There is a line in the first letter of John (read on the Monday of this week), a line that proves of critical important to many difficulties today with heresy, unbelief and moral decay. The line says:
Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God. This is the spirit of the antichrist... (1 John 4:1-3)
John also writes in the second Letter:
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 2 John 1:7
One of those fundamental principles at the heart of the Johannine scriptures is that the Word become flesh. Jesus actually came in the flesh, we could touch our God. The true faith is incarnational. In Jesus Christ, God takes up the physical order, Justice, Truth springs up from the earth (cf Ps 85:11). God actually becomes man. The love of God and his salvation are tangible, and real, not merely ideals, wishes, or hopes, but real and tangible. Faith is about reality. This is John and the Holy Spirit’s insistence, and it is adamantly expressed that we not let this true slip from our understanding even for a moment.
For there are, and have been, many Gnostic and neo-gnostic tendencies down through the centuries which seek to reduce faith merely to intellectualism, to ideas or opinions, and to remove things from the world of reality. Thus St. John and the Church have had to insist over and over that Jesus is real, that faith is real, and is about real, tangible, even material things.
When Jesus came among us, He was not content merely to speak of ideas. He did not simply advance ethical theories or set forth merely philosophical notions. He also spoke to actual human behaviors, not merely speaking of them, but actually living them, and modeling them in the flesh. He demands for his followers not mere intellectual affirmations, but an actual walking in his truth, using our very bodies, and living his teaching. We are to renounce unnecessary possessions, actually feed the poor, confess him with our lips, reverence human sexuality through chaste living, accept suffering, even embraced it, for the sake of the kingdom, and so forth.
Yes, faith is about real things, about actual concrete behaviors that involve not only what we think, but actually how we physically move our body through the created order, how we interact with the physical order, and with one another.
Jesus also took up and made use of the physical and created order in his saving mission. Obviously he took it up in the incarnation, but he also referenced creation in many of his parables, pointing to the lilies of the field, to the sparrow. He made paste with saliva and mud, anointed with oil, change water to wine, laid hands on the bodies of countless individuals in healing, took bread and wine and change it to the body and blood. He took up The wood of the cross, lay down his body in suffering and death, and raised it up again on the third day. Then He took his body, yes his physical body with him to heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father.
Yet despite this radical physicality seen in the Gospel and the work of God, there remains a persistent tendency on the part of many to reduce the faith by removing it from the physical and temporal order rendering it a merely ethical notion, an intellectualism, or a set of ideas, and even mere opinion. Faith rooted in daily reality, and with measurable parameters, is set aside, and sophistry takes place. Never mind what a person does, all that seems to matter to many us what they think about it, or what their intentions are.
Gnostic tendencies have existed in every stage, but were most severe in the early centuries among heretical groups, only to resurface in recent centuries, especially since the so-called enlightenment where human reason is exulted unreasonably.
The Protestant revolt took up the rationalism of those “enlightenment” times and brought the first great blow to the house of faith by rendering the Sacraments mere symbols, no longer the touch of God. No longer for them does baptism actually save us by washing away our sins, for many of them it only symbolizes faith. Holy Communion for most of them was no longer the actual Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, but only a symbol of him, something that evokes thoughts and memories what he said and did. For the Protestant groups, most of the other Sacraments simply fell away. No longer was it necessary to lay hands on the sick, to lay hands on to ordain or bless. All such things were unnecessary, even abhorrent to many Protestants who took up enlightenment rationalism, and reduced faith to intellectualism, ideas, and words on the page.
Along with the Sacraments, many of the Enlightenment-era Protestants banished most beauty in the churches with iconoclastic tendencies. No longer should creation in the pigmented paints, beautiful stained glass, precious metals, candles incense and so forth be raised up to the glory of God. This too is far too incarnational for the the “purity” of the rationalist mind. Stark white-washed churches were exulted, and the feast of the senses common in Catholicism was frowned upon. Faith that was “purified” of all this incarnational “excess” and was to exist only in one’s mind and heart.
The use of the body to worship in Protestantism was also largely banished. Kneeling, sitting, standing, signs of the cross, vestments, all of this was banished. Afterall what did the body have to do with it? It was in the mind, and in the heart that one worshiped God. Why bend the knee when it sufficed to bow in one’s heart?
And thus, there was a great retreat from the bodily aspect of the incarnation.
We should be clear, that not all Protestant denominations equally indulged iconoclastic and rationalistic tendencies in this aftermath of the enlightenment. There remained many great artistic and musical accomplishments within the Protestant realm, to include architecture. But the general pattern is clear to some extent in all the denominations founded by men after the “Enlightenment.” Worship and faith moved more into the mind, and world of ideas and away from the created, tangible and physical realities of this world.
Many other moral troubles of our day also bespeak a Gnostic, anti-incarnational tendency. For example the exultation of intention over actual behavior. Never mind what a person actually does. The only morally significant matter is what they intend, that they mean well.
Yet another tendency is the word-smithing of our day. It’s not abortion, it’s choice. It is not contraception, it is reproductive choice. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. They’re not fornicating, they’re cohabiting, it’s not an act of sodomy it is “gay” etc. The more vague, vapid and non-descriptive the word the better. Abstractions and generalities replace clearer and reality based descriptions.
Here then is a brief tour of the Gnosticism of our times. We can see why St. John and the Holy Spirit were so passionate to warn against any false teachers who denied the incarnation, call them not only false teachers, but “antichrist.” We live on the ever darker side of the Cartesian divide, living in our minds, denying that creation or our bodies are revelation or have anything to say to us.
Of course this is antichrist, it is a slap in the face of God who made all things and established the created by his Word, the Logos. And since all things were made through Christ, the Logos, then all creation has a “logike” (a logic) that is clearly perceived in what God has made. To go on denying this is “illogical” is “anti-logical” is contrary to the Logos, the Word through whom God created and sustains all things. Contrary to the Logos is just another way of saying, “antichrist.”
(One paradox to all this is the flourishing o the material (physical) sciences in our times. I have written more on this paradox here: Cartesian Anxiety)