Gnosticism isn’t just a first century heresy.
It’s a twenty-first century heresy that the American culture has peddled for years.
“Gnosticism” is derived from the Greek word for knowledge. Many well-known Greek thinkers held to this understanding of the world. Here’s the basic idea: spirit is good; flesh is bad. Gnosticism offered the goal of escape from the prison of the body through reason and attainment of knowledge. It separated the spiritual and the material. Consequently, Gnosticism separated God from creation. As a philosophy, it infiltrated many of the early churches in the New Testament and persisted until the Nicene Creed quieted its influence. The Christian message as outlined in the Creed offers a vision in complete opposition to Gnosticism. Creation is good; sin is rebellion against God and his creation; the Creator God became a man in Jesus Christ to redeem humanity from their rebellion.
How, then, is Gnosticism still a twenty-first century heresy? Let’s take texting and pornography as prime examples of American Gnosticism.
Texting, Talking, and Conversation Without Voices
In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle states, “It is when we see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices that we become most human to each other.” She argues that technology (smartphones, specifically) has created a “digital distance” from “rich, messy, and demanding” human relationships.
I think she’s on to something here. And I think it fits into the Gnostic tendencies within American culture. Why is it that many people increasingly prefer texting to talking? Aside from the fact that it’s easier and more convenient, it offers the ability to communicate without connecting. Texting offers words without tone. Emotion without expression. Sentences without speaking. Most communication is non-verbal, read through facial expressions, cadence, and vocal pitch.
We want conversation without voices. Ideas without reality. Communication without connection. Intimacy without incarnation.
Identity, Pornography, and Sex Without Bodies
The Supreme Court case affirming same-sex marriage was a turning point for the way many Christians see themselves and the way they relate to society. Many Christian responses were more reactionary and less helpful. Nevertheless, it offered (and still offers) an opportunity for thoughtful reflection on behalf of the Church.
Really, we should not be surprised. Things are always more nuanced and complicated than can be explained in one sentence, but I’m going to venture a suggestion anyway. Many of culture’s predominant sexual ethics arise from an incomplete understanding of nature and fulfillment.
I don’t think I’m saying anything new or profound here. Other people have said the same things more eloquently (see Andy Crouch’s article, “Sex Without Bodies” which planted the seed for this article). But what I want to help us see is the Gnostic roots of the culture’s understanding of sexuality and begin processing a way forward by looking backward.
According to American culture, identity can no longer be objectively defined by one’s male or female anatomy. Instead, what matters is how you identify within yourself. Your feelings drive your reality. There has been a total separation of physical and emotional.
“Pornography,” argues Crouch, “threatens to make sexual gnostics of us all, chasing ecstasy further and further afield from the dignity and limits of bodies, male and female, given in covenant love.” It offers stimulation without presence. What one longs for in pornography is the idea of pleasure without the human relationship or potential disappointment. We want sex without bodies. Intimacy without incarnation.
Crouch states, “[The] position that Christians can hold, though we will hold it at great social cost, at least for the foreseeable future: that bodies matter…Indeed, that matter matters. For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general.”
Taking Notes from the Church Fathers
The seemingly rapid (but actually not-so-rapid) changes in American culture have taken many believers by surprise. Let me be clear — not that change happened but how quickly it happened. For many, it seems they are standing still as the blur of society and culture flows speedily past. Christians need not surrender to their sense of helplessness. The writer of Ecclesiastes once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is true — and it’s good news for Christians. Faithful brothers and sisters in Christ have already confronted this issue throughout the centuries. They set a foundation. We can retrieve and recover their witness to the Gospel. They can be our guide as we think Christianly about our response to modern Gnosticism in our society. Below are a few starting points.
1. Hold fast to Christ’s incarnation.
In his book “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius tackles the importance of Christ’s becoming human. He states, “[T]he true Son of God…took a body for the salvation of all, and taught the world about the Father, destroyed death, granted incorruptibility to all through the promise of the resurrection, raising his own body as first-fruits of this and showing it as a trophy over death and its corruption by the sign of the cross.”
The cross and the incarnation are two central points of Christianity. But why do they matter? What does Christ’s incarnation offer in the face of Gnosticism? Athanasius offers an illustration:
As when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it, such a city is certainly made worthy of high honor, and no longer does any enemy or bandit descend upon it, but it is rather reckoned worthy of all care because of the king’s having taken residence in one of its houses; so also does it happen with the King of all. Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every design of the enemy against human beings has henceforth ceased, and the corruption of death, which had prevailed formerly against them, perished. For the race of human beings would have been utterly dissolved had not the Master and Savior of all, the Son of God, come for the completion of death.
Christ’s incarnation displays the great worth of humanity and creation. That God himself would take up residence in a human body for the sake of our salvation magnifies his own glory and the glory of his creation. Gnosticism robs God of his glory and distorts our worth as humans.
2. Hold fast to the doctrine of creation.
When God created the heavens and the earth, he called them good. Christians believe that creation is a good thing. Of course, it is fallen, but nonetheless still good, valuable, and enduring. Fallen creation will be re-created. New Creation will not be disembodied bliss. It will be a very physical reality with nature, bodies, stones, and jewels. Essentially, everything Christians believe pushes against the Gnostic tendencies latent in American culture.
In his book, God Has Spoken, Gerald Bray says, “The doctrine of the goodness of creation and the consequent reconfiguration of the nature of evil became a fundamental building block for Christian theology. The incarnation of the Son of God, on which the whole gospel hangs, would have been inconceivable otherwise. The resurrection of the body would have made no sense, and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth would have been absurd if salvation had been interpreted as an escape from them! So important were these beliefs that there were more commentaries written on Genesis 1–3 in the early centuries of the church, and by a wider range of theologians, than on any other part of the Bible.”
Consider what Clement of Alexandria said of creation and, more specifically, humanity:
“Human beings are dear to God because they are his workmanship. The other works of creation, God made by his word of command alone. But he framed the human race by his own hand and breathed into them what was peculiar to himself.”
3. Cultivate embodied community.
In many ways, Augustine was postmodern before postmodern was a thing. He can be a great guide for 21st century Christians because prior to his conversion, he searched for meaning in everything but God. From wisdom, religion, and rebellion to love, sex, and homosexuality, Augustine tried it. But he had this to say about friendship in his autobiography, Confessions:
To make conversation, to share a joke, to perform mutual acts of kindness, to read together well-written books, to share in trifling and in serious matters, to disagree though without animosity — just as a person debates with himself — and in the very rarity of disagreement to find the salt of normal harmony, to teach each other something or to learn from one another, to long with impatience for those absent, to welcome them with gladness on their arrival. These and other signs come from the heart of those who love and are loved and are expressed through the mouth, through the tongue, through the eyes, and a thousand gestures of delight, acting as fuel to set our minds on fire and out of many to forge unity.
Because of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, the church has a unique voice for speaking about friendship and community. Presence matters. But in our technology-saturated culture, presence is tough because texting offers an escape. Presence is awkward. It’s unconventional. But it’s necessary. Augustine’s model of friendship included space for presence referencing mouths, tongues, eyes, and gestures that can only be received when people are together. Augustine understood what Sherry Turkle said before she even said it, “When we see each others faces and hear each others’ voices we become most human to each other.”
The story of the Church is ultimately this: that God in Christ made a way to be present with his people now and for eternity. Presence matters. If God himself cares enough about presence to make it possible for humanity to be in relationship with himself, how much more important should it be for his image-bearers to cultivate communities where we can truly be present with one another. In order to create embodied community, we must communicate in physical bodies and with audible voices. Christian communities exist as embassies of heaven on earth. And if we are embassies, then we offer foretastes of that coming-kingdom, which is a place filled with loud voices, real bodies, and the final, physical culmination of God’s presence with his people.