The Gnostic Temptation

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Recently I presented a paper at St. Bonaventure University in western New York. The beautiful scenery, coupled with my own paper topic and the questions that resulted, reminded me of the need to resist the perennial temptation to embrace Gnosticism among Christians.

As a perspective, Gnosticism essentially is a denial of the fundamental goodness of creation. It’s appeal is for a wholly otherworldly place and experience. It is the longing for heavenly realities coupled with the struggle with earthly realities that forms the heart of the Gnostic temptation. What turns the longing for the glory of eternity into Gnosticism is simply the overreach. Can you long for glory too much? If that longing turns into a hatred of the human body (including your own), a rejection of food and drink, a rejection of marriage and the goodness of sexuality, a complete disavowing of culture as corrupt in its essence, it may just be too much.

Let me explain what I mean further.

The Use and Abuse of the Goodness of Creation

Christianity has always affirmed two truths simultaneously: the goodness of the creation (all God made is good) and the fallen nature of creatures. Building on insights from Paul and James, both of whom construe sinfulness in terms of the problem of human desire and emotion (Rom. 7:8; Eph. 2:3; James 1:15), early Christian thinkers like Augustine saw sin in terms of the way human desire and emotion become disordered and no longer function as they should. To claim that desires and emotions are disordered is to assert that they are misdirected and they exist inside in a confused or somewhat chaotic state (they are out of their proper relation or arrangement).

God designed humans to be fundamentally relational (imago dei), which is why emotion and desire are so central to the human condition. Humans form bonds with God, one another, and nature through emotion and desire. Humans are naturally attracted to what is good for them through emotion and desire. This means that we have a natural attraction for food, shelter, other human beings, in short, all of the goodness of creation. This is part of the way God sustains us as humans. He designs humans to make use of all the goods of creation he provides (think of Adam and Eve making use of the fruits and other plants in the garden).

When we consider the role of emotion and desire in forming bonds through attraction, we begin to see why creation is both good for us and yet poses a risk. It is good because God created the entire world as a way of caring for humanity. This means that food is good, sex is good, friendship is good, clothing is good, houses for shelter are good, etc. Yet, it is risky because humans can attribute too much meaning to the very world God created and thus creation itself can be viewed as godlike. The attraction to sex as good for us can lead to promiscuity; the attraction to food can lead to gluttony; the attraction for houses and clothes can lead to greed or avarice. Notice that these (promiscuity, gluttony, and greed) are examples of emotions and desires that have become disordered. Instead, of seeing creation as an impermanent good designed to fulfill humans in this life, we can begin to think of creation as itself a permanent good capable of completely fulfilling our needs in every way. We treat sex as though it is our salvation or food as though it is a cure for depression. As long as humans make good use of creation by following their emotions and desires while at the same time exercising a measure of control so that these same emotions and desires do not misdirect them, everything is fine. The moment such emotions and desires push humans toward behaviors that are self-destructive, then they move into sin. Just think of Adam and Eve’s temptation in terms of the excessive desires (the food looked pleasing) and emotions (the bond between husband and wife) involved.

When the Bible talks about slavery to sin, it means the way in which our emotions and desires form relational bonds that are self-destructive and from which humans cannot escape. We become slaves to our cravings and through them to other humans or to objects like food and clothing or to states like fame and wealth.

The Attraction of Gnosticism

Here is the dilemma: creation itself is a good that helps humans while also providing a risk to humans because of our own emotion and desire. God is the only permanent good since God is eternal while creation is a temporary or impermanent good. Through our emotions and desires, God wants us to make use of creation, and yet, we must maintain a proper relationship to God so that these same emotions and desires do not lead us into sin.

When faced with the reality that creation poses a deep risk, many Christians recoil in fear. Gnosticism provides an attractive alternative. If the problem is with disordered emotion and desire that forms sinful attraction to creation, the solution, so the Gnostic claims, is to reject creation altogether as “worldly” and thus the real problem. Some Christians can talk about sex, for example, as though to engage in the act at all is sinful when sex is fundamentally good. To avoid the risk, we avoid all contact. Unhealthy views of the human body can accompany such avoidance of sex so that we begin to think that our bodies are inherently problematic. Other Christians talk about great literature, movies, or music as though to interact with any of these absent explicit Christian ideas is sinful. If we are not careful, we can begin to think that creation is no longer good and we need to “separate from the world.” This is the appeal of the Gnostic position. It simply offers an otherworldly picture, which is why  hard-core asceticism (strict holy living) forms part of the Gnostic picture. Rigid ascetical practices bring the world of the soul into sharp focus.

I am going to offer a follow-up post to this one, but at this stage I’ll simply say that there are all kinds of pastoral implications here. When we think of discipleship, we need to consider how the ultimate aim is to use creation rightly, not to reject it entirely. This is tricky business because of the ongoing risk in forming relational bonds with other humans and created things. Eating food will always be a risky venture because we can attribute more meaning to food–we can eat to deal with emotional trauma. How many of us use food not to sustain our physical well being, but to deal with depression? In fact, some individuals have so abused their relationship with parts of creation that they may never be able to use it correctly. The alcoholic can never use alcohol correctly and thus must always remain separated from that part of creation. The sex addict may simply need to embrace celibacy. Ministers need to be discerning about the dynamics at work in individual believers in order to help them work through the risks that are always involved in forming relational bonds.

However, at the end of the day, remember we want to foster love for God, love for neighbor, and love for creation. Salvation is about rightly ordering all of these loves, not giving in to the Gnostic temptation to love otherworldly realities and hate our neighbors or creation.

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Dale M. Coulter
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2 Responses to “The Gnostic Temptation”

  1. Dave says:

    Dr Coulter, Just to “play devils advocate” for a moment: How would you respond to those who would say that there are scriptural examples of the ‘this worldly’ nature of marriage and sex? For example, Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Mark chapter 12. If those who are resurrected will not marry, then marrige (and by extension sex) is limited to this world, not the next. Eschewing marriage because it is temporal (this worldly) also seems to be what Paul is advocating in 1 Corinthians 7. In fact, he appears in that chapter to say that a failure to maintain celibacy is a failure to control one’s emotions and desires and take the ‘better way.’ My point is this, obviously there are certain activities we must engage in in order to live (like eating); isn’t the temptation toward gnosticism greater in those areas that we might term ‘optional.’ Marriage, movies, and certain kinds of music are not necessary for human survival. If you couple that with certain biblical statements, it seems that a gnostic attitude towards those activities is awfully tempting for the devout Christian. What do you think? God Bless, Dave.

    • Dave,

      I love a good “devil’s advocate,” so thanks for pushing me. You raise an interesting point that stirred a lot of debate in early Christianity. There are a couple of questions here: 1) how much do we push for the realization of the end now in the context of the not yet dimension? 2) how do we understand the relationship between celibacy and marriage in terms of creation and re-newed/new creation? As to the first, there were some early Christians like Jerome who pushed celibacy (the life of the angels) to the point where marriage itself was denigrated as beneath Christians. This is why Augustine wrote _On the Goods of Marriage_. It is interesting to me that in 1 Corinthians Paul himself is fighting an over-realized eschatology in which speaking with the “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) and reversing gender roles (men with long hair/women with short hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15) stemmed from the idea that the coming of the Spirit meant the end. I think this over-realized eschatology is still at work when Paul gives his advice about virgins in 1 Cor. 7:25 and following. Notice that Paul says “if you marry, you do not sin” in 1 Cor. 7:28, which suggests that some in the Corinthian community thought that to marry was to sin.

      Part of the question is over how we understand marriage and sexuality at a moment in history when the kingdom has come “in part.” At minimum, the resurrection tells us that the human body is a critical part of human identity. We also know that human sexuality serves both procreation and union. The triune God creates and also is intrinsically relational. Humans reflect God in their procreation and in their being relational, which must include our bodies. God has so designed us that we do not simply relate to one another in terms of one soul to another soul (e.g., being attracted to someone’s intelligence, etc.), but we bind ourselves to one another through our bodies. So, sexuality reminds us that we are embodied and that the human body is good. The unitive end of the sex act (relationality) will remain in the eschaton, which is not to say that humans will be engaging in sex, but that they will be engaging in the deep and intimate relationships that sex NOW facilitates.

      As to eating in relationship to “optional” activities, your comment about the Gnostic temptation being greater is interesting. To think aloud with you for a moment, I tend to think that Gnosticism becomes attractive as an extreme alternative to those who experience a deep slavery to some activity. It is to swing to the opposite extreme in the effort to overcome desires and emotions that have become destructive. So, is the Gnostic temptation greater for “optional” activities than something like eating, which humans must do to survive? Not sure here. There is always a fine line between fasting and exercise because we love our bodies and fasting and exercise because we hate our bodies. The question we must always ask ourselves is how we view our whole self as soul and body. The soul does not become beautiful by hating the body, and some dietary practices in our contemporary culture can lead to hatred of our bodies. This is because modern/postmodern society is so image conscious in the sense of the physical appearance.

      Well, I’ll stop there. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts; they are always welcome here.