29 May 2013

Against (Further) Heresy: or, Fundamentalism's Gnostic Secret

About a year ago, Thomas Long took aim at what he sees as the deeply Gnostic bent in the more liberal branches Protestantism. "Preaching Easter at Old First Gnostic" suggests that scholars like Crossan and Bishop Spong, along with the congregations that follow them, are the contemporary heirs to the Gnostic tradition in as much as they reject the mystical and metaphysical aspects of Christianity in favor of a post-Enlightenment ideal of right knowledge (over and against right belief). The people at "Old First Gnostic" don't take seriously the belief in an incarnate God or the resurrection, reducing Christ to the (or a) moral teacher.

There is, though, another type, more subtle, form of Gnosticism that Long fails to mention. Whereas Old First Gnostic would probably be ok with the Gnostic label (and might have Elaine Pagels in their congregation's library), this other group would balk at the title. They are very serious about weeding out any and all heretics; they take very seriously most of, if not all, of the claims of miracles; they might even burn books by Crossan, Spong, and Pagels. There form of Gnosticism is, much, much more subtle -- but it is also hidden in plain sight. This Gnosticism posits a strict dualism between the soul and body. Taking a page from classical Greek philosophy, they hold that the soul is fundamentally immortal.

There is a certain strand of Fundamentalist* thinking, exemplified in Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, that suggests when a person dies, there soul immediately ascends to Heaven and hangs out with God until the Resurrection. In this soul-body dualism, we are souls trapped in outdated, faulty flesh machines just waiting to die so that our souls can go be with God. God will eventually grant us new flesh machines that aren't faulty.** We are, in essence, under factory recall. We are encased souls, and our bodies aren't that important. Of course, most Fundamentalists would disagree with such a summary position. Grudem goes out of his way to discuss the sorrow that comes with the death of a loved one. This is, however, the logical conclusion of such a belief. The Gnostic theology does not mesh with our lived experience, and yet Grudem holds on to it.

Now before I move on, let me clarify: such a position does have some validity. As we occupy space and time, we long for the Kingdom of God outside of time. The Kingdom of God is eternally present (in much the same way as the Son is eternally begotten of the Father). In that sense, when a person dies, they are in Heaven because they are present in the eternal Kingdom of God, outside of time. In the very linear time that we inhabit, however the person if dead -- soul and body. It is obviously difficult to comprehend this distinction. Eternity, after all, falls completely outside of our experience. Chronology is difficult to discuss when it involves the eternal. It is a distinction that must be made, though, and one that the Church has traditionally held. We do not believe in reincarnation, a independent soul that jumps between bodies. Instead, we believe in a human existence in which body and soul are linked. Grudem (et al) does not take the time to make the distinction of existence in time and existence in eternity, but instead argues for an immortal soul. He (unknowingly) joins the Gnostics.

The problem with the Fundamentalist position is not that it agrees with ancient heretics. Some heretics make for great conversation partners. Rather, at issues is that this Fundamentalist Gnosticim does not fully consider the consequences of death.If the soul survives, then is a person truly dead? Sure, there body might cease to function, but the soul -- the part of them that is not just recycled atoms -- lives on. The person -- separated from the body -- "goes to be with the Lord." Death becomes nothing more than a physical experience and does not include the full person. Given Grudem's emphasis on a "person" going to be with the Lord, we can safely imply that he places personhood firmly in the soul (which is, itself, an issue; see the discussion on anthropology below). In Grudem's thinking, then, a person does not die. Thus, death is undone by mental acrobatics rather than the Resurrection of our Lord Christ. Such a position ignores the fully glory of the Resurrection.If a person does not truly die, how can they truly be raised? Again, it reduces the resurrection to getting a new flesh machine rather than a restored and perfected life.

The position inevitably leads to multiple systematic issues, such as an incomplete anthropology that is not concerned with physical things. The end result of Grudem's theology is that the body is only important as a vessel for allowing us to exist on Earth. On a related note, the theology (as explained by Grudem) is very selective about its biblical foundation (as is most Fundamentalist theology). First, it ignores texts that rejoice in our embodiment (cf. especially Song of Songs). True, Paul was worried about "the flesh," but it doesn't take a New Testament expert to realize Paul has something more specific than a human body in mind. (Of course, Grudem is not alone here. Augustine introduced this particular strain.) Second, it ignores texts that talk about being in the grave or asleep in Christ. One last point on systematics: Grudem suggests that our death joins us to Christ's death and completes our sanctification, but here he turns death into a sacrament. It is our death in baptism that joins us to Christ's death (and our resurrection to Christ's resurrection). By extension, it is Christ's death that joins him to all of humanity (as death is the final part of the human experience in the here-and-now).

There is a further theological point, though it is more of an issue of popular theology, falling into the domain of pulpits and Sunday school rooms -- and the belief of the common Christian. Arguably, it is in the popular understanding that this theology becomes its most dangerous. In the popular understanding, it's amazing how quickly the Resurrection of the Body falls off. We die and go to Heaven, end of story. At best, the Resurrection becomes some immediate act. At worst, it is conflated with death itself.

Instead, we must maintain a developed anthropology that includes death. We cannot separate out our souls as the true and undying self. We will die and do so entirely. We cannot ignore the importance of our bodies. Whether the body is good, bad, both, or neither, it is important. The body is part of the full self. We cannot degrade the Resurrection. It is full, complete, and glorious. We cannot be secret Gnostics, despising the flesh as an evil cage to be escaped.

Grace and Peace+
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*It is difficult to come up with a concise label for this group, especially since their heresy spreads beyond their own group. It is prominent in Baptist circles, but certainly exists in popular theology. Most would label this group as "Evangelicals," but that rubs me (a member of the Evangelische tradition) the wrong way and is not entirely accurate. I'm going with Fundamentalist, but I recognize two things: a) as with Baptists, the belief spreads beyond the strict definition, and b) as with Evangelical, it is difficult to pin down a precise definition (for instance, I'm certain that not everyone who holds this belief is a strict creationist).

**This position inevitably shapes the general fundamentalist theology of creation and an ethic of conservation, as well. The world is faulty, just like us. We will leave it eventually, so why should we bother maintaining it? It is a faulty logic, of course, but one I have heard argued many times. Operating within the logic of the theological position, however, it quickly falls apart; just a tenant should maintain his or her apartment, so to should humans maintain the earth -- both to please the landlord and also because we don't know how long we will need to keep the lease. Of course, this position does not grant much (if any) inherent value to creation, but it is a starting point for a much-needed conversation on care for Creation.