What’s Wrong With Spirituality? Part 3: Spirituality and Gnosticism

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gnosticism is the major rival of Christianity and always has been, all the way back to the Corinthian congregation founded by St. Paul. The letters of John show clear evidence of anti-gnostic polemic (“Beloved, do not believe every spirit”–I Jn. 4:1). Gnosticism is notoriously difficult to define because it has so many shapes. Gnostic ideas are present in all religions (excluding authentic apostolic Christianity), and in non-religious proposals as well (see my first Rumination about Sam Harris’ gnostic alternative to religion), so it isn’t easy to point to what is specifically gnostic about so many different points of view. However, an approach can be made by focusing on the word gnostic which, in Greek, means “knowledge.” In I Corinthians, Paul is writing to correct the gnosticism in that congregation. “Knowledge (gnosis) puffs up, but love (agape)  builds up” (I Cor. 8:1). “If I have all gnosis…but have not agape, I am nothing.” The central idea in gnosticism is esoteric knowledge (gnosis) that people can acquire by means of spiritual practices (a familiar enthusiasm in church circles these days), or by the exercise of the more spectacular spiritual gifts in an exclusive atmosphere (as in Corinth and some “charismatic” and pentecostal congregations today). Paul also refers in the same way, somewhat sarcastically, to “wisdom” (sophia) when he writes to the Corinthians, because he is rebuking the members of that congregation for their deep divisions. Those conflicts were causing the pneumatikoi (spiritual persons) to distinguish themselves from the “foolish.” Give me foolishness over wisdom any day, Paul testifies, because “God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God”  (I Cor. 1:27, 29) First on the list of that which is foolish and shameful is the cross of Christ (I Cor. 1:23-4), which finds no place in gnosticism.

This problem of gnostic spirituality manifests itself in different ways. For example, in some church circles, those who are able to follow a disciplinary rule, whether it be the conservative-evangelical “Quiet Time” or the Rule of St. Benedict, can easily be subtly (or not so subtly) seduced into thinking themselves spiritually superior, or allowing themselves to be admired or envied as spiritually superior. This leads to some people saying ruefully, or believing privately, that they are not as far along in their spiritual journeys as others are. I have often heard and seen this effect in groups. And in a quite different context, I was once dis-invited to preach in a charismatic congregation because I was deemed to be insufficiently Spirit-filled.

In many Episcopal churches, walking around a labyrinth is encouraged as a superior way of being spiritual, I tried walking around a labyrinth once, earnestly attempting to see what others saw in it. I got very bored in about three minutes and, I’m afraid, quit. Some would say that was proof positive that my spirituality is sadly lacking (true, no doubt). More and more labyrinths are appearing in more and more churches, in spite of the fact that only a few will be interested (gnosticism tends to major in the few). There is nothing whatever in scripture about such a thing, and very little in Christian tradition.

A review (NYRB 6/24/2004) of a book about labyrinths reports this:

Kern’s book includes pictures of labyrinths from throughout the world: temple reliefs from India, Native American petroglyphs, stamped gold rings from Indonesia. Stamped on coins from Knossos is the stylized maze that glared at us for years from the cover of the journal Daedalus; it was the great inventor Daedalus, of course, who built the primal labyrinth of the Minotaur for Pasiphaë, as well as a “dancing floor” for her daughter Ariadne. An Etruscan wine jug shows Theseus emerging from the first, and a sixth-century Greek vase shows him presiding over the second. At the center of the labyrinths we see the Minotaur being slain by Theseus, or when Christianity has taken hold of the myth, the Devil slain again and again by the Christian Warrior in full armor.  . 

This is actually pretty funny, since current attempts to Christianize this clearly pre- or extra-Christian symbolic path most certainly do not mention either the Devil or the Christian Warrior! (Strictly speaking, labyrinths are not mazes, which are much more interesting to some of us.) No one is really sure what the once-ignored, now-famous labyrinth in the floor at Chartres was all about. Some think it was a dance pattern. In any case, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as having anything to do with the Christian gospel. At best it is a meditation technique.  Biblical faith is not about silent meditation without content. It arises out of the Word, and specifically the “Word of the cross” (I Cor.1:18). One of the most important aspects of gnosticism for Christians to consider is its tendency to ignore, downplay, or spiritualize the cross of Christ. The so-called Gnostic Gospels have no passion narratives, which in itself disqualifies them.

I have given some thought to the matter of monastic discipline. Like many others I am a great admirer of Christian de Chergé, the Cistercian prior who, along with six of his fellow monks, was martyred in Algeria in 1996 (the story is beautifully told in the celebrated film Of Gods and Men, but much more thoroughly in the book The Monks of Tibhirine ). When a group of people decide to live in community by the rhythm of Christian prayer, worship, Scripture, and hospitality, whether they are Catholic like the monks of Tibhirine or Protestant like the members of the Bruderhof (with whom I have a respectful relationship), that seems to me different from the sort of spirituality that is being recommended today in the churches at large. If a person within the church seeks to join in regular prayer in solidarity with such an intentional group, that seems to me quite different from the sort of generic spirituality that divides Christians from one another and results in far too much emphasis on individual spiritual progress. The “word of the Cross” is not absent from monastic communities as it is in gnosticism.

Spirituality that is vague, individualistic, unbiblical, syncretistic, focused on the self and its supposed progress, is damaging to the life of the Christian community. Gnosticism feeds on the image of a staircase or journey with its corresponding idea of ascending or attaining a goal. It’s true that Paul refers to attaining a goal in Philippians 3:12-14, but this passage is controlled by vs. 12 with its very strong emphasis on the precedence of what Christ has already accomplished in us.

The very idea of a spiritual dimension should make us wary, if we are readers of Scripture. How unspiritual so much of the Bible is! I once heard a theologian say that he didn’t want to be asked about his spiritual life, but about his life. To me, this was a freeing statement. I have received a great deal of counsel, correction, guidance, advice, and direction during the course of my life, and it has all been an incomparable blessing from God. Why I should require a spiritual director is beyond me.

This is the third of three installments on the subject of spirituality. That’s all I’m going to write on that subject for the present. What I’m focusing on right now is the migrant crisis and the lack of a significant response from the churches, both in Europe and on this continent.

A final wink-wink re spirituality, from my forthcoming book The Crucifixion:

The main character in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins says, “Beware of Episcopal women who take up with Ayn Rand and the Buddha and Dr. Rhine formerly of Duke University [the parapsychologist]. . . They fall prey to Gnostic pride . . . and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.” Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 94.

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