Spirituality, the Specter of Gnosticism, and Vincent Van Gogh*

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. In the West, Gnostic spirituality has always been lurking at the door of the Christian Churches, and has sometimes entered, whether by popular demand or championed by some theologians, or both.

Gnosticism has taken many forms throughout Christian history, but most if not all of its expressions 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 what have been thought of as non-material, inner spiritual experiences, like thinking or praying or meditating or even opting for “trips” with drugs like LSD, sometimes by oneself, sometimes by joining a few “spiritual experts.”**

The mainstream of the Christian tradition, for sure, has typically opposed Gnostic sensibilities, as the theologies of IrenaeusAugustine, and Francis of Assisi show (see my book The Travail of Nature [1985]). Each of these three giants of the Christian faith 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:  especially in the free floating quest for spirituality that is so popular in circles whose members identify with what was once called “the counterculture.”  Today similar themes find expression in the thoughts of many who like to consider themselves to be “spiritual, not religious.”  This is the common assumption:  spiritual meanings that stir within the individual have authenticity, no so much the formal rites and beliefs of traditional religious communities.

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’ve heard about these things for a long time. What you don’t know about is – yourself. Let me help you meet yourself.”  I give that preacher the benefit of the doubt. Probably he had no idea that he was giving voice to ancient Gnostic themes. But he was.

In the meantime, if I may say so, while many are seeking to explore the depths of the inner self, the external world in which we live is going to hell. We live in a world at the edge of an international nuclear conflict, a world where climate change is threatening livable human existence in whole regions, a world of encroaching poverty almost everywhere, and a world where the powerful continue to trample on the powerless in many nations. And what really counts is my own inner life?!  Mercy.

In these times of global crisis, what those of us who are aspiring to be Christians need most, I am convinced, is a vision of God’s good creation and of God’s promise for the whole creation that’s commensurate with the comprehensive crisis that we’re facing. The whole world is worth saving, because – according to Scripture – the whole world has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. Rather than retreating from our predicament to some protected inner sanctum, then, as historic Gnosticism and its modern offshoots prompt us to do, I believe that we must advance to claim the world anew as the good creation that God loves in its entirety, past, present, and future:  however broken and tormented this creation, in its human expressions, now appears to be. How, in a word, are we to reclaim the biblical promise of God’s love for the whole cosmos (John 3:16), not just for a few individuals who are “in the know” (= gnostics)?

If I were to select a single anti-Gnostic and pro-biblical Christian vision in modern times for us to emulate in our quest to reaffirm God’s good creation in its fullness, for me it would be the vision of Vincent Van Gogh. Never mind his personal struggles, for now. Such things go with the human condition. Rather, think of his paintings and the theological vistas they announce.

Many people know about Van Gogh’s glorious paintings of wheat fields, sunflowers, and that one overwhelmingly beautiful Starry Night. Such works surely celebrate God’s glorious works throughout the earth and the goodness of the whole earth. Such paintings announce that God is to be encountered here and now, in this brilliantly translucent creation, not in some other supra-earthly heavenly realm, whether high above or deep within. Van Gogh was, indeed, a celebrant of the whole world of matter, not of some other allegedly higher or deeper spiritual world. This is most apparent to me in some of his earliest works, particularly those rooted in his identification with the impoverished peasants of his time.

“We humans are of the earth,” I hear Van Gogh saying, again and again, in those early works. For Van Gogh, from the very beginnings of his artistic creativity, human identity is rooted in materiality, not in some ethereal realm somewhere else, accessible only by by an earth-demeaning spiritual ascent to some higher world or by some earth-abandoning, mystical plunge into the depths of one’s own interiority, drug-induced or not.

For Van Gogh, the peasant working with the earth is telling an eternal truth. Van Gogh, I believe, was always a faithful celebrant of the earth.  We can laud his artistic gifts for many reasons, but this, in these times, when Gnosticism is such a clear and present spiritual danger, is perhaps the most important of them all.


*This essay is a thoroughly revised and expanded 6/26/22 version of a 10/24/2008 post. 

**When I was a young theological student, I was asked to participate in a group led by the then famous Harvard professor, Timothy Leary, who was studying LSD-use and mystical experiences.  Imbibing LSD was to be at the center of the group’s inner explorations.  I declined, not on the grounds I was troubled by Gnostic spiritualities (although even then, I was), nor because I feared putting such alien substances into my body (although I did harbor such fears), but because the meeting time of Leary’s group conflicted with my regular squash game.