Tom Long, in true pastorally responsible fashion, is not afraid of biting off major food offerings in the American religious context, so in his new book, Preaching from Memory to Hope
, he takes on the rise of gnosticism.
After the jump I have four points in the new gnostic impulse: Where are you seeing these? Are you seeing these? What is the impact of these four elements?
Preachers have an ear for the timely quote, and if they listen well enough, they begin to provide their own, and here’s one of Tom’s:
“… today this nasty suspicion that Christian leaders are like stockbrokers peddling junk bonds has made its way from the academy into church pews and is finding vigorous expression in congregations …” (55). What’s this nasty suspicion? That religion refers to nothing real; church language is smoke and mirrors. It’s nothing but empty lingo pointing to nothing…
So Tom Long takes on gnosticism in the church today. He will eventually take direct aim at a prime example of the new gnostics, Marcus Borg, but that’s in his next chapter.
Long is glad that so many folks downstairs (in Sunday school classrooms) are learning and asking, and he’s surprised at how much a difference there is between downstairs and upstairs, but he’s concerned about some of the implications of this new gnosticism and knows that intellectual vigor upstairs is needed and urgently. The nasty suspicion doesn’t wonder so much if talk of God is useless but if the church’s talk is useless. What has happened is that the nasty suspicion has created a conspiracy theory: the church is hiding behind myths but many are now learning better and are ready to blow the gaffe.
The wildness of folks caught up by the claims of the Jesus Seminar or the Da Vinci code stuff or the bone box of Jesus’ so-called brother is one thing; the need for lay folks to be informed at the level they already know is another. Lay folks today, if they are curious and have studied, often have learned things that preachers are nervous about raising in sermons. So they find conversation elsewhere — like this blog or with professors in the area or with others like them. He knows they are landing on folks like Spong and Pagels and Ehrman and Borg.
Tom Long thinks this impulse is re-enlivening the gnostic ghosts. He knows this is analogous to early Church opponents. He’s not on a heresy hunt, but thinks there’s something profoundly mistaken in this gnostic impulse. Tom thinks the Pagels line that there was rich diversity suppressed by those in power is not a good enough description, but that instead the church was sifting through how best to articulate its faith in Christ and how he was related to the Father. The ideas of gnosticism were intellectually and ethically inadequate.
Four themes he finds in contemporary gnostic impulses:
1. Humanity is “saved” by gnosis, by knowledge. It’s about illumination and enlightenment.
2. There is an antipathy toward incarnation and embodiment. It’s a spiritual but not religious impulse. No need for real death or real resurrection.
3. A focus on the spiritual inner self, the divine spark within.
4. An emphasis on present spiritual reality rather than eschatological hope, on the God of timeless truth rather than the God who will bring history to consummation.