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August 10, 2008

Thomas Owen, writing in the Anglican Theological Review (Spring 2000), states that contemporary American spirituality is steeped in a modern form of the gnosticism of the early Christian centuries.

For example, Irenaeus, who was Bishop of Lyons in the second century and wrote a major treatise against gnosticism, saw references to the “inner man” as an essential theme of gnosticism. He stated that “the inner man may ascend on high in an invisible manner, as if their body was left among created things in this world.”

Today this gnosticism informs many of the New Age and other religious movements which appeared in the sixties as well as some movements from the last century, such as theosophy. This is often referred to as the perennial philosophy which I believe to be the main alternative to mainline Judaism and Christianity in the United States today, rather than secular humanism, as is often supposed.29 Furthermore, in an odd but very suggestive book Harold Bloom, the literary critic, goes much further and has argued that the real American religion is and always has been in fact this gnosticism, and the aspects of it to which he points are exactly the ones I have noted in contemporary Christian spirituality. He states, “The American Religion, for its two centuries of existence, seems to me irretrievably Gnostic. It is a knowing, by and of an untreated self, or self within-the-self, and the knowledge leads to freedom, a dangerous and doom-eager freedom: from nature, time, history, community, other selves. . . . [We are] an obsessed society wholly in the grip of a dominant Gnosticism.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. beinganddoing permalink
    August 11, 2008 6:06 pm

    I find this argument very plausible. If this statement does accurately reflect American spirituality, it calls into question many of the theological foundations upon we have built the North American religious experiment. It would be interesting to look more deeply into this phenomenon and discover the connections between this gnostic approach to spirituality and theological understandings. I might also be interesting to look at the writings of the early church (Irenaeus and explore the historical reality they faced. Sometimes looking to the past can shine a very bright light on the present.



  2. August 11, 2008 6:47 pm

    I, too, would agree that “American Spirituality” is steeped in the idea that within each of us we will be able to find God. What many view to be the self-within-the-self would otherwise be defined as the Holy Spirit in a scripturally based belief.

    Without intent to hurt anyone, I would argue that the Emergent church, the global Kairos movement, contemplative prayer involving labyrinths and other nuances of the New Age all contain within them the essence of Gnosticism.

    While there is great value in meditative contemplation and learning the inside of oneself intimately, we are in danger if we rely on that to be the basis from which our spirituality comes.

    Contemporary American spirituality is founded on ego; ego which says we are the best at all we do and what follows is that we are the supreme.

    Somewhere in the near past we stopped meditating on scripture and started reading too many other people’s opinions on God.

  3. just an apprentice permalink
    August 12, 2008 11:13 am

    Leon and Audrey,
    Thanks for your responses. Continuing to think about the ways gnosticism has seeped into American Christianity. I think we see evidence of this in the following ways (particularly with Evangelicalism).

    1. Salvation primarily about getting individual souls to heaven.

    2. Salvation primarily seen as a private transaction between the individual and God.

    3. The gospel of salvation understood primarily through the lens of forensic grace/atonement through the death of Jesus on the cross and resurrection. The gospel is diminished to the economy of blood shed on the cross for my sin so that I can go to heaven. All I need to do is pray the sinners prayer, accept Jesus as my savior, and I will go to heaven when I die.

    4. Why is this gnostic? Let’s just begin by saying that it fails to recognize the full implications of Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God identifies with the whole of creation by taking on flesh, by entering the broken and limiting experience of being human. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must fully come to terms with God’s identification with matter…stuff. Gnostic Christianity has imbibed the classical Platonism that undergirds much of Western Enlightenment thinking. It has reduced the Gospel to be primarily about “spiritual matters” removed from the messy realities of the present age and embodied life. To affirm the Incarnation is to affirm that the life of God is expressed in Communion with the Trinity in this world AND in the age to come. Salvation is about healing and transformation of all things beginning now and fully consummated in the age to come.

    5. So we worship God as Trinity not as something of secondary importance to the private religion of the individual. We know God within the Community that is the body of Christ in heaven and on earth. This is a mystery. Yet, we must ask how are we submitting (in relationship) to a particular community that uncovers this reality. A community within which we celebrate communion with God and each other. A community within which we read the Scriptures and discern what it means to express the life of Jesus in the world. A community within which we confess our sins and receive forgiveness, healing, and restoration. A community within which we discern our vocation.

    6. The gnostic gospel does not require relationship and submission to a particular community with which we uncover the mystery/reality of being the body of Christ. The gnostic gospel caters to the ego of autonomous individualism however you want to package it.

    7. The gnostic gospel essentially rejects that the good news of the Kingdom that Jesus has defeated the power of sin and death and that he is calling for a people who will be a sign and foretaste of that inbreaking. A people who are not just sitting around and waiting for the parousia. A people who do not just view history and creation as the Titanic doomed to inevitable failure. Rather, the Gospel of the Kingdom, which embraces submission, incarnation, and integration looks for the transformation of all things as we respond to the victory of the cross and become people who receive the gifts of redemption and healing. Becoming agents of reconciliation, peace and hope in the present age. A sign and foretaste of the age to come. A contrast community to Empire.

    8. So even as we identify and critique the prevelance of gnosticism with American spirituality/Christianity, we must ask ourselves how we are embodying a different reality. A reality that is incarnational, communal. A reality that does not merely embrace a certain theological framework and tradition, but that submits to that community relationally.

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