I am pretty good about returning books, but sometimes it takes me years. One book that has reproached me for over a year is by a Canadian Presbyterian clergyman named Philip J. Lee: Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford, 1987). I have just read it and promise Tristan Boyd I will return it to him at my next opportunity. Lee’s thesis fits with the ideas of several other writers and books that I admire, notably Harold Bloom (The American Religion) and Denis de Rougement (Love in the Western World).
The historical claim, most strongly made in de Rougement, is that the ancient religion called gnosticism has had a continuous influence on Western civilization. The influence is clear and direct in various cults and religions from ancient times to today: the Manicheans, Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars, Albigensians, radical Anabaptists, and contemporary New Agers. De Rougement argues also that various disguised gnostic influences are just as powerful, notably the notions of courtly, romantic, adulterous, and fatal love which through the medieval troubadours came to permeate our modern thought and popular culture.
Lee examines North American Protestantism in particular and finds that much of it is not very Christian at all, but gnostic. By ‘gnosticism’ Lee means a religion that centers salvation not in concrete, historic, specific acts by God, but rather in a rather nebulous, general, and spiritual knowledge (gnosis = ‘knowledge’) or illumination within us. Gnosticism mainly involves the mind or soul of the individual, rather than life in a community and church. Because Protestantism began with a kind of rebellion against the existing institutional Church and perceived abuses of the sacramental system, it always has a bias towards the individual and his personal spiritual experience. Gnosticism takes this tendency and turns it into the heart of a non-Christian religion, gnosticism. Just as in ancient times gnosticism can adopt the terminology and coloration of other faiths, such as Judaism or Christianity, so modern Protestant gnosticism can retain the names, forms, and vocabulary of historical Protestantism while abandoning its substance.
These ideas might become clearer with an example. Many Protestant churches have ‘altar calls’ but no altar. That is, the heart of religion is located in the mainly private, subjective experience of an individual who is inwardly moved to a ‘personal relationship’ with God. The only public, social, communal, and objective element in this saving event is a public testimony about what already happened in the individual’s soul. That is an ‘altar call’. This call is radically different from the idea that salvation comes by the Church doing something concrete, specific, and objective for and to us by which the merits of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ are applied to and bestowed upon us, such as baptism and the reception of the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. In truth baptism and Holy Communion are necessary and are necessarily social, public, and communal. Holy Communion forces us out of our homes and out of our own thoughts and experiences. In the Eucharist we make a communal, public affirmation of faith and commit ourselves to specific claims about the mighty acts of God. We hear God’s word in the Gospel and sermon, we join in public worship with others, and we humbly receive with them grace objectively offered through concrete, material elements.
Because our own Church is sacramental, hierarchical, and Incarnational, the danger of gnosticism is less perhaps for us. For us Christianity is only ‘spiritual’ because it first is very material and worldly. We are saved because God became flesh and because he established the Church as his historic presence and because he offers us grace through bread and wine and water and oil and words and touch. Even for us, however, the forces that Lee shows to be powerfully at work in American Protestantism must be reckoned with. Individualism, separation from concrete communities of faith, a faulty spiritualism, and a neglect of the historical and public claims made upon us by the Church are all present for us also. We have to deal with the fact that many people will be repulsed by our Church because we maintain an orthodox faith that in many ways runs radically against the grain of the surrounding society. The ancient Church’s most dangerous enemy was not the brute force of persecution, but the much more insidious force of a counterfeit religion and spirituality. Nothing much has changed.