Tackling the charge of Gnosticism

By Richard E. Helmer

There is little more bracing for a priest than to be publicly accused of heresy – even if it is only the casual remarks of the angry and anonymous on the internet these days. So I have been pondering the charge of heresy – and, specifically, Gnosticism – leveled at me for an online reflection on chastity that was posted recently at Daily Episcopalian.

While leaving it to others to draw their own conclusions about whether the charges of Gnosticism should stick, I want to revisit this episode a bit more deeply, because in our prayer life, the daily office lectionary has been moving through the book of Proverbs in recent weeks. And in the heat of going back and forth over whether or not my reflection had me indulging in the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, a good friend and mentor quoted to me this wise verse from our daily readings: “A rebuke goes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool.”

So, I had to wonder, was I being rightly rebuked by a handful of our more conservative sisters and brothers, or was I simply being unfairly excoriated, or – in the more likely mixed-up nature of our world – a bit of both? Understanding demanded more of me than simply rejecting my opponents’ arguments as emotional outburst. There was some substance behind their umbrage, and it was incumbent upon me to dig a little to find out what that substance was.

It never hurts to read what one’s self-styled theological opponents are reading. So I turned this week to some writing by N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and soon-to-retire Bishop of Durham. Wright continues to be widely read and respected by the more conservative and evangelical wings of the Church and the wider Anglican Communion. Yet he falls into the great tradition of Anglicanism: his writing is insightful, grounded in our Christian tension of reason, tradition, and scripture, and it is filled with his own distinctive blend of charm and wit. In the best Anglican fashion, he commands respect from all quarters, while not full agreement, to be sure.

In an address I stumbled upon this week – one N. T. Wright delivered at the last Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops – he speaks about Gnosticism and its contemporary manifestations in the West, and as I read his words, they struck home for me and started to make some sense of what I was hearing from my most vociferous critics.

It is easy to dismiss Gnosticism as an artifact of history. Wright notes that when, as a student, he was studying about the Gnostics, they seemed like a distinctly second-century phenomenon, strange relics of a diverse Christian antiquity only to be pondered these days by intellectuals sitting today in their academic towers. But in fact, Gnosticism has two key features that remain very much alive with us today. The first is what Wright calls “radical dualism” — the idea that the spirit and body are at odds with one another, or in our individualistic and profit-driven society, that the we can exploit the physical world and our bodies for whatever ends we deem appropriate, and that includes the physical exploitation of others and of nature. Though N. T. Wright’s essay is two years old, we only have to look to the mess in the Gulf to see exactly what he means – unreflective Gnosticism of this sort at work in millions of gallons of sweet crude fouling beaches, poisoning the ecosystem beneath the waves and above, destroying livelihoods of our neighbors, and our withering national faith in engineering ingenuity and technology to save us.

A second feature, he says, is that Gnosticism is a religion not of redemption, but of self-discovery. Ours is an age indeed of continuing Gnostic self-help and “I’m OK, you’re OK” – that ubiquitous American cliché that one anonymous commentator, interestingly, saw rightly or wrongly in my writing. “There is even a danger,” N. T. Wright further says, “that we Anglicans spend time discussing ‘who we really are’, as though there were some inner thing, the Anglican spark, and if only we could identify that then we’d be all right. And in some of our most crucial ethical debates people have assumed for a long time that ‘being true to myself’ was all that really mattered.”

Viewed this way, Gnosticism is indeed the generic spiritualism that surrounds us in many forms – the notion that my spirituality is self-crafted and self-fulfilling, that “my own path” is sufficient for me. The spirituality of “self improvement” is a form of Gnosticism, when the reality — at least as we Christians reckon it — is that self is meaningless without others, without accountability, without rough-and-tumble relationship and the knocks of shared experience. We find community is the crucible of our redemption, of our renewal, not closing off the world and “finding ourselves.” I think Wright’s on to a profound truth here, although I might respond differently than he does to this character of the contemporary, individualistic West.

Is his address, N. T. Wright prefers to contrast this contemporary, self-realizing Gnosticism with some traditionally evangelical language about God’s “rescuing” us, which, frankly, is a way of describing redemption I’m not all that keen on. There’s more to Christian redemption than merely being pulled out of a world burning with hellfire and brimstone, or of our being washed clean of the sticky crude like a rescued pelican in the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, it’s also a bit Gnostic to talk of being “rescued” from this world, as it suggests another kind of dualism that is foreign to an incarnational faith. As we are fond of saying, we may not be “of the world,” but we are most certainly in it, just as Jesus was and the Spirit is. Our redemption is not about simply the salvation of individuated souls divorced from the world, but of the salvation our full being in the world. Put another way, our redemption must be about the world’s redemption, or our redemption is selfish, disconnected, and effectively meaningless.

“I’m OK, you’re OK” is indeed that bland, Gnostic, hands-off tolerance our pluralistic society often professes. But we don’t need simply to be “rescued,” pulled from the stagnant, tepid waters of tolerance. Rather we need the Gospel to stir and heat them with Christ’s life-giving radical engagement, forgiveness, acceptance, and healing of our full humanity. The Gospel, the good news of God in Christ, the message we take from the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is most certainly not “I’m OK, you’re OK.” But nor is it the ubiquitously old-fashioned American evangelical “I’m a sinner, and you’re a sinner, too.” Rather, we could say the Gospel message this way: “God is loving you and me together out of death into new community, into new life.”

Our Christian faith embeds us in the relational challenges and hardships of community, it embraces and transforms the realities of pain and suffering, which are made divinely real and prescient in the cross and passion of Jesus Christ, and it gives tangible reality to our confession of what we have done and left undone; our call to set aside selfish ambition that exploits – to embrace instead the service that attends to the pressing needs in the world around us: in our neighbors, in our homes, in our selves, and, yes, very much in our bodies. This was a point I was trying to make about the practice of chastity.

In our recent Sunday lectionary readings, we heard the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son. This story about the great prophet begins not with some “out there” spiritualism, but with the very hollow-in-the-gut, physical hunger of a widow and her child preparing for their last meal, and that most poignant line – amongst my personal favorites in all of Scripture: “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Is that not the song of our most pressing needs? Of our deepest unfulfilled hungers? The song of a suffering Gulf coast, the unarticulated cry of the struggling wildlife, of our exploited planet? Is this not the refrain of the teeming hungry and the marginalized confronting their invisibility and facing extinction?

Elijah does not suggest she merely offer a prayer to God, or go off by herself and meditate to escape her suffering, but rather that she tangibly and painfully offer him a portion of her last meal, the very thing that sustains her and her son’s physical lives. It is in that offering that she discovers God’s power to sustain their life. And this kind of physical, tangible offering continues almost immediately in the story when she gives her dying, if not already lifeless son to Elijah. She is commanded to give him that which is most precious to her –more so than even her own life. The language of offering is so explicitly clear: Elijah takes her son from her bosom and carries him away. It is only when he brings her son back to her that he is alive . . . and so, therefore, is she.

For our spiritual ancestors and us, God’s acts of power are not worked out in the abstracted “spiritual”, but in the real and tangible, the physical. As Christians, we do not merely meditate on the Word, we engage with it: in our worship, we listen to story together, shoulder to shoulder, bringing our physical selves with all of our imperfections and edges into community. In study and in teaching our children, we wrestle with our story in speech and craft, making it part of our physical selves and preparing to pass it to a new generation. We work it “into our bones,” which is why our engagement with scripture is so critical, and why it must happen regularly not in the comfort of our armchairs, but in the edginess and discomfort of our communities. We splash in water in our baptism, we eat bread we call Jesus’ body and wine we call Christ’s blood – that is, God’s life incarnate amongst us. Ours is indeed an incarnational, embodied faith, not a Gnostic, abstracted spiritual one.

Our service to the wider world is about raising the dead, of responding to the pleas of widows preparing for their final meal. We consider our sisters and brothers on the front lines of the worst oil spill in American history: whether they are operating robots a mile beneath the sea or shoveling contaminated sand or scrubbing oil from the fragile feathers and skins of God’s creatures. How can we tangibly help them this day? Prayer is only the beginning.

And most of all, we are reminded that our Christian life with God is about offering ourselves, and not just as spiritual abstracts, but as physical, incarnate beings. The widow at Zarephath offers Elijah her final meal. And she gives him her son, that which is most precious to her. Gnosticism might have us offering mere acknowledgment or simple intellectual assent, or resting comfortably in our beautiful Anglican prayers. That’s not what God wants of us. That’s not what God needs to truly transform us. God needs everything we are – body, mind, and spirit – that kind of full self-offering that Jesus makes upon the cross, and that we re-member, that is, we enter into and then take into ourselves in each Eucharist.

Our embodied faith, after all, means more than words on a page (or online!); it means more than mere “spirituality” in the contemporary Western sense. Our faith involves our full selves in the Gospel work of transforming a world very much in need of healing, in need of resurrection, in need of God’s Spirit that makes God’s dream real. . . So that we and all creation may not only touch, but become again the fully embodied work of the divine.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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