Sense and Nonsense: Gnosticism Reconsidered

Recently, at a conference on the West Coast, I had the good fortune to be driven from the airport by a perceptive young graduate student, a Catholic. In the course of conversation, he told me that he stopped going to the local Catholic parish the day they removed the Crucifix on the altar to replace it with a painting of Mother Earth being held up by a politically correct number of differing cultural hands, all reaching up to her. A priest where I was saying Mass told me of another parish that was built with the Tree of Life instead of the Crucifix, until the parishioners protested enough to get the Crucifix back. This is in a diocese in which the Ordinary preaches against abortion. Another young man, this time from the East Coast, told me that as soon as he hears his pastor begin his latest sermon on a social justice theme that is readily identifiable as a specific kind of leftist ideology, he gets up and walks out.

Symbols count. The West Coast student was right. In Rome, considerable attention is being paid of late to the extent to which gnosticism and Pelagianism are present in modern culture and within many movements in the Church itself. Marxism may (or may not) be passé, but New Age nostrums, environmentalism, what passes for social justice, feminism, Eastern religions, multiculturalism, dogmatic relativism, and such variant enthusiasms are not. More and more it is getting difficult to find Catholicism within Catholicism. As a Jesuit friend of mine remarked on hearing the story of the Mother Earth incident, “there comes a point when we are dealing with another religion.”

Curiously many of these same movements profess a certain deep spiritualism. We have been told, perhaps too often, that our great enemy is “materialism.” But materialism has never been the most dangerous heresy. Indeed, all really dangerous heresies or disorders of soul arise from the spirit, from, most often, the hearts of the dons, from the clerical and academic leaders whose faith is strong, but not strong enough to accept the content and history of salvation as it is given to us in specifically Catholic revelation. We have, it often seems, a religion full of enthusiasm but not doctrine, or at least not Catholic doctrine.

The most “unbelievable” aspect of classical Christianity, it seems, is precisely its dogged “materialism,” its clinging to the Old Testament doctrine that matter is good and to the New Testament teaching that the Word became flesh. Evil is rooted in will, not matter, machines, institutions, or intelligence. Christ as Redeemer, after all, only makes sense if there is something wrong with us that we cannot remedy by ourselves, individually or collectively. Christ only makes sense if there is something at fault in our wills and not merely in the structures of the world. The New Testament has much to say about conversion and repentance, but practically nothing about politics.

What is all this sudden Roman concern with gnosticism all about? I think it is a sign that at long last the Roman Church in its highest reaches is beginning to realize the degree to which it is itself infiltrated by ideas and movements at variance with its own teachings about itself. These worrisome ideas come from the culture itself. Conformity to culture seems the predominant imperative for religion itself.

Father Richard McBrien recently boasted that Rome could no longer touch dissident theologians because they were protected by the laws of the civil state. What this means, of course, is rather that these same civil institutions are locked into themselves and cannot admit any presence of the Catholicism that is identified with what the Roman Church actually teaches and stands for. When Erastianism guarantees the Church, it guarantees itself. The Church is no longer heard.

John Paul II, both in Centesimus Annus and Redemptoris Missio, has taken up the theme that culture itself needs something from outside itself even to save itself. He told a group of cultural leaders in Brazil:

In regard to those living cultures that must be saved by Christ, it is essential that the Gospel, faith, and religion play a decisive role in them, imbuing them with Christian values. Either the cultures have not understood these values deeply or they have continued to hide them because of the harmful influences of secularization, consumerism, relativism, and the other evils of the modern age which does without Christ’s message and the Church’s fruitful presence.

No culture, in other words, can properly close in upon itself and evade the vitality of revelation. Revelation is addressed to every people, as well as to each person.

Since Vatican II, the Church, it seems, has been bent on accommodating itself as much as possible to prevailing cultures, beliefs, and political systems. In itself this is not bad. Belatedly, however, the Church has come increasingly to realize that what is specific to itself is no longer much known or taught. Christians are preaching mostly modernity, human autonomy—not Christianity. Indeed, Catholicism in particular is being systematically excluded so that its only sort of presence is when its own language and principles are modified to conform to secular culture. The policy of adaptation has resulted in little compromise from the secular culture itself. The radical newness of Catholicism is replaced with the radicalism of the culture itself.

Those of us who have read our Voegelin, of course, know that this great philosopher argued that gnosticism is in fact the heart of modernity. Modernity is the project to remove from the cosmos and from human nature itself any sign of a divine origin, presence, or transcendent destiny. Religious ideas were to be “immanentized,” made into political movements with inner-worldly goals. These ideas were to replace Christianity with willed forms of human intellect projected onto all of mankind with no other source but human autonomy. Perfection becomes “self-realization,” in which the self that is realized has no source other than itself, granted that this “self” is usually the disguised heritage of some philosopher.

In his Confession of a Catholic (1983), Michael Novak remarked upon the smoke of gnosticism in the Church. I, too, have long mused on this phenomenon. Back in 1962, I wrote an essay in the old American Ecclesiastical Review entitled, “The Abiding Significance of Gnosticism,” and in this column in May 1986, I described “Gnostic Catholicism.” (The column “The Strangest Century” of October 1990, is also on this topic.) Thus, when I heard of an essay by Father Giandomenico Mucci, S.J., (“Mito e Pericolo della Gnosi Moderna”—”The Myth and Danger of Modern Gnosticism”) in La Civilita Cattolica for January 4, 1992, I hastened over to the Woodstock Library to read it. It was indeed a fascinating essay and summed up several lines of thought that have been appearing regularly in Italian journals about the nature of the contemporary religious mind.

All of this controversy is an aspect of a question that Paul Johnson asked in the February 1989 Crisis about whether the demise of Marxism meant the end of “totalitarian temptations” on the part of the cultural elite of our era. These elites have been formed in secular ideals of rights and obligations that promise to achieve what Christianity never promised, namely, a new man and a new earth, a bringing to this very world all the elaborate promises that the faith called salvation. But with modernity these promises were to be obtained by excluding faith and its sense of how salvation is to be achieved.

Mucci considers “modern gnosticism” to include within its reaches not just an elite, as in classic gnosticism, but all of humanity and the whole of the world in an all-embracing “knowledge” about man’s only happiness. This happiness is exclusively the result of man’s own efforts. There is no “word” or nature in the world. Thus no “Word” could become flesh. Modern gnosticism specifically rejects notions of sin and the consequent need of salvation by Christ. Christ becomes a social reformer, an inspiration to complete the worldly enterprise, which is the only enterprise there is. Marx’s worry that concern for the afterlife impeded concern for this life is not forgotten. A religion that supports such a this-worldly revolution is quite acceptable, but one that maintains the classic Christian doctrines is its most dangerous threat. This fear of revelational religion explains the growing hatred for the Church as it stands for itself.

To suggest that there is anything wrong with the intellectual structure of modernity and post-modernity, of course, risks the charge of being against “man.” In a brilliant and too little known essay, “Church Activism in the 1980s: Politics in the Guise of Religion?” (in Religion and Politics, University of Virginia Press, 1989), Father Ernest Fortin wrote that an increasing number of Christians “have come to view their faith as an enterprise dedicated to eradication of the evils that plague human existence by transforming society along more or less leftist lines.” When such projects become the main line of presentation about what is Christian, whether in Sunday sermons or religious journals, then clearly there is a deeper crisis than most are willing openly to admit.

“The Pelagian temptation returns today in consequence of neo-gnosticism,” Father Mucci wrote,

If with modern gnosticism there is asserted an inner-worldly self-redemption of man, it is evident that with this approach also the myth of Prometheus comes back again. This Promethean position includes the consciousness of an all-powerful morality that professes to achieve the good and to realize every sort of justice without recurring to the theological help of grace. If it is possible to measure the fullness of the apostasy of modern culture, before which the Church stands, it ought to recall above all to itself that man, every man, cannot, normally and for a long time, do good and remain good without the historic-salvific encounter with Christ.

The point is not that there are no things produced in the modern world that are good. Rather it is that the theoretic understanding of these things, an understanding that can be based on a classic and Christian philosophy loyal to its own inspiration, are being presented in a gnostic and Pelagian context even when Christian terms and offices are used to support them.

Thus, I suspect, the replacing of a Crucifix by a painting of Mother Earth (Gaia) in a regular Catholic parish reveals rather strikingly that this sort of mentality is widespread in our culture. Perhaps it is just a mistake or an aberration. But I rather think Father Mucci is closer to the real problem. When Eric Voegelin wrote that “gnosticism is the form of modernity,” he meant that modern humanism would claim all for itself. There would remain no check on human pride, not even reality itself. Reality, what is, is no longer “nature,” that is, something already itself, already a finite something, to which our minds are open to discover the truth of things. Instead reality is what we will in society and in the cosmos. If Marx has died, Nietzsche and Heidegger have arisen. But this intellectual appearance is itself a “choice,” a choice against what is, not an intellectual necessity. The choice lies in the heart of a modernity that recognizes no other principle but itself as the cause of the distinction of things.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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