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April 12, 2006

Challenging philosophies.

The present debate about the provenance of the "Gospel of Judas" and its Gnostic origins has raised the question of "what is Gnosticism?" It has also raised the very real question of what do we all understand about the person of Jesus of Nazareth and how do we see the relationships between God, the World and our physical beings.

Taking one part at a time, Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century, indeed there is evidence that St John himself was involved in the original arguments and wrote his Gospel specifically to refute the arguments advanaced by a very persuasive advocate of this philosophy. Essentially the Gnostic case is that Jesus was not a man, but a God, and as such could not have suffered pain on the Cross or died. The nativity too was an illusion and the purpose of his coming was to impart "secret knowledge" to those "chosen" for "enlightenment". This is completely contrary to everything we know about the historical figure - and there is historical evidence which supports the story we have from the New Testament. Gnosticism is, in essence, a superimposition of the concepts of Plato regarding the nature of existence upon the Christian message, Plato's argument being that the world we see is but a shadow of another "real world" we see reflected around us. The Gnostic position is therefore "Dualist" in nature and separates creation into two parts - that of the physical existence we see around us, and another "realm" of purely spiritual existence bound by a different set of rules and "discorporate".

Of recent years it has made a serious comeback, particularly among those who have adapted to a "New Age" philosphy some of the teachings of the Gospels. It has seen a particular resurgence among some Christian Sects since the start of the Age of Enlightenment, in part due to the adoption, by the Protestant Reformers of a "literalistic" interpretation of Scripture. In many ways, the "Age of Enlightenment" (roughly the period from 1700 - 1900) was a counter blast to the fundamentalism that had pervaded the Protestant (and Catholic!) pulpits of that period. Martin Luther would have been appalled to see how the very things he argued against - the closed thinking and the narrow interpretations - had become the "norm" in the "reformed" churches which held sway in most of the British Isles and Northern Europe. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, points this out very clearly and very much more lucidly in his book "The Challenge of Jesus". He points too, at the fact that the response to the secularism and atheism of the "Enlightenment" has led to the revival of the Gnostic ideas - people need to have a belief system and will invent or re-invent one if the latest gods and goddesses lose appeal. The Bishop's argument is one I have put before on this blog - science and religion are not in conflict, they are both a part of God's gift to us of understanding.

The second part of the debate is occassioned by the 20th Century attempts to take the historical Jesus out of the gospel and replace Him with a contemporary "visionary" and "New Age" Guru with feminist, sociological and political ideologies to impart. Through the 20th Century we have been encouraged to see Jesus as a "man born out of time", some sort of Socialist pioneer born twenty centuries too early. Nonsense! Complete and utter nonsense! To do this is to attempt to say that the universal God whom we worship is some sort of "Karl Marx in the Sky" and that the Gospel has been shaped by "Das Kapital" rather than the other way round. The historic Jesus is as important to our understanding of the Gospel as is the imperitive that we do develop our understanding of the manner in which He stands at the apogee of history. He is the centre point of all human history, everything before Him points to Him and everything after Him flows from Him. We are who and what we are in the Christian founded nations because of that historic figure and the Gospels we have proclaimed. He is not, and never was, some sort of 1st Century Che Guevarra, Lenin, Marx or any other of the many figures of human history who have tried to impose secular quasi-religious political philosophies upon humanity.

Wright argues that this is the natural result of disillusionment with the two extremes of fundamentalist Christianity (ably promoted by an atheistic media as being both the "mainstream" and "silly") and the realisation that science cannot explain everything - particularly cannot explain anything "other worldly". Even the fact that there have been a number of serious studies of "Near death experiences" by serious medical researchers suggests to me at least, that there is a desperate search for "proof" of a life beyond the grave. That is a result of the disconnection between the teachings of the historical figure of Jesus in the Gospels and the resurrection, and the introduction of the demand for "proof" required before any "scientific" theory can be accepted as gospel truth. Re-enter Gnostic dualism and the "secret knowledge" in the many guises it now assumes - New Age ritual, Wikka and even a number of "Fundamentalist Christian Sects.

One of the things I do find ironic is the rise of Masonic Orders since the Protestant Reformation with almost all their rituals being either Gnostic or their later manifestation, the Cathar practices. I also find it ironic that the most likely place to find a dualistic understanding of the creation and of the Bible is in the two extremes of Christian thinking - the Fundamentalist/Evangelical and the ultra-conservative Catholic. Equally ironic is the fact that both wings are the most vitriolically opposed to the Masonic ideas - yet gave rise to their formation.

Dualism, whether Gnostic or from some other source, is a serious problem for both science and the Church at large. Science does not accept a dualistic universe - it cannot since it breaks all the "rules" - and Christianity takes refuge in it at its peril since it is not sustained by the gospels. That was the major reason for the rejection of the Gnostic argument in the 2nd to 5th Centuries and the exclusion of much Gnostic writing from the Canon of the New Testament. Yes, it makes persuasive and interesting reading, but it remains a "mystic" dead end if studied carefully since it leads not to Christ, but away from Him.

The Bishop is right, we need to reconcile our understanding of the historical Jesus and we need to re-unite science and faith in order to restore a real understanding of the Gospels and of our faith.

Posted by The Gray Monk at April 12, 2006 06:29 AM

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Tracked on April 12, 2006 09:52 AM