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.