In the post “Man is a unity” I discussed our bad habit of attempting to separate the material and spiritual. Why is it so important we see ourselves as whole persons? God always, always works towards union. Therefore anything resulting in disharmony, discord and disunion is turning us away from Him. Everything is from God and he is continually drawing everything towards Himself. We feel divided because we have two opposing desires within us – the desire to do good has been damaged and because of concupiscence, we tend towards sin.
This feeling of being divided often leads to a dualistic view of the world. One of these dualistic world views is Gnosticism, a heresy which has stubbornly stuck around and continues to poison our thinking. I feel like I should go get an accelerated degree in philosophy before I attempt to write this, but I’ll give it a shot.
Like most religions, Gnosticism attempts to answer the fundamental question: “why do we suffer?” Gnostics believe that the material world was created by a flawed “false god” and therefore reflects his flawed and imperfect nature. There is also a “True God” and sometimes they are referred to as half-gods. So they are opposing halves – not a whole. Since the material world was created by this false god – demiurge, it is seen as a prison which must be transcended by the spirit. This transcendence happens through the gaining of secret knowledge – gnosis.
Human nature mirrors the duality found in the world: in part it was made by the false creator God and in part it consists of the light of the True God. Humankind contains a perishable physical and psychic component, as well as a spiritual component which is a fragment of the divine essence. This latter part is often symbolically referred to as the “divine spark”. The recognition of this dual nature of the world and of the human being has earned the Gnostic tradition the epithet of “dualist”.
The rejection of matter of course has implications for understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection. Gnostics still believe in Jesus as a savior, but offering a different kind of salvation: “It is not by His suffering and death but by His life of teaching and His establishing of mysteries that Christ has performed His work of salvation.”
If the flesh is merely a prison created by a false god, why would God ever come in the form of man? In Against Heresies, which specifically addresses Gnosticism, St. Irenaeus argues that, “”For that which He [i.e. Christ] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” Here is a great article which explains Irenaeus as the foundation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
All heresy is simply a twisting and misunderstanding of the Truth. For example, gnostics believe that most of us live in ignorance of the divine essence which dwells within us and that “This ignorance is fostered in human nature by the influence of the false creator and his Archons, who together are intent upon keeping men and women ignorant of their true nature and destiny.” My gut reactions was: that’s true! Except it’s the devil that keeps us ignorant of our true selves and our potential for greatness.
Speaking of unity, our new Holy Father has continued to make active strides towards reunification with the Eastern Orthodox Church. I recently started reading John Paul II’s “Orientale Lumen” and Eastern Catholics totally have a better understanding of this unity of man than we do.
From “Orientale Lumen”:
Christianity does not reject matter…the human body is disclosed in its inner nature as a temple of the Spirit and is united with the Lord Jesus, who himself took a body for the world’s salvation. This does not mean, however, an absolute exaltation of all that is physical, for we know well the chaos which sin introduced into the harmony of the human being. The liturgy reveals that the body, through the mystery of the Cross, is in the process of transfiguration, pneumatization: on Mount Tabor Christ showed his body radiant, as the Father wants it to be again.
Cosmic reality also is summoned to give thanks because the whole universe is called to recapitulation in Christ the Lord. This concept expresses a balanced and marvelous teaching on the dignity, respect and purpose of creation and of the human body in particular. With the rejection of all dualism and every cult of pleasure as an end in itself, the body becomes a place made luminous by grace and thus fully human.
To those who seek a truly meaningful relationship with themselves and with the cosmos, so often disfigured by selfishness and greed, the liturgy reveals the way to the harmony of the new man, and invites him to respect the Eucharistic potential of the created world. That world is destined to be assumed in the Eucharist of the Lord, in his Passover, present in the sacrifice of the altar.