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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19 Comments
  1. Richard Valantasis

    I find your analysis of Gnosticism compelling. Your remarks reminded me that what we have come to call “orthodoxy” about the incarnation and the goodness of the material world were forged by early Christian theologians as they struggled intellectually and theologically with those Gnostics. I was also reminded that the ascetical and contemplative traditions that emerged in the third and fourth centuries essentially adopted the language and theology of self-discovery as the site for coming face to face with God. N. T. Wright may have oversimplified both Gnosticism and its continuing influence in orthodox Christian theology and practice.

  2. Richard, well done. Thanks for noting the dualism implicit in so much evangelical writing, including Wright. After all, wasn’t Paul’s language about the tension between flesh and Spirit seized on by Gnostics and driven to its logical conclusion to exemplify the Gnostics’ division between matter and spirit?

    If we understand, too, that wholeness is God’s intent for us, are we not seeking to work in concert with God when we seek health and wholeness for ourselves? We indeed go astray if we believe either that we can ever be complete and self-sufficient without God and neighbor, or that in some way we can “save” ourselves from our limitations. That’s not the same as believing God wants us to be healthy, and so seeking to participate in the process. Of course, if one wants to embrace a perspective of “wormier than thou,” that won’t fly (and how often do folks fall back into “wormy, but thou art really wormier, you sorry wretch!”).

    If we lose touch with Christ’s repeated proclamation that the Kingdom is not simply “out there,” but at hand right here, right now, we fall into an error just as problematic as our current expressions of Gnosticism.

    Marshall Scott

  3. One correction to my essay: Bishop Wright authored the reflection I reference in response to the Lambeth Conference. It was not an address given there.

    N. Thomas Wright, “The Bishop and Living Under Scripture,” Christ and Culture: Communion After Lambeth. Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism, Canterbury Press/Morehouse: 2010. pp. 144-166 (esp. 157-160).

    Scriptural footnotes lost in the internet translation:

    “A rebuke goes deeper. . .” Proverbs 17:10

    The Widow of Zarephath:

    1 Kings 17:8-24

  4. Marshall and RV:

    Thanks both for your further thoughts. Forms of Pelagianism still stalk the edges a bit as well, no?

  5. Paul Theerman

    Thanks for the reflection, this one and the previous. Your comments on gnosticism put me in mind of Harold Bloom’s book, The American Religion (1992), where he sees that ancient philosophy at the heart of much of contemporary American Protestantism. There is insight in that observation–and it makes me reluctant to identify Anglicanism as “protestant.”

  6. Richard,

    Thank you!

    Recently I’ve found I Corinthians 13 a fascinating corrective to gnosticism. I think what we see Paul doing is prioritizing relational knowing, the knowledge that’s rooted in love, over ‘knowing that,’ the knowledge in ‘knowledge is power.’ Recontextualizing knowledge within love (with the lovely, disturbing echoes of ‘knowing’ as language for sexual intimacy as we find it again and again in the Hebrew scriptures, takes us straight to know ‘then we shall know as we are known for we shall see face to face.’ Who we know and by Whom we’re known gives life – it’s embodied, so fallible and mortal, and achingly cries out for resurrection. ‘What we know’ (even when it’s framed in terms of precision in Christian doctrine) may lure us our of community, out of the messiness of relationship, and into solitary hubris.

  7. my typo ‘our’ in the second last line should read ‘…OUT of community…and into solitary hubris.’

  8. Clint Davis

    Wow, so I can see that even Episcopalians have words as dirty as “homosexual” is to some evangelicals, and those words are “Gnosticism” and “Pelagius”.

    Why do all of you persist in such useless and destructive and blinding simplifications concerning what you perceive to be ancient heresies? There is no “Gnosticism”, this is an absolute misnomer, and is not helpful and does not truly convey anything but theological prejudice and smugness. Don’t y’all read Elaine Pagels or Karen King or Kurt Rudolph or any other excellent scholars who would shoot down these ridiculous generalizations?

    You’re talking about the challenge of Dualism, though I’m sure there’s an modifier in front of the word “dualism” that I’m missing. Gnosis is what happens when you’ve been given the Grace of a beatific sense of wholeness, or connectedness, or participation in divinity, in such a way that beliefs about something take on a secondary consideration. Well poor, poor Church, She begins to lose control over Her members when Gnosis happens. Gnosticisms happen when those who experience Gnosis try too hard to pin it down, or they become teachers and then their students try to hard to pin it down and then you get an over-intellectualized, fanciful “system” that many times includes Dualism, but doesn’t have to. The safeguards that Buddhism built into their teachings never made it into most Gnosticisms, mostly because these attempts never had the time to get them figured out, or if they did, they weren’t reported by rabid heresiologists before said H’s saw to it that they were exterminated.

    And Pelagius? I see some uninformed misunderstandings there too, read J. Philip Newell’s books for a better understanding of Morgan of Wales before y’all begin to throw his Latinized name around in vain. We see what theological treasures that a too tight grip on Augustinian theology got the Western Church, blech. What a great man, and what great writings, but when said writings are an End and not a Means, then an idolatry rears its ugly head and results in bad and destructive theology, even if there’s much good to be had.

  9. Donald,

    Many thanks.

    Clint,

    I believe you are taking some of this more seriously than intended. My “Pelagianism” aside was a brief attempt at some humor.

    My essay on Gnosticism was an effort to understand what is meant by those who use the term, particularly, in this case, when it was directed my way.

    I am not versed enough in ancient church history to argue whether or not N. T. Wright’s understanding of Gnosticism is fully correct given the most recent scholarship in this area.

    I, for one, do not use these terms against others, but they are assuredly used against The Episcopal Church these days by some evangelicals, reasserters, and others — at least online — who have any number of axes to grind.

    So what do they mean? Short of indulging in a Humpty Dumpty quote that’s been making the rounds on all sides, it strikes me that they are reified terms that mean precisely what the users want them to mean.

    Perhaps all heretical terms have been used this way across the ages.

    Thankfully, we in this country don’t get burned at the stake these days when they are used in an accusatory manner.

    Again, my goal here was to unpack the reified term a little bit — with only a modest goal of acquiring some understanding.

  10. @Paul,

    Thanks for the reference to Bloom’s book. I think the “Gnosticism” he points to may not just be confined to American Protestantism, but is more widely pervasive in our culture.

    We are, after all, children to some extent of the philosophical and cultural perspectives in which Gnosticism apparently thrived in second-century Greco-Roman culture(s).

    Still, we wrestle with precisely what that Gnosticism really meant then. I was taught that we must always remember the most extensive, extant views we have on it were written by those most vociferously opposed to it!

    My concern, somewhat in line with Clint’s above I believe, remains that Gnosticism has for us become a “slur du jour,” a reified term to smear whoever our opponents might be.

    So just what do we really mean when we use the term, most especially against our sisters and brothers?

    As one of my professors once said in a early church history seminar, appeals to orthodoxy and heresy all too often mean “I have the Truth, and I am going to impress it upon you!”

  11. Brian McMichael

    Thanks Fr. Helmer, both for your earlier essay expanding on conventional notions of chastity and for this reflection on the implications of our incarnational faith.

    I agree with Clint that the labeling is loaded and distracting from the insight that an incarnational faith calls us to repentance of our entitlement and arrogance, and then further calls us to ever greater charity and chastity toward our Church, our neighbors, our world, and all of creation.

    I think it is our dualisms such as good and bad, orthodox and heretical, moral and immoral, sacred and secular, human and non-human, useful and useless, valuable and worthless, profitable and costly, attractive and repulsive, virginal and debauched that give alibi to acting without charity or chastity toward whomever or whatever our will to power and inclination to gratification would see fit to dominate and control in order to feed our wounded, bottomless pit of shame, fear and envy.

  12. Zack Guiliano

    Rev. Helmer,

    I appreciate your response here to your critics. I do want to point out something, though, which I feel you may have done inadvertently.

    Whether intended or not, you have portrayed Bishop Wright as if he were advocating salvation from the world as a type of spiritual flight from materiality or physicality. Anyone familiar with his writings would realize that he emphasizes the exact opposite (see particularly his The Resurrection of the Son of God, or see Surprised by Hope).

    Frankly, I think Wright would agree with you that “our Christian life with God is about offering ourselves, and not just as spiritual abstracts, but as physical, incarnate beings.”

  13. Kathy Staudt

    Richard – thank you for this. It has seemed to me that a lot of people think that Christianity/Christian spirituality is about this dualism between body & spirit, and about individual self-realization/salvation , and you’ve done well at reclaiming what I find really exciting and life-giving about what we could call “orthodoxy” if it hadn’t become, itself, such a loaded, dualistic term! I suppose it has always been true that arguments with “Gnosticism” as defined by the church fathers were a way of articulating an incarnational theology that values life in the body and sees God present in suffering, rather than trying to seek knowledge that will enable us to escape from/move beyond life in the body. This division seems still to be with us today among the various spiritualities that are out there. I don’t think it hurts for 21st centurey Christians to claim a distinct view among the many dualistic ones — without condemning differences — but just claiming the view that you (and Wright, up to a point, as you say) describe well.

    Anyway -thanks for this thoughtful and illuminating piece, which says well much that I’ve been thinking about just lately.

  14. Zack,

    Thanks for the comment and another opportunity for further clarification and conversation. I will say up front that I do take it for granted, given the portion of his writing with which I am acquainted, that Wright’s perspective is incarnational.

    Again, my point about the “rescue” language in his essay was much more modest. Whether or not it could be construed as anti-material or overly individualistic is just a wondering on my part. More importantly, the rescue language does not carry for me the fully corporate, universal sense of metanoia that appears intended by the Gospel. This is a criticism of Wright’s essay, to be sure, but a mild one at best, and offered with the acknowledged humility of a parish priest reflecting on the work of a recognized scholar. Reading any more than that into my reflection would be about the reader’s agenda, not mine!

    Your point remains very well taken, however, for it raises the deeper issue that underlies this public response to the charge of Gnosticism directed my way. It is, I suppose, possible to accuse anyone of any sort of heresy by taking a single snapshot of his or her work and distorting it out of its broader context — a favorite trick not only in the blogosphere, but in time-honored polemic. (There’s also a scriptural hermeneutic that operates this way, but that’s a topic for another thread.)

    Thoroughgoing Gnosticism is not an accusation I would dream of leaving on N. T. Wright’s doorstep, and nor do I believe — if I may be so bold — that it belongs on mine.

    If we are going to use such heavily, if not dangerously weighted terms to paint one another, I think at a minimum we best explain what we mean when we use them. My effort here was to start a conversation (and thank you all who joined in!) on what is meant by a word all too loosely utilized these days to inflame the passions of some audiences and further divide the Church. I question our sometimes willful inability to read one another with more generosity.

    But, there, I’ve let my hair down now. Innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution!

  15. Thanks, Kathy. It strikes me if we cannot use “orthodoxy” in a generous way to describe our faith, we’d best not use it at all!

  16. onversation is quite incorrect in it’s assumptions. One need only do a bit of studying to learn about Gnosticism. In fact, dualism was NOT the basis of Gnosticism as suggested.I study Gnosticism for future ordainment as a Priest (at least twenty books currently in my library that are a must read as part of the educational factor), and as well, I am very active in my local Anglican Church. Gnostics see that the Kingdom of God is here, now. Christ lives within us. The words in the bible hold much deeper meaning than what is normally understood. We believe that God is within EVERYTHING, sparks of the Divine are within every living thing and we most certainly DO care about this earth. I invite you to look into the Alexandrian Gnostic Church, The Apostolic Johannite Chuch, and the Ecclesia Gnostica, just as starting points. Read about these churches. Read the articles of their Priests.Fr.Thomas Langley, Rev.Donald Donato, +Bishop Stephan A. Hoeller. These people are active in the community working to help the poor, the underpriviledged and the spiritually lost.They are writers, and hard workers and well educated and very kindly people. Please Sir, I ask you to reconsider your over generalization.

    In Christ,

    Shilo-Michelle

    [Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Next time we need your full name.]

  17. I apologize for not leaving my full name. Shilo-Michelle Orellana is the name. (I also apologize, as somehow I managed to chop off the first few letters of my comment)

    In Christ,

    Shilo

  18. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    Shilo,

    Many thanks for your comment, and apologies for any offense my essay generated.

    It would be fallacious to conflate ancient (or at least remembered) Gnosticism with contemporary Christian traditions carrying that name — probably just as error-ridden as conflating what some call orthodoxy with the Orthodox traditions today.

    That said, your correction is well taken. All the more reason to define language carefully before pressing it into critical usage!

    My prayers are with you in your discernment and studies.

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