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Alternative Christianities


At the same time the early Church was defending itself from attacks (both intellectual and social rumor) from the outside, Christianity was also facing upheaval from within. A variety of alternative forms of Christianity were quick to appear. Extreme anti-Jewish groups as well as those a bit nostalgic for the rigor of Jewish religious practice rose up to pose a challenge to developing Christianity. But few threats were as pervasive and worrisome to what would come to be known as orthodox Christianity as Gnosticism.

Good luck explaining Gnosticism. The classic ancient Christian work against it is the late second century work Against Heresies by Irenaeus. I assign portions of the work to be read by students not so they can understand Gnosticism, but to have a first hand experience of the esoteric confusion of it all. It is often an intricate spiritual narrative involving an ultimately good divine being and a succession of divinities emanating from it, each becoming less and less good as their genealogies find them further and further removed from that ultimate goodness. The created world is the work of one or more of these lesser, and now malignant, divinities. And the goal of humanity is to come to a saving, secret wisdom that frees the individual from bondage to the evil material world. Most often the God of the Old Testament, then, is pictured as the evil creator demiurge and in at least one of these cosmological narratives Adam and Eve are praised for eating the forbidden fruit because, after all, it came from the tree of knowledge (always a good thing in Gnosticism) and was forbidden they an evil divinity, anyway.  Each teacher and system–Valentinus, Basilides, Thomasine, and Sethian Gnosticism—had his own take on the story and list of divinities. This makes for a confused mess that seems impossible to unravel for historians of religious thought.

Why in the world, then, would it have been so appealing? It seems odd that so many would flock to and trust themselves to a convoluted system that appears permanently and hopelessly obscure. One would think that the obscurity of it might be off-putting or make its actual effectiveness a bit suspect. But this clearly was not the case. The fact that so many of the early Church Fathers spent so much time and effort refuting Gnostic ideas gives us among the strongest of clues as to Gnosticism’s appeal and pervasiveness.

Gnosticism’s appeal appears to lie in its interest in and presentation of salvation. It offered to its adherents liberated spirits freed from the oppression of the material world. They were told that within them was a piece of the divine substance looking to be liberated and reinstated to its rightful place. And best of all, it offered a secret wisdom that was both the key to this and inaccessible to the uninitiated—the unknowers. (As an occasional added bonus, while many Gnostics were staunch ascetics, there were some sects that appeared to believe that, since they were freed from being accountable to the material world, they could show forth their disdain for things material by indulging their fleshly appetites—complete license.)

As a pastor I have found myself walking with people in and through all sorts of times in their lives—births, deaths, celebrations, tragedies, and of course the usual “ordinary time” in between. Through all these varied times in peoples’ lives, there is something that I have found to be fairly consistent throughout: people have an amazing tendency to believe what they want to believe. Sometimes this is understandable. I remember sitting in the hospital with a mother who had just lost her two year old son to cancer. In her grief she had subtly developed a fairly common theology (“God needed him more than me”) as a coping mechanism. In her chaos, this made her world understandable and livable again, and so this is what she chose to believe. Dealing with poor theologies that act as coping mechanisms in times of extreme grief is a completely other subject. But I couldn’t escape the conclusion that she believed this because she wanted to.

But it is often the case that, outside of the extremities of life where theology and psychology work together in particularly interesting ways, people simply choose to believe what is most convenient and appealing. And what is most convenient and appealing is often what situates us best in the unfolding of our theological narrative. In this way, we are not so radically different from the ancient Gnostics. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of an elite spiritual group that is uniquely in the know and so has a clear vantage point from which to look down on everyone else? Looking through the lens of a pastor (and turning that lens back on myself) I have found that the modern tendency is the same. We are just a bit more sneaky about it in a time where the distinction between heresy and orthodoxy are much more clear than they were in the early centuries of the Church.