Spirituality, Liturgy, and the Specter of Gnosticism

I am all in favor of spirituality and of spiritual experience more generally. I discuss such matters in personal terms in a chapter of my book Nature Reborn.

But not a free-floating spirituality, where anything that “works” is treasured. The specter of Gnosticism has always been lurking at the door of the Church, as the counter-festimonies of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Francis of Assisi show. In our own world, one does not have to maintain that Gnosticism is the American religion, a la Harold Bloom, to see signs of the Gnostic spirit everywhere: precisely in the free floating quest for spirituality that is so popular in American church circles where the experience of the individual has become the treasure-trove of so many of the faithful. Witness the interest in Jung, still, to this day. Witness the influence of New Age trends practically everywhere. Witness even the radical individualism of some forms of post-pietist pietism, whether bequeathed in the sophisticated form of Bultmannian theology or the popular forms of “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” evangelicalism. In all these settings, the faith of the individual rules. It becomes the norm even for preaching at times: visiting a Lutheran congregation while on vacation, I heard the preacher say from the pulpit words like these: “I don’t need to tell you about Jesus. You know all about Jesus. What you don’t know about is yourself.” Mercy.

Spirituality if it is not to fall prey to the Gnostic spirit, I believe, must be rooted — in the classical liturgy of the Church (see my book, Ritualizing Nature). But it must be precisely the classical liturgy of the church, and not a spiritualized adaptation. A case in point: the Eucharistic Prayer. This prayer announces the whole Gospel narrative, creation, redemption, consummation. It is in this universal context that the Eucharist has its existential meaning. What is given “for me” is the full Gospel truth, not just the truth of my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sadly, however, that prayer if often truncated, reduced just to “the words of institution.” In that way, I become the center of the Eucharist — given for me — rather than God. My experience occupies the center of the stage, not the grace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When spirituality is properly rooted in the catholic liturgy, then it can inspire us to praise God in all things and to know God with us and with every creature, overflowing with power and glory and grace. With spirituality thus rooted, the specter of Gnosticism can be revealed for the false “gospel” that it is.

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