Living on the Dark Side of the Cartesian Divide. A Reflection on the Gnosticism of our Times

010713There 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)

37 Replies to “Living on the Dark Side of the Cartesian Divide. A Reflection on the Gnosticism of our Times”

  1. There is a tendency, particularly in this age, to turn toward materialism, as it is the dominant view and philosophy of the culture. In materialism we deny the existence of the soul, the spirit, and we deny incarnation – as there is nothing to incarnate! This problem is so prevalent in the society, in the culture, that it creates a dark shadow over our lives, and thus concern arises when I read an article that presses the materialistic view – it is the body that is important, it is the body that is important. It forces one to question whether we have somehow mirrored the culture itself with its obsessive focus on the body as the sole extent of our being, and it obsession with the body as the height and pinnacle of the human being. Do we fall prey to false teachers who wear us down with their constant drumbeat of materialism and body-obsession so that we, too, inadvertently include such views in our faith? Not sure. Would be could to see an article that used caution in these matters.

    1. But the material world is also of God, created by Him. I think making idols/gods out of material things is the real problem we face.

  2. it just occurred to me that as humans, we are body and spirit. By leaving or separating our bodies from our spirit in our worship, we have no life. Just as the Bible tells us.

  3. Interesting post. I am confused about the use of the group “gnostics”. From what I remember reading about them some years ago, I thought that this word referred to a religious group that believed that Earth is actually located in a universe created by a demon. That in order to bypass the demons guards to keep your soul on Earth, who are identified as the angels, one needed to collect as much knowledge as possible while alive. That if one could not answer the angel/guard questions, one was sent back to Earth to be born again. They believe that there is a heaven and it exists beyond our universe and we should strive to get there. As far as I understand as well, gnostics were Christians who allowed women to be priests.

    I have seen advertisements for Gnostic churches on the west coast. It seems that the group or cult had attracted new attention in the 1990s as a religion, but the popularity has since died out again.

    The other point about the removal of beauty from the churches has been something very recognizable as I travel this year. In Germany, a church or cathedral, recognizable as Catholic from the outside architecture, is surprisingly stark and devoid of beauty on the inside. These churches, once Catholic I am told, were taken over by the Protestants during the Reformation. The result is a husk of what was magnificent, an echo of some secret, and it saddens my heart when I enter such places. Reminds me of entering old synagogs in Hungary that had been transformed into theaters or community centers.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. ‘Gnosticism’ is a kind-off catchall for a number of mystery religions – or religious movements – that had its origins around Persia in the century or so before Christ. The unifying characteristic is a radical dualism – spirit is good and matter is evil – and the source of sin in the cosmos is that spirit beings – created by the good God – have been imprisoned in physical matter by the evil god. There were Christian variants of gnosticism, but Jaroslav Pelikan in his book on the history of the development of Christian doctrine observes that ‘Gnosticism minus Christianity is still gnosticism.’ The Manichees were a gnostic sect that attracted Augustine for a time until he embrace orthodox Christianity. The Albigensians were a gnostic sect that were influential in southern Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. St. Dominic founded his great preaching order, with heavy emphasis on intellectual development, to oppose Albigensianism.

    2. “Gnosticism” may refer to a particular group, especially from early Church times, but often it is a broader term to refer to a a collection of philosophies. The early Gnostics do usually espouse the dualism you speak of and the cosmological outlook. But more broadly Gnosticism also speaks of a tendency to reduce the faith to knowledge, often to either secret or specialized knowledge available to only a relative few who undergo a kind of enlightenment or instruction. Gnosis refers to “knowledge” in Greek and thus the Gnostics claim to possess a certain enlightenment or knowledge that is strongly divorced from the material world and the realm of the body. Down through the centuries this has manifest at two extremes: either an extreme aestheticism (since the body was evil) or an extreme libertine attitude – since the Body was evil anyway, sinning with it made no difference. In the end, Gnosticism exults knowledge over reality. In this article I use the term gnosticism in the broad sense, and not as proper noun, but more as an adjectival reference to Gnostic tendencies to over-intellectualize the faith and downplay the body, creation and the incarnational aspects of the faith.

      1. “Down through the centuries this has manifest at two extremes: either an extreme aestheticism (since the body was evil) or an extreme libertine attitude – since the Body was evil anyway, sinning with it made no difference.”

        Many major figures in Church history practiced occasionally extreme asceticism. These include Jerome, Gregory the Great, Catherine of Siena, and even Christ Himself (the forty day fast). I’m thus not clear as to why you equate extreme asceticism with a manifestation of Gnosticism rather than Catholicism.

        1. no equivalence from me, I think you might be projecting. One can be aesthetical for different reasons. I would personally avoid using the word extreme in reference to the Fathers.

          1. OK. It’s just that I’ve read of Jerome, Gregory and Catherine of Siena having fasted to the point of illness. Indeed, it’s been written that Gregory ruined his health with fasting in the period before he was elected Pope. Mortification of the flesh to such an extent seems a bit extreme.

  4. Well done, Msgr. I like it all.

    Between us, we need a modern day St. Irenaeus to solidify the resistance against this old, recycled, empty concept. . . kind of “change the cosmos” back to God.

  5. Dear Father,
    Even though I completely agree with the main thrust of your blog, I have a few reservations about some methodological issues. First, you seem to understand gnosticism (which you spell with both the upper case and lower case “g” without elucidating the difference in meaning) as a tendency to rational abstraction. This definition is highly unusual and has more in common with Voegelin’s idiosyncratic application of this term than with the ancient Gnostics. Second, you use the word “real” in the sense of “material” which is also questionable. Are ideas not real? Plato would disagree. Third, as the “three Jeans” (Borella, Bies and Hani) have amply demonstrated, there is a very powerful and fruitful trend in Christianity known as the Christian gnosis which is a phenomenon very different from what you perceive as “gnosticism”. Fourth, I strongly believe that the chief culprit in the slow death of Christianity is not abstract idealism but the overemphasis on its opposite, the material “here and now” (which you paradoxically recommend). I call this trend “taking religion out of religion”, i.e., removing the supernatural substratum in order to elevate the everyday “reality” of the faith. This reduces Christianity to a system of morality expressed through social activism, with the Divine sprinkled on top as a sort of quaint ornament. I’m sure that this is not what you support, Father.

    1. I think you may have confused this blog with a theological or philosophical journal and the kind of precision exhibited there. Your name dropping and credentialing is impressive though. Perhaps when I get rich I can hire you to write the kind of article that needs to be written wherein you can elucidate without being idiosyncratic, and properly distinguish for us the res from realiter and the distinction between solipsism and ideation, epistemologically speaking that is. 😉

      As for your last point, paradox is a common feature of the human condition and thus it need not surprise that certain, often opposite tendencies exist often at the same time in the same people. I cross referenced an article I wrote a while back, though it too will lack the precision you prefer, but in that article I ponder the paradox you raise to some extent and link it to a coined term of the 80s that tried to wrestle with the paradox: post-cartesian anxiety.

      1. Monsignor,
        Thank you for your reply which gives me much more credit than I deserve. However, I’m not sure what paradox you are talking about. In my last point I spoke about turning the Church into a social service with a few polite nods toward God, a trend very apparent in the post-Vatican II Catholicism. I don’t see any paradox there – “imbalance”, “distortion” or “bias” would be much better terms. It is really a pity that you don’t seem to want to discuss this issue. This is not sarcasm on my part, I really mean it.

        1. Perhaps if you read the article I linked to. The point dealt with there is that despite the rejection of the metaphysical, sacramental and revelatory aspects of creation and the body, and insisting that all that matters is what we think, despite all this there has been a flourishing of the physical sciences. How can this be so, it seems paradoxical to a Cartesian skepticism which renounces the certain existence of anything outside the mind. Obviously science rests on the metaphysical presumptions that reality exists and is intelligible. And this is the paradox, that the modern world, though largely Cartesian, breaks its own rule by going outside its mind and accepting evidence of whose very existence it either doubts, or of which it denies that it has any revelatory quality. To the modern, skeptic the body has nothing to say to us, neither does the physical order, the modern skeptic dismisses natural law as a mere naturalist fallacy arguing that is can never yield ought. And yet despite this skepticism the physical sciences have blossomed and are given an almost religious adherence by these same skeptics. This is paradoxical.

          Now as to your example, your subject is wrong. The subject of this post is not the Church, it is the secular world and to some degree, the Protestant ethos that marched with the enlightenment. Hence your example would not be pertinent to the topic of this article.

          1. Thank you again, Monsignor. Sorry, my mistake – I thought that your reflections applied to the situation within the faith/Church as well. If they pertain only to the world, they are self-evident. Thank you for this exchange.

  6. You hit it on the head with the “enlightenment/protestanism” tragedy. With the protestants the Sacraments are empty rituals but I can point out many passages where Christ uses creations to save creation (e.g. mud and spit to heal a blind man, Jesus’ garment touched by the hemmorhaging woman, Christ’s own Body and Blood, etc.). Here is God transmitting His power through created things inorder to save or heal people. Ironically, the people who are into the occults believe in the power of spells and objects for dark magical use.
    But here is God using creations to save creation through the power of matter and form (the Sacraments).
    I am so sad that people are no longer using their own logic to see these passages in the Bible, but would rather listen to false teachers and prophets. They would rather be entertain than read and listen to the words of God found in the Bible. A tragic example of the blind leading the blind.

    Msgr., as always, you did a good job explaining this heresy. God bless you!

  7. Thanks for this post, Msgr. I thought you raised excellent points. I was, however, a little confused by your discussion of Protestantism and the “Enlightenment” because you seemed to imply that the “Enlightenment” occurred before the Reformation, when I thought it was the other way round.

    1. Well I think the two went hand in hand and Protestantism emerged in waves over the period of 2-3 hundred years. The first wave hit in the 16th Century but many of denominations did not emerge until and during the enlightenment, especially. And thus they were both influenced by and influenced the “enlightenment.” I could have been clearer to be sure. But y’all need to know I run this blog on a shoe string and often have to write quickly and also try to be brief (brevity is tough for me) so details often end up on the cutting room floor.

  8. This article to me is evocative of a section of the Pope’s Christmas address this year [Dec. 21]:

    “While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question…..Simone de Beauvoir [wrote]: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality.

    According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

    The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.

    According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply.

    No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist.

    Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.”

  9. Perhaps my tastes are insufficiently ‘refined liturgically’, but I wonder why it is that we can’t hear more beautifully soulful music like this in the Mass?

    At too many parishes I’ve experienced lectors proclaiming the “good news” in deadpan, mispronouncing words with which any Christian should be familiar and worship music that is at best soporific and uninspiring.

    1. Personally, I think soulfull music like this is not suited to such a Sacred Liturgy. This may be a good upbeat song but truly it lacks depth.

      Liturgical music needs to be reverent. The above is feel good music but Liturgy is not about making us feel good.

      1. By the way the song was recorded at my parish 🙂 “Personally” is a good tag to your comment here since the song would surely fall within the bounds of Church norms.

        As to the song lacking depth, here too personal is the key word. It does not “truly” lack depth, I would say it lacks depth for Marcus, or that Marcus cannot perceive its depth. Avoid using “truly” for re de gustibus. For me the song speaks deeply to my experience of having met the Lord and experienced his power in my life.

        Reverent? I know a time when my favorite form of sacred music, sacred polyphony was considered edgy and too secular.

        And your final statement is the strangest of all since you state it in absolute terms: Liturgy is not about making us feel good. Hmm… why speak in all or nothing terms? It is true enough that the liturgy is not ONLY about making us feel good, but say it is NOT about that and the implication is, not at all about that. But that leas me to a conundrum. For if you got all your menu items: music that is NOT soulfull, is suited, deep, and reverent, would that make you happy, or at least content? But if that is the case then you are feeling good. And if feeling good is NOT what the liturgy is about, then does that mean we should sing shallow, soulfull irreverent music to displease you so that the liturgy can attain its purpose which would seem to be, according to your required norm, that you should feel bad? Help me out here.

        IOW avoid all or nothing statements about things like this.

  10. Wow, your posts always give me so much to reflect upon.
    One scripture comes to mind immedialely, James 2:18 “Shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith”

  11. Fantastic post. So much to reflect upon. It’s ironic that as more and more information becomes available to man, his mind becomes even duller. As the secrets of the universe are being unveiled, man is looking more and more into… himself. As you pointed out, form reveals function. In the physical world, even plants have masculine parts and/or feminine parts in order to produce seed for the continuation of its species, or else it would die out. All of creation obeys the Creator; only man has the choice to disobey.

    I used to wonder why only a select few were privileged enough to actually see and touch Jesus. It wasn’t until I understood that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist that we are all blessed to be able to touch Jesus. It is a tremendous gift to believe that the Sacraments aren’t merely acts of an outwardly religious people, but that they are tangible, visible signs of spiritual realities.

    As for “reality”, I have read recently that there are “experts” who believe that we live in a holographic universe, and we are merely the creation of another more technically-advanced civilization. Well, we certainly are the creation of a Supreme Mind!

    Thank you, Monsignor!!

  12. I read the link to your post on Cartesian anxiety.

    While I would that Rene Descartes may be the more immediate cause, I think we can trace all the way back to the 13th century to William of Ockham. Which is why the Reformation exhibited this evil errors even before Descartes said “Hello world”.

  13. Veganism is, at times, an example of how modern error expresses itself in extreme, and often annoying, forms of self-denial
    Someone might read pop-science book on quantum mechanics or string theory and begin denying the validity of everyday sense experience. That, I think, is a modern example of gnosticism.

    The bizarre asceticism that often creeps into odd philosophies always (forgot to never say always) makes me feel better about being Catholic.

  14. Yes, I too have found that “Most who support homosexual behavior are wholly dismissive of any argument that appeals to the body at all.” I can only hope they will turn the thought over in their minds for a few years, and eventually accept it.

    (BTW, it’s a little late, but referring to “the parts do no fit” = “the parts do noT fit”. Not a biggie, though.)

  15. Msgr. Thank you so much for you very clear blog. I do not think you were promoting materilaism as much as just pointing out the danger in ignoring what is real (obvious by design) and how what is real supports purpose, priority and identity (both creator and creation) and how important all compents of mind,body and soul are TOGETHER. Thanks once again. I do have a question about the use of the word Logos and anti-christ. It seems to me that Anti-Christ would be more about the disbelief of Jesus being God (the word of God) made man. vs illogical. The belief of Jesus being God vs just a man or maybe even an exceptional man would not appear to have anything to do with logic, just faith?

    God Bless you

  16. Great article, Monsignor; I think you might like the following since it goes along with your “parts do not fit.”

    There is a natural argument against so-called “marriage” between two persons of the same sex.
    The basis is THE PARTS DO NOT FIT.
    This applies to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects—three areas in which a man and a woman do fit.
    The other facet is the physical dimension. The sexual-generative parts of the male and female bodies do fit, THEY ARE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER LIKE A LOCK AND A KEY, and this fit is IN ACCORD WITH NATURE. This natural fit also follows a natural purpose, namely, the generation of a human life. The sexual-generative parts of two males or of two females DO NOT FIT and do not fulfill the natural purpose of generating human life.

  17. Great article Msgr. Interesting one of the responses mentioned Voegelin, gnosticism is a big theme in many of his works, I was wondering how familiar you were with him. Do you know any of the political theory professors at Catholic University? Only asking because both your emphasis on gnostic tendencies and rational abstractions would find kindred spirits. Great point on vagueness in terms, and it’s linked to your point on homosexuality too. It is very telling when people try to make a religious or Christian argument for homosexual marriage, which logically is founded on shaky ground but all too common. They are so used to the great, “new” idea of “cohabitation” that they don’t understand while making a case for homosexual marriage they’re also strongly arguing for the morality of fornication.

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