The Gnostic Temptation in the Catholic Church
September 1994By Bernard D. Green
The Rev. Bernard D. Green is Associate Pastor of St. Odilia's Catholic Church in Tucson, Arizona. He also teaches New Testament at Pima Community College.
Gnosticism is rife in American Christianity today. Philip Lee, in his Against the Protestant Gnostics, argues that it is endemic in the Protestant churches, and Donna Steichen, in her Ungodly Rage, has shown how pervasive it is becoming in Catholic life. We are once again faced with the same dividing line that emerged between the Gnostics and orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. The question is the same now as then: Does the Church offer salvific truth and grace, or can we do away with that, and instead just rely on knowledge gleaned from myth, psychology, and personal experience? This in turn is related to the significance of the Resurrection for our salvation: Is it simply illustrative of human possibilities, as the Gnostics of old thought, or is it a unique event that reveals on what our salvation rests?
Harold Bloom, in his recent book The American Religion, suggests that there is a form of Gnostic religion that is intrinsic to American culture. It emphasizes the priority of information for salvation, the innate divinity of the individual self, and emotional experiences of transcendence. He sees this "religion" as pervading every Christian denomination in the country, including Catholicism. If he is right, then we are witnessing a battle in the Catholic Church between authentic Catholicism and this pervasive religious attitude, which, if not uniquely American, is something that American culture most clearly exemplifies.
The essence of Gnosticism is the emphasis on knowledge as the key to salvation. Salvation comes through information about who we are, what our potential is, what prevents us from realizing it. As Bloom observed, Americans are "obsessed with information," Gnosticism "was (and is) a kind of information theory," and the biblical account of creation and the Fall, which Gnostics reject, "concerned matter and energy," whereas Gnosticism "is all information."
Gnosticism is also bound up with a "technology" of salvation. It is concerned with the "effective mechanics" for releasing humans from constraints. We as a culture are obsessed with gaining such effective knowledge. We believe that through correct information and effective techniques we can escape any evil. Witness the enormous faith we place in education to defeat all our current social evils, from drug addiction to teen pregnancy. Witness the faith we place in psychology to give the necessary information about ourselves and others that will enable us to relate "effectively" to them.
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