Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gnosticism Part I – Can Christianity be reconciled with Paganism?

This post is taken from a Bible study that I prepared for our men's study last Wednesday. I am a rank beginner in this study of paganism and Gnosticism. I know that this brief study is inadedequate, but if you catch any errors, please leave me a comment and I'll do a little more homework and try to fix them or substantiate my points a little better.

The Gnostic says, “We’re not sinful, we’re asleep ... we’ve forgotten who we are as divine beings, we need to wake up”. – From a message by Peter Jones

Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The root of Gnosticism is salvation by knowledge – spiritual, deep, esoteric knowledge that comes from being in tune internally with the divine impulse that inhabits everything. Gnosticism was a highly experiential, sexualized, pantheistic, pagan and highly varied ancient religion.

Gnosticism reached its apex as a Christian heresy in the late 2nd Century, though it had its beginnings in the pre-Christian era and continued until the 5th Century. Formal Gnosticism is making something of a comeback in our time, but aspects of this teaching have a very wide influence indeed, from the radical Charismatics to Oprah Winfrey. This is because Gnosticism is a form of paganism. I think that paganism, in one form or another, eventually becomes a default position for people who reject the One True God.

Gnosticism has come to refer to a broad spectrum of ideas, though looking at the historical Gnostic religions, it is easier to assign common elements. Before we look at ancient Gnosticism, we’ll look at its broader roots.

Paganism is a primitive form of religion that seeks to manipulate spiritual forces found in nature through various means. The goal of paganism is power – power to manipulate the Force in nature. Paganism is found in many forms – ancient Greek religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca (witchcraft), Star Wars, native religions and other variations of monistic spirituality (see below).

General characteristics of Paganism:
· Pantheism: God is an impersonal force, not a personal being. God is identified with what exists and is not distinct from it. This divine, then, is found in rocks and trees and within all that is. The pagan worships the god within the individual and the god within nature.
· Monism: All is one. Monistic religions often use the circle as a symbol of reality. There is no distinction between creature and creator, because all is one. There is no sharp distinction between good and evil, light and dark, true and false, life and death – everything is a part of the great circle. Monism rejects the biblical, linear view of time and embraces endless cycles. Syncretism is a byproduct of this idea of monism – all religions ideas come from the same place and are going to the same destination. You can mix and match to your heart’s content.
· Dualism: Matter is seen as a deterioration or defect of the spiritual reality. This dualism is within the great circle, but it is a belief that the center of the circle – the purer spirituality – is superior to that which is on the fringes, the material. In this worldview, matter is bad and spirit is good.

Note the Christian counterpoint to each of these characteristics of paganism:
· Trinitarian Monotheism: God is personal, distinct from His creation, one in essence, three in persons and eternal. God is omnipotent and omnipresent in His creation, but not bound up in it. He identifies with His creation, but is not identical to it. The Christian worships the creator, not created things.
· Antithesis (“two-ism” to use Peter Jones’ word): Not only is there a sharp distinction between Creator and creation, but there are sharp distinctions between truth and error, light and dark, good and evil, male and female, etc.
· Integrity: “God likes matter, He created it” (C.S. Lewis). When God created the universe, He pronounced it “good.” The corruption came at the fall, not because of any inherent design defect. The body and spirit are united, and what God has joined together, let not man separate. The created order, including our bodies, are included in redemption (Romans 8:18-25). Time in the created order is linear and has a beginning, middle and end.

As Christians, we particularly need to be aware of the central truth of paganism: Monism – everything is one, everything is ultimately the same. Monism says that what we see now as variety and individuality are just points of the circle, and these points are an illusion. This is why the goal of religions like Buddhism is the cessation of being – absorption into the divine force (Nirvana).

Paganism applies this monism in the sense that each person is a microcosm of this big circle, a little circle in the big circle with the divine spark within. If we want to get in touch with the unity of things, we have to get deeper into ourselves and discover who we really are – find ourselves.

Spiritual power is found in feelings in the mystical new spirituality. Paganism rejects the concepts of true and false or received faith. What counts is discovering the secret to unlock your hidden potential. Irrational experience of the divine force is what counts. You cannot be spiritual until you stop thinking. Impressions, images, sounds and smells are the path to spiritual power not cognitive thought. Reason, logic, truth, antithesis and certainty are out.

There are many places in the New Testament where paganism is refuted, even if the connection is subtle. Here are some beginning passages to review with your pagan radar turned on:
· Romans 1:18-25
· Colossians 2
· 1 John 2:20-29


Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on Richard Foster and Beth Moore with this Contemplative Spirituality they are promoting?

stauf46 said...

Hello Anonymous,

I haven't looked at it in any detail, but I think they are heading in a dangerous direction. Biblical illiteracy is a huge problem and we don't need any more diversions from the simple Gospel - particularly not ones that smell like they've been influenced by paganism.

Paul Van Stralen said...

With regard to Richard Foster, some of what he suggests has good Biblical background, fasting, for example. But some of the other stuff seems more pagan, though he claims his methods are tried and true techniques developed through Christian history.

Ganeida said...

Richard Foster is a Quaker. What I have read of his aligns with Quaker principals & has a strong biblical foundation. Many of the more fundamentalist churches seem to have a problem with the practise of meditation (which is indeed firmly rooted in church practise) & the charsmatic seeming emphasis on the personal leading of an individual by the Holy Spirit. Practised correctly these can indeed bring a Chrisian more deeply into the preence of God.