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The Gnostic West: Ancient Heresy and the Contemporary Western Worldview (Pt. 1)

What if I told you that the contemporary Western worldview has much in common with Christian heresies that the Church condemned nearly two thousand years ago? This may seem strange to say since the bulk of modern Western people do not have much concern or knowledge regarding Christian orthodoxy or heresy. On the other hand it may also seem unsurprising, since no one expects people who reject God to think rightly about Him and the world, otherwise they would be Christian! With that said, this connection is necessary for contemporary Christians to recognize since daily we interact with and are tempted by this Western worldview. When we grow to understand this link, we are better able to free ourselves from it and serve our unbelieving neighbors in the midst of it.

In this series, we will explore the overlap of a few ancient heresies with the modern Western worldview in order to articulate a Christian response or alternative. This will also reveal how significant church history is in helping us understand our own cultural moment. We will explore a 2nd century heresy called Gnosticism.

First, let’s define heresy. The term is worth clarifying, since it is tossed around with little care and understanding today. Unfortunately, often it is used to describe a theological idea or interpretation of scripture that one dislikes. For example, it is not uncommon to see people accuse others of heresy on social media over secondary or tertiary matters which are based more upon one’s opinion than on scripture or the historic confessions of the church. True heresy, though, has little to do with one’s personal comfortability or opinion, but rather it is a matter of the collective church identifying ideas which undermine concepts that are core to the Christian faith (e.g., the gospel and God’s being). This is going to be our definition or standard of what heresy is moving forward.

Whether an idea is heresy has nothing to do with one's personal comfortability or opinion. Heresy is holding to ideas that the collective church determined would undermine core concepts of the Christian faith.

So then, what is Gnosticism? What did it teach which was so erroneous that some of the most prolific early Church figures wrote against it? The gnostics (those who practiced Gnosticism) were a diverse group in the early days of Christianity that essentially mixed Christianity with other popular cultural ideas of their day. This resulted in a totally different religion, but they were trying to sell it as the secret and true message of Christianity. For the purposes of this article, Gnosticism can be essentially broken down into three big ideas: 

1. Secret Knowledge : Gnostics taught that they had secret knowledge about the true message of Jesus and of Christianity, and that attaining this secret knowledge is what leads to salvation. The following two points summarize the basic ideas of this secret teaching.

2. Evil Creation : Gnostics taught that the physical world was inherently evil. Today, we recognize Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit as the point where things went wrong. The gnostics, though, believed that the very moment of creation is where things went wrong. Because physical matter is lower and more base than higher spiritual essences, their contention was that the physical world was a deceptive prison. This led them to teach that the natural order of the outer world was designed to trap people into ignoring the true source of truth, their inner, spiritual self. This idea also led them to deny a future bodily resurrection.

3. God in us : Gnostics taught that each individual person was a fragment of God, each carrying a divine spark inside of them. One’s goal, then, would be to listen to the guidance of this divine spark to recognize and escape the evils of the world. So, in their eyes, the physical world is evil but the spiritual/inner world of people is good.

For the gnostics, this combined into a worldview marked by a few interconnected ideas. They maintained a sharp division between the inward/spiritual and the outward/physical, which led them to define their identity by looking inwardly to their divine spark. They also sought to escape the world as a means of salvation, since the physical world was evil and designed to deceive and trap people with its lies. This also led to elitism, where those who attained this secret knowledge were seen as more enlightened than the rest.

Pay close attention to this divide between the physical and spiritual, as it is fundamental in the overlap between Gnosticism and the modern Western worldview that we will explore. Christians recognize that we are creatures, designed by a good God, who created a good world. As such, God as the Creator is also the one who is the source of ultimate truth and morality, rather than one’s own inward perceptions. This biblical perspective was anathema to ancient gnostics and it remains anathema to the modern gnostics who cannot countenance the idea that anything outside themselves has authority over them.

Having explored these ideas, a foundation has been laid to see how this 2nd century heresy is shockingly present in our own day, which we will explore in part 2.

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