Friday, December 01, 2006

Gnosticism, Neo-Gnosticism and the Need for Evangelical Reflection

One of the papers I am finalizing this semester is one on Gnosticism. I am looking at Irenaeus's response to Gnosticism as expressed by Valentinus, and then noting the strengths and weaknesses of his approach, followed by theological and missiological reflections for engaging Neo-Gnosticism in the twenty-first century.

The study has been interesting as I reflect not only on how to interact with with increasingly popular and influential Neo-Gnosticism, but also how this expression of spirituality provides opportunities for evangelicals to see our own blindspots. Harold O.J. Brown, in his classic book Heresies, states that in the early history of the church "Gnosticism actually performed a service for the church, by compelling it to think the Gospel through and work out its implications." I think we still have some thinking to do and I'd like to suggest a few areas.

One of the defining features of second century Gnosticism was its dualism which emphasized the spiritual realm and viewed the material world as evil and corrupt as a product of the inferior deity of the Demiurge. I wonder whether many evangelicals might have adopted their own forms of dualism that rival those of ancient Gnosticism. Consider the following:

First. our understanding of soteriology in general, and particularly in connection with new religions and "alternative" spiritualities in the West, tend to be doctrinally and intellectually focused, a form of special gnosis. We tend to articulate a series of doctrinal propositions, sometimes several and of great theological complexity, and if these are embraced we connect this with a relationship with Christ and salvation. I recognize that soteriology and faith in Christ include cognitive dimensions, but perhaps we have made the knowledge issue primary at the expense of another facet. Gary Trompff, writing on the historic oscillation in the West between the esoteric and exoteric, writes that,

"[S]ince in [John's] Gospel Jesus is found saying 'I am the Reality (aletheia)' (8:46), the radical implication presents itelf that truth is found in the personhood of the Christ, not in the propositional thought of the philosophers, and that true freedom arises from relationship, indeed befriending discipleship, rather than correct epistemology."

Is there room for evangelicals to rethink the relationship between the cognitive and the relational in the Christian faith? How might theology be able to dialogue with sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and missiology to reframe our current perceptions?

Second, evangelical attitudes about the body tend toward the Victorian and Puritanical. We tend to lack a theology that connects the body, its nakedness and "genderedness," to the goodness of God's creation and reflecting sacredness as a part of what it means to be an embodied creature reflecting the divine. Is this our own form of Gnostic emphasis on the spiritual at the expense of evil matter?

Third, many evangelicals tend not to be involved in environmental causes and lack a theology of the creation and God's involvement with and within it beyond the creation-evolution debate. This is made even more problematic when this lack of care for the creation is tied to certain eschatological systems of "end-times" which anticipates redeemed humanity's removal from the created order and its pending destruction and recreation. How might we rethink a theology of creation in terms of its sacredness in connection with the creator rather than abandoning it to decay and our abuse?

Fourth, related to number three above, our most popular eschatology, particularly that popularized in the Left Behind novels, appears to be pseudo-Gnostic. Brown, writing on Marcion's views of the Old Testament, states that,

"Marcion's idea that the church really is not part of world history appears again, centuries later in a more orthodox form, in the view of J. N. Darby (1800-1882). Darby and the dispensationalists who follow him consder the church to be in a kind of parenthesis that really is not part of world history."

Do evangelicals really value the historical process, God's outworking of his telos for and within the created and historical order? And are these salvific purposes extended not only to humanity, but to the whole creation as well? Our most popular "end-times" scenario casts doubt on this. And to make matters worse, some of the methods used to arrive at these scenarios seem to resemble forms of numerology and hidden code deciphering that might have made many Gnostics and hermeticists blush.

In addition to the concerns above that I hope we can revisit in fresh ways, I wonder whether our engagement with Neo-Gnosticism has not only caused us to miss out on critical self-reflection, but has also been largely defensive rather than truly engaging. A few of the academic sources I have interacted with for my course paper have noted that while the early church put forward a defense for the church it failed to engage the questions that the Gnostics were asking and for which they provided answers that emerging orthodoxy saw as heretical. Are there ways in which we can not only recontextualize the faith, just as Paul reframed it for the Hellenic environment, but also take Neo-Gnosticism's quest seriously and engage the key issues of Western culture in the twenty-first century?

I hope we can answer these questions in the affirmative. But at times I think evangelicals are more Gnostic than the Neo-Gnostics.


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

I'm curious about the graphic at the top of the page. What do the various elements represent (aside from the cross, of course)? Also, where does it come from? It looks vaguely familiar.

Thanks in advance!

John W. Morehead said...

Sophia, I'm not sure about the Gnostic symbolism. Perhaps some other readers can provide some thoughts.

philjohnson said...

I believe that you will find that the other emblems inscribed on the graphic logo derive from Masonic and Rosicrucian sources.

The rose was a symbol that Martin Luther (father of the Protestant Reformation) chose as one element in his personal heraldic seal. His heraldic seal had a heart, a rose and a cross. The earliest form of Rosicrucian mysticism emerged in the early 17th century in Germany and the rose and the cross were twin symbols. The square, circle and triangle are classic Masonic emblems: square - 4 points of the compass, circle - the world, triangle - from geometry, as well as a classic trinitarian illustration. The rose inside the triangle is a variation on a Masonic emblem of an eye inside a triangle (the all-seeing eye of God).

Masonry in different countries developed some "rosicrucian" degrees. Today there are various Rosicrucian groups that claim lineage-descent from the 17th century and earlier).

Of course there are other ways in which the square, circle and triangle have been used in religious and esoteric symbology. However it is my supposition that the Masonic and Rosicrucian influences are very likely the obvious ones for this particular group.

Anonymous said...

The heat in on dude.
Hanegraaff's siding with the Local Church was defeated 2 days ago, and he is about to be exposed in an upcoming book. He's an opportunist in sheep's clothing, and YOU, my demon controlled enemy, are in the same class as him.
Anathema to your evil works.

John W. Morehead said...

It's interesting that you come here and post anonymously with your "blessing" to my work. You wouldn't be a countercult personality, would you?

For the record, I was not a party to the Hanegraaff/Passantino friend of the court brief, so it has no relevance to my work in general, or this blog post in particular.

As to the forthcoming book that will "expose" Hanegraaff which you mention, this exemplifies one of the problems with countercult circles and their fixation on sniffing out heresy. Not only do you spend great amounts of time fixing your fences of boundary definition for the church and often fail to engage in other important areas of ministry such as missions and evangelism, but you also quickly turn your sights on fellow Christians. For some in the countercult it appears as if it is a short journey from heresy hunting to an Inquisition in the church. Pity.

I pray the Lord's blessings on your work, and a change of heart and mind so that you might be more of a blessing to others.