Spirituality and the Specter of Gnosticism (10/24/2008; revised 6/25/22)

I am all in favor of spirituality and of spiritual experience more generally. As a matter of fact, I have written a whole book about these matters, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (2014).

But I’ve always shied away from any free-floating kind of spirituality, which treasures anything that “works.” The centuries-old spiritual tradition known as Gnosticism is an important case in point. Gnostic spirituality always has been lurking at the door of the Christian Churches, and has often entered, sometimes by popular support, sometimes championed by theologians (!), or both.

Gnosticism has taken many forms throughout Christian history, but most if not all of its forms presuppose what has sometimes been called a spirit/matter dualism. According to this worldview, things that are spiritual are good; things that are material are evil, particularly the human body. The goal of the spiritual life, then, according to Gnostic ways of thinking is to minimize the effects of matter or “the flesh” on human aspirations and to maximize the influence of non-material spiritual things, like thinking or praying or meditating, often by oneself or with a few fellow “experts.” The mainstream of the Christian tradition, however, has typically opposed Gnostic sensibilities, as the theologies of IrenaeusAugustine, and Francis of Assisi show. All of them directly opposed expressions of Gnosticism in their own times.

In our world, one does not have to maintain that Gnosticism is the American religion, as did the eminent American literary critic, Harold Bloom, to see signs of the Gnostic spirit everywhere: precisely in the free floating quest for spirituality that is so popular in some American church circles, where the experience of the individual has become the treasure-trove for the faithful, where “spirituality” is celebrated, over against “religion.” Witness the continuing interest in the thought of the great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, in the U.S., in some Christian circles and more generally.

Witness, more generally, 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 once while on vacation, I heard the preacher say from the pulpit words like these: “I don’t need to tell you about Jesus or about God. You know all about these things. What you don’t know about is yourself.” Mercy.

In the meantime, we live in a world at the edge of an international nuclear conflict, a world where climate change is threatening whole continents, a world of vast poverty, a world where the powerful continue to trample on the powerless. And what really counts is my own spiritual life?!  Mercy, again.

Feel free to leave a comment here: