of life; no institution or authority is permitted to interfere or tell the “gnostic” (the one “in the know”) what to believe or do.

N.T. Wright (Creation, Power, and Truth: The Gospel in a World of Cultural Confusion) explains Gnosticism in a slightly different way than Peterson (but it’s in essence and substance the same), but more importantly comes to a very similar conclusion.  Like Peterson, Wright argues that Gnosticism has made a robust return in our post-Enlightenment age (we can see how Enlightenment thinking, with its emphasis on rationalism, can lend itself to a gnostic persuasion).  This neo-Gnosticism has resulted in a situation where spirituality – and we’re focussing on the gnostic expressions of spirituality because this is our particular concern – spirituality is very much an internal, individualistic endeavour (among other things). 

Now it’s always important to read or understand such theorizing carefully because neither Peterson nor Wright, nor any of the other many writers, scholars, or philosophers on the subject, are authoritative.  However – and as you probably know, I tend to have a bias for Peterson and Wright, among others – however, I tend to think that they are thinking rightly about this.  Some of what they are talking about is played out in the different topics that we’ve talked about already –idolatry (especially idolatry of the self), humanism, individualism, and identity.  And that is because Gnosticism essentially constitutes a worldview.  Or to put it another way, gnostic elements seem to have invaded and affected our worldviews.

But again, what we are concerned with is spirituality, and my particular concern tends to be Christian spiritual formation – how are we formed in the life of the Spirit?  How are we formed in the way of kingdom living?  And through a gnostic lens, we are formed in a particular way – what Wright and Peterson, and I would agree, would call misformed

I’ll try to explain what I mean.  There are a couple of consequences to a gnostic worldview that I think about.  Or, to put it another way, there are a couple of things that I see that I think arise out of an essentially gnostic worldview.  (There are obviously more, but this is what I want to talk about).  While Gnosticism as a concept may seem foreign or irrelevant, I hope you recognize the significance of some of the things I’m talking about. 

Firstly, as we mentioned, Gnosticism sees a dualism between the spiritual and the material.  And especially, it sees the material as inferior or corrupted, and the spiritual as good and pure (incidentally, Gnosticism as a system(?) actually sees a duality of gods, one, an imperfect if not outright malevolent god, responsible for the impure material world, and the other responsible for the spiritual and good).   

As a kind of neo-gnosticism affects Christian spirituality today, people may still believe that there is a dualism between the material and the spiritual.  We believe or live as if the material things of the world are ultimately irrelevant and the only thing that (truly) matters is the spiritual. 

But we often define the “spiritual” in odd ways.  Depending on how steeped we are in an Enlightenment framework, we might equate spirituality (solely) with believing the right things.  So long as we have the right theology, subscribe to the right creeds, and more importantly reject the wrong ones, we are “saved.” 

By way of another example, I have a lot of friends who are pastors.  And I have some friends who are pastors’ kids.  One of the dangers of pastoral ministry (especially in particular cultural contexts) is that you are so focussed on ministry that nothing else matters.  Often, pastors’ kids or missionaries’ kids are neglected or de-prioritized over the ministry.  The pastor is considered “effective” if their ministry is “successful, but their family life is often in tatters.  And in some circles, they are considered more spiritual if they neglect these more mundane matters. 

And related to this is the notion that only “spiritual” activities are spiritual activities.  Here, what I have in mind is the notion that specifically Christian work (i.e. pastoral work, missionary work, Christian non-profit work, etc.) are matters of spirituality but ordinary or secular work (accounting, engineering, running a business, serving pizza, etc.) are not.  These are things that may be necessary to sustain life, but are somehow secondary to the true spiritual life.  Therefore, we think we have to fill our lives with spiritual activities in order to grow in Christ.  Balance, then, is not a matter of living all of life for Christ, but a matter of adding enough spiritual elements to off-set the secular ones. 

Secondly, this segregation and exaltation of the spiritual from the material leads to the search for secret knowledge.  Now this is related to the previous point(s) in I hope fairly obvious ways.  But what I want to point out is that an awful lot of contemporary culture is obsessed with finding secret knowledge. 

At what is probably the most problematic level currently, the proliferation of conspiracy theories (often) depend on a belief that someone somewhere – some government department, some hidden cabal, some group of elites – is hiding something from everyone else.  But if you listen to the whistleblowers, to those who will reveal the “real truth,” you can get in on the secret knowledge that will set you free (somehow).

At a significantly less concerning level, an awful lot of the health and fitness industry is based on the promotion of “secret knowledge.”  If you want to make a lot of money fast (in health and fitness) you simply have to claim that you have the secret for fat loss, muscle gain, eternal health that “the big corporations don’t want you to know.”  It doesn’t matter if the doctors and scientists don’t support this “secret.”  Indeed, the fact that they won’t support it simply proves that it is being kept secret.  But rest assured, for three small payments of $49.99, you too can get in on this life-changing secret information. 

Now obviously, I’m being a little bit flippant here.  But this tendency concerns me at the personal level – that is, I’m concerned inasmuch as we approach spirituality the same way. 

By way of example, not too long ago, I came across a bible translation that I feel makes some pretty concerning claims.  And if you have been at Grace for any amount of time, I hope you know that we take (try to take) scripture and the interpretation of scripture very seriously.  Now I’m not going to get into comparing the various English translations of the bible but there are definitely principles for good translation.  The translation I came across (I’m not going to name it, nor am I going to examine it in detail) essentially claims that the translator received special knowledge from God, that he received a special “download” and connection to God to produce this translation. 

Now I’m not in a position to truly evaluate this person’s claims (they are not correct), but it’s connected to a tendency, I think, in regards to how we approach spirituality and spiritual formation.  On the one hand, as per the previous point, we tend to approach spiritual formation as purely acquiring beliefs.  But the other hand I do think that Christianity (specifically, how we think about spirituality) is related to the search for secret knowledge.  And i think this is connected to our desire for particular, spiritual experiences. 

Certainly, we are prone to want those “5 easy steps (or secret steps) to spiritual maturity) – this is probably more obviously related to secret knowledge.  But I think we also hope to find that secret knowledge in special experiences (i.e. special experiences = divine enlightenment = secret knowledge).  Therefore, we look for the mountaintop experiences, the visitation from angels, the words of prophecy, or unexplained miracles as the best or only evidence of the work of God.  And I should note that I’m not discounting any of those things, nor do I disbelieve that God can and does move in those ways.  What I’m saying is that when we look only for those things as evidence of God, I think we miss most of what God is doing. 

Because spiritual formation isn’t magic.  There’s no secret technique, and there is no undiscovered frontier.  Spirituality isn’t the secret life, it’s just life.  Because all life is spiritual.  Because all human beings are spiritual beings.  The question is merely, which spirit are we paying attention to?  Christian spiritual formation, then, isn’t about looking for the miraculous.  It’s nothing more or less than paying attention to the spirit of God in all the parts of our lives. 

The scripture text that I want to reflect upon today is from the gospel of John, the Prologue.  John 1:1-14 says,

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-14

Now it’s been several years since we’ve gone through the book of John, but you might remember that one of the characteristics of John’s gospel is the various dualisms that John sets up:  for example, light vs. dark, the world above vs. the world below.  But the dualism that John is talking about (in a nutshell) has to do with participating in God’s world vs. participating in not-God’s world.  And what we would say is that a gnostic dualism is especially a reflection of a world that is distinctly not-God’s. 

Because the world that God has created is a world that is whole.  The prologue to John’s gospel is essentially a re-imagining of the Genesis creation account.  And the main point of the prologue has to do with God, very God, stepping into this creation and becoming part of it.  Into a world of darkness – darkness that is a result of its turning away from its creator – the true light has come.  The light has come to restore the world to what it was meant to be.  So, in verse 14, we read: 

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

The ancient Christian gnostics believed that Jesus’ bodily form was an illusion or otherwise unreal, because they believed that only the spiritual was pure.  But John’s gospel (like all the gospels) tells us that Jesus didn’t merely take on the appearance of humanity, but actually and fully became human.  His ministry took him to real places, his ministry led him to actual people. And before we even read about his ministry, we know that he spent 30 years just being human:  fully human and fully God, but fully human. 

I know that we’ve talked about all of this before in a variety of ways, so I won’t belabour the point.  So I’ll simply say (somewhat obviously, probably) that the practice that I want to commend to you today is reading and reflecting on scripture.  Because one of the things that we try to emphasize as we read scripture together is that it tells us about a history.  I know we often have a tendency to want to distill scripture – to strain out those principles and precepts that we absolutely must know to have faith (this may be a product of the Enlightenment).  We need to avoid the temptation to reduce scripture and instead we need to enter into the full story of scripture.  When we read about Jesus, David, Moses, and Abraham, we remember that they are real people who lived in actual time and particular places.  And we remember that God was just as much with the Israelites when they were wandering in the wilderness as when he parted the sea in their escape from Egypt.  And we remember the faithfulness of Ruth, through who God worked in the very ordinariness of her story. And we remember that God was present and working with all the characters in scripture through the very ordinary circumstances of their lives.

So in closing, I want to turn back to the gospel of John and reflect on one of the closing stories.  After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, he then appears to His disciples, and we read about his particular interaction with Thomas, who doubted.  Then we read that the disciples, who no doubt were trying to figure all of this out, went fishing, but were unable to fish.  Jesus appeared to them, and told them to cast their nets on the other side.  They did so, and they caught so much fish, they didn’t know what to do.  A miraculous sign, no doubt.  But pay attention to the close of this story (John 21:10-13): 

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

John 21:10-13

After the miraculous – along side the miraculous – we get this very ordinary story.  Jesus encounters his disciples in a very every day way. “Come and have breakfast.”  “Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” 

Where was Jesus more present?  When was Jesus’ work more important?  The temptation may be to think that Jesus only meets us on the mountaintop.  That he only meets us in the secret and the special place.  But Jesus also meets us at the table.  Jesus meets us in the ordinary.  Which is amazing news.  Because it means that there is no place that He is not with us.

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