A new and particularly vicious form of Gnosticism has for the past two decades and more pervaded what purports to be Christianity, at least in areas that are or were dominated by European powers. I cannot claim of my own knowledge that the problem exists elsewhere in the world, but it most assuredly does exist in the Western World, and will doubtlessly bring down upon us the wrath of many elements which will surprise us greatly. Gnostic Westerners have, like their Gnostic forbears, begun to set themselves up for a mighty fall - and I expect to see signs of that shortly following the soon-to-be Cairo Conference, where the United States is bound and determined for some reason to prove to a non-Western world that it wishes the non-Western world would kill off its children, limit its hunger for its share of the world's resources so that pleasure-besotted Westerners can continue to indulge themselves in their "no pain at any price" lifestyles.
Gnosticism is rampant among Catholics, and perhaps endemic among Protestant Churches. Gnosticism has never truly disappeared from Christian consciousness, but it has, at least, concealed itself reasonably well for the past fifteen centuries. But it has come out of its lair with a fury not seen since its first irruptions. Once more we find ourselves struggling with the same questions that divided Gnostics and Orthodox Christians in the second and third centuries. The question now is no different from then: "Does the Church offer the truth of Salvation, and grace? Or can we dispense with all that and rely instead on `knowledge' [gnwsis]? Knowledge gleaned from a selection of sources selected by ourselves, on the basis of that which appeals to each of us as individuals? Knowledge gleaned, perhaps, from myth, from psychology, and even from `our own personal revelations as evidenced by our own personal faith experiences'?" In its own turn, this question devolves on the significance of the Resurrection for our salvation: Is the Resurrection simply a symbol, something illustrative, of our human potential, as the Gnostics thought of old, or is it real? An actual EVENT? An event upon the reality of which rests the entirety of our salvation?
It has been suggested in The American Religion (which I found fascinating) that there is a form of Gnosticism which is particularly and uniquely American, a form of Gnosticism which is intrinsic to modern American culture, so intrinsic that without it modern American culture could not exist. I could not agree more vehemently - for I see all around me on this system evidence of precisely that Gnosticism. That particular Gnostic mode chooses to emphasis the priority of "understanding" for salvation; the innate divinity/goodness of the individual self, ignoring the solid evidence of the entirety of human history that man is, indeed, a fallen creature, subject to the effects of Original Sin; and, the third deity of the pantheon, the emotional experiences of transcendence.
The essence of the ancient Gnosticism was its emphasis on knowledge as the single guarantee of salvation; so much so that real salvation could only be had by those who were "in" on the knowledge, the initiate, the elite, who were permitted to know what the masses were not; salvation came not by virtue of who and what we have become in Christ, in and through His grace, but through information, "understanding who we are," "being in touch with our inner divinity", "becoming aware of the `real' self," with what our potential is, and what it is that blocks us from achieving that divine status. Americans are consumed with the need for `information.'
Gnosticism, in its formal structure, was little more in its own way than one of the earliest of the "information theories," and ran smack into the Biblical accounts of creation and the Fall; Gnostics HAD to reject The Fall, for the Creation narrative concerned itself with scruffy stuff like matter and energy - matter (ugh!). Gnosticism, on the other hand, was all "information," all "knowledge" - all "spirit" and hence free of all that ugly "matter." "Matter" no longer "mattered." Since it no longer mattered, it no longer mattered what one did with it - hence the sins of the flesh became sins no more. The only sin now is to be "wrong" - or worse, to be told one IS wrong, since in the hidden recesses of one's own mind one can exercise one's own divine prerogatives and create one's own reality - and even another God dares not tell us our "reality" is wrong. Gnosticism is ALL "information," and NO matter. No matter what.
But Gnosticism is also a system, and all systems need to be implemented. So Gnosticism has its own "technology of salvation." It concerns itself with the "mechanics" of releasing humans from constraint. It is not possible to look at American culture today without seeing that as the driving engine of virtually every segment of the culture. The movers and shakers of this Gnostic theory - among whom are the religious leaders of local communities - insist that through correct information and effective technique it is possible to escape ANY evil - evil here is defined as "anything which causes one pain or discomfort, or deprives one of a desired pleasure." Witness the almost ludicrous faith we place in the power of "education" to defeat all our current social ills. Has a child begun to take to the streets with massive firepower? Analyze him and find out the root causes of his behavior. Put him in touch with that divine spark within himself, and he will cease on his own. Addicted to drugs? Alcohol or psychotropics? Get in touch with your feelings. Recognize them for what they are and the desire for them will disappear of its own without further effort of one's own. Is Process Theology designed for any other conceivable purpose? Is it not the core value of Process Theology, including (if not especially) Liberation Theology that we are inherently pure creatures, inherently good, such that the ONLY reason we commit evil deeds is because of the structures in which we are trapped? Is it not then clear that to destroy the structure is to destroy the trap, and hence, the evil? Nations sin because of their social contracts. Rid them of those contracts and they (Voila! Rousseau was right!) will return to their natural state of responsible behavior. Women sin because of the oppressive restrictions of patriarchal structures. Destroy those and women will be free of evil evermore. Witness the almost childish faith we place in psychology (too often pop-psychology) to provide the information about ourselves and others necessary to "relate" to them "effectively."
The ancient Gnostics saw the core of the human person, it's "essential self" as intrinsically divine. It had been imprisoned by some cosmic injustice in the world of filthy matter. By whom is of no consequence at this point - and, actually, just about any stated cause will suffice nicely, provided it has the thinnest patina of plausibility. The first tenet of American religion - Christian or not - is that "what is oldest and best in us goes back well before creation, and so is no part OF creation." Gnostics actively resent limitations of any kind; but is it not true that to reject limitations is to reject ourselves as "embodied creatures"? And if we are not "embodied creatures" are we not then necessarily gods as well?
Gnostics saw and see the self as unjustly "bound" by gender, time, place, circumstance, relationship. All unjust. All unjust because they are limitations not of the individual's choosing. The "Fall" is a fall into matter, physicality, history....and community. Therefore community cannot be accepted simply as it is found. It must be restructured. It must be set free of limits - any limits other than those self- chosen. So community must then be in a constant state of being changed, re-invented, re-created. Good enough is never good enough. For the limitations will always exist for some, since to set some free is to enthrall others. So the cycle repeats, one frees oneself only to enchain another. Around and around and around. Gnostics, therefore, want "freedom," freedom from any natural, earthly limitation, from any limitation whatever. The essence of salvation in American religion is, then, "a knowing, by and of an uncreated self, or a self-within-the-self, and the knowledge leads to freedom...from nature, time, history, community, other selves."
Are the protests of radical feminists different? Are those protests not precisely aimed at the limitations imposed upon females because they ARE females, by the embodiment of women in bodies which are female? Abortion is such a vital issue to the militant and radical feminists exactly because it holds forth the promise of freedom from the constrictions of being female, and from the role of motherhood, of which only females are capable. Freedom from being female (or, more accurately, the responsibilities which accompany the simple fact of being female, because females had no choice in whether or not they would be female) can also be extended to mean "freedom from men, from marriage, from communities." It doesn't always stretch that far, but often it does. It is but one more exemplar of the general trend among us: free the individual from the distorting effects of his embodiment in a physical universe with physical constraints, and everything will be well.
Gnostics must therefore actively exclude from their mechanics of salvation any need to rely on the reality of a Resurrection. For a number of reasons, but here are a few of them. The fact of Resurrection is beyond verification by MY senses. I must, if I am to accept it and its impact on my salvation, do so on the basis of trust in the experience of another. Not only must I accept it on the witness of the original community of believers and followers chosen by Christ Himself to BE witnesses to just that fact (which is simply irrational for the Gnostics among us - witness the Jesus Seminar and the Westar Group), not only does that actually sanctify the body and, hence, the ugly material world, it also reveals our absolute dependence on God and upon His Grace for our salvation! Talk about your ultimate limitation!
The doctrine of the Resurrection cannot support the Gnostic notion of our own intrinsic potential for divinity. There arises the pressure to change its meaning, from that of being a unique event in the life of Jesus, a unique event in the entire course of human history, to being a "myth" about human potential, which position has found much and very vocal support among our neo-Modernist and Post- Modernist "theologians."
The term "myth" is chosen because of its ambiguity. It does not speak about a reality external to itself, but rather more (and more importantly) to the experience of the self. One introduction to the New Testament phrased it like this: "Myths are narratives that express in symbolically rich language human experiences that resist expression in any objective, descriptive language....A myth cannot be true or false; it can only be effective or ineffective."
If the Resurrection, then, is not solidly rooted in actual historical reality, it then becomes a "story" that takes its own place, however unique and beautiful it may be, alongside the other lovely religious stories. We needn't any longer concern ourselves with its historical bases or relevance; or with the implications it holds for community, for communal tradition and (above all) authority. Authority itself, the very existence of authority, becomes another of those limiting factors which must at all costs be destroyed in search of that inner spark of divinity inherent within each of us.
If there is anything more visibly central to American Gnosticism is it not that experience of emotional union with God, without theology, without doctrine, without dogma, without authority, without laws, without restraint of any sort? Ritual then becomes even more vital than does doctrine - for it is by means of ritual that this emotional connection is created and maintained. And, of course, just like all the other elements of Gnosticism, ritual is only "good" to the degree that it is "effective." And at this point we have pulled into the scheme of things the next-strongest element of that uniquely American Weltanschauung....pragmatism. Through those experiences initiated by and maintained by "ritual" procedures (which can then be called "sacramental"), each of us is now enabled to enter into the emotional bliss of "the resurrected life." Not life in Jesus, but "the resurrected life" of the resurrected self, resurrected from the death imposed by all those limitations on the individual's self-will. For moments at a time, one can be transported "out of this world."
Catholicism in particular is a "sacramental" religion. Liturgy and ritual are central to its life. The Catholic Church insists that it is IN the sacraments that the Risen Christ is really present, historically present, substantially present, only under the appearances of Bread and Wine. Lately, however, under pressure from American Gnostics within and without the Church, liturgists at every level, from diocesan to parish level, are turning worship into vehicles of purely emotional experience. Liturgies are now "good" and determined to be so by the emotional effects. Liturgies are now as carefully orchestrated with an eye to maximum emotional impact as any theater production in a previous day. There is nothing particularly Catholic about that - it is, in fact, an essentially pagan understanding of ritual, not Christian, not Catholic. It is the attempt of the HUMAN to establish contact with the alien god, not the act of a supreme God to establish contact with His Creature. According to our Catholic Gnostics, the only real block to that oneness with God is the ineffective way in which the Church celebrates the sacrament. The block lies in the limitations. So, remove them. Finding the "right" way to celebrate becomes the essential thing in experiencing "grace" - but it will be something under human control, not under divine control!
In a very short order one has then reduces sacrament to magic. It is no accident that witchcraft has made a savage return to our midst. It is indicative of this trend to look to ritual and liturgy as a source of that life-power which can be experienced directly and personally, provided, of course, one only does the liturgy "correctly." Through ritual, all things can be effected. Rituals become ways of creating or discovering harmonies with the divine power within the human person....when you have become one with this power, "Resurrection" is not only no longer needed, it has become a foregone conclusion...you will have already "experienced" it. And REAL Resurrection becomes something which must be destroyed as anything other than story/myth. The specific resurrection of one specific person, Jesus Christ, then becomes unneeded - along with its connection with the forgiveness of sins. For at that point we no longer need to be "forgiven" our sins, we need only be "freed" of them, for they are nothing more than the results of those "unjust" limitations.
It is no accident that it is just now, just here (and not that much elsewhere in the Catholic world apart from the English-speaking Catholic world) that the issue of women priests now arises in all its fury. Sacraments, as nothing more than rituals, cease then to be acts of the Church. It then seems ridiculous that only certain people, "priests", should be allowed to perform them. For, is that not another limitation, and a limitation enfleshed in matter, at that...in the maleness of the priest? Once subjective emotional experience becomes primary, ANYONE can perform these rituals. It IS the effects to which the symbols give rise and the ritual acts themselves that are important, NOT WHO PERFORMS THEM. As with any nature religion, any animist religion, any shaman, the effectiveness of the ritual itself becomes inextricably bound up with the ability to perform it properly, not with any "authority." Hence the need for the secrecy of Gnosticism - that power wielded by the many would mean that we are all the same. There are no "chosen" among us. As with the Gnostics of the ancient world, it is said that for priests to limit these occasions to themselves smacks of a jealousy for special status and prerogative, male patriarchy - they need to be freed from the control of the priests and given back to those who would use them properly....to remove restraints rather than to place them.
The problem with that, of course, is that, for Catholics, history, witness (especially Apostolic witness), community, Tradition (a form of Apostolic Witness) and authority (another kind of Apostolic Witness) are crucial to the Catholic. All of these factors derive from the physical, historical reality of a single event - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in space and time. Specific space, Jerusalem, Palestine, in specific time, ca. 33 A.D. The Resurrection of the Person of Jesus Christ from the dead is not just another "useful idea" - it is an event that challenges all our basic assumptions about the nature of reality itself. The Apostolic Church describes it in terms of apocalyptic import, a Revelatory event, gratuitous in the freeness with which it was given by God, and in the originality of the life which challenged the real, live people of His day and age to a new faith in His Father and Himself, to Faith in the God of Jesus of Nazareth as the sole and only source of salvation for ANY human being - not simply for those who believed.
And here again we are at the lip of the chasm which separates the Orthodox Christian from the Gnostic, modern or early. We are saved, not through knowledge, but through faith in the love and mercy of God, faith in the mercy and love of God revealed to us in this one single unique moment and event as witnessed to by the Apostles who established the Apostolic community.
A religion which flows from an event is no longer something "useful," something I can control with an eye to a given end. It becomes something which is no longer governed in its value by my own experience or desire, and becomes instead something which then dictates the meaning and significance of my experience whether I like it or not.
Events compel action, first the action of repentance and the commitment to new values in the real world of interacting with very real others, objective others, whose worth and reality has nothing to do with my own apperceptions or lack thereof. That single event demands then that we recognize our own sinfulness, not our deity, and our own need for redemption, redemption as something coming with absolute gratuitousness from another upon whom we have NO claim whatever. Matthew Fox has suggested that it is time to separate the Resurrection from its link with sin. That would, I think, suit nicely the Gnostics among us, for the Resurrection could then be said to stand for the promise of eventual transcendence over nature and a guarantee of the eventual success of our self-realization in our own inner and hidden godliness.
Abandon the link between forgiveness of sins and Resurrection and you necessarily abandon (at least in logic) the Resurrection. For without the existence of sin itself, Resurrection has no meaning. You cannot separate the event from the interpretation, and the interpretation requires an interpreter. What we have inherited from the Apostolic Community is this....the interpretation of those who were there. We are in no position at a remove of 20 centuries to interpret something to which we were not witness. The Resurrection reveals us all as sinners and demands that each of us comes to see himself AS a sinner. Consciousness of our sinfulness, not consciousness of our hidden divinity, is what sets us on the path to salvation in the Christian faith; and some in the Johannine community found this very difficult to accept. So Paul, in his usual bluntness, spoke to the issue: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He Who Is Faithful and Just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us."
To believe then in the historical reality of the Resurrection then is to accept both our sinfulness and our need of gratuitous merciful forgiveness....a message like to fall on very deaf and unwilling ears among our new Gnostics. Gnosticism looks for freedom from constraints, not freedom from sinfulness or the forgiveness thereof. We are not sinners, we are victims! We are "broken" people, who need only "healing", not sinful people in need of repentance and forgiveness for freely-chosen evil. Our inadequacies and failings are rooted in impersonal factors which distort and pervert our otherwise pure and inherently good inner natures. So, nobody is to blame for his own acts! Remove those constraints through self-knowledge and self-empowerment (another name for Revolution), and all will be well and you cannot have done anything evil, for yourself is essentially divine. Gods can do no wrong.
And this is why Orthodox Catholicism is under such assault, the most savage from its own members. Catholicism affirms that the fundamental problem in human life is not ignorance, but SIN. It is not information we lack - we have more than enough of that. It is repentance we lack, nothing less. For Orthodox Catholics, salvation is not a matter of escaping evil through self-knowledge, but the transcendence of sin and death through accepting that freely-gifted forgiveness for our sins, and by means of it changing our lives and our hearts, and thereby our behavior. It is the EVENT of the Resurrection which is saving, not the idea.
To be an Orthodox Catholic requires joining oneself in fellowship with that Apostolic community by accepting that witness to the event, and seeking to live out its meaning, day by day, minute by minute. It is to join that community of power that continues to unfold the meaning of the Resurrection for the human race, and that community which enjoys the power, the authority to accept some meanings and exclude others, to "mediate" forgiveness in the new life. It is to insist that God, in His Holy Spirit, operates in and through the Church for the salvation of the world, one human being at a time.
For the Gnostic, of course, the Church is not any source of saving truth so much as it a hindrance to it. The source of religious truth, for the Gnostic, lies within the individual, not outside it in Tradition and the community. The utility of the Church lies, for the Gnostic, only in the opportunities it can provide the individual with an emotionally uplifting ritual. But it is not necessary for salvation. And what emerges from that concept is nothing more than a group of ad hoc communities which are the flux and flow of like-minded individuals who can offer one another companionship and mutual affirmation as "good" human beings, as individuals, expressed in "meaningful" liturgical experience. How diametrically opposed to that Pauline notion of the Church as a body in which sharing on the basis of a common faith and shared life is the essential! It is, I think, no accident that Paul's writings have so fallen out of favor. His concept of the Mystical Body is almost beyond our modern understanding and surely immensely disturbing to those of us whose passion is for both equality and individual autonomy simultaneously. In a living body, however, as Paul describes the Mystical Body of Christ to be, the individual units are always subordinate to the good of the whole. If they were otherwise they would be cancerous, and would feed upon and kill that which it was their function to support, unless they themselves are destroyed. Now, that is an ominous image, and adds new drama to the Pauline "Anathema sit!" The very image itself argues not for mythical equality and individual autonomy in sameness but for differentiation of roles and ministries. Gnostics, however, perpetually seek to annihilate difference and distinctions in the name of equality - equality, of course, for the elect alone, not for the unenlightened masses. The contemporary loss of appreciation for the differentiation of roles within the Mystical Body is evident in the increasingly violent attempts to minimize, if not entirely eliminate, the priesthood. The current rage to ordain women to the priesthood is not, I think, any more of a real attempt to reorder priesthood than those reformers who set out so vigorously in the seventies to "reform" their orders....and reformed them quite out of existence. When everyone is priest, nobody is priest. Gnostics will claim that any attempt to differentiate roles within the community is by definition a rendering of some as unequal (therefore inferior) to others. Fathers and mothers are surely different, and by definition unequal. But which of them is inferior to the other? Does the question even apply? I maintain it does not. Somehow, position and authority have come to be seen as claims to superiority rather than, as the Scriptures maintain, positions of rendering greater service; I suspect there is the unspoken wish on the part of those who do so to acquire that power that they may derive service rather than provide it. So long as the very notion of a priesthood as having a very specific role within the community for the sake of the community is under attack, so is the very nature of the community being served under the same attack. Because Americans have traditionally (and foolishly) identified authority with individual status and power there is a definite attempt among many in the Church to remove that priestly authority and, under the pretense of diffusing it to the entire community, to concentrate it into the hands of those "initiates" who truly, like the liturgists, understand the "inner nature and complexities" of priestly power, as they do of the "mysteries" of ritual. Even the language of the Gnostics is the same.
The proponents of this movement very often portrayed themselves (after the Council) as "purifying" the Divine Liturgy of the accretion of ages, and "restoring" it to a pristine purity of a mythical golden age of the Church which, so far as I have been able to determine from any of my historical studies, never really existed. It is tantamount to the craze for restoring the purity of the Atlantaean Age, before the destruction of Atlantis, or the search for that mythical kingdom (queendom?) militant feminist revolutionaries postulate once existed where women held the power and exercised it in all purity and righteousness and never was there evil on the face of the land. In one recent exchange elsewhere on the system I was rather giddily informed (so I thought) that "in the Early Church all things were decided together; everyone was equal. There WAS no authority of one greater than another." That the early Church was nothing of the sort needs only a reading of Acts, where it tells us in one short episode alone that "Those who welcomed his message were baptized.... They devoted themselves to the Apostles' teachings and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." That is to say that the members "devoted themselves" to the teaching of the Apostles, not to "sharing their own personal revelations." That "pure Christianity" I was being told about was never a "faith-sharing" group in the sense in which it is understood today. It was, to be sure, a group that held to a common faith, and Paul himself is the single greatest model for this; yet he was very concerned that he shared the same faith as the original group of disciples in Jerusalem "to make sure the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, was not in vain."
That Gnostic adoration of the primitive Church as an egalitarian entity is another characteristic of American Gnosticism. "One of the grand myths of the American Religion is the restoration of the Primitive Church, which probably never existed."
It is frightening to see how widespread the trend is already in place at the parish level in the Church in America. There are those activists in every parish, already in place, often with the consent, even the connivance, of their pastors and bishops, who have the sense of being crusaders in the great effort to restore this Primitive Church, as though primitiveness itself were a guarantee of sanctity - the Fall having occurred after creation, and the effort now to return to that pure state before the Fall, before we were all Victims; to the glory of that Primitive Church which existed before the autocratic male hierarchy foisted itself upon a naive and unsuspecting laity and thereby dimmed the Light of Christ which pervaded that early Church. It has all the characteristics for nostalgia which myth generally evokes. Reality tends to do rather different things..... But it is a myth with no basis in history. From the very beginning the Church was based on Authority. Hierarchical structure is not an aberration, but the norm, a natural outcome of that very "primitive" nature it had. First, the office of the bishop developed to safeguard the unity of the local church, then that of the papacy to safeguard the unity of a church which was quite suddenly worldwide.
Destroy the uniqueness of the Resurrection and Christianity itself loses any claim for our attention. The Resurrection can only claim its place in our minds and hearts when it is the source of a living understanding of a cosmic historical reality which suddenly irrupted upon the human sphere of life, and if the Apostolic community which bore witness to it really experienced redemption face-to-face in its encounter with that Jesus-Risen-From-The-Dead. Redemption occurred only in Jesus, and in a way that makes it an event of such universal significance that no other historical event can approach it in import and importance; it is for the service of this message, for the sureness of its delivery to future generations of human beings separated far in time from the event that the authority of the Church exists, and that alone can enable us to experience its life-giving effects through the Sacraments and within the community of the Church.
It would be worse than foolish, it would be heretical, to suppose from anything I've said above that "personal discovery" of the importance of the Christian message cannot enable us to "make sense" of that message within the context of our own experience as well, and enable us to deal with it an incorporate it into our personal lives much more effectively than if it were simple myth and nothing more; but surely among the ways we discover the exhilaration and joy of simply being Catholic is that it (the Resurrection) does enable us to make sense of life and to be guided by it to life-saving values and behavior.
The real battle for this day, then, is to prevent Christianity/Catholicism from being reduced to an idea; to situate it firmly in the reality of history. The battle is to prevent the heart of salvation as the action of God in that particularity (or singularity, if you prefer) of the universe which GOD created, rather than reducing it to an idea which WE have developed. To keep the tension between individual understanding of Christ's message and saving Life, Death and Resurrection in its personal relevance, and the community's need to safeguard that core tradition for future generations - and to be sure that both interact for the good of the entire Body. It is, in short, as others have said, "a battle for the very soul of America."
The historical record of the power of the Spirit within the Church to work to transform any culture in which she lives is a clear one. There cannot be a mistaking of it. American culture is no different, and the tasks allotted in the Plan of God to each of us individually are no more difficult than in former ages; in some ways, vastly less. But if we are to be up to the task, the Church must somehow quarantine those Gnostic tendencies within her and reaffirm loudly and strongly her essential Catholicity. She has to be willing once again to identify that dividing line which has always separated Catholic (for all) from Gnostic (for the initiate), and to refuse to step across it. It is the ancient temptation of the Garden, to "try it and see," and "ye shall be as Gods."
© July 1994 10:17 PM 10/9/97 Rev. H.R. Stockert, all rights reserved. First draft only. Not for publication
9 I cannot recall the source of the quote, only that it exists as quickly
copied in the spiral notebook I carry in my shirt pocket to jot down either my
own quick thoughts or those of others. This was in quotes there, so it is
obviously someone else's. The attribution, however, is missing. Bloom, The
American Religion. 1 John 8:10 Acts 2:41-42 Galatians 2:2 Bloom, The American
Religion Pat Buchanan, I think, during his Convention address in 1992.
Fr. Hal Stockert (frade católico)