A reflection on the Gnosticism of today
There is a line in the first letter of John, read this week at Mass, that is of critical importance to many difficulties we see today with heresy, unbelief, and moral decay. The line says:
Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the antichrist ... (1 John 4:1-3).
John also writes in the second letter,
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist (2 John 1:7).
One of the fundamental principles at the heart of the Johannine Scriptures is that the Word became flesh. Jesus actually came in the flesh; we could touch our God. The true faith is incarnational. In Jesus Christ, God takes up the physical order, Justice … Truth springs up from the earth (cf Ps 85:12). God actually becomes man. The love of God and His salvation are tangible and real, not merely ideals, wishes, or hopes. Faith is about reality. This is John’s and the Holy Spirit’s insistence: that we not let this truth slip from our understanding even for a moment.
There are and have been many Gnostic and Neo-Gnostic tendencies through the centuries that seek to reduce faith to mere intellectualism, to ideas or opinions, and to remove things from the world of reality. Thus St. John and the Church have had to insist over and over again that Jesus is real, that faith is real and is about real, tangible, even material things.
When Jesus came among us, He was not content merely to speak of ideas. He did not simply advance ethical theories or set forth merely philosophical notions. He also addressed actual human behaviors, not merely by speaking of them, but by actually living them and modeling them in the flesh. Jesus demands from His followers not mere intellectual affirmations, but actually walking in His truth using our very bodies and living His teaching. We are to renounce unnecessary possessions, feed the poor, confess Him with our lips, reverence human sexuality through chaste living, accept (and even embrace) suffering—all for the sake of the kingdom.
Yes, faith is about real things, about actual concrete behaviors that involve not only what we think but also how we physically move our body through the created order, how we interact with the physical order and with one another.
Jesus also took up and made use of the physical and created order in His saving mission. Obviously He took it up in the incarnation, but He also referenced creation in many of His parables. He pointed to the lilies of the field and to the sparrow. He made paste with saliva and mud, anointed with oil, changed water to wine, laid hands on the bodies of countless individuals in healing, and took bread and wine and changed it to the Body and Blood. He took up the wood of the cross, laid down His body in suffering and death, and raised it up again on the third day. Then He took His body—His physical body—with Him to Heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father.
Yet despite this radical physicality seen in the Gospel and in the work of God, there remains a persistent tendency on the part of many to reduce the faith by removing it from the physical and temporal order, rendering it a merely ethical notion, an intellectualism, a set of ideas, or even mere opinion. Faith rooted in daily reality and with measurable parameters is set aside and sophistry takes place. Never mind what a person does; all that seems to matter to many is what they think about it, or what their intentions are.
Gnostic tendencies have existed in every era, but were most severe in the early centuries among heretical groups. They have resurfaced in recent centuries, especially since the so-called Enlightenment, where human reason is exulted unreasonably.
The Protestant revolt took up the rationalism of those Enlightenment times and brought the first great blow to the house of faith by rendering the Sacraments mere symbols, no longer acknowledging the touch of God. For many of them, no longer does baptism actually save us by washing away our sins, it only symbolizes faith. Holy Communion for most of them was no longer the actual Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, but only a symbol of Him, something that evokes thoughts and memories of what He said and did. For the Protestant groups, most of the other Sacraments simply fell away. No longer was it necessary to lay hands on the sick or to lay hands in order to ordain or bless. All such things were unnecessary, even abhorrent, to many Protestants, who took up Enlightenment rationalism and reduced faith to intellectualism, ideas, and words on a page.
Along with the Sacraments, many of the Enlightenment-era Protestants banished most beauty in the churches with iconoclastic tendencies. No longer should creation in the pigmented paints, stained glass, precious metals, candles, incense, and so forth be raised up to the glory of God. This, too, is far too incarnational for the “purity” of the rationalist mind. Stark, white-washed churches were exulted, and the feast of the senses common in Catholicism was frowned upon. Faith was “purified” of all this incarnational “excess” and was to exist only in one’s mind and heart.
In Protestantism, the use of the body to worship was also largely banished. Kneeling, sitting, standing, signs of the cross, vestments … all of this was banished. After all, what did the body have to do with anything? It was in the mind and in the heart that one worshiped God. Why bend the knee when it sufficed to bow in one’s heart?
And thus there was a great retreat from the bodily aspect of the incarnation.
Not all Protestant denominations equally indulged iconoclastic and rationalistic tendencies in this aftermath of the Enlightenment. There remained many great artistic and musical accomplishments within the Protestant realm, including architecture. But the general pattern is visible to some extent in all the denominations founded after the Enlightenment. Worship and faith moved more into the mind and the world of ideas, and away from the created, tangible, physical realities of this world.
Neo-Gnostic and Enlightenment mentalities also reached into the Academy (i.e., the secular and even religious universities) beginning especially in the late 17th century, in the aftermath of Renée Descartes’ troubled theories and struggle with radical skepticism. We live on the dark side of the Cartesian divide, in a world skeptical and dubious of reality itself. We are increasingly out of touch with the revelatory quality of creation. Less and less is reality anything to which we owe allegiance; all that matters is what we think, what we feel. We live increasingly in our minds, quite out of touch with reality.
Nothing exemplifies this more that the acceptance of homosexual behaviors. Even the most causal investigation of the design of the human body will show that man is made for woman and woman for man. The man is not for the man nor is the woman for the woman. The design of the body clearly reveals this and that homosexual acts are disordered. Quite literally, the parts do not fit and the purpose of sexuality is thwarted.
But in the post-Cartesian world, a world in which people increasingly live in their minds rather than reality, the body apparently has nothing to say to us, nothing to reveal. Reality is apparently not something to which we owe any allegiance. Most who support homosexual behavior are wholly dismissive of any argument that appeals to the body at all. All that seems to matter is what a person thinks or feels. The body is wholly beside the point. And thus the incarnation is dispensed with. In fact, most homosexuals will go so far as to say, “God made me this way.” Whether God “makes” people have psycho-sexual disorders is surely debatable (at best we can say He permits crosses for us all), but the design of the body, more certainly made by God, clearly speaks to how we are made. And God clearly made us this way: sexually complementary, that is completed by the opposite sex. This is how God actually made us. But again, to the modern Gnostic the body means nothing. To refer to it in an argument is like referring to some authority on the planet Xenon. The modern Gnostic lives wholly in his mind; reality and the body are at best irrelevant and at worst an irritant that must be legislated against.
Many other moral troubles of our day also bespeak a Gnostic, anti-incarnational tendency. For example the exultation of intention over actual behavior. Never mind what a person actually does. The only morally significant matter is what they intend, that they “mean well.”
Yet another tendency today is “wordsmithing.” It’s not abortion; it’s choice. It’s not contraception; it’s reproductive choice. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. They’re not fornicating; they’re cohabiting. The more vague, vapid, and non-descriptive the words the better. Abstractions and generalities replace clearer, more reality-based descriptions.
Here then is a brief tour of the Gnosticism of our times. We can see why St. John and the Holy Spirit were so passionate in warning against those who denied the incarnation, calling them not only false teachers but “antichrist.” We live on the ever-darkening side of the Cartesian divide, living in our minds, denying that creation or our bodies are revelation or have anything to say to us.
Of course this is antichrist; it is a slap in the face of God, who made all things and established the created by His Word, the Logos. And since all things were made through Christ, the Logos, then all creation has a “logike” (logic) that is clearly perceived in what God has made. To go on denying this is “illogical.” It is “anti-logical.” It is contrary to the Logos, the Word through whom God created and sustains all things. Contrary to the Logos is just another way of saying, “antichrist.”
(One paradox in all this is the flourishing of the material (physical) sciences in our times. I have written more on this paradox here: Cartesian Anxiety.)
is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, DC. He attended Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary and holds Masters degrees in Divinity and in Moral Theology.
He was ordained in 1989 and named a Monsignor in 2005. He has conducted a weekly Bible Study in Congress and in the White House, for two and four years, respectively.
Reprinted with the permission of Msgr. Pope. Originally published on his blog on the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.