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Appropriately Gnostic

Evil is in the news again. This week’s tragedy in Virginia, the seemingly endless stream of death and destruction that comes out of Iraq, the recent tsunami in the Solomon Islands… these things always force us to acknowledge, again, that our world is not as it ought to be. While I am a little hesitant to add my voice to the innumerable others that inevitably accompany these high-profile tragedies, this week’s events drew my thoughts back to a little book by David Bentley Hart on the problem of evil that was recommended by Gil a while back. I found this book to offer many helpful ways of thinking about evil, two of which stand out:

  1. The falsity of the notion that all of the evil of the world has to be fit into a wise providential plan “without remainder” (i.e., he’s very critical of specifically Protestant approaches which see each and every instance of evil as serving some necessary purpose in the divine plan)
  2. The importance of retaining some semblance of “gnostic” or dualistic elements in our worldview, as long as these terms are strictly defined and carefully used.

For Hart, the impulse to Gnosticism is an understandable, even necessary response to the evil of our world:

Any Christian who has not felt at least an occasional stirring of the pathos of Gnosticism—at the thought, for instance, of a small girl weeping in torment in the darkness—and of a rage against the fashion of this world, and of a mysterious yearning for another and perfect world, at once strange and familiar, cannot in all likelihood fully appreciate the spiritual and moral sensibility of the New Testament.

One of the themes that has consistently emerged throughout my time at Regent is the sub-Christian nature of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was/is a syncretistic religious movement which stresses the importance of the spiritual over against the physical, and holds to the importance of attaining a special knowledge (gnosis) which allows one to escape the entrapments of the physical world to the spiritual realities which are more important and more real than the everyday world of sense experience. Irenaeus of Lyons is usually lionized as an early Christian champion of the physical—his Against Heresies denounces those who would devalue the physical world as the deficient outcome of the rebellion of an inferior deity, and argues that in the Incarnation we see God’s emphatic “yes” to creation. Gnosticism posits too radical a dualism to be reconciled with the life-affirming, redemptive orientation of Christian faith.

Since then, I have often heard the term “gnosticism” referred to as a kind of trump card in theological discussions, books, etc. Sometimes it seems all that is necessary to demonstrate the deficiency of an argument is to show how the view under discussion is “gnostic,” or could lead in that direction. I remember questioning this notion when I first encountered it, and while my resistance to simply pronouncing everything that has a hint of dualism or gnosticism heretical has been blunted somewhat, I continue to have reservations.

Chief among them is my suspicion that world-affirming, environmentally conscious, incarnational theologies are not terribly difficult to hold when one’s experience of the world is largely a pleasant one. It’s not hard to affirm that Christianity has always been about the renewal of this world (as opposed to an escape to another one) in a wealthy, conflict-free liberal democracy where one is, to a large extent, free to chart one’s own course in the world largely unimpeded. Put bluntly, if my experience of the world is a happy one, my theology of the value of the physical world will be more likely to reflect this.

That’s why it’s so remarkable that the early church rejected gnosticism. Life in the Roman Empire was undoubtedly “nastier,” “shorter,” and “more brutish” (to borrow Hobbesian language) in almost every conceivable way than life in twenty-first century North America. Whenever I am tempted to despair of any goodness in this world, I am sobered by this fact. If I, a privileged twenty-first century North American whose experience of the world is one that human beings throughout the bulk of history could only have dreamed of, sometimes feel that there is too much evil in the world to affirm an organic link between this life and the next, how much harder would it have been in first-century Rome? Medieval Europe? Twentieth-century Russia?

The goodness and importance of this world—the fact that the Christian message speaks of renewal and redemption, not a disembodied spiritual reality, and not starting over from scratch—is a truth that must sometimes be affirmed in the teeth of the evidence. Sometimes a radical form of dualism, where the world we long for can only be conceived of as being totally different than this one, seems to most adequately account for the horrors of this world. The evil of our world ought, at the very least, to remind us that despite the goodness of the world and of God’s promise of shalom, we live between the inauguration and the consummation of God’s good end:

[T]o see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.

Perhaps part of what it means to be “appropriately gnostic” is to honestly face our world, with its maddening combination of goodness and evil, with a courage and a hope that will at times seem infinitely well-warranted, and at others seem to be nothing more than a desperate wish in the dark. Christians affirm that there will be continuity between this world and the next; however the existence of evil stands as an ever-present reminder that there is, and must be discontinuity as well.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    I liked Hart for very similar reasons, particularly his insistence that there is a ‘remainder’ of evil that opposes the good that God intends for the world and refuses to be subsumed under some kind of divine providence.

    My first reaction to the idea of a ‘strictly defined dualism’ is mixed but I’m interested in how you thought Hart defined it. I did not read Hart giving a clear answer on this question.

    I think a qualified dualism offers hope for understanding evil as outside of the will of God but there are lingering questions about how much power we ascribe to evil and where that power comes from.

    April 22, 2007
  2. I think you’re right – Hart doesn’t really define dualism very specifically, or discuss exactly how dualistic one can become and still be talking about orthodox Christianity. I think the only thing he really said was that evil forces us to take the Gnostic impulse seriously and I don’t think I would want to go much beyond that either.

    I think there are elements of Gnosticism in particular, and dualism in general that are badly wrong, but retaining the vocabulary seems to be a necessary concession in a world which certainly seems to be the stage for a genuine conflict between good and evil. The Christian belief that the victory over evil has already been accomplished isn’t the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from a casual observation of our world.

    April 22, 2007

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