The Gnostic God

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There is an old saying: “God is forgiving; Nature, not so much.” Nature can, indeed, be very unforgiving.

This is likely why Gnostics, ancient and modern, have always opposed the God of the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament created Nature and promulgated the Law. He doesn’t let me do what I want without consequences. He’s the God who created human beings male and female and told them to be fruitful and multiply; the God who warned human beings that, although their freedom was wide-ranging, this freedom had to stop short of trying to take control over good and evil. Humans should not seek to “become like God” and try to create “good” and “evil.” Their calling is, rather, to discover the goodness inherent in the world God created and act accordingly; not presuming to try “make” something good “because I say so.”

The problem with “values clarification” is that it suggests things in the world have the value I give them. But if that’s true, then the reverse must also be true. If I don’t “value” something, it has no value. This mistake is just as easily made, depending on the ideology of the individual, about old-growth forests as it is about unborn children. If I choose to “value” it, it can continue to exist. If I don’t, then it’s acceptable to clear-cut the one or terminate the other. People increasingly feel convinced that governments exist precisely to “free” us in this way to set aside the constraints of Nature, so my act of personal will can take its place.

For similar reasons, many people prefer the Gnostic god of “spirituality” to the bothersome Old Testament Creator-God of Nature and the Moral Law. And yet is the rule of this “god” better, especially for the poor, the weak, the widow, and orphan? How well are these cared for by the engines of laissez-faire capitalism or the modern bureaucratic state? How well are they faring under the regime of lifestyle liberalism?

I suggest that we can learn a great deal about contemporary Gnostics by examining their earlier forebears. Ancient Gnostics, thinking the body unimportant and valuing only the “spirit,” often engaged in stringent punishment of their bodies. Their modern counterparts often engage in similarly stringent diets of a specificity and relentless rigor that makes the simple Catholic Lenten fast look like a banquet.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt, 1659 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]

Among ancient Gnostics, those who had attained higher levels of spiritual “knowing” (gnosis) and whose ascetic practices had honed their bodies into perfect temples of “the spirit,” were an “elite” who could look with a sad disdain at the great unwashed, those still tied to bodies and matter and Nature. There were among “the many,” those who also wished to be among, or at least be associated with, these elite “knowing” ones, so they devoted themselves to the study of their oftentimes bizarre, rarely reasonable ruminations and proclamations.

The similarities to certain parts of the Christian message was precisely what made ancient forms of Gnosticism so dangerous, and why the early Church Fathers spent so much of their energy arguing against them, carefully clarifying how orthodox Christianity differed from what these Gnostics were selling.

Of the many fronts in this battle, the first was to insist that Christ was both the Word made flesh and the Word through whom God created the world; that the God of the New Testament could not be separated from the God of the Old; and that the “spiritual” teaching of the Sermon on the Mount could not be separated from the moral law of Mount Sinai. All of these were expressions of one divine will.

Moreover, the way the Church Fathers chose to enter the struggle with the spiritual elite who claimed to be the bearers of a greater “knowing” was with solid arguments – with logic (from the Greek logos). As Pope Benedict XVI often emphasized, it was not without reason (literally) that God revealed Himself in the Gospel as the Logos, as the ultimate ground of reason.

The Fathers did not battle the Gnostics by trying to “one-up” their sentimental appeals; they formulated the best arguments they could muster, and in doing so became the true heirs of the best Greek and Roman philosophers. The patrimony of Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero lived on in Fathers like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Augustine of Hippo. And having preached the words, the Fathers showed their truth by acting in integrity with them – to the point of being willing to give their lives in witness to it.

What sort of formation do we owe our young people today to counter the many purveyors of modern Gnosticism? May I suggest it should be like the one offered by the Church Fathers. It should be devoted to explicating the goodness of creation, showing how the sacramental character of material things allows them to realize their true nature as instruments of God’s selfless love. So too it should renew our appreciation of the “natural law” as revealed in and through the Decalogue. And it should affirm, in union with the Fathers and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the importance of human reason and logic.

Can we not now see how defenseless we have left the young, having stripped from Catholic education regular courses in the Philosophy of Nature, the natural law, and logic, in favor of “soft” courses in “Religion and Spirituality”? It has left us a generation “lost in the cosmos,” as novelist Walker Percy called it, having no natural place, not even in our own bodies, no longer capable of discourse or dialectic: disembodied ghosts without a meaningful world or words.

In a virtual world dominated by Facebook fantasies and internet illusions, Christian parents and educators should promise young people nothing less than a true encounter with full-bodied reality. Anything less would be just another media gimmick, unworthy of the Word made flesh.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: