Confessions of a Recovering Gnostic

Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, the doctrine of resurrection functioned as a kind of footnote in my thinking while my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.

My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective which deemphasized the importance of the physical world. Some of my earliest writings had argued that during the Old Testament the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world but in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (i.e., non-physical). What happened in the material world is unimportant to God; the best we can hope to do is prepare for the next. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.

Along with this anti-material outlook came an exaggerated antithesis between the sacred and the secular, between this world and the next, between the physical and the spiritual. My framework for thinking about the spiritual life had no place for understanding how Christ’s lordship might extend to this-worldly areas like social justice, art, education, politics, ecology and the vast gamut of areas encompassing human culture. At best, these domains were “things of the earth” which distracted Christians from their primary calling. Our focus ought to be entirely occupied with the sacred life to come, not this world of “secular” concerns. Accordingly, I wrote that Christians should retreat from the public sphere and not compromise their faith with trying to improve the present order of things.

Putting this logic into practice, one of my mentors went on record saying that it was a sin for Christians to vote. After all, hadn’t Christ explicitly declared that His kingdom is not of this world? To underscore this point, my pastor would draw attention to how bad the world is, proclaiming, “Look, Christ isn’t Lord of the world, the devil is.” Accordingly, I believed that following Christ involved retreating from this world, taking refuge in pietistic activities. I even went so far as to eschew any planning for the future: after all, I reasoned, why would I want to plant trees, or even schedule dental appointments too far in advance, since doing so might signal lack of faith in Christ’s imminent return? Moreover, by focusing too much on earthly renewal, I might inadvertently be delaying Christ’s second coming.

The physical body also became a target for my attacks. As a teenager I was outspoken in describing myself as a “Christian Neo-Platonist” and I even tried to rework Plato’s theory of forms within the context of Christian metaphysics. I argued that our experience of time, particularity, matter and the physical body itself, tethers us to the land of shadow from which our spirits long for release.

My pessimistic views about the body made me instinctively suspicious of Christian traditions that incorporated tangible gestures of piety into their worship—gestures like raising hands, making the sign of the cross, kneeling during confession, and so forth. I preferred to attend churches that did not sully the worship experience with earthly things like pictures of saints, ornate communion tables or even beautiful church buildings. I was surrounded by others who thought similarly, including some who went so far as to burn down their church building—what a powerful testimony to the fact that God’s kingdom is not of this world, they thought!

Thankfully, I never went so far as to personally incinerate churches. However, the various dualism in my thinking—matter vs. spirit, this world vs. the next, the sacred vs. the secular, nature vs. grace—caused me to be deeply divided. As a teenager and young adult in the 90’s, I reveled in beauty wherever I found it—nature, music, poetry, literature, romance—yet I had no context for understanding how these things could be integrated into my relationship with Christ. It was like my Christian faith was overlaid on top of my experience in the world, kept in a separate compartment labelled “the spiritual realm.” I understood the Christian life to be about getting saved and then waiting to go to heaven, without a clear idea of what to do in between.

Although I was not aware of it at the time, my thinking bore close resemblance to a heresy known as “Gnosticism.” This ancient heresy, which had been popular in the Mediterranean world of the first few centuries, disparaged the physical world and postulated various forms hidden knowledge. This hidden knowledge showed the chosen few how to escape from the prison-house of matter. Although modern historians have referred to the sects associated with this worldview as “Gnosticism”, the term can be misleading if we think of Gnosticism as one homogeneous group. The reality is that in the first three centuries of the church there was a wide variety of sects teaching that the enemy is not sin itself, but materiality. These groups taught that the problem with the world is not that it is fallen, but that it is physical. Consistent with this anti-material impulse, the Gnostics routinely denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. Whereas the early Christians saw the resurrection as the ultimate act of sanctifying matter, the Gnostics spiritualized the resurrection into something non-physical.

While pursuing my undergraduate work in the early 2000’s, I began reading the works of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. It was through their writings that I first came to understand the Biblical doctrine of physical resurrection. I started to appreciate that the separation of the body and spirit that occurs at death is an aberration from the proper order of things, which is why even the saints in heaven are anticipating the final resurrection when God will renew all things. I was also intrigued by the Schaeffer’s discussion of what it meant to have a Christian “worldview.” Christianity is not just true in a religious sense, the Schaeffers taught; rather, when we say that Christianity is true we mean that it is the right understanding for all of reality. This comprehensive understanding of worldview forced me to begin thinking about how my Christian faith might apply more fully to my experience as a physical human being living in a material universe.

In 2004 I finished my undergraduate work, and the following year I took a job as a journalist for a Christian lobby group in the UK. Working in the public realm forced me to continue thinking more deeply about what role, if any, the Christian faith might play in the public sphere. Does Christianity simply give us a set of rules on how to be good, or does Biblical virtue enable us to actually flourish in our humanity, both as individuals and as citizens? Related to this was the question “What does it really mean to say “Jesus is Lord”? Does Christ’s lordship extend over all aspects of human experience, or simply a circumscribed set of “spiritual” activities?

I became alert to the parallels between Gnosticism and my own thinking in 2006 when the National Geographic Society announced the discovery and publication of a curious document called The Gospel of Judas. As a journalist I had the opportunity to report on this third-century papyrus text, which some people saw as offering an alternative reading of the events leading to Jesus’ death. Coming two years after Dan Brown’s wildly popular The Da Vinci Code, the Judas text seemed to give credence to Brown’s contention that there were many alternative “Christianities”, each with their own textual tradition. Our Christian tradition, rooted in the texts of the New Testament, is just one among a number of competing traditions.

Written in Coptic, the so called Gospel of Judas turned the crucifixion story on its head, with Judas becoming the hero. In this work, Jesus seems to give Judas permission to betray Him in order to throw off His physical flesh. In this retelling of the Christian story, the cross is important not because it is the means to the world’s redemption, but because it enables escape from this world. As Bart Ehrman explained, summarizing this outlook in an article appending the publication of The Gospel of Judas,

“We are trapped here, in these bodies of flesh, and we need to learn how to escape…Salvation does not come by worshiping the God of this world or accepting his creation. It comes by denying this world and rejecting the body that binds us to it…” Bart Ehrman, “The Alternative Vision of the Gospel of Judas,” in Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin W Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006).

The more I learned about Gnosticism, the more I noticed numerous parallels between this ancient heresy and my own thinking. Had I unwittingly been a Gnostic without realizing it?

Another reason for my interest in Gnosticism was that friends of mine began suggesting that perhaps Gnostic texts offer us special insight into the true historical Jesus. Maybe the church got it wrong about Jesus and the four gospels, they suggested. They speculated further that perhaps the only reason the traditional four gospels had come to hold precedence was because the church of the fourth century had colluded with the reigning political powers, hushing up the truth about the Jesus we glimpse in these alternative textual traditions. One of the texts they pointed to was a work known as The Gospel of Thomas. This work contains a similar outlook to that of the Judas text and quotes Jesus making a variety of disparaging statements about the material world and the physical body.

One of the reasons the early church developed a canon was specifically to distinguish the writings of the New Testament from the spurious works written by Gnostics and others. But might the church have got things wrong? Should the writings from non-orthodox sects be given equal priority with texts like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

These were the questions everyone was asking in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Throughout these discussions, voices in the secular media began pointing to Gnosticism as an alternative approach to Christian origins. Meanwhile, Christian historians and apologists capitalized on this surge of interest in Christian origins with a body of work defending the canonical tradition. A common theme in this apologetic work was the idea that Gnosticism was something “out there” that Christianity needed defending against.

Hoping to get some clarity about these issues, in 2006 I attended a conference N.T. Wright was giving at The Gospel and our Culture Network. Wright, who at that time was the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England, spoke about the history of Gnosticism and the challenge it posed to the early church’s teaching about the goodness of creation. At one point in the lecture Wright turned to his audience, which consisted mainly of Anglican and evangelical Christians, and challenged us to stop thinking of Gnosticism as a heresy external to the Christian community. Gnostic-type ideas about the physical world, he explained, are alive and well within the heart of evangelical Christianity. Wright even gave some examples of familiar hymns he refused to sing because they were illustrative of “eighteenth-century Gnosticism.” If we were interested in knowing more about this, Wright urged, we should go away and read Philip Lee’s book Against the Protestant Gnostics.

Returning from the conference, I bought a copy of Lee’s classic work, which is a discussion of the theological themes that dominated America’s formation. Lee suggested that the “familiar presence of Gnosticism, is as close at hand as the reality we call Protestantism,” and argued that the gnostic spirit entered the American experience with the colonial Puritans. Puritans thinkers like Jonathan Edwards had became gnosticized to the degree that they retained covenantal categories of Calvinist theology but restructured them in individualistic terms. The preference of the private over the public, the invisible over the physical, and a hostility to acts of piety embedded in materiality, were all signs of the Gnostic spirit at work in American religious life—a spirit that has continued down to the present day.

Since Lee published his work in 1987, there has been an entire corpus of works using Gnosticism as a lens for cultural critique. But this body of scholarship has not been without its detractors. It is often suggested that there is something anachronistic about using the term “Gnosticism” in the context of ancient history since the category is a modern construct covering a wide variety of movements. And if the term is problematic in the context of ancient history—so the argument goes—how much more is it problematic as a lens for understanding modern religious ideas. Others have been suspicious of Lee’s thesis on the grounds that it oversimplified early American religious history, cherry-picking from the historical record to produce a grand narrative. Moreover, the Puritans did not advocate Gnosticism, and neither did they deny the goodness of the material world or the physicality of the resurrection; in fact, in many cases the opposite is the case. Therefore, isn’t it unfair to lay the charge of Gnosticism at the Puritan’s door? Other scholars—one thinks of the historian Mark Noll—have been quite comfortable using Gnosticism (and related concepts like Docetism) to diagnose evangelical disfunction, yet will argue that these problems have arisen precisely because of our departure from America’s reformed theological heritage represented by Puritan figures like Jonathan Edwards.

Despite these objections, I still couldn’t help wondering if there might be something important to Lee’s basic thesis. Moreover, did contemporary scholarship in the sociology of religion put us in a position better to clarify aspects of Lee’s thesis and answer some of the objections? For example, in the early twenty-first century, work being done in the sociology of religion emphasized categories such as “implicit theology” and the “social imaginary.” What these concepts pointed towards was that the most influential ideas animating a religious culture can sometimes be ideas which are only tacitly articulated and which may even exist in tension to direct doctrinal formulations. Put another way, assumptions may often percolate slightly beneath the surface so that they color and modulate everything even if they are rarely encountered in a distilled form. Applied to the question of Gnosticism, I wondered whether there might be an “implicit theology” of Gnosticism lurking beneath the surface of much Protestant Christianity, tincturing how believers think about their bodies, the purpose of salvation, the material world, and resurrection. I remembered my own pessimistic views about the physical world: although I would always have repudiated any association with the heresy Gnosticism, could we still meaningfully say that I had succumbed to an implicit or operational Gnosticism? And if I had unwittingly embraced an implicit Gnosticism, was this an unusual anomaly, or part of a larger trend with the broader Christian community?

The next milestone in these reflections came in the summer of 2007 when I returned to America after my ten-year stent in England, in order to teach history at a classical Christian school in North Idaho. I soon learned that this particular part of the Idaho panhandle was the “Bible belt” of the Northwest and a hotbed of a viewpoint known as “dispensational premillennialism.”

Although it came in many variations, the basic narrative of “dispensational premillennialism” embraced by many of my friends went something like this: as history progresses, unbelief and apostasy will increase throughout the earth, the gospel will be preached to all nations unsuccessfully and the church will eventually lose influence, fail its mission and become corrupt. To make matters worse, at some point the antichrist will appear in the temple of Jerusalem, and he will become ruler of the world and persecute Jews and Christians. The antichrist will try to put the mark of the beast on everyone’s foreheads, and many Christians will be deceived into letting him do this. Then, when no one expects it, the ‘rapture’ will occur, enabling Christians to go to heaven while the rest of the world endures a seven year period of tribulation (in the older historic non-dispensational premillennialism, the church went through the tribulation as well). God will eventually pour out His wrath on the earth until the battle of Armageddon, when Jesus will come back physically to the earth and institute the millennium.

As I began interacting with friends who held these theories, it quickly became clear that these end-times scenarios fortified a very strong dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism. By presenting the present physical earth as beyond God’s saving power, these theories solidified the assumption that earthly culture is outside God’s salvific work. On this way of thinking, the purpose of the Christian’s mission is essentially negative rather than affirmative: the best we can hope to do is avoid the mark of the beast, keep ourselves from the corruption that will take over the world and the Church, and bide our time until the rapture. Friends of mine who were consistent with this belief-system went even further and adopted a hostile attitude towards this world and its culture. After all, they reasoned, shouldn’t we hope for culture to become godless, for the environment to become polluted, and for the church to be compromised, seeing that widespread corruption signals Christ’s imminent return? One friend told me he was hoping a nuclear holocaust would occur so Jesus might come back all the sooner, while another friend told me about an acquaintance who was withdrawing from his cultural labors in order not to inadvertently delay Christ’s return.

Most of the time, the matter-spirit dualism I encountered in North Idaho was simply part of the taken-for-granted background for how my evangelical friends interacted with the world, rather than an explicit and acknowledged feature of their belief-systems. One example of this was the widespread assumption that salvation is something that happens to individuals only, rather than a reality that includes the restoration of the entire created order. Accordingly, the realm of grace was perceived as distinct from the realm of nature. The dualisms between grace-nature, as well as the dualism between spirit-matter, seemed to have wide-ranging ramifications in everything from ecclesiology to the theology of vocation. With regard to the former, I found it interesting that the church was often treated as simply a mechanism for God to simply bring more solitary souls to Himself, or as an opportunity for our personal relationship with God to be recharged in the gaping parenthesis between earth and heaven. What tended to be lacking was the Pauline emphasis that the church is an emissary of new creation, advancing Christ’s kingdom in the interval between the kingdom’s inauguration (at the incarnation) and its culmination (at the second coming).

In dialogue with friends, I occasionally expressed concern about the incipient matter-spirit dualism that tinctured so much of our thinking. I pointed out that there seemed something almost Gnostic in the widespread belief that the purpose of salvation is to take us away from the earth—an the earth that is beyond the scope of Christ’s redeeming work. In response to these concerns, my evangelical friends criticized me mercilessly. “Can you prove your concerns with reference to peer-reviewed texts?” one friend asked, adding that unless I went away and did a PhD on the subject, it was intellectually dishonest to say anything about the problems of matter-spirit dualism. Still others misunderstood my basic premise, imagining that I was postulating a causal connection between the ideas of classical Gnosticism and modern Christian thought, when in reality I was addressing the problem at the level of correlation. Still others reacted to my use of terms such as “new creation” or “God’s kingdom”, fearing the bogyman of a Christian political agenda on the right, or the scepter of the “social gospel” on the left.

In addition to my dispensational premillennialists friends, I also had a circle of friends at the reformed church I attended, most of whom tried to take seriously the cultural and earthly dimensions of salvation. For our church reading group, we decided to go through N.T. Wright’s 2008 publication Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. This work expanded on many of the concerns Wright had raised when I heard him speak in 2006. He shared a body of evidence which suggested that there has been widespread compromise with the heresy of Gnosticism and that “A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism.” Wright used the doctrine of physical resurrection as the linchpin to refute this implicit Gnosticism, as well as to undermine a type of evangelical pietism that is so heavenly minded that it ceases to be of any earthly good. Using scriptural exegesis, Wright showed that although going to heaven when we die is important, it is only one part of the Christian hope. The early Christians, Wright pointed out, actually believed that heaven is more like a waiting room where we will anticipate the final resurrection. In the final resurrection, the faithful will be given new bodies to enjoy in the renewed heaven and earth. This hope, Wright suggested, had implications in the here-and-now, transforming how we view the earth and the mission of the church. As Wright summarized this point in another work:

“…the Christian hope…gives us a view of creation which emphasizes the goodness of God’s world, and God’s intention to renew it. It gives us, therefore, every possible incentive, or at least every Christian incentive, to work for the renewal of God’s creation and for justice within God’s creation. Not that we are building the kingdom by our own efforts. Let us not lapse into that. Rather, what we are doing here and now is building for God’s kingdom. It is what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: there is continuity between our present work and God’s future kingdom, even though the former will have to pass through fire to attain the latter. It is also clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15:58: the conclusion of Paul’s enormous exposition of the resurrection is not an outburst of joy at the glorious life to come, but a sober exhortation to work for the kingdom in the present, because we know that our work here and now is not in vain in the Lord. In other words, belief in the resurrection, the other side, if need be, of a period of disembodied life in the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 15:29), validates and so encourages present Christian life, work and witness.” N. T Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999).

Although N.T. Wright was not saying anything particularly controversial, but simply articulating the historic Christian hope, the public reaction to Surprised by Hope suggested otherwise. In February 26, 2008, ABC news ran a story claiming that Wright’s idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” was “a radical departure from traditional belief.” Although the Nicene Creed contains the statement “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”, and although the Apostles’ Creed professed belief in “the resurrection of the body”, the wider public appeared to assume that this is no longer part of traditional Christian belief. The widespread assumption seemed to be that eternal disembodiment is the orthodox Christian hope. For example, in his compendium of information about what happens after death, Biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed in Death and the Afterlife that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.” The fact that the media treated Bishop Wright as a novelty for simply articulating the doctrine of physical resurrection, convinced me that I needed to take more seriously the phenomenon of implicit Gnosticism. If N.T. Wright was correct that much popular Christianity tends to “wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism”, where had these Gnostic impulses come from and how did they get such a foothold in Anglo-American religious thinking? Was “implicit Gnosticism” a specifically American thing, or a wider transatlantic problem throughout the world of English-speaking Christianity?

I didn’t have an opportunity to take up these questions until 2010 when a benefactor funded me to engage in further research. I began connecting with scholars throughout the world. I travelled to the British library to study manuscripts. I published a book with Canon Press about some of the heroes from church history who took seriously the new creation mandate. I enrolled in a research-based Masters program at King’s College London to study historical theology. I began working closely with Dr. Dominic Erdozain, whose work on salvation motifs in Victorian England gave him unique insight into the phenomenon of implicit theology.

The deeper I delved into the phenomenon of “implicit Gnosticism,” the more convinced I became that these questions needed to be examined through an interdisciplinary lens. The scholarship dealing with “Gnostic influences” had burgeoned since 1987 when Lee wrote Against the Protestant Gnostics, but locked in separate academic disciplines. In the early 90’s Harold Bloom had dealt with the subject from his background as a literary critic; in the mid 90’s Mark Noll explored the problem of Gnostic impulses against his background as an American historian; in 2004 Randy Alcorn addressed a number of Gnostic ideas (which he called “Christoplatonism”) that have crept into Christian thinking about the next life; in 2009, James K.A. Smith challenged many of the gnostic-like ideas of modern Christianity in exciting work on worship and embodied cognition; in 2011 Michael Philliber examined the phenomenon of Gnosticism from the perspective of parish life; in 2014 Peter M Burfeind explored the phenomenon of Gnosticism through its effect on culture, art and popular Christian thinking, while James Herrick and numerous other scholars have used Gnosticism as a lens for examining trends in popular thinking and the new age movement. Each of these scholars built on Philip Lee’s work from the perspective of their particular academic specialties, but I was convinced that future accounts of implicit Gnosticism needed to be interdisciplinary in order to take all these perspectives into account. Even within my own discipline as an academic historian, I found that it was impossible to engage in Philip Lee’s concern about the “implicit Gnosticism” of the colonial Puritans without first understanding the sixteenth-century continental theology that influenced Puritan thinking about the body; however, it was impossible to understand sixteenth century theology without first exploring late medieval philosophy. In order to fully appreciate the impact of Jonathan Edwards’ teaching about the material world, it was necessary to explore contemporary thinkers who claimed to be Edwards’ theological heirs; but in order to properly understand Edwards’ own intellectual context, it was necessary to read deeply in the Enlightenment texts that influenced him. Moreover, in order to speak with any credibility about Gnosticism, even in its implicit form, it was necessary to attain at least a cursory familiarity with texts from the Church Fathers written to combat Gnosticism.

From 2010 to 2015 I immersed myself in the research, while occasionally accepting offers to speak publicly and publish. However, as my research became increasingly multi-disciplinary, it came under severe criticism from other academics. Didn’t I realize, they pressed, that I was trying to be a jack of all trades and master of none? When I attempted to pursue doctoral research to bring Philip Lee’s work into dialogue with contemporary scholarship, I was told that “a work on a grand scale that ranges across two centuries tracing out key themes” was too “ambitious” and “not an appropriate approach for a doctoral study.” Concern was also raised that I would never be published in peer-reviewed journals unless I selected just one aspect of the research to spend my career colonizing.

After five years of extensive research, I realized that I had only scratched the surface of what I had set out to study. Perhaps the critics had been right. Overwhelmed by the amount of work still required to connect the various strands into a coherent narrative, and having exhausted all the funds available for my research, I became discouraged and abandoned my academic pursuits.

For the next two years, I worked as a writer and researcher for corporate clients in the behavioral health industry. Even in this new field, however, I found I could not escape from the scepter of implicit Gnosticism. As I delved into the world of psychology and the behavioral sciences, I increasingly encountered a hostility to the physical body, often animated by utopian ideas about technology. One very common narrative is that our materiality represents a type of “fall” from which our machines can liberate us. The most obvious manifestation of this Gnostic-like hostility of the body are the Silicon Valley futurists working on the next phase of the human experience, one which (so they tell me) will liberate us from the constraints imposed by time, place and embodiment. Even on street level, however, I increasingly began to see individuals appropriating new technologies and communication media with the expressed purpose of being liberated from the encumbrances that come with having a physical body. Such narratives were often correlated with a sense of shame about being material, leading to a complex range of maladaptive behaviors.

As I explored these pathologies, I found myself returning to the thinking of church fathers like St. Irenaeus, who countered Gnosticism with strong assertions about the goodness of the physical world. By this time I was also doing work and public speaking on the psychology of gratitude, and I increasingly found myself wondering if a posture of gratefulness might provide a new perspective from which to interact with the pessimistic impulses of our neo-Gnostic climate.

The opportunity to explore these issues in a more systematic way presented itself earlier this summer when I received funding to return to the topic. Having a more realistic sense of my own ability and resources than I did when I went to KCL seven years ago, I have decided to dispense with my ambition to systematically update Philip Lee’s thesis in light of modern scholarship, or even to address these questions in comprehensive way. Instead, I have decided to write a book for a popular audience, exploring these questions like a journalist in a way ordinary people will find accessible. While still interacting with the scholarship, my intent is to address the real struggles people are having on ground level as they work to integrate their Christian experience with what it means to have a body, and what it means to live, work and love in the physical world that God proclaimed was “very good.”

But I cannot embark on this project alone. I need your help! Don’t worry, I am not asking for money, but I do need stories, insight and anecdotes from all of you. I want to know whether any of my readers have experienced similar struggles to what I shared above. In the meantime, here are links to some of my past writing and speaking on this subject, so you can see some of the ground I’ve already charted on this important topic.