The New Christians

The New Christians

Are Conservatives the Real Gnostics?

More than once, my Google Reader has shot me a link to a conservative blogger who’s accused100px-Simple_crossed_circle.svg.png me of gnosticismHere’s one from a few years ago that makes that claim, and there have been several more since.

Gnosticism is a long-standing religious predilection, popular in Jesus’ day, and popular in our own as well.  While it can be its own religion, per se, it is more often manifested as a flavor within a particular religion.  Kabbalah, for instance, is a gnostic Judaism.


The primary characteristic of gnosticism is that there is a secret, mystical knowledge about something — God, humankind, the universe — that is available only to particular individuals.  In Zoroastrianism, it is available to those who good good works and stave off sadness with happiness.  In Scientology, it’s done through a process of spiritual “auditing” and walking the “bridge to total freedom.”  In Eckankar, “soul travel” opens new chapters of truth leading to further spiritual liberation.


In all cases, more “truth” is available to those who have progressed in the secret knowledge of that particular religion.

It seems to me that conservative Christians aren’t all that different.  Some say that special things happen when a person prays with glossolalia or uses the phrase “In Jesus’ Name” almost like a magical incantation.  Others say it comes via the rite of the Eucharist. Still others claim that it’s belief in a certain set of doctrines that ushers one into the special knowledge.

But orthodox Christianity has always shunned anything like gnosticism.  In the earliest days of the church, Christians were often accused of being similar to the very popular cult of Mithra, a gnostic sect of the time.  But even while Christians were being persecuted pre-Constantine, they did not hide what they knew or believed.  (E.g., contrary to popular belief, early Christians did not hide and worship in the catacombs outside of Rome.  They dug the catacombs so they could bury corpses, as opposed to cremating them, because they believed that the resurrection of the dead was just around the corner. They held their memorial meals for the dead above ground, just like everyone else of the day.) Early church fathers like Tertullian and Justin Martyr fought these accusations.

There’s nothing secret about Christianity.  There never has been.  Let’s make sure there never will be.

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Blake Huggins

posted January 12, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Interesting observation Tony.
I first “came to the faith” via conservative evangelicalism as a child. Looking back on that experience, how it was encouraged and handled, and reflecting on some blog conversation I’ve had recently I can’t help but see a curious correlation to that tradition and Gnosticism. Not only is the notion of “special, secret knowledge” present, but also a certain dualistic escapism that assumes the earth and the body are inherent evil and must ultimately be destroyed and left behind.

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Sam Andress

posted January 12, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Tony, this is a very important topic which needs more voices to speak up. Much of Western Christianity, particularly in the popular Christianity of the U.S. and that of the conservative persuasion is displays Gnostic tendencies. Which is ironic, because most of these conservative Christians are also politically conservative. They think their politics matters for here and now, but not their faith (unless it makes them prosper or change legislation) which is ultimately about their soul escaping God’s creation to some ethereal heavenly abyss.
And this is something orthodox Christianity in all its credal forms has never tolerated, as you rightly point out!

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David Mudkips

posted January 12, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Scientology goes considerably further than plain old gnosticism.
They’ve copyrighted and trademarked their “spiritual” secrets, and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for their peculiar brand of salvation.
Their FSM’s (Field Service Ministers) that sell, er require “fixed donations” for these materials and services receive a 10-35 percent commission on everything the initiate purchases, er makes a “fixed donation” for.

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Seth R.

posted January 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm

As long as the secrets aren’t dirty secrets, what’s the problem with having them?
They’re kinda fun actually.

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Kyle Gebhart

posted January 12, 2009 at 4:00 pm

I’m not seeing the connection to ‘convervative’ here. What, specifically, is the secret knowledge that most conservatives are claiming to posess?
If we’re referring to salvation through Jesus alone, then I guess that makes conservative x-ians ‘gnostic’ in the sense you are speaking.
Certainly some are obsessed with certain phrases, practices or codes – but can we can hardly claim that most conservatives are this myopic.
I see a greater threat in a Greek-inherited, “anti-material” view of Creation, humanity, and the natural realm. Perhaps this is the gnosticism that is truly dangerous in conservative circles?

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posted January 12, 2009 at 6:56 pm

One of my favorite quotes from Jefferson:
“These Platonists who call me an atheist!”
(or something like that)

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posted January 12, 2009 at 7:05 pm

I pray in the “name of Jesus,” it’s biblical(John 14:12-14) and I am trying to be obedient. I guess that makes me a gnostic.

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Martin Gommel

posted January 12, 2009 at 7:29 pm

I agree, Tony. Thanks for this short reminder and look into some historical backround.

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Charles Cosimano

posted January 12, 2009 at 7:31 pm

The greatest danger that Orthodox Christianity has always faced from Gnosticism is that the Gnostics were probably right.

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Phil Wyman

posted January 12, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Hey Tony,
But don’t you think that if we flee Gnosticism too aggressively we loose the mystery of the Gospel? If there is nothing special, nothing hidden being revealed is there really anything at all?
I certainly agree that many conservatives have become Gnostics, but labeling conservatism as Gnostic as a movement might be a stretch.

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Darren King

posted January 13, 2009 at 1:34 am

Tony, I agree. And I’ve often thought about this in terms of how we handle parts of scripture – such as the epistles of Paul. Rather than seeing Paul as someone who, like us, was trying to make sense of new revelation blended with old understanding – in a real-time, presentflux kind of way, many conservative Christians – and even more specifically, many conservative, charismatic Christians – read Paul as if he offers some sort of pure, undiluted stream on “the spiritual world”. Now, not only is the idea of “a spiritual world” hyper-dualistic – thus gnostic, but so too is the idea that Paul had some kind of magical way of seeing it all – as if he somehow bi-passed the human condition and didn’t read it all through a particular, contextually localized worldview.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 1:53 am

You missed the other key half to Gnosticism: the spiritual/material dichotomy. Their legacy can be felt in the persistent antipathy to bodies & the material world (this manifests itself both in environmentalism & sex/body issues). Gnostics, of course, took this so far as to deny Jesus’ humanity, so while many resist going there they nonetheless buy into much of the rest.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 2:50 am

Try cross referencing Christianity with Leo Stauss’s neo-conservatism. You”ll come up with what is referred to as the “nobel lie” or “deadly truth” In order to herd Christians in the “right” direction, they need to be told nobel lies in order to conform.
Strauss has been accused of elitism by his critics, and thus can fall into the category of a modern day gnostic.
In light of events of the day, I would say the Chicago School of thought where neo-conservatism was born can be considered all but dead.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted January 13, 2009 at 6:05 am

Exclusive mysticism is ego-deception. Genuine mysticism is a process of shedding the deceptions of the ego in the fires of longing created by the Divine. If it is hidden, it is hidden in plain sight, in the contemplation of the love that draws, in the silent spaces where that quiet voice is deafening Presence.
Genuine mysticism crosses the boundaries of cultural and religious traditions, and is not housed in frames of secrecy. Reading the poetry of the mystics from different traditions, many sighs of recognition erupt within me. When the Beloved is present, all wrappings, veils and containers lay scattered on the floor.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 8:15 am

I get what your saying Tony and it could be seen that way. I tend not to think of that brand of conservativism as gnostic but just as the perfect mixture of arrogance and ignorance. Maybe that is consistent with gnosticism as well.

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Tim B

posted January 13, 2009 at 9:54 am

It strikes me as odd that on the internet the charge amongst Christians of “gnosticism” functions sort of like Godwin’s Law. We pull out one area of weakness, expand it, examine it out of context of the rest of a person/group’s theology and viola “Gnostic” tendencies. I’m not denying there are a lot of bad theologies or folks who just aren’t as theological organized and astute (there is a difference). There are just a lot less gnostics then folks who level that charge at others. John’s gospel and Paul speak of ‘knowing’ and a believer’s true knowledge. The Johannine epistles speak of ‘light/darkness’ dichotomy. Second Temple Judaism and more importantly the Bible distinguishes between heaven and earth even describing ascents and descents (John 3:13; Eph. 4:8-10; Acts 2; Hebrews, et al). Christians have, according to the Bible, a revelation of knowledge and understanding of the gospel mystery according to the NT. Paul makes distinctions between eternal and temporal (2 Cor 4:16-18), the inward and outward man, Spirit and flesh (an eschatological dualism not a material dualism). By the standards applied by much of the gnostic name calling today these guys would all be gnostics. Let’s not forget that Gnostics were so successful because they pilfered Christian language imputing non-Christian ideas onto it.
Maybe we should put the brakes on this and save the gnostics label for when some real gnostics emerge.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 10:32 am

I think the conservative Christian subculture has its own vocabulary and exacting requirements for testing the authenticity of faith (be it specific practices or articulations of beliefs) that can appear quite foreign to the outsider. However, the gnosis of Gnosticism seems to be secret special knowledge in a more mystical/experiential sense as opposed to the open and more rationally focused knowledge of conservative Christians. I also do not find the experiential elements of conservative Christianity to be secretive, though they can appear bizarre and often have sort of a litmus test for authenticity. On the other hand, I do see parallels with Gnosticism when considering the nearly esoteric complexity/precision of conservative Christian beliefs/practices and their hyper-vigilance with identifying errors in those beliefs/practices. That can be sort of gnostic. And indeed as others have said the dualism in conservative Christianity seems gnostic-like. But as Tim B said, some biblical figures could be considered gnostic if we throw the term around too carelessly.
Albert: I think the post was dealing particularly with Gnosticism, rather than Mysticism.

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Tyler (Man of Depravity)

posted January 13, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I guess I don’t understand why the conservative/liberal stamp always needs to be added for greater understanding of what one is trying to say.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 12:52 pm

From a conservative who usually doesn’t agree with you–GREAT post. Spot on.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 1:50 pm

“It strikes me as odd that on the internet the charge amongst Christians of “gnosticism” functions sort of like Godwin’s Law.”
Ok, now THAT’S the comment of the week. Hysterical and brilliant.

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Peter A

posted January 13, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Interesting comment!
Let me add up some personal points. I was born as a Catholic. As a boy, I was raised in a convent with nuns from the age of 5 to 10 years old. Then, at about 14 years old, I started to ask some “basic” questions: What am I? Where do I come from? Where do I go after death? etc…. Pretty basic! In the meantime, I was studying astronomy. One day, I had a very special sighting: a UFO (a “real one” mind you!) I have nothing to prove on this, except that both my parents and sister saw it too! I then started to ask “deeper” questions. I went to catholic pundits to ask some questions. I searched through other mainstream religions. I even studied occultism for awhile. No one could answer my 20th century questions (except through their 2000-year old scripture!) I started a long and personal spiritual quest. I knew I had to find the answers through my OWN experiences… and I did found answers!
I believe in karma (law of cause and effect). I believe in reincarnation (not being reborn as an animal, but as a continuing process of evolution, either being reborn as a man or a woman). Above all, I don’t believe that “I have” a soul, I believe “I AM” Soul, a unique entity made out of God’s element.
Years later, after many personal, real, dramatic, and true experiences, I found Eckankar. Today, 37 years later, I am still a student of that spiritual path.
I do believe that each one of us has the opportunity to become greater than what we are now. For some, it can be through christianity, for others it can be through taoism, hinduism or muslism. For me it doesn’t matter, each religion has its own “schooling”. Even Eckankar is only a class in one school. There is more, because I truly believe that there is a “plus” factor in God’s creation. There is always one more step to travel. Infinity is… infinite! And above all this, there is one principle which encompasses all: We exist as Soul because of God’s love for it! The sun shines on all the pupils of God, wherever they are, whatever they are doing. If one has respect for his neighbor, and gives love to his close relatives, then all is well in school.

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posted January 13, 2009 at 9:41 pm

I was reflecting on this yesterday, when my wife and I were contemplating why many conservative (fundamentalist?) Christians are so attracted to hypotheses of when the world will end, who’s the Antichrist, who is the new Babylon, and so on. We came to the conclusion that such people feel that they now, in reading the apocalyptic books, looking for these things, and “finding” them, have a “secret knowledge” about world events that “non-Christians” do not have. I suppose this fits well with what you are saying about conservatives being the real Gnostics, in that, they believe they have a “special knowledge” that places them in a greater category of human. Does this fit with what you are saying?

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posted January 14, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I guess I’m a bit confused as to how a more ‘conservative’ approach to Scripture (i.e. beleiving that the message of the authors constitutes a divine revelation) is the same thing as having a ‘secret’ knowledge, or is ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘honoring creation’. Isn’t the affirmation that human texts communicate divine revelation a primarily incarnational understanding of Scripture? Don’t conservatives believe, in some way, that ‘the message is all right there in the Bible–you can read it for yourself’?
I am not a defender of all aspects of more conservative evangelical theology, but I’m getting a bit confused as to how the concepts and terms overlap here.

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John R.

posted January 20, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Eastern Orthodoxy is profoundly mystical, but it has always steadfastly opposed Gnosticism.

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posted January 24, 2009 at 11:31 am

Gnosticism has two core elements – elevating the spiritual above the physical and gaining secret SPIRITUAL knowledge.
Conservatives, on the other hand, teach that one must come into a relationship with Christ via spiritual and physical elements (such as using our reasoning) and believe in a fully incarnation Christ. This isn’t secret knowledge either as conservatives teach that this is available to all if they so choose to accept. “Secret” knowledge is only available to those who have already been enlightened (according to Gnosticism) and a strong distaste for the physical. Though some conservatives do actually border on that, so do some emergents and liberal Christians (of course, as of late that is becoming more and more redundant).
Conservative beliefs, however, are antithetical to Gnosticism. For instance, look at how they stress the historicity of Jesus and miracles. They want to believe that he is fully human and fully God – that is antithetical to Gnosticism. The EC, however, has many adherents who deny the miracles and treat Jesus as though he were nothing but an enlightened human (such as Caputo). Thus, I’m not too sure a Gnosticism charge against conservative Christians is really warranted.

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posted March 10, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Gnosticism was “label” attached to the original followers of Jeshua ben Joseph. Loosely translated meant “the knowledgeable ones” or the “ones with Knowledge”. Born Jeshua ben Joseph, baptized by John the Baptist, he went out into the desert for 40 days and thru His Intent, His effort, and with help of the angels He connected with his “higher self”, his Christed Self. The battle with the “devil” or “evil” was nothing more than the battle with His EGO. (Go read the scripture with this insight and see what you think)Upon His return from the desert, eveyone saw the change in Him and started calling Him Isis, which morphed to Jesus over the millenia. The original followers were the Essenes. In the bible they were referred to as “The Elect”. After the crucifiction and pentacost, the Essenes went about sharing the knowledge that the “Christed” One had imparted to them. The knowledge was not secret or special. The knowledge was how to connect with one’s “higher self (soul)” and live in that vibration. We are now, nothing more than our ‘future Christed Selves”. Once we (as all of humanity)remember this everything with change. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

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posted March 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm

There is more than a single meaning to the word “Gnostic”. A person might be talking about: 4. (initial capital letter) a member of any of certain sects among the early Christians who claimed to have superior knowledge of spiritual matters. By extension, the subject would be “A person who speaks of having SUPERIOR, spiritual knowledge.
Another definition of “Gnostic” is: 1. Of, relating to, or possessing intellectual or spiritual knowledge. Of course we all have intellectual knowledge, that might not apply to physical things. For example, “John and Mary argue constantly” or “Bill and Jerry make great music”.
Scientology is about knowledge, but specifically it is method to understand knowledge utterly and thoroughly that spiritual knowledge becomes possible. This is not widely understood and people who don’t understand the idea group the religion’s 35,000,000 words into the first definition. “esoteric, superior, or special knowledge”.

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