Modern Christians know that there were “false” versions of the faith from its earliest days. In reality, there were multiple Christian streams and traditions before an orthodoxy began to emerge. Some of the earliest believers designated as “heretics” were groups of Gnostic Christians. Unfortunately, most of what we know of these groups has to be reconstructed from what their orthodox critics wrote about them, so we can’t be certain that their beliefs have been properly represented. Gnostics apparently believed in a dual reality, a sharp separation between the world of matter and the world of spirit, which certain people could upwardly traverse if they possessed the proper knowledge (Greek gnosis). Special sorts of humans (not just anyone) could learn secret truths and by knowing them transcend their fleshly bodies.
Christian apologists today are well rehearsed in criticism of Gnosticism. It is not focused on sin or atonement, it diverges from the apostolic tradition, and it attempts to reconfigure the story and message of Jesus according to its own agenda. When Gnostic Gospel texts were discovered and published in the twentieth century, conservative Christianity quickly mobilized to “debunk” and dismiss them. But when I step back and look at modern conservative Christianity, particularly the fundamentalist and biblicist streams, I see a faith that frankly shares a great deal in common with that old Gnosticism.
I recently read an intensely biblicist article on Facebook. It celebrated the Bible as “revealing special knowledge” not available anywhere else, without which one cannot hope to “see heaven” when they die. God “sent us” this book, and if we want to know the saving truth, all we have to do is read and believe it. Now, as a Christian myself and a student of scripture, I fully recognize the unique value of the Bible to those who wish to follow Jesus. But the biblicist approach seems to me to be deeply Gnostic, for a few obvious reasons: 1) It assumes a dualistic universe; we live in doomed flesh and the point of religion and salvation is to transcend our fate and attain a higher plane of spiritual existence. 2) Information that was once secret has been made known in the Bible and is the key to unlocking salvation and transcendence. And 3) only certain (elect) people are even eligible to receive this special knowledge; many will never know or believe because that’s just how the universe is set up.
Again, I do not deny that the Bible is especially valuable for the way it puts the church in touch with the earliest traditions about Jesus and the ancient context from which he emerged. But celebrating a book as the key which unlocks enlightenment and heaven seems like a huge mistake – and a new sort of Christian Gnosticism. Instead of appreciating the scriptures as a witness to Jesus whom we may choose to follow on a path of thoughtful spirituality, the Bible itself becomes the magical gnosis which affords its true believers salvation and escape.
What is the antidote to gnostic faith? Isn’t all religion “gnostic” to some degree? Doesn’t every faith offer “special knowledge” that gets the believer on the inside? The answer is often yes, though it really boils down to the way we choose to understand and embrace our faith. Here are a few suggestions for keeping our Christian faith from going gnostic:
- Remember that “the way” of Jesus is a lifelong journey of humility, learning, and repentance, not a magic transaction that places us on a superior plane of existence.
- Remember that our tradition has traversed many borders of culture, language, race, and class. We are not an exclusive or privileged group.
- Remember that many in our tribe can profess belief and understanding without ever demonstrating empathy or mercy, while many outside of our tribe have discovered the path of peace and forgiveness without our same knowledge or resources. Belief does not automatically translate into enlightenment.
- Remember that the Bible is a partner and helper, a story told by our forebearers, and not a magic fount of secret knowledge.
There is no shortcut to wisdom or character, no fastpass to peace and salvation. There is only a life to be lived in either relationship and discovery, or alienation and fear. Knowledge is only a first step.