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].

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (5) The cross and gnosticism

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series 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?

A tribute to carers

My mother died recently after some years of gradual decline due to dementia, hastened by a bout of pneumonia. She was 92. I happened to be the family member with her in hospital in the early hours of the morning when her life ended. The nurse on night duty was wonderful. She had supplied a mattress, sheets and pillows for me to stay the night. When I told her what had happened, she was kind and compassionate well beyond mere efficiency. Her care that night has prompted these musings.

Over the last few years as a family we have met countless health care professionals – carers, nurses and doctors – the vast majority of them women. I am beyond admiration for every one of them. Carers visiting at home do so under poor rates of pay, working unsocial hours, doing often extremely difficult work under unrealistic time pressures. Yet, they not only do their job but forge genuine relationships of care and love with elderly and often helpless people.

Nothing speaks to me more of the distorted priorities of Western culture than how poorly funded and valued are carers and nurses. They work at the sharp edge of human mortality. While capitalism appeals to self-interest and pursues accumulation of wealth, my mum’s carers do their job out of a sense of vocation. Of course they work for pay, but to a woman, they give of themselves far beyond any contract of employment in order to maintain human dignity and care to some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

We are embodied beings and our bodies wear out and die. I’m musing here, but it seems to me that much of our culture is effectively gnostic. By that I mean it values the abstract above the physical. We fear death and prize fickle and transient things like respect, image, status, power, beauty and success. Money itself is simply a means to such ends and it is pursued relentlessly. When the capitalist system fails, no price is too high to fix it, regardless of the cost to ‘less important’ and ‘soft’ professions like caring and nursing, mental health provision or disability services.

In saying this, some may retort ‘What’s your alternative?’ Hospitals need funding. Funding comes from taxes. Taxes come from those who work and create wealth. If everyone was a carer the system would collapse. Yes, but I’m pushing back against distorted priorities within recent neo-liberalism (or ‘turbo-capitalism’) and the damage it is wrought globally – and in Ireland particularly. See this excellent article on ‘financialisation’ for more detailed discussion of what has happened.

Nor does a rampant capitalist culture contain any logical impulse towards doing justice, righting wrongs or, dare I say, loving others. It prizes individual happiness, comfort and pleasure, but is largely indifferent to those that fall by the wayside of the capitalist dream.

At the risk of massive generalisation, I wonder if women tend to be less seduced by such gnostic dualisms than men? Is that why it is overwhelmingly women who get their hands dirty in the mess of sacrificially tending and respecting ageing bodies? I honestly do not know the answers to those questions, save to say I want here to pay tribute to all those wonderful carers who contributed to looking after my mum in the last years of her life.

But I do know that the Christian faith is anything but gnostic. The entire Bible values the earthly, physical and material aspects of life. It begins with God willing a good creation into being. It climaxes with the incarnation of God’s Son. He enters human history, born of Mary and is Israel’s promised Messiah. He heals the sick and raises the dead. He is crucified under Pontius Pilate. He sheds real blood and suffers real death. His resurrection means that all in him have hope of a resurrection body in a renewed creation.

You can’t get more committed to the pain, complexity and physicality of the world than that. The cross reveals the true nature of our God. As one theologian puts it, ‘The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord.’

And that is very good news indeed.