Gnostic or hedonist – it all amounts to devaluing Creation


beautiful-alley-bench-nature-spain

I think I’m well and truly into the Creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Hoping to have it finished tonight or tomorrow. As with most of the other chapters, I’m starting with a framing of the modern problem(s) to which medieval faith suggests a solution. In this case, we’re looking at two sub-Christian attitudes to material stuff (including rocks, strawberries, gerbils, our human bodies, and all the ways we make culture in our social interactions). I don’t discuss the “medieval” solution yet – that will come in the next couple of posts.

Our issues: Gnosticism and materialism

Gnosticism

The early Christian Gnostics disavowed the spiritual significance and goodness of the material world: the world was created not by our God, who called his handiwork “good,” but rather by an inferior sub-god called a “demiurge.” Thus one must set aside the material world if one is to reach God. The world cannot be in any way a channel of Grace – it is rather an impediment to grace.

One online author who is convinced he sees Gnosticism all over the modern church suggests the following tests—a sort of “you might be a gnostic if . . .” The signs of gnostic thinking he identifies are (1) thinking Christianity is about “spiritual” things (only), (2) thinking of our destiny only in terms of our souls going off to heaven, (3) forgetting that “Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’),” and (4) believing that God neither gives us material things as means of grace, nor indeed cares about the earth at all – and neither should we.

This syndrome of devaluing the material—sapping it of all spiritual significance—supports a number of modern Christian bad habits. One is the sort of “it’s all gonna burn” end-times scenario indulged in the Left Behind novels. Another is the excuse Baby Boomers (and others) make for the fact that their faith makes no difference in their daily life: “I’m ‘spiritual but not religious.’”[1] A third is the complete compartmentalizing of our (Sunday) faith from our (Monday through Saturday) work and leisure, such that (for example) even when we behave at work in a generally moral way, or have the occasional conversation with a coworker about our faith, we have effectively neutered that faith—it has no appreciable impact on how we work, because we don’t have a clue why whatever goods or services we are helping to provide would matter to God. On this last point, Martin Luther said of our daily work that through it, we become “masks of God” to our neighbor: part of God’s providential activity to bless and flourish the humans he has created. Luther’s robust theology of vocation is just one appropriate theological rejoinder to the destructive syndrome we’re describing here.[2]

Materialism

The “gnostic” attitude is most often coupled, in our culture (and our churches), with an equally destructive and ironically opposite-but-the-same attitude I’ll call “materialism.” It can manifest as consumerism, hedonism, greed, but at its base is an attitude toward material goods that treats them as ends in themselves.

Lewis poses the problematic attitude, and explains why it’s a problem, like this: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[3]

Hans Boersma, in his fascinating book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, adds: “Created objects, as Lewis explains, turn into idols when we mistake them for ultimate realities. Or, as he memorably expresses it elsewhere: ‘You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.’”[4]

What Lewis is saying here is based in Augustine’s crucial distinction between enjoying (frui) something and using (uti) it: “[t]o enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake.” What’s wrong with doing that—say (in the obvious case) with our family relationships? Isn’t the word “use,” with its connotations of abuse, inappropriate in that case, at least? For Augustine, the problem is—bluntly speaking—that when we treat any created good as lovable for its own sake, we are in fact committing idolatry. That is, we have elevated that good to a place only God can occupy in our lives. Plus, it separates that good from its source and meaning, which is God.

Oddly enough, the result of this inappropriate elevation of material goods and its separation from its real source and meaning is pretty much the same as the result of the gnostic attitude, as Boersma explains:

“This point is important because it is precisely by celebrating created realities for their own sake (frui) that we unhinge them from their grounding in the eternal Word or Logos of God. Unhinged from their transcendent source, created objects lose their source of meaning; they become the unsuspecting victims of the objectifying human gaze and turn into the manageable playthings of the totalizing human grasp. The irony of a misunderstood focus on the goodness of creation is that it results in its mirror image: A Gnostic-type of devaluation of created life.”[5]

Wrap-up of introduction

Whether we call these two syndromes “Gnosticism” and “materialism” or not (and I tend to think the former term is a bit misleading), if we are honest we will see them in our own lives and churches. And frankly, they point a big red arrow to our screwed-up theology.

And how do you fix screwed-up theology? You learn good theology. As Lewis put it in addressing a roomful of wartime Oxford students wondering why on earth they should be poring over ancient texts while their brothers and friends were off being killed at the front:

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Lewis knew where at least some of that good philosophy was to be found. “Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods.”[6] I’m going to argue in this chapter that a particular medieval understanding of creation offers a theological solution to both problems, putting the material world back in correct relationship with “spiritual things.”


[1] Jason Micheli: “Top Ten Heresies and Remedies for Them: #10 (Again),” http://tamedcynic.org/top-ten-heresies-and-remedies-for-them-10-again/.

[2] For a good overview of how the “gnostic” syndrome affects our work, and of a variety of Christian solutions to the problem, see Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf, Every Good Endeavor (2012).

[3] Lewis, “Weight of Glory,’ 30-31.

[4] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 30; citing C. S. Lewis, ‘First and Second Things,’ in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 280.

[5] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 30.

[6] Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory, 28.

 

About these ads

2 responses to “Gnostic or hedonist – it all amounts to devaluing Creation

  1. I love that C. S. Lewis quote, it’s so true that the goodness of something is partly that it creates a longing for something more, something eternal.

    • Meredith, the more I read Lewis, the more I find him crystallizing truths that I had half-understood, in ways that make me nod my head vigorously.

      Racing against time to finish this *blessed* book! :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s