Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gnosticism and the Hydra

Gnosticism is a fascinating topic to me. What makes its lure so great?  What made it such a formidable challenge to the early Christian church?  Why does it capture the imagination in pop culture?  Think of movies like the Matrix, the Da Vinci Code, and Vanilla Sky. 

Gnosticism is like the hydra, cut off one head, and others regrow to take its place.  When you think you have finally defeated the monster, it comes back with a vengeance. 

I think one of the most alluring aspects of gnosticism is its individualism and self centered nature.  At its heart, gnosticism is about individual salvation through some esoteric knowledge.  Therefore, gnosticism is self flattering, "I have this special knowledge that is not given to the masses.  I am special, I figured it out." 

A second alluring aspect of gnosticism is its conspiratorial nature.  In gnosticism, this world is illusory.  Humans are kept prisoners in this world by the conspiratorial powers that be.  Conspiracy, in itself is tantalizing.  While I am no conspiracy theorist, I at least find them interesting.  I like listening to people's conspiracy theories, even if I rarely buy into them.  The conspiracy of gnosticism, that this world itself is the big conspiracy, is fascinating; it is the mother of all conspiracy theories.

Gnosticism, though officially "defeated" in the first few Christian centuries through scripture, creeds, and orthodox writings, never really disappears for the church.  It is always a tempting alternative, or perhaps one should say additive to the mission of the local church.

I remember when the movie the Matrix came out.  I loved it, the parallels with Christianity were unmistakable.  Neo, the savior  figure, defeating enemies, leading a small community to salvation.  Yet, the movie is unadulterated gnosticism.  This world (i.e., the matrix) is illusory.  Only through special knowledge (i.e., that the matrix is a computer construct) can one be freed to join the real world.

I remember a sermon that I heard about the same time.  The preacher stood up on the stage and waved his shod foot around and asked, with regard to his shoe: is this me?  Of course not.  He took off his shoe and wiggled his socked foot around.  Is this me?  Of course not.  He took off his sock, and wiggled his now bare foot: is this me?  Of course not.  This body is just a shell for the true me, my soul.  This guy was a total gnostic.  He didn't know it, I think his motives were right, but the lure of gnosticism had caught him to. 

As Christians, it is important to affirm this created order, that God created the world good.  Sure, there has been evil and corruption, the world did not continue in its pristine created state.  Yet, the answer is not a gnostic escape from this created order, but rather the promise of new creation, of a restoration of the cosmos to its rightful place, the time when God will redeem all that is wrong with the world.  As John writes,
Rev. 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
Rev. 21:2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
Rev. 21:3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
    “See, the home of God is among mortals.
    He will dwell with them as their God;
    they will be his peoples,
    and God himself will be with them;
Rev. 21:4     he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
    Death will be no more;
    mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
    for the first things have passed away.”


  1. Great post, Keith. But I began to think when you mentioned the preacher's illustration, if it truly is gnostic (so many definitions!), how much Paul set the early church up for it. 1 Corinthians 15 comes to mind, as does 2 Corinthians 4. I'm a physicalist, so I'm totally in sync with your rejection of the preacher's dualism, but (as in so many areas) it does make it harder to dialogue with people who are convinced that Paul never penned even a slight misconception.

  2. I have heard people say, "I am a spiritual being having a physical experience." That smacks of Gnosticism to me also.