Here's an article
a propos an ongoing discussion we've had on this blog for several years concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I've been meaning to post it during Paschaltide for a couple of years now. It first appeared two years ago in the
New Oxford Review with the subtitle, "The old mythologies are back," and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher.The Gnostic Temptation in the Catholic ChurchBy Bernard D. Green
Gnosticism is rife in American Christianity today. Philip Lee, in his Against the Protestant Gnostics
, argues that it is endemic in the Protestant churches, and Donna Steichen, in her Ungodly Rage[: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism]
, has shown how pervasive it is becoming in Catholic life. We are once again faced with the same dividing line that emerged between the Gnostics and orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. The question is the same now as then: Does the Church offer salvific truth and grace, or can we do away with that, and instead just rely on knowledge gleaned from myth, psychology, and personal experience? This in turn is related to the significance of the Resurrection for our salvation: Is it simply illustrative of human possibilities, as the Gnostics of old thought, or is it a unique event that reveals on what our salvation rests?
Harold Bloom, in his recent book The American Religion
, suggests that there is a form of Gnostic religion that is intrinsic to American culture. It emphasizes the priority of information for salvation, the innate divinity of the individual self, and emotional experiences of transcendence. He sees this "religion" as pervading every Christian denomination in the country, including Catholicism. If he is right, then we are witnessing a battle in the Catholic Church between authentic Catholicism and this pervasive religious attitude, which, if not uniquely American, is something that American culture most clearly exemplifies.
The essence of Gnosticism is the emphasis on knowledge as the key to salvation. Salvation comes through information about who we are, what our potential is, what prevents us from realizing it. As Bloom observed, Americans are "obsessed with information," Gnosticism "was (and is) a kind of information theory," and the biblical account of creation and the Fall, which Gnostics reject, "concerned matter and energy," whereas Gnosticism "is all information."
Gnosticism is also bound up with a "technology" of salvation. It is concerned with the "effective mechanics" for releasing humans from constraints. We as a culture are obsessed with gaining such effective knowledge. We believe that through correct information and effective techniques we can escape any evil. Witness the enormous faith we place in education to defeat all our current social evils, from drug addiction to teen pregnancy. Witness the faith we place in psychology to give the necessary information about ourselves and others that will enable us to relate "effectively" to them.
The ancient Gnostics saw the core of the human person, its essential self, as intrinsically divine. It had been imprisoned by some cosmic injustice in the world of matter. Bloom sees this belief in the self's divinity as central to American religion. He maintains that the first tenet of American religion is that "what is oldest and best in us goes back well before creation, and so is no part of creation." Gnostics resent limitations, and to resent limitations is to reject ourselves as embodied creatures. Gnostics see the self as unjustly bound by gender, time, place, circumstances, and relationships. The "Fall" is a fall into matter, physicality, history, and community. So Gnostics want "freedom," freedom from all natural, earthly limitations. Hence, Bloom can say that the essence of salvation in American religion is "a knowing by and of an uncreated self, or a self-within-the-self, and the knowledge leads to freedom…from nature, time, history, community, other selves."
Is not the protest of radical feminists today precisely against the limitations imposed by the female's embodied condition as female? Abortion is so important to feminists because it promises freedom from the constrictions of femaleness and from the role of mother, of which females alone are capable. Freedom from the responsibilities of femaleness can also mean freedom from men, marriages, and community. But this is but an example of a general trend among us: Free the individual from the distorting influences of embodied existence and all will be well.
Gnosticism rules out any need for religion based on the physical Resurrection of Christ. Not only is the Resurrection unverifiable by personal experience, not only must we accept it on the witness of the original community of Jesus' disciples, which for Gnostics is simply irrational, not only does it sanctify the body and give significance to our embodied, historical reality, but it also reveals our essential dependence on God and His grace for our salvation. And this is humiliating. It points to a discontinuity between our own efforts at salvation and salvation itself.
The Resurrection does not support the Gnostic notion of our own intrinsic potential for godhead. Hence there is pressure to alter its meaning from being a unique event in the life of Jesus to being a myth about human potentiality, a position which has found much support among neo-Modernist theologians.
This ambiguous term, "myth," speaks not about a reality which is "external" to the self but more about the experience of the self. As one introduction to the New Testament puts it, "Myths are narratives that express in symbolically rich language, human experiences that resist expression in any objective, descriptive language…. A myth cannot be true or false; it can only be effective or ineffective."
Without roots in historical reality, the Resurrection becomes a "story" that takes its place alongside other beautiful religious stories. We no longer need concern ourselves with its historical basis or its implications for community tradition and authority. It can now be judged on its ability to bring personal fulfillment.
This reinterpretation of the Resurrection fits in very well with Gnostic American religion. Central to American Gnostic religion, according to Bloom [left], is the experience of emotional union with God. Ritual is one way in which this transcendent emotional condition can be created and sustained. And ritual is only "good" to the extent that it is effective in doing so. Through "sacramental" experiences one should be able to enter into an emotional experience of the "resurrected life." One is transported out of this world.
Catholicism is a sacramental religion. Liturgy and ritual are central to its life. It proclaims that in the Sacraments the Risen Christ is actually present and operative for our salvation and sanctification. But under pressure from American Gnostic religion, liturgies are being turned into vehicles of emotional experience. So we judge a "good" liturgy by its emotional effects. We orchestrate liturgies as theater in order to produce maximum emotional impact.
This is an essentially pagan understanding of ritual. It is the human attempt to establish oneness with an alien God. The blockage to unity is found in the ineffective way the Church celebrates the Sacrament. Finding the correct way to celebrate becomes essential to experiencing "grace," which is under our control.
This is really the reduction of the sacramental system to magic. Understandably, witchcraft is undergoing a revival among us. Steichen has documented the extent to which witchcraft has permeated certain Catholic feminist organizations that are predominantly patronized by religious sisters. It is indicative of this trend to look to liturgy and ritual as a source of life-power that can be experienced, providing one does the ritual "correctly." Through the rituals, things can be effected. They become ways of finding a harmony with divine power and hence the capacity to use the divine power that is mediated through the human person. When you are one with this power, "resurrection" becomes a foregone conclusion. You already experience it. Jesus' Resurrection, as a unique event, then becomes unnecessary and, as for its connection with the forgiveness of sins, forget it. Such is obsolete thinking!
In line with this, the Sacraments are ceasing to be acts of the Church. It seems ridiculous that only certain people, "priests," are allowed to perform them. Since subjective emotional experience is primary, anyone can perform them. It is the effects the symbols and ritual acts have that are important, not who performs them. As with any shaman, the effectiveness of the ritual is bound up with the ability to perform it properly, not with any authority. As with the Gnostics of old, it is said that for priests to limit these occasions to themselves smacks of a jealousy for special status and prerogative. The Sacraments need to be freed from priestly control and given back to the people. Anyone should be able to administer them whenever the occasion arises, and the people should be allowed to go to those who perform them most effectively.
However, history, witness, community, and authority are crucial to the Catholic. They derive from the fact that the Resurrection was an event. The person of Jesus of Nazareth was raised from death. This is not a "useful idea," but an event that challenges all our ideas about the nature of reality. As the Apostolic Church describes it, it was a revelatory event, gratuitous in its originality and one which challenged people to faith in the God of Jesus of Nazareth as the sole source of our salvation. Thus, we are saved, not through knowledge, but through faith in the love and mercy of God, revealed to us in this event as it is witnessed to by the Apostolic community.
There is a vast difference between an idea that merely satisfies and a revelatory event that demands faith in a person. The religion that flows from an event ceases to be useful, governed in its value by my personal experience, and becomes that which dictates the meaning and significance of my experience, whether I find it comfortable or not. It compels action, in the first place the action of repentance and the commitment to new values in the world of social interaction.
This is not easy. Not only does it require placing one's faith and trust in the witness of that faraway Apostolic community, but it also demands that we recognize our own sinfulness and need for redemption. Both these demands are bound up with the affirmation that God raised Jesus from the dead. It has been suggested by some, Matthew Fox being the most prominent, that it is time to separate the Resurrection from its link with sin. Such would suit the Gnostics among us very well! The Resurrection could then stand for a promise of eventual transcendence of nature, as the guarantee of the eventual realization of our own godhead.
To abandon the link between the forgiveness of sins and the Resurrection is in fact to abandon the latter entirely. You cannot separate the event from the interpretation. This is crucial. Event and interpretation can be distinguished, but not separated. What we have inherited from the Apostolic community is not the report of an event that can be reinterpreted, but an event that is inseparable from the interpretation that community gave it. In the first place, the event has to be understood from within the meaning-structures of the time, and that includes the linkage between new life and the forgiveness of sin. For the Hebrews, sin brought death into the world. To conquer sin, death had to be defeated. The Resurrection was not an accidental but a purposefully revelatory event, and it spoke to this mindset. It therefore came clothed in a meaning that touched the Apostles' own understanding of salvation as the release from both death and sin. That was the meaning that was conveyed to them by the event, and hence it is the meaning we have to accept if we are to be in communion with them. Secondly, it revealed that humanity was radically in need of that forgiveness. This too is very uncomfortable. It reveals us as sinners and demands that we come to see ourselves as sinners. Consciousness of our sinfulness, not of our divinity, is the road to salvation in Christian faith. Some in the Johannine community found this too much to take, as do so many today in our culture. In the face of their separatism, the writer says quite bluntly:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 Jn. 1:8-10)
To believe in the Resurrection, then, is to accept our sinfulness and our need for merciful forgiveness. But in our Gnostic age, this is likely to fall on deaf ears. It looks for freedom from constraints, not forgiveness of sin. We are not sinners, but victims; we are "broken" people who need healing, not culpable people who need forgiveness. Our moral inadequacies and failures are the result of impersonal factors that distort and pervert our inner nature, which in itself is good. Hence, nobody is to blame! Remove constraints through self-knowledge and self-empowerment, and all will be well because the self is essentially divine.
Because of its belief in the Resurrection as an actual event, Catholicism, however, affirms that the fundamental problem in human life is not ignorance but sin. It is not information that we lack -- we have more than enough of that -- but repentance. For the Catholic Christian, salvation is not, as the Gnostic thinks, a matter of escaping evil through self-knowledge, but the transcendence of sin and death through accepting forgiveness for our sins and changing our lives. The Resurrection could not teach us that if it were merely a myth and not an event. It is its event-character that is salvific, not the idea. If we can receive this gift of forgiveness and live out its consequences, we enter into the Kingdom even now. If we cannot, we are excluded.
To be an orthodox Christian is to join in fellowship with that Apostolic community by accepting its witness to the event of the Resurrection and seeking to live its meaning. It is to join the community that continues to unfold the meaning of the Resurrection and has the Apostolic authority to accept some meanings and exclude others, to mediate forgiveness and new life. To be a Catholic is to affirm that God, in His spirit, operates in and through the Church for the salvation of the world.
From the Gnostic point of view, however, the Church as an organized body is not so much the source of saving truth as a hindrance to it. The source of religious truth lies within the individual, not outside it in tradition and community. The Church may be useful in that it provides opportunities for emotionally uplifting ritual, but it is not necessary. What community emerges is ad hoc communities of like-minded individuals who offer one another companionship and mutual affirmation as individuals, expressed in "meaningful" liturgical experiences.
How different this is from the Pauline notion of the Church as a body in which sharing on the basis of a common faith and life is essential! In fact the Pauline notion of the body is almost beyond understanding for many people today. Our passion is for equality and individual autonomy. In a living body, however, the individual cells are always subordinate to the good of the whole. Where they are not, they are cancerous and will kill that on which they feed unless they themselves are destroyed. The nature of the whole is a given, and in a healthy body cells are subordinate to that and serve it through their own specialization. The body image, then, argues for differentiation of roles and ministries in the Church, not the attempt to gain some mythical equality and individual autonomy in which all are considered the same. The Gnostic mind, however, seeks to annihilate differences and distinctions in the name of equality.
In the contemporary Church, this loss of appreciation of the differentiation of roles in the name of equality is evident in attempts to minimize and even eliminate the priesthood. Are we not all equal as persons? To differentiate roles within the community is said automatically to render some persons unequal and inferior. Somehow position and authority are seen as a claim to superiority, and that we cannot stand. So the very notion of the priesthood as having a specific role within the community for the sake of the community as a whole is being steadily eroded. Because we associate authority primarily with individual status and power, there is a definite project among many in the Church to remove priestly authority and, under the cloak of diffusing it throughout the community, to concentrate it in the hands of "activists."
Those who espouse this movement very often see themselves as returning to and even recreating the mythical golden age in the Church. In a recent argument I was informed that the Church had gotten way off track with her notions of authority. In the early Church things were all decided together; everyone was equal. That the early Church was nothing of the sort is clear to anyone who pays a modicum of attention to the scriptural record. For instance, in the Acts of the Apostles (2:41-42) we read: "Those who welcomed his message were baptized…. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."
The members devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching, not to "sharing" their own personal revelations. "Pure" Christianity was never a "faith-sharing" group in the way that is understood today. It was a group that shared a common faith. Paul himself is the great model for this and he was very concerned that he shared the same faith as the original Jerusalem group, "to make sure the course I was pursuing, or had pursued, was not useless" (Gal. 2:2).
Bloom considers the adulation of the primitive Church as an egalitarian entity to be another characteristic of the Gnostic American religion: "One of the grand myths of the American Religion is the restoration of the Primitive Church, which probably never existed."
How widespread this is among us in the Church today, especially among many of those actively working in parishes! They have a sense of being on a crusade to restore, in their own locale at least, the glory of the primitive Church before the autocratic hierarchy appeared and the light of Christ which pervaded the early Church was dimmed. This has all the characteristics of Gnostic nostalgia.
But, as even Bloom realizes, it is a myth with no basis in Christian history. From the beginning the Church was based on authority. Hierarchical structure was not an aberration, but a natural outcome of its "primitive" identity. First the office of the bishop developed to safeguard the unity of the local church, then that of the papacy to safeguard the unity of the whole Church.
Take away the uniqueness of the Resurrection, and Christianity loses any claim upon our attention. It can only be the source of a living understanding of cosmic reality if the Apostolic community actually experienced the redemption of humanity in its encounter with Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead. And it is this which the Church from the beginning affirmed as her faith. Human reality, body and spirit, is raised to a new level of existence through the love and power of God because of the Resurrection. Redemption happened in Jesus and is an event of universal significance in a way that no other event is. The teaching authority of the Church is at the service of carrying this message into the future and enabling people to continue its life-giving effects through the Sacraments and in the fellowship of the Church.
This does not rule out the personal discovery of how deeply the Christian "story" is able to make sense of our experience and enable us to deal more effectively with it. Surely one important way that we discover the exhilaration and wonder of being a Catholic is that it does enable us to make sense of life and guide us to life-giving values and behavior. Being of the Body does yield to us religious insights that enable us to experience a deeper life of peace and joy.
Through faith in the Risen Christ, the individual Christian is able to affirm God's continued salvific presence in the events of human history, individual and communal. He is able to join in dialogue with others in the Church and, on the basis of a common faith, come to a deeper knowledge of God's will for our world and our own lives. The vision of human life and its significance which emerges out of the Resurrection makes this possible.
The battle, then, is to prevent Christianity from being reduced to an idea, to locate it firmly in history. It is to prevent the heart of salvation as the action of God in the particularity of human history from being lost and becoming simply a human creation, an idea we have developed. The battle is to keep the tension between the individual understanding of Christianity in its personal relevance and the community's need to safeguard its core tradition for future generations, so that both interact for the good of the whole. If Bloom is right, it is in fact a battle for the soul of America. In his opinion, however, it is a battle the Church is bound to lose.
Such a conclusion cannot be that of one who believes that amid all the humanness of the Church -- with her weaknesses, blind spots, and outright scandalous behavior on occasions -- the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and brought the Church forth is still operating.
God is still present in the Church in all her historical unfolding to sustain her in her continuing witness to His salvific act in raising Jesus from the dead and forgiving us our sins that crucified Him in the first place. History has shown the power of the Spirit within the Church to work to transform any culture within which she lives. American culture is no exception, and our tasks are no more difficult than in former ages. But to be up to the task, the Church has to quarantine the Gnostic tendencies within her and reaffirm her essential Catholicity. She has to be willing to identify the dividing line once again and to refuse to
step across it.[The Rev. Bernard D. Green is Associate Pastor of St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Tucson, Arizona. He also teaches New Testament at Pima Community College. His review article, "The Gnostic Temptation in the Catholic Church" was originally published in the New Oxford Review (September 2004), and is reprinted here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.]
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