The New Christians

The New Christians

Is Mysticism Gnostic?

In my Monday post, I mused that the “secret knowledge” vibe expounded by some conservative Christians opens them to the charge of gnosticism.  Some commenters mentioned that the other primary characteristic of gnosticism is a strict, platonic dualism.  This, too, I think is descriptive of some conservatives in their conception of the body-spirit split, their lack of interest in creation care, etc.

In that post, I also linked to another blogger who questioned my Christianity.  His point is common among my hyper-conservative critics: they think that my books on prayer and spirituality display mystical tendencies that are somehow anti-Christian.  Contra that point, I think commenter Albert the Abstainer makes a good point:


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.

True Christian mysticism is not in search of some secret revelation from God to the individual.  It is, instead, a contemplative Christian practice is meant to clear the table of all the distractions of life so that we who wish to can simply rest in God’s presence.  There’s no magic involved.

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posted January 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Tony writes:
“In my Monday post, I mused that the “secret knowledge” vibe expounded by some conservative Christians opens them to the charge of gnosticism. Some commenters mentioned that the other primary characteristic of gnosticism is a strict, platonic dualism.”
I don’t see the first charge as being valid for conservative Christians at all. Unless Paul’s statement that spiritual truths are only discerned by the mind that is energized by the Holy Spirit is seen as “secretive”. It may be true of some charismatics, but wouldn’t be true of any of the folks I read or listen to.
The Platonic dualism might have some validity in a second-hand way. Conservatives don’t get too involved in the arts for example. But that has more to do with a narrow moral focus than an actual belief that matter is evil or that knowledge is a secret mysticism. Oddly, when conservative get involved in politics they’re told they’re too worldly and should stick to spiritual things. We can’t win.
And “lack of interest in creation-care”… Please. One can care about creation without buying Al Gore’s magic elixir.
I’m guessing the original charge against you, Tony, is that you seem to have a high degree of skepticism about the objective knowability of truth. You seem to ground knowledge in the experience of the local community to such a degree that one cannot really know much of anything with confidence. You seem to say that knowledge is cultural and experiential and mystical. That seems to separate knowledge from the concrete. That seems closer to gnosticism than the conservative thinking of a Ravi Zacharias or a Francis Schaeffer or a J.P. Moreland or an Al Mohler.

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posted January 14, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I agree with you that your Christian mystical tendencies are not ‘gnosticicsm,’ but I am equally confused as to how a more conservative approach to Scripture is ‘gnostic’–it seems to me that most conservatives do not want their reading of Scripture to be ‘secret': quite the contrary, there is a sense of ‘God’s will is all right here, for anyone to plainly read!’.
Now there may be many valid critiques of this approach to reading Scripture, but I fail to see how a kind of ‘secret knowledge’ or ‘gnostic’ sense is one of them.

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posted January 14, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Oh, and by the way, I am not the same ‘Dan’ as the one above, and I actually can spell the word ‘gnosticism’ when I am thinking clearly.

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posted January 14, 2009 at 1:33 pm

it seems to me that most conservatives do not want their reading of Scripture to be ‘secret':
Not really secret, but conservative evangelicals, out of a fear of “works”, have a strong tendency to base salvation purely on what a person knows or thinks, which is also strongly gnostic. The conservative emphasis on statements of faith, and their agitation when an organization or a church won’t publish one, is just one example of this. Orthodoxy is viewed as more important than orthopraxy, holding correct doctrine is thought to be the sine qua non of Christianity, rather than the more subjective standard of someone attempting to follow the example of Jesus.

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Gregg Koskela

posted January 14, 2009 at 2:12 pm

The comment from Albert the Abstainer reminds me of a quote from George Fox, in my tradition of Friends/Quaker: “When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition;’ and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”
Personally, I think Quakers must take care and sometimes fight to not move down gnostic or dualistic paths; but I can’t fathom nor do I want a faith that excludes living, vibrant experience of our Creator God. Our faith dances and lives on the precipices between paradoxes.

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Dan H

posted January 14, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Larry, I take your point that evangelicalism has largely emphasized orthodoxy (or assent to a certain set of doctrines) over orthopraxy, to an extent that it often does not really look like a fully lived-out faith, a way of life. I’m not exactly sure how this is ‘gnostic’, however. (It may be because my knowledge of historical gnosticism is inadequate.) One of the points of Tony’s earlier post was precisely the emphasis on secrecy–that the ‘knowledge’ of gnosticism was only available to a certain elite, and that Christianity, by contrast, ‘did not hide what they knew or believed’. Again, whatever we may criticize conservative evangelicals for (and I suppose I must admit I lean in that direction, even though I think I have some ’emergent tendencies’), I don’t think they are particularly secretive about what they believe, and the whole evangelistic enterprise kind of presupposes a desire for this ‘knowledge’ to ‘get out’, doesn’t it?
But perhaps I’m harping on a minor issue. The whole exercise of trying to determine ‘who is more gnostic’ is probably not the most important thing. More to the point is the issue of whether there is any place for orthodoxy in the ‘new christianity’. While I certainly agree that too much emphasis has been placed on a specific set of doctrines, and a specific way of forumulating those doctrines, I also believe that Christianity, from its earliest inceptions, was a faith that had some propositional content. What the earliest followers of Jesus believed about who he was, what he taught, and what he accomplished through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection were integral and important and informed their orthopraxy. It seems to me we need a both/and, not an either/or.

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John R.

posted January 20, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Gnosticism denied that Jesus came in the flesh and that the Old Testament had any value. The secret knowledge Gnosticism was contained in their “Gospels” and “epistles,” not the exoteric and explicity revelation of Christ in the canonical gospels.
Today’s liberal “Christianity” has far more in common with the ancient Gnostic heresy than traditionalist Protestant evangelicalism. Most historical criticism of the traditionally accepted biblical canon relies on Gnostic writings for polemical puroses.
The Bible, and Jesus himself, repeatedly exhort to ORTHODOXY, not just some ill-defined nice sentimental feeling. Orthopraxy in the Christian sense is meaningless without Orthodoxy.
I’d suggest you educate yourself before resorting to uninformed commentary.

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Paul Maurice Martin

posted January 25, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Those two paragraphs strike me as a pretty good summary of mysticism. I often wish it hadn’t been called “mysticism” at all, which makes it sound secret and strange. I prefer William James’ “monistic experience.”

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