If you are from my generation and from a particular kind of Protestant background, you will probably have had, at one point or another, the “aha” moment when you realize your tradition has gnostic tendencies, and that this might be a problem. As for many of my peers, this for me happened probably around the time I read Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evanglical Mind, which took the movement to task for being too gnostic. Such gnosticism can be defined in many ways, but at bottom the definition I will be using for this reflection is one which defines gnosticism as a denial of God’s Genesis assertion that His creation is good, paired with an assertion of spirituality that will save us from, rather than redeem, creation.
This realization – that Protestant gnostic tendencies are in fact heterodox lies about reality – is, I believe, absolutely necessary for everyone from such a background. However, this realization has (at least as far as I can tell) become in many emergent and hipster Evangelical circles as common as were once the Sinner’s Prayer, the four spiritual laws, and altar calls. It has in some places become a conversation stopper – if I don’t like what you are doing and think you should loosen up and have a little more fun, be a little more worldly, I can tell you to stop being so gnostic (without defining that or examining my motivations or rhetoric), and that will suffice for an answer – if you don’t listen it is just because you are an uptight Protestant. In sounding this harsh, I am, I hope, not just pointing fingers at others, but mostly at myself – when I become excited about something and its liberating quality I can also become very graceless about it, and such gracelessness is nothing other than sin.
Reflecting a little more on this, I have become concerned that gnosticism comes naturally to those in a suffering world, and that unless we fight it as Christians rather than mere comfortable materialists, we are just replacing one problem with another. Let me put it another way. It is not at all difficult for an affluent, white, middle-class person to appreciate the goodness of creation, which such a person interprets as the goodness of their own material success. And it is easy to turn around and preach this version of a prosperity gospel to others. But what if one’s material life is not perfect? What if one lives in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver, or the North end of Winnipeg? What if sheer existence – material life – is deeply painful? What about those who suffer chronic pain? What about those whose everyday lives in a material world have brought them to such a point that they spend every waking moment wishing to escape? Yes, this is still gnosticism, and condemnable on Christian grounds. But it is in many ways at least more natural and noble than a materialism that criticizes the poor because they don’t have the material circumstances to be triumphalist about their corner of creation.
This, I think, is why it is the centrality of the cross that distinguishes Christian opposition to gnosticism from a more materialist kind. The centrality of the cross in such opposition is found in many places, but the following quote from Irenaeus’s Against Heresies (in which he describes the gnostic beliefs he opposes) is particularly telling:
“Wherefore he [Christ] did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all.”
As this quote suggests, the real heart of Christian disagreement with gnosticism is not a vague and benevolent warm-hearted embrace of creation (though it may on occasion include this); no, it is a position that states that we can look upon the very worst suffering of creation, the very worst contortion, and still concur that this creation is good, good enough in fact that God can be incarnate in such a body even in the midst of its brokenness. This is a costly rejection of gnosticism – it hurts. In fact, our very survival instincts advise us that it would be easier to be rid of the whole material world. It would be easier to side with the gnostic Christ who lets another suffer in his place and stands by chuckling at the very folly of material. It would be easier to be callous. And though we may look at ourselves and say we are not those who would turn away and laugh at a dying man, the gospel suggests we are. It may not appear to us as blatantly as the callousness of the gnostic Christ. But we do buffer ourselves with material, with prosperity, and then we call our appreciation of this prosperity an appreciation of incarnation. But when we do this, we, no less than the gnostic Christ described above, deny the fullness of creation and incarnation, for we disdain to look upon – and I mean, fully look upon – the one, the ones, we have pierced. In a strange way the materialist’s alleged rejection of gnosticism begins to look in its escapist and selective read on creation much like the escapist spirituality of gnosticism itself – the only difference is that, for the materialist, the site of triumphalism is a selectively culled hoard of matter, while, for the gnostic, the triumphalism is in the realm of spirit.
So what does this mean? It means that the most important – and the most difficult – task of the Church is to go against our almost instinctual impulse to become escapists when we encounter crosses, in the poor, the oppressed, the weak, in our own private pains. It is a Herculean task, for our propensity in the face of such is either to become gnostic – deny the goodness of materiality altogether – or selectively cull reality until the horrible pain of it is no longer in our sight. In the face of this, the Church lives to direct our gaze – fully and directly – toward what we would not see: the Crucified Body. More cruelly – or more miraculously – She teaches us to say as we look, “It is good.” This is the horror of the Christian redemption of all creation, the horror that is also love – the cruciform realism that is the beginning of our salvation.