Problems with Gnosis1
Fr. Hal Stockert, “The Problem of Gnosis in American Churches,” at www.cin.org/avatar/gnosis.html.2
“A new and particularly vicious form of Gnosticism has for the past two decades . . . pervaded what purports to be Christianity . . . in the Western World, and will doubtlessly bring down upon us the wrath of many elements which will surprise us greatly. Gnostic Westerners have . . . begun to set themselves up for a mighty fall. . . .
“Gnosticism is rampant among Catholics, and . . . [also is] 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: . . . [C]an we dispense with [the truth of salvation and grace] and rely instead on ‘knowledge [Greek, gnosis]’? 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?’ . . .
“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. . . .
“The ancient Gnostics saw the core of the human person, its ‘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 . . . 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?
Gnosticism and “Freedom”
“Gnostics saw and see the self as unjustly ‘bound’ by gender, time, place, circumstance, relationship. . . . All unjust because they are limitations not of the individual’s choosing. The ‘Fall’ is a fall into matter, physicality, history . . . and community. . . . 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’ . . . [This freedom will] free the individual from the distorting effects of his embodiment in a physical universe with physical constraints, and everything will be well.
Gnosticism and the Resurrection
“Gnostics must therefore actively exclude . . . any need to rely on the reality of a Resurrection . . . [since t]he 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.
Gnosticism and Experience
“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’ . . . Through those experiences initiated by and maintained by ‘ritual’ . . . , 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’ . . .
“In a very short order . . . [ritual has been reduced] 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. . . . [W]hen you have become one with this power, ‘Resurrection’ is not only no longer needed, it has become a foregone conclusion . . . [Y]ou 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. . . .
Gnosticism and Redemption
“To believe . . . [however] in the historical reality of the Resurrection . . . 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 . . . and all will be well and you cannot have done anything evil, for yourself is essentially divine. Gods can do no wrong. . . .
“For the Gnostic . . . the source of religious truth . . . lies within the individual, not outside it. . . . [To accept this fallacy, however, would be the ultimate tragedy.] 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. . . .
“The real battle for this day, then, is to prevent Christianity . . . from being reduced to an idea; to situate it firmly in the reality of history. The battle is to present 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. . . . [It is t]o 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 . . . 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.’”4
- The Greek word gnosis means “knowledge”/“to know.” See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1976), s.v. “Gnosticism”; Britannica Online, s.v. “Gnosticism,” at www.britannica.com/topic/gnosticism. (go back)
- The quotations within the text are from Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), available from various booksellers at www.bookfinder.com/book/9780671679972/. (go back)
- See “The Great Divide,” Outlook (Prequel 2001.10). (go back)
- Fr. Hal Stockert, “The Problem of Gnosis in American Churches,” at www.cin.org/avatar/gnosis.html. Copyright November 15, 1997, by Catholic Information Network (CIN). (go back)