Lent 2021: Fleming Rutledge on the cross versus gnosticism

A lenten post on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). We are in chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

A major section of this chapter is how, both historically and today, gnosticism is the ‘most pervasive and popular’ rival to Christianity, particularly in terms of the cross.

Now this might sound a peculiar thing to say – wasn’t gnosticism an ancient philosophy? You don’t tend to see any local congregations of gnostic churches dotted around our towns and cities today.

The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. Combine it with the idea of special spiritual knowledge being the path to ‘salvation’ and you are getting to the heart of gnosticism.

So far this may sound quite innocuous. After all didn’t Jesus gather the twelve around him and teach them in ways not available to outsiders? But the real problem is how this secret path of knowledge is open only to the select few who are wise enough to discern the way.

The teaching of Jesus in parables to the twelve prepares them for public proclamation of the kingdom to all.

‘Gnostics, in contrast, are mystery-mongers’ (46).

1 Corinthians is full of references to Paul combatting proto-gnostic ideas among the spiritually elite Corinthians. Wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis) are recurring words with the apostle often sarcastically asking ‘Do you not know?’ Are you not wise? In other words, he keeps puncturing their balloon of spiritual self-regard, reminding them that they are not wise, powerful, rich or influential but God has chosen them regardless out of his grace and love.

It is no accident that his theology of the body (1 Cor 12) elevates the ‘inferior’ parts that hidden in shame to be of equal status and importance with the visible and impressive parts of the body – this is anti-gnostic theology. As of course so is John’s great statement ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).

Rutledge’s argument then, is that gnosticism is a form of spiritual hierarchy that puts human wisdom, knowledge and experience at the centre of revelation and the path to enlightenment. It blurs the distinction between God and humanity. By minimising God’s transcendence and our transient mortality, gnosticism elevates humanity to the realm of the divine – all of us, potentially or actually are God’s children and can reach enlightenment.

This is a lot ‘more appealing than orthodox Christianity’s teaching that God is the creator and we are his creatures, made in God’s image but not God’s substance.’ (50).

Rutledge has a swipe at Richard Rohr in passing (footnote) who uses typical gnostic language in talking of the ‘deeper wisdom teaching’ of Jesus that is the ‘goal of religion’ that helps those on a ‘serious spiritual journey’ towards ‘contemplative seeing’.

A key symptom of gnostic theology then is stratification: where an elite few exist within an inner circle of those ‘in the know’.

What forms of elitism come to mind within contemporary Christianity in your experience? Where have you been made to feel inferior because you did not ‘measure up’ to the knowledge or experience of others?

Rutledge identifies the modern appeal of gnosticism here:

Much of it is in tune with today’s American attitudes. It seems to offer greater openness and flexibility to those who experience Christian orthodoxy as rigid … it is thought to be more welcoming to women, artists, freethinkers, and free spirits … It definitely seems more “spiritual,” and offers a selection of paths to follow … yet without restrictive dogma. For example, gnostic devaluation of the material world offers two views of our sexual nature, both of them conducive to a libertine way of life. Either the sexual act is thought to be immensely spiritual, offering access to the divine, or it is a matter of no importance one way of the other, since the flesh is unspiritual. Either way, the gnostic is free of sexual restrictions.  (51-52)

But the most serious incompatibility between gnosticism and Christianity is in the former’s optimism about human capacity for self-enlightenment.  Gnosticism says, in effect, we can save ourselves. Suffering and the cross are not only to be avoided, they are unnecessary.

Which raises questions:

Where and how do some modern forms of Christianity mirror gnosticism’s discomfort with suffering and the cross?

Where and how, to use another Bonhoeffer’s language, do some modern strands of Christianity represent a ‘cheap’ form of grace that refuses to pay the cost of discipleship?

[Note: This is a re-post from a daily series I ran during Lent a couple of years ago on Rutledge’s book. This Lent I will do some re-posts from that series].

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