Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Challenge of Gnosticism

I was speaking with a priest friend recently, explaining to him why I had followed the Gurdjieff system of ideas for many years, then left it for the Catholic Church.

This is the core purpose of the memoir I am writing—not to expose a predator (Gulliver’s dead) or to tell my life (who cares?) but to explain why a relatively well educated person of my generation chose to enter the Catholic Church after a Protestant church-going childhood and a long midlife of alternative spiritual practice.

I think this is a story that might speak to some people.

To my priest friend I said that I thought the Gurdjieff Work was “gnostic.” The Work calls itself “esoteric Christianity,” claiming an insider’s knowledge that ordinary church-going Christians can’t attain. Turning to the dictionary this morning, I find that my use of the word gnostic was apt in this context. It means “of or relating to knowledge, especially esoteric mystical knowledge.”

The priest said, “If I understand the system you are describing, it presumes that Jesus Christ did not leave us everything we need for our salvation.”

This struck me. I had never thought of the question quite this way. After a pause I replied, “Well, I’m sure there were things He taught his Apostles that aren’t in the Gospels.” This is the idea that underpins gnosticism or esotericism; namely, that Christ taught special knowledge to an inner circle and that therefore Christianity is incomplete without this hidden knowledge.

The priest agreed that there are certainly things left out of the Gospels, but he added (I’m paraphrasing) that God would not have become man only to leave humanity three cards short of a full deck. It just isn't logical. Either the Catholic Church embodies “everything we need for our salvation,” or if gnosticism is valid, the entire Catholic venture is undermined.

I was reminded of a favorite passage from St. John of the Cross, which appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church under paragraph 65. The Church teaches us here that “Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one.”

Then the Catechism quotes the Carmelite St. John, whose mentor was the redoubtable St. Teresa of Avila. St. John wrote:

“In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and he has no more to say . . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.”

Some other novelty makes headlines every single day in our times, and we read these headlines avidly. So we, like me in 1971, are prey to every new “revelation” that comes along. Therefore, I find that these are words of St. John are words to hang onto:

“[God] has no more to say. . . [Fix your] eyes entirely upon Christ.”

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