Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gnosticism and Christianity

My next post, I hope, will return to the topic of teaching boys (I made an interesting observation during class a week or so ago which I hope to share). For this post, I would like to share something I posted as a note on Facebook earlier this afteroon. I've recently been reading through the Church Fathers (the current Father I am reading is Iranaeus), and I have discovered that what I learn about doctrine and Christian living from these men is often relevant to the thing we call 'real life' - in this post, to our understanding of doctrine. Enjoy!


When I was finishing graduate school, everything I encountered reminded me of my thesis. If I watched a movie, listened to a sermon or had a conversation, I could nearly always relate the topic to T.S. Eliot’s use of language in Four Quartets.

Reading Iranaeus’s debunking of Gnostic doctrine, I find much the same thing happening. Gnosticism is suddenly everywhere. Far from being a two-thousand-year-old dead cult, it is very much throbbing with life in the 21st century. Last week, I turned up a particularly egregious version of it on Matthew Paul Turner’s blog.

A fundamentalist-turned-liberal Christian, Turner blogs about events and key topics within the evangelical church today. I appreciate that he publically stresses the importance of Christian service (such as WorldVision) and that he challenges the church to examine whether particular practices are actual Christian truth or merely tradition.

Yet his January 16 interview with church leader Shane Hipps, who shared leadership with Rob Bell at Mrs Hill Church, is a much-needed reminder that the church is still in peril from heresy.  I am not bringing forward this example in order to start a witch hunt, beginning with Turner’s blog, but instead to remind whoever reads my posts that theology, which often plays second fiddle to relationship, is desperately important.

In the interview, Gnosticism crops up in answer to a problem that plagues the church today: What happens after life to good people who have never heard the Gospel? Turner recalls a hard-working Islamic man he met in a trip overseas and asks Hipps what hope there is for this man spiritually, since he clearly does not know Jesus Christ. Hipps responds like this: “I make a distinction between the historical person of Jesus and Christ, the power that animated him.  These two became one for a period of time.  But Christ existed before the person of Jesus walked the earth and Christ exists now that Jesus no longer walks the earth.”  What Hipps is saying about Jesus Christ is taken straight from a first-century Gnostic textbook.

Gnosticism also distinguishes between the man Jesus and the power of Christ. As you may know, Gnosticism believes not in one God but in a series of spiritual emanations from God. It is one of these emanations that produced Christ. Iranaeus writes that Monogenes, one of the earliest and most powerful, ‘gave origin to another conjugal pair [of emanations], namely Christ and the Holy Spirit’. Thus, the Gnostic Christ is not equal to God as Philippians teaches but rather descended from God, a lesser power perhaps most analogous to an angel. Moreover, Christ’s role in Gnosticism is not to reveal God to man but in fact hide God from the other emanations. Iranaeus notes that Christ “announced among [the emanations] what related to the knowledge of the Father – namely, that he cannot be understood or comprehended, nor so much as seen or heard”.  This, then, is the Christ of the Gnostics: not the way to God but the blockade preventing even God’s fellow spirit beings from complete knowledge of him.

Jesus, on the other hand, is seen by the Gnostics as an ordinary human being. Produced in the ordinary fashion by Mary and Joseph, the Gnostic Jesus is no more than the equal of any other Gnostic teacher. Iranaeus writes that at Jesus’ baptism, “there descended on Him, in the form of a dove, that Being who had formerly ascended on high, and completed the twelfth number, in whom there existed the seed of those who were produced contemporaneously with Himself, and who descended and ascended along with Him.” As a cup holds water but is not itself the water, so the Gnostics argue that Jesus holds one of the emanations (Christ) but is not Himself the emanation. Indeed, the Gnostic believers thought themselves spiritually purer than Jesus Himself. They, according to Iranaeus, believed themselves ‘produced contemporaneously with’ Christ. It was to them that ‘Christ made known the Father,’ though the chief emanation was not clearly known to Jesus or even to the various other emanations. Thus, the end of Gnosticism is to deny Jesus’s deity and to claim instead a godlike lineage for themselves.

With this background, consider Hipps’s theology again: To ‘make a distinction between the person of Jesus and Christ, the power that animated Him’ is to resurrect one of the chief principles of Gnostic doctrine and, in doing so, to swerve away from orthodox Christianity towards an affirmation of spiritual self-sufficiency. Just like the early Gnostics claimed special spiritual knowledge and privileges for themselves, so Hipps claims that individuals have the potential within themselves to access the power that he terms ‘Christ’ regardless of their theological beliefs. Talking of the Islamic man’s salvation, he writes this: “Jesus gave his gifts to people without requiring conversion or membership in a religion (woman at the well) or without people knowing his name (blind man with mud on his eyes).  So yes I believe Jesus is relevant and salvation is possible for your friend even if he doesn't know the name of Jesus.  That is how big Christ is!” In other words, because according to Turner the Islamic man is already a spiritual person, he is able to access the big, relevant power of Christ – in other words, to claim a status equal to or above that of the person Jesus, who led people to Christ. To paraphrase Ben Jonson, Jesus is for an age, but Christ is for all time.

This sounds very compassionate to modern ears: to ‘accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside.’ Yet not all that glitters is gold: To revive the Gnostic doctrine to favour a kind of half-baked universalism as Hipps does has certain dangers – most prominently, a denial of the Incarnation.

To orthodox Christians, the Incarnation is the key aspect of Jesus Christ’s identity. Iranaeus writes, “Christ did not at that time [Jesus’ baptism] descend upon Jesus, neither was Christ one and Jesus another: but the Word of God – who is the Saviour of all, and the ruler of heaven and earth, who is Jesus, as I have already pointed out, who did also take upon Him flesh, and was anointed by the Spirit from the Father – was made Jesus Christ.” To put this bluntly, Hipps is wrong: There is no distinction between Jesus and Christ, and in Jesus Christ there is no division between God and man. He is not a mixture of two natures, but fully both, and as such the cornerstone of our faith.

Without the Incarnation, we are lost. John’s Gospel points out that ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” In human language, words approximate ideas. Lewis and Tolkein felt that the word ‘tree’ was insufficient to describe the real thing, standing in the middle of a field or beside a brook in all its spreading glory. Surely the word ‘love’ does not do justice to the passion of a couple on their wedding day, nor the word ‘fear’ to the numb, shaking terror that we feel listening to the house creak at 3.00 AM. Yet Jesus Christ Incarnate is the divine Word: not simply a close approximation of God, but both the appearance and reality of God. Deny this, and you deny the only way that we human beings – spiritually lost and broken, whatever the Gnostics say – may understand God.

I began this essay with Eliot, so let me also end with Eliot. In the third part of Four Quartets, Eliot reaches what might be considered the climax of the entire series:

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic

However much we humans desire it, there is in us ‘no source of movement’ – in other words, no spiritual spark or vitality. Whatever spiritual spark we mistake for independent life is simulated: It is ‘driven by daemonic, chthonic / Powers’. In the Incarnation alone is spiritual life found. Only ‘here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual’: In one Form Jesus Christ united God and man, who were so long divided. Thus, Shane Hipps’ Gnosticism, loving as it sounds, ultimately robs Christianity of its greatest treasure. Where Hipps would affirm the spiritual spark within, Christianity affirms instead God brought near to us. This is the beauty of the Incarnation. Yes, we are still human and ‘flesh and blood cannot endure’ the full revelation of divine power. Yet in Jesus Christ, fully human and fully man in one person, we have at least a ‘gift half understood’: complete, final reconciliation between us and our Creator.

Interview link:

Monday, January 7, 2013

Teaching Boys?

Checking up on my favourite web pages last month, I stumbled across an intriguing book: The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre. The subtitle of the book elaborates on what exactly the 'trouble with boys' is: that boys, compared to girls, are under-performing academically from preschool to their senior year of college.

My interest was piqued. Though my classes have had their share of problem girls, many of the most memorably troublesome students from the last five years are in fact boys: the young man who held a public confrontation in the middle of class discussion, the ones who have sulked in the back of the room, and the ones who have simply walked out mid-lecture. Inspired by a few fresh memories of student confrontations in the past semester, I caved and purchased the Kindle. I grew up without brothers (my cousin Dan was the closest thing I got to a brother, and he spent more time beating me in Risk and Axis and Allies than pestering me or laughing at body humour or more stereotypical boy behaviour). Thus, I hoped the book would shed light on how to best relate to and engage the young men in my class.

In the week since I've had the book, I've read about half and been inspired to change my Intro to Literature syllabus. The chapter on reading stressed that boys read best when the novel is action-based or when it involves a male protagonist. If I were a 5th-grade teacher, I'd assign students to read Hatchet or perhaps The Eagle of the Ninth. I am, however, a college literature teacher who assigns poems in order to give students a breadth of literary experience, and action poems are relatively rare. So I did the best I could: I swapped out several of what I perceived to be flowery, girly poems and exchanged them for poems with more masculine topics. When a particular "girly" poem was too valuable for me to remove it, I tried to balance it with a poem designed to help the boys in my class become men.

Here's a sampling of some of the exchanges I've made:

  • "To Autumn," a rich poem about the beauties of fall, was dropped in favour of "The Destruction of Sennacharib," Byron's interpretation of the death of the Assyrian army attacking Israel. Much as I like "To Autumn," I worried that the men in my class would (at least subconsciously) conclude from the imagery (detailed nature description and a stanza describing Autumn as a woman with beautiful flowing hair) that poetry appeals to women. I had planned to open the semester with "To Autumn," and the last thing I want is half my class tuning out in the first week. The semester will now open with a poem that describes the preparations for war and the aftermath of the Angel of Death's visit, decidedly more gender-neutral (especially at a Bible college) than my original pick.
  • "The River-Merchant's Wife" is a letter from a woman to her husband, absent from her and traveling on business. The poem, with its straightforward language and touching themes, has long been a student favourite, and I was reluctant to jettison it entirely. Yet I was still worried that the men in my class would be turned off by an entire unit of texts like "The River-Merchant's Wife". Thus, I made some space in my "Love and Family" unit to emphasize aspects of family life that are important to young men. My syllabus now includes two poems about fathers and sons: "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden and "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke. My hope is that all students, regardless of gender, will profit from a discussion of good parenting, especially good fathering.  
Obviously, this approach can be taken too far. Personal preferences are not divided hard-and-fast by gender; many men do like traditionally-feminine activities; I had a young man in my class last semester who loved to quilt! Attention to gender preferences must not become gender stereotyping. Also, I don't want to teach so many war- and father-related poems that I leave the girls feeling a disconnect to the texts we read. Yet I remember, as a girl, liking books for both boys and girls, so I figure the girls in my class will do just fine. Furthermore, I believe that it is the teacher's responsibility to, in the words of Bruce Wilkinson, "cause the student to learn" - in other words, do whatever is in my power to guarantee that students succeed in the class. If that means that I lose old favourites such as "To Autumn" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in favour of "The Destruction of Sennacharib" and "Those Winter Sundays", so be it. The latter poems are just as valuable and strong in terms of literary value, and perhaps stronger in terms of personal relevance to my students. 

My plan this semester is to tweak my teaching style as well to involve the men in my class: to call on them more, to build class assignments around competition as well as cooperation, to design assignments that go beyond arts and crafts and appeal to their more particular skills. My hope is that this class will both encourage the men to interact with the women and also teach them that literature can be a masculine activity, as well as a feminine

I'll let you know how it turns out. 

Apologies, by the way, for the long-delayed post. As a teacher, late November and December are to me what the first half of April is for accountants. Hopefully I will have time for a few months, at least, to keep you posted on a more regular basis.