Matt Tan: The face of Christ and the new Gnosticism

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A current form of Gnosticism rejects people from Christian communities who don’t hold perfectly correct belief. PHOTO: Freepik/wayhomestudio

The Pope identified where an old heresy emerges today

This is part two of my focus on the Theological Reflection of the Instrumentum Laboris, with a particular focus on paragraph 73. In my previous column, I focused on what Pope Francis called the ‘New Pelagianism’ and why its resultant posture of activism undercuts the drive for renewal, which by right is a divine initiative.

In this piece, I will focus on the counter-tendency identified in that paragraph which is just as inimical to genuine renewal, namely the ‘New Gnosticism’.

Etymologically, Gnosticism means “having knowledge”, a name that fitted well with the heresy bearing its name. In its original form, Gnosticism emphasised salvation through the obtaining of secret knowledge that is not available to all. In its new form, the Instrumentum speaks of a drive towards “doctrinal purity” and “ideological correctness”. (73)

“as it is with all heresies, the New Gnosticism works off something that is true. Our inhabiting the body of Christ does require right belief.”

There are a number of ways in which this Gnostic tendency is insidious, and also inimical to the kind of genuine reform sought by the Instrumentum.

In the first instance, as it is with all heresies, the New Gnosticism works off something that is true. Our inhabiting the body of Christ does require right belief. The need for clarity of what is believed is the reason why the Church has had ecumenical councils from Ephesus to Vatican II. This need for right belief goes by the unfashionable term of “orthodoxy”.

To abide with anyone, Christ included, it is necessary to know that person rightly, so right belief or orthodoxy is necessary for anyone to encounter the face and abide in the Body of Christ. What makes Gnosticism, both new and old, a heresy is that it makes the living of Christian faith only about right knowledge or belief.

It is a heresy because it makes the Body of Christ disembodied. It rejects one of the important pivot points in the economy of salvation, namely the Word taking on flesh. The Christian faith becomes all about thinking rightly. This runs counter to the Scriptural maxim that we are meant to love the Lord with all our strength as well as with all our minds (Deut 6:4), so much so that “faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:17).

In the second instance, the reduction of faith to merely orthodoxy lends itself towards a self-referential, and thus self-defeating, elitism. As in the Old Gnosticism, the New Gnosticism works because it is attached to exclusivity – what really counts as right belief is well hidden secret. So secret is this knowledge, in fact, that no knowledge will really be right enough.

What ends up happening, as we can sometimes see in the online Catholic universe, is that the faith ends up becoming a debate over who thinks more rightly and thus affords the right to not just go to Christ through the narrow gate (Matt 7:3), but shut the gate and lock out any others who might try.

This is to be contrasted with the Christian account of salvation, that is anchored in the encounter with the face of Jesus Christ and a deepening immersion into His Body, which then is made available to all through the Church from the moment of baptism.

In the third instance, as in the old, the new Gnosticism is founded on a fundamental dualism between good and evil, insider and outsider. This dichotomy creates an atmosphere that thrives on conflict, and does not allow space for the Lord to gather that which sin has scattered, or even allow any transformation that could erase the conflict.

It also compounds the aforementioned tendency towards exclusivity since, if online practice is anything to go by, the drive towards conflict plays out by the urge by one to brand the other as not having the right knowledge.

In sum, while the new Pelagianism finds its manifestation in activism, the new Gnosticism lends itself towards quietism, which is a posture towards disengagement from what the beginning of Gaudium et Spes calls the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of this age. By contrast, the face of the incarnate word draws us not into His body, but also into the burdens of the world as well. This will be the subject of the final column.

Dr Matthew Tan is Dean of Studies in Vianney College, the seminary for the diocese of Wagga Wagga. He blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian.

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