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, 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 that deemphasized the importance of the physical world. In some of my earliest writings I argued that during the Old Covenant the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world, whereas in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (read: non-physical). Accordingly, what happens in the material world is unimportant to God. The best we can hope to do, I thought, is prepare for the next life. 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 physical and the spiritual, the sacred and the secular, this world and the next. 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 life to come, not with the concerns of the “secular” world. I wrote that Christians should retreat from the public sphere, not compromising their faith by trying to improve the present order of things. Why would you want to polish up a sinking ship?

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 around you—clearly Christ isn’t Lord of the world; the devil is!”

When these ideas were combined with belief in Christ’s imminent return, the result was that I came to eschew any planning for the future: after all, I reasoned, why would I want to plant trees or work to make the world a better place, 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.

My pessimistic views about the physical world 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 ornate communion tables, pictures of saints, or even beautiful church buildings. Material things were in competition to spiritual things. 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 reflected while watching their former sanctuary go up in flames.

Thankfully, I never went so far as to personally incinerate churches. However, the various dualism in my thinking—matter vs. spirit, sacred vs. the secular, this world vs. the next, nature vs. grace—caused me to be deeply divided. As a teenager and young adult in the 90’s, I enjoyed beautiful things like (i.e., nature, music, poetry, literature), 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 as little more than getting saved, trying to live a life of obedience, and then waiting to die and go to heaven.

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 during the first three centuries of the church there was a wide variety of sects teaching that our enemy is not sin 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 Christ’s resurrection as the ultimate act of sanctifying matter, the Gnostics spiritualized the resurrection into something non-physical. Little did I realize at the time how closely my own thinking aligned with this ancient family of heresies.

In my late teenage years, I began attending different churches in a search for a more integrated approach to my faith. Ironically, however, I found that even the churches that claimed to offer a more optimistic approach to the material world still ended up assuming a basic disjunction between the spiritual and the material. When I was nineteen, I attended a church in Northern California where the pastor believed in using anything and everything to make the gospel more attractive. This pastor, who I will call Pastor Hip for the sake of anonymity, had been kicked out of his previous church after arranging for motorcycles to be driven up to the pulpit. He never tired of repeating that “we should use anything in the world unless it’s actually a sin.” (Within Pastor Hip’s crude Biblicism, something was only a sin if you could point to a specific scripture verse where it was explicitly forbidden.) As parishioners, we believed that Christ had come to give us abundant life, yet the nature of that abundant life was conceived as simply more of what we already had as pleasure-seeking, comfort-loving Americans. Within this over-realized eschatology, the kingdom of God was conflated with the present order of things. Ironically, this posture of extreme earthly-mindedness ended up devaluing the material world. The material world was taken to be spiritually neutral, reduced to so much raw material that could be exploited for evangelistic purposes. As the goodness of the material world became entirely instrumentalized, any organic connection between the spiritual and the material was lost. By losing sight of a horizon beyond the present order of things, we left ourselves without any context in which the present life could be ennobled, dignified and exalted through participation in something beyond itself.

When I was twenty, I left California and moved to New Hampshire, where I attended a church that took the opposite approach from Pastor Hip. For them, the world is not the friend of faith, but its relentless enemy. Our rooms were frequently searched to make sure we were not harboring “worldly” substances like rock music, country, jazz, or love songs. Along with the other parishioners, I was taught a fundamentalism that denigrated culture, and an anti-intellectualism that despised academia. The pulpit was used to teach a truncated vision of the gospel that had little to no understanding of how the material world might fit within God’s plans. At best the material world was spiritually neutral; at worst, it was the enemy of faith. For them, new creation was a future reality that had little to no point of contact with the present space-time order. In the Bible school associated with this church, no attention was given to integrating Scriptural principles with this-worldly concerns like economics, art, psychology, literature, philosophy, medicine, politics, health and anthropology.

Through time I came to understand that the extreme heavenly-mindedness I encountered at this New Hampshire church was simply the other side of the coin of what I had experienced a year before in California. Both destroyed any organic link between the material and the spiritual. Both extremes severed the connection between God and the material world through rendering the latter at best passive and spiritually neutral. Indeed, an uncritical appropriation of the world and its cultures, no less than an uncritical rejection of it, both hinged on a shrunken view of the gospel that can only relate itself extrinsically to the materials and institutions of this world.

While pursuing my undergraduate studies in the early 2000’s, I began reading the works of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and listening to recording lectures each had delivered. It was through the Schaeffer’s writings that I first came to understand the Biblical doctrine of physical resurrection. The Schaeffer’s explained that the separation of the body and spirit that occurs at death is an aberration from the proper order of things, and that 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, they 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 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 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?

Two years later, in 2006, 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. 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.[1]

I learned that the anti-material narrative behind the Judas text was part of a largely family of heresies known retroactively as Gnosticism. I became intrigued. 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?

Around this same time, 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 further speculated 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 alternative textual traditions. One of the texts they pointed to was a work known as The Gospel of Thomas. This book, rediscovered in 1945, 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.

Hoping to get some clarity about these issues, I attended a conference N.T. Wright gave in 2006 for The Gospel and our Culture Network. Wright, who was the Bishop of Durham at the time, 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 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 Protestant Christianity. Wright even gave some examples of familiar hymns he refused to sing because they were illustrative of what he called “nineteenth-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.”[2] He suggested that the gnostic spirit entered the American experience with the colonial Puritans, and particularly with Jonathan Edwards.

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 an oversimplified 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. Other scholars—one thinks of the historian Mark Noll—have been quite comfortable using Gnosticism, and the related concepts of 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 Philip Lee might have been onto something. Specifically, I was curious if contemporary scholarship might put us in a position better to clarify his thesis and answer some of the objections. For example, in the early twenty-first century, sociologists of religion emphasized categories such as “implicit theology” and the “social imaginary.” What these concepts point towards is that the most influential ideas animating religious cultures 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 religious practice and thought 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 American 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 of 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 within the broader Christian community?

I had a chance to think about this further after returning to America in 2007 following my ten-year stent in England. My family moved to America so I could accept the job of history teacher 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 advocated 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 to institute the millennium. Yet even this millennial kingdom is a prelude to the eventual destruction of the earth.

Among many of my Christian friends, these end-time narratives seemed to fortify a very strong dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical—a dichotomy 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. New creation became divorced from any substantiation in the present order of space and time.

Friends of mine who were consistent with this belief-system went even further and adopted a hostile attitude towards this world and its culture. Far from trying to realize new creation within the present order of things, they reasoned, we should hope for culture to become godless. We should want the environment to become polluted, and for the church to be compromised. After all, they argued, 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. Another friend related that an acquaintance had decided to withdraw from his cultural labors in order not to inadvertently delay Christ’s return.

As I began interacting with friends who held these theories, it became clear that these end-times scenarios fortified a very strong dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical—a dichotomy 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 unimportant to God. 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. New creation became divorced from any substantiation in the present order of space and time.

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882),, one of the primary architects of dispensational premillennialism, helped to create conceptual template for ceding the present order of things to the devil. Over and against the impulse of America’s second great awakening, in which evangelicals embraced a host of progressive social and political causes, Darby’s pretribulation rapture theology taught a hopeless fatalism.  “…instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good,” he declared, “we must expect a progress of evil…until it becomes so flagrant that it will be necessary for the Lord to judge it…”[3] The highly influential Anglo-Irish Bible teacher found traction among American pastors following the devastation and hopelessness of the civil war. The progressive and hopeful views of the future that had characterized evangelicalism in antebellum America began to be replaced by the idea that Christians should disengage with society.

After Darby’s death in 1882, pastors continued promoting his end-times theories. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912, seemed to give further credence to this pessimistic vision of the future. Philip Marlowe, who was an evangelical traveling on board the ship “Carpathia” that rescued victims from Titanic, expressed this growing mood. In his 1912 book The “Titanic” Catastrophe and Its Lessons, he used the sinking ship as a metaphor for the world’s systems, which are sinking beyond hope of recovery. He likened salvation to a lifeboat that enabled men and women to get off the sinking ship of the world. Support for this apocalyptic vision seemed to be confirmed two years later with the outbreak of WWI—the most devastating war that the world had ever experienced.

As the twentieth-century progressed, conservative evangelicalism continue to be defined by a sense of pious withdrawal, while social engagement was increasingly left in the hands of Roman Catholics and theological liberals. The great divide between fundamentalism and liberalism was opening up, with the latter carrying on the activist legacy of the great awakening, with the former continuing its theological legacy. The reluctance among North American evangelicals to embrace a this-worldly vision was illustrated by their widespread hesitation about C.S. Lewis, a culturally-engaged Oxford don who thought as much about literature and culture as he did the Bible and theology.[4] From the 80’s onward, the evangelical movement began gradually to shift back to a this-worldly vision, but in ways that were at best erratic and compartmentalized, and at worst crudely materialistic. This had as much to do with a fear of communism than specifically theological concerns.

The ascendency of evangelicals to positions of cultural and political prominence towards the end of the cold war era, together with a growing unease among Gen Xers about the fusion of faith and politics during the Bush years, left many young people seeking faith experiences separate to the physical world and its culture. But whereas early 20th-century evangelicals expressed their sense of separation through a keen sense of the world’s latent hostility, the evangelicalism of the post-cold-war era has increasingly expressed this separation through a truncated notion of the faith that has left the world and culture to its own devices, a realm of spiritual neutrality that can nevertheless become raw material for evangelistic and political endeavor. The basic dualistic framework remains intact.

These were some of the issues I became interested in when I moved to North Idaho. Most of the time, the matter-spirit dualism I encountered 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 something that includes the restoration of the entire created order. Accordingly, the realm of grace was perceived as distinct from the realm of nature. The dualism 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, the church was often treated as simply a mechanism for God to 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). Moreover, the scriptural teaching that God would one day renew the earth was completely denied.

In addition to my premillennialists friends, I also had a circle of friends at the reformed church I attended. Most of my reformed friends tried to take seriously the cultural and earthly dimensions of salvation. For our 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. “A good many Christian hymns and poems,” he warned, “wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism.”[5] 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 is important, it is only one part of the Christian hope. The early Christians, he 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 scriptural hope, Wright suggested, has implications in the here-and-now, transforming how we view the earth and the mission of the church. As Wright summarized this same 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.”[6]

I did not expect Surprised by Hope to be particularly controversial, as it simply articulates the historic Christian hope. Nevertheless, much of the public reaction to Wright’s book treated his teaching as something of a novelty. 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.”[7] 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 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.”[8]

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 another look at the phenomenon of implicit Gnosticism. If Wright was correct that much popular Christianity tends to “wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism”, then I wanted to know where these Gnostic impulses had come from and how had they found such a foothold in Anglo-American religious thinking. Was “implicit Gnosticism” a specifically American thing, or a wider transatlantic problem throughout the English-speaking Christian world?

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 diving deep into the theological texts from the colonial period, as well as connecting with scholars and specialists throughout the world. I travelled back to the UK to pour over manuscripts at the British Library. I enrolled in a research-based Master’s 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 most of this scholarship was locked in separate academic disciplines. For example, in the early 90’s Harold Bloom had dealt with the subject from his background as a literary critic.[9] In the mid 90’s Mark Noll explored the problem of gnostic impulses against his background as an American historian.[10] In 2004 Randy Alcorn addressed a number of Gnostic ideas (which he called “Christoplatonism”) that have crept into Christian thinking about the next life.[11] In 2009, James K.A. Smith challenged many of the gnostic-like ideas of modern Christianity in his work on worship and embodied cognition.[12] In 2011 Michael Philliber examined the phenomenon of Gnosticism from the perspective of parish life.[13] In 2014 Peter M Burfeind explored the phenomenon of Gnosticism through its effect on culture, art and popular Christian thinking.[14] Meanwhile, James Herrick and numerous other scholars have been using Gnosticism as a lens for examining trends in popular thinking and the new age movement.[15]

Each of these scholars built on Philip Lee’s work from the perspective of their particular academic specialties. Yet as I looked at these works, I became increasingly 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 in general and Jonathan Edwards in particular, without first understanding the sixteenth-century continental theology that influenced Puritan thinking about the body. Yet it was impossible to understand sixteenth century theology without first exploring late medieval philosophy that helped to establish many of the plausibility structures of the late modern period. Moreover, 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. Furthermore, in order to speak with any credibility about Gnosticism, even in its implicit form, it was first necessary to attain familiarity with texts from the Church Fathers written to combat Gnosticism.

With this rather daunting task in front of me, I immersed myself in the research from 2010 to 2015, while occasionally accepting offers to publish or speak publicly. After five years of extensive research at King’s College London, I realized that I had only scratched the surface of what I had set out to study. 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 specter of implicit Gnosticism. As I delved into the world of psychology and the behavioral sciences, I increasingly encountered a hostility to the physical body that was more than a little reminiscent of ancient Gnostics. This was 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 bunext phase of the human experience. They tell me that this next phase will include liberation from the constraints imposed by time, place and embodiment. Even on street level, 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 physical, leading to a complex range of maladaptive behaviors.

As I explored these pathologies from the standpoint of mental health, 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 and the dignity of the physical body. 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 the antidote needed for interacting with the pessimistic impulses of our neo-gnostic climate.

The opportunity to explore these issues more systematic presented itself in 2019 when I received funding to return to the topic of Gnosticism. Having a more realistic sense of my own ability and resources than I did when I went to King’s College nine years ago, I decided to dispense with my original ambition of updating Philip Lee’s thesis in light of modern interdisciplinary scholarship. I also gave up my original idea of attempting to address the entire set of questions in a comprehensive way. Instead, I am hoping to write a book write a book that will be useful for both lay people and scholars. God-willing, I will share my research on this blog as I go along. I plan to emphasize the high points in my own academic journey without delving too deeply in any of the details. Moreover, as my original interest in these questions was personal before it was academic, I will try to keep the practical concerns constantly in view. My hope is that the writing I produce will prove useful both for history students as well as for ordinary Christians struggling to live, work and love in the physical world that God proclaimed was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

References

[1] 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).

[2] Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1987), ix.

[3] From https://www.stempublishing.com/authors/darby/PROPHET/02015E.html

[4] It was not until the 70s that Lewis began to be widely read among evangelicals. On the slow acceptance of C.S. Lewis among evangelicals, see Alister Mcgrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2016), chap. 15.

[5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 90.

[6] N. T Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999).

[7] Martin Bashir, “Bishop’s Heaven: Is There Life After the Afterlife?,” ABC News, February 26, 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/.

[8] Brian Innes, Death and the Afterlife (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

[9] Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of The Post-Christian Nation (New York: Chu Hartley Publishers, 1992).

[10] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[11] Randy C Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004).

[12] James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

[13] Michael W Philliber, Gnostic Trends in the Local Church : The Bull in Christ’s China Shop (Eugene, Or.: Resource Publications, 2011).

[14] Peter M Burfeind, Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion According to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy, 2014.

[15] James A Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

Further Reading