Last week, I posted “10 Questions to See If You’ve Accidentally Become a Christian-Gnostic.” If you missed it, you might want to check that out before reading this.
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Gnosticism, that ancient belief that physical stuff is bad, has snuck back. While Evangelicals believe that Jesus had real hair follicles and sweat glands, rather than just appearing to be human, many of us still slip into gnostic thinking in other areas of our life–predominantly a sneaking suspicion that our bodies are bad. Or, at least, not as important than our spirits.
But if Christianity officially smacked-down Gnosticism in the fourth century, how has it managed to infiltrate our thinking without the alarms going off? As far as I can see, at least three factors make us susceptible to a soft version of gnosticism.
1. Fallout from the Protestant Reformation
Zeal for the Bible drove the Protestant reformers to center their newfound churches around Scripture–literally. They moved the pulpit to center stage, abandoning the cruciform blueprints of cathedrals for more acoustic-friendly layouts where everyone could be sure to hear the preacher. Sola sciptura shaped their architecture.
In the reformers’ passion to recentralize Scipture, many jettisoned any forms of worship that seemed to distract from the Bible. Candles, incense, and icons got stripped away. Peaching, prayer, and singing dominated worship services. In a desire to elevate the teaching of Scripture, the reformers handed many of us a way of church that downplayed (or neglected altogether) more embodied forms of worship. Even communion–the central and very foodie sacrament–got relegated to a monthly add-on.
We Protestants downstream, especially of the low church variety, inherited this wariness of physicality in worship. And since the way we worship shapes the way we live, this skepticism of materiality easily spreads into other areas of our lives.
2. An Evangelical spin on the Scientific Revolution
Even if we didn’t pith a frog in college Biology, the Scientific Revolution affects how we think. We want facts. We want proof. Rationalism shapes our Western consciousness, and also the church.
When fact-based reasoning became the default way of thinking, it didn’t leave much room left for mystery. Instead of seeing the Bible as a space where we encounter God, Christian rationalism reduces it to a doctrinal fact-book. Instead of a grand story told through multiple genres, each of which need to be digested differently, Christian rationalism flattens the Bible into a rule book for life.
Like a medical students cutting into a cadaver, Christian rationalism dissects the Bible, pulling verses apart to build systematic theologies. And while there’s a place for this type of technical handling, the factual knowledge rationalism gives us is incomplete. It lacks the imaginative knowing that comes from reading the Bible as literature. It falls short of encountering the God who speaks to us from beyond the ink.
Within this Christian rationalism, following Jesus becomes popularly defined as believing the right things. Not about picking up our crosses. Faith gets reduced to a statement of faith–doctrines to be worked out in our minds and spirits, rather than our bodies.
3. The Bible’s tricky use of the word “flesh”
Then there’s the trouble with our bodies. They seem to lead us into sin–if it weren’t for our eyes, hormones, and genitia, we wouldn’t struggle with lust. Would we?
On a surface level, body-blaming feels like an appropriate response to sin. Except sin isn’t just a body problem, it’s a human problem. Adam and Eve sinned, not because the fruit looked good, but because they reached for fulfillment and wisdom apart from the Creator. God made the fruit beautiful; feeling hunger and admiring its beauty weren’t sin. The will to disobey God in the face of their natural longings–that was the problem.
But doesn’t the Apostle Paul’s condemn our flesh as bad? Yes and no. The New Testament uses two words that can be translated to flesh, soma and sarx, and Paul uses them in different ways. When he wants to refer to our salivary glands and small intestines–our skin-bound flesh–the apostle typically uses the term soma. He saves sarx for when he wants to refers to the part of us that is bent away from God–our spiritual dimension that pulls us toward sin.
So when Paul condemns the flesh, he’s not proposing that we try to free our spirits, as if our bodies drag them down bodies. He’s calling us to crucify the will, desires, and habits that shape us away from God, all while keeping his grip on our bodies and God’s promise to resurrect them.
The Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and confusion over Paul’s use of soma and sarx opened the door for gnosticism to drift back in. But despite these drifts of thought, the Bible unapologetically presents a physical universe, including bodies, as indispensible to God’s plan for humanity. And if God holds the physical world in such high regard, when any thought pops up favoring spirits over bodies we need to sound the alarm.
Question: How have you seen spirituality valued over physicality?