Why is this Happening to Us? How the culture wars become religious wars among us
delivered at the
2012 Conference of Intrepid Lutherans
“As is continuously the case even in our own age, already before the first generation of post-Apostolic Christianity had come to an end, heterodox interpretations of New Testament teaching were being disseminated by false teachers, along with fraudulent writings purported to be those of the Apostles. Therefore, in addition to preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ, the task soon fell upon those descending from direct contact with the Apostles to defend orthodox teaching and differentiate between genuine and false Scriptures. An early example of one such false teacher is Valentinus (d. A.D. 160) – the most influential Gnostic teacher in history, who received his training in Alexandria before coming to Rome. Another early Gnostic teacher, based in Rome, was Cerdon – he was a disciple of Simon Magus (mentioned in Acts 8:9-24).
- When gnosticism came in touch with Christianity, it rapidly adopted the outward garb of the latter (1) by using the Christian forms of thought, (2) by borrowing its nomenclature, (3) by acknowledging Christ dualistically as the Saviour of the world, (4) by simulating the Christian sacraments, (5) by pretending to be an esoteric revelation of Christ and his apostles, (6) by producing a great number of apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelations (apocalypses). Although gnosticism was utterly the opposite of Christianity, it was so well camouflaged by this borrowed garb that it appeared to the unwary as a modification or refinement of Christianity. In fact it soon claimed to be the only true form of Christianity, set apart for the elect, unfit for the vulgar crowd. Gnosticism, highly aggressive, became so widely diffused throughout the Christian churches that for several centuries, especially from the second to the fourth, it threatened to stifle Christianity altogether. Many of the early Church Fathers, especially Irenæus, made great effort to suppress and uproot it. The gnostic leaders were excluded from membership in churches, while gnosticism was denounced as heresy by the Church as a whole.
- But Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth... a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles – that, namely, which he also handed down to the Church.
- validating one’s Scripture sources as having come directly from the apostles, and
- validating one’s teaching as descending only from those Scriptures.
- Amid the general confusion ushered in by the gnostics, the Church was obliged to set up certain standards to be acknowledged by anyone who claimed to be Christian. These standards included the Apostles’ Creed, the formation of the New Testament Canon, and the Apostolic Office, or the historic Episcopate... [while] the defense of the Christian faith lead to the formation of Christian dogma...
As readers of Intrepid Lutherans may be aware, the philosophy of post-Modernism is a relatively frequent topic on these pages. A related, and perhaps more important topic, is the re-emergence of a religious movement which seems to share in some sort of symbiosis with post-Modernism: the rise of Gnosticism in the West. In the words quoted above (and as they were expanded in the footnotes of that paper), the false religion of Gnosticism received brief treatment, being identified as a primary cause of lasting corruption in the Church under headings such as “Gnosticism and Pagan Teaching, Monasticism and Aristocratic Merit before God” and “Gnostic Challenges, Pragmatic Issues of Governance, and the Romanization of the Church.” To my knowledge, this is the limit of attention Gnosticism has received from Intrepid Lutherans. But it hasn’t been otherwise unknown to us.
More than once in the recent past has the fact been impressed upon me that the ideal of a secular society – often argued by Christian quietists who’d prefer that Christians squelch their religious convictions and disregard their Christian identity in the public square – is pure myth, long disproven by demographics studies since the close of the 1970’s, not one decade after Western (and Lutheran) social scientists issued its initial hypothesis. This fact veritably forces one to admit that, like it or not, religious conviction and practice is fundamental to the establishment of any social order, and thus also forces one question: what affirmative and ascendant religious motivation stands behind the radical social changes we witness today, and behind the popular, near-militant anti-Christian sentiment we now experience in Western society? That is, since religion WILL function as a primary ordering force in society, which religion does it look likely to be, going forward? In answer to this, more than once have I heard Lutherans and other Christians forcefully warn of the re-emergence of Gnosticism.
A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion
according to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy
by Rev. Peter M. Burfeind
Rev. Peter M. Burfeind (LCMS) is one of those Lutherans who has personally warned me of this re-emergence. And now he is warning more broadly in his new book, Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion according to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy. An operator of Pax Domini Press, many of our readers may be familiar with his involvement with Sunday School curricula like A.D. The Acceptable Year of the Lord (a curriculum for ages 4-12 on the Gospel texts from the Historic Lectionary) or A New Song unto the Lord (a curriculum on the Biblical texts supporting the liturgy), and several Vacation Bible School programs. Pax Domini Press is one of those publishers that has been on our list of publishers since we first put that list in the column on the right. Having met him personally on a number of occasions, I recall the conversation we had the last time we had met. It was a broad conversation on the topic of gnostic manifestations in the church and in society today, which lasted into the early morning hours. It was during this conversation that he not only made apparent to me his concern, but revealed to me his ongoing research on the topic, mentioning that he had composed some material that he had shown to another pastor, who then encouraged him to continue developing his work into a book. Since then, I’ve thought of our conversation that evening, and as recently as this Summer, wondered if he had continued working or even completed his work. I received an email in late August announcing that his book, Gnostic America, is finally complete. I purchased a copy as soon as it was available on Amazon, and am currently about one-third of the way through it. At 362 pages, 16 chapters and 915 endnotes, one may expect that this book is rendered in painfully academic prose. Quite the opposite, however, being written by a parish pastor with a living concern for the laity (rather than a professional theologian, who daily functions outside of that environment), it is very accessibly written, without also being so “accessible” as to be insulting or condescending to literate adults – Rev. Burfeind is having a very serious conversation with his readers. I can say, even at only one-third through the book, that Gnostic America is a book which every Christian layman in America must read, especially if he wants a fuller understanding of currents in American and Western culture in terms of religious influence. With the influence of Christianity at a sharply contracting ebb, the influence of Gnosticism, which has always been a strong undercurrent, has risen to the surface again, and seems to now be directing the course of society. To give readers of Intrepid Lutherans a brief view into the subtle yet pernicious and pervasive influence that Gnosticism now has in Western Society (and with written permission from Rev. Burfeind), I quote extensively from the Introduction of Gnostic America:
“Harold Bloom went so far as to call the scene Orphic, referring to the ancient mystery cult where flutists worked initiates into an emotional froth, and then priests leveraged the emotion toward the desired goal, the vision of the mystery... In the history of the church, there is no precedent for this sort of emotion-laden, sacrament-less, erotically-charged religiosity. There is, however, a precedent outside the walls of the Church.
“That tradition is the Gnostic one.
“...[Drawing from philosophizing comments of a blogger, following the death of J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye] Everyone is fake...the world is a product of the meaning I impose on it...sleep and dreaming is where the real stuff is at...death is release... The blogger asks: Is there anyone who is truly authentic?
“Authentic. The word is everywhere. It’s the new pious , which traditionally was the proper state of mind one should have toward his deity. When God is distinct from me, my state of mind toward this other Being is that of piety. But what happens when my Self is God? Then the goal is authenticity. Being ‘true to my Self’ replaces ‘deny yourself’... Authenticity, or creating one’s Self, is the chief piety [of Existentialism, ‘the atheist's religion’]. Choice is [this religion’s] sacrament. It’s how creation of Self happens. In fact, there is a whole lexicon of words we use – authenticity, choice, freedom, Self, culture, values – whose meanings are shaped by this atheistic philosophy. But we have forgotten the philosophical contexts in which these terms arose, so we don’t question their premises. Why don’t we question their premises? Because that’s how faith works. It’s premises just are.
“Faith is far from on the decline in America. It’s held more fervently than ever, and its premises are more blindly adhered to and more absolutely grounded on thin air than Christianity ever was.
“A Neo-evangelical praise service, the anticipation of a progressive Utopian Age, the musings of an existentialist/New Age blogger, a young person’s discomfort with his/her gender, these are spiritual artifacts of our times, detritus from the spiritual path our culture is carving out of our age. They don’t stand out because no one notices the smell of the house they live in. They point to a dominant religious footprint so large no one notices it. The argument of this book is that the traits of ancient Gnosticism best explain this religious orientation.”
“Gnosticism’s major offense to traditional Christianity... is its rejection of nature, nature’s laws, and natures God. The gnostic is ever in rebellion against nature and... natural forms. Such naturally-arising concepts as gender, national boundaries, the cold hard realities of economics, cultural institutions like family and church (especially its rituals), marriage, even language, are deceptive impositions, says that Gnostic, of a foreign God upon which should be the authentic Self liberated from all impositions of form, freed to transcend them altogether.
“The Judeo-Christian orientation [however] centers on created forms. God’s first action was to separate the ‘formless and void’ of creation and bring about the various species ‘each according to its kind.’ After separating the elements he named them, which is to say: language arose out of the creation of forms... Gnostics reject this entire premise. The God who established forms ‘each according to its kind’ they consider an evil usurping god, a false tyrant deceptively thought to be the one true God, the God of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. The true God, says the Gnostic, transcends all form, all that can be thought, all being, everything. Celebrating formless spirituality, Gnosticism rejects those formal things, peoples, and institutions marking traditional Christianity: the Church, its sacramental life, and its ministry. It despises the Jewish God and its regard for language and grammar, anything mooring spirituality to something so profane as a text.
“Thus the Gnosticism 101 summary, but where things get interesting (and pernicious) is where the Gnostic movement works its program through culture, politics and religion. Precisely because Gnosticism doesn’t have marked doctrines or creedal statements, being more a ‘spiritual orientation,’ it can easily be co-opted in non-religious arenas – in politics, marketing and media – without fear of being accused of religious imposition, when in fact this is exactly what it is.”
De-constructing Western mores & institutions; Re-constructing with the religion of Gnosticism
“Nihilism often masquerades as a bitter sense of irony. Irony fits nihilism because it discharges any challenge to nihilism. Irony can cut anything good and beautiful down to size. It also raises the bad and ugly just enough to prove the high and great weren’t that high or great in the first place. Irony levels everything so that nothing has meaning.
“...Why is this sort of irony necessary? Because nihilism has taken root in the American mind. The moment any traditional institution or form or convention or custom – the nation, marriage, the Church, gender roles, freedom, the free market – is seen to have some worth or beauty or goodness (to say nothing of basic truth) attached to it, the demon of nihilism has a ready quip to deflate its pretenses. Hence the modern iconoclasm toward these institutions, their sentenced de-construction.
“But the human soul cannot tolerate such emptiness, the vacuum created by nihilism. Something must fill the vacated domain. Something must be re-constructed. Hollywood understands this. At the same time they manufacture irony toward traditional notions, they craft new fantastical realities... [But] irony, though fun and funny, is ultimately jejune and doesn’t satisfy. Hollywood cannot end with irony; it must offer new, transcendent realities... [which suggest that one has] tapped into something more real than life. The soul enters into the dark tunnel of nihilism, but finds a light at the end of the tunnel, on ...projection screens, ...television commercials, ...the internet, and in the other accepted conduits of reconstructed truth.
“The path from nihilism to meaning has a parallel in the history of philosophy. The most virulent, anti-Christian, atheist philosophers almost always ended up with some sort of spirituality. They must make some appeal to the transcendent, else they’d have no reason to lay down their philosophies in the first place. What is the transcendent, after all, but whatever I believe it true for more than just myself? That transcendency, then, soon takes on the characteristics of spirituality.
“Some simply end at irony, like philosopher Richard Rorty. But even Nietzsche, as ‘he assails the reason he will be enlisting,’ at the same time ‘ironizes a discourse that at the same time struggles beyond irony’... The quest for truth cannot end at irony; there must be something beyond.
“Heidegger displays the same tension between nihilism and transcendence. He too, like Nietzsche, saw the West coming to a nihilistic end because being, as understood in the Western philosophical heritage, disintegrated when the Christian and classical traditions propelling that heritage ran out of steam. Heidegger also didn’t leave it at that, at nihilism. In the words of political philosopher Michael Gillespie, ‘he believes he discerns in its depths the dawning light of a new revelation of Being.’ Nihilism, rather, is the ‘dawning recognition of Being.’ We must go through nihilism before getting to the new understanding of Being. At the same time, we face both ‘utter degradation and the possibility of salvation in a new revelation of Being.’ In other words, it’s as we’ve been contemplating: the point of nihilistic breakdown is also the point of new possibilities.”
The Structure of this Book
This book is divided into four parts... The first part [being four chapters] introduces the basics of Gnosticism, with a brief outline of its mythologies, teachings and practices. These might be interesting on an academic level, to some, but far more interesting and important is how Gnosticism works through modern spirituality, how the Gnostic traits in its ancient version echo yet today. Considerable space, then, is devoted to the Gnostic traits. Finally, a history of Gnostic movements is given, taking us from the ancient world to today... The second part [being three chapters] explores Gnosticism in culture. It begins with the Existentialist understanding of the Self and goes on to the role media and music play in the development of Self... The third part [also being three chapters] tackles Gnostic politic, finding common themes in the totalitarian movements of the modern era. The central thesis driving this part is that a specific theological outlook of the Middle Ages – millenarian, Anabaptist, Pietist and Puritan – has laid the foundation for modern progressive politics... [and] the fourth part [being six chapters] deals with Gnosticism in religion, discussing how the Neo-evangelical movement has essential become the New Age wing of the Christian church.”