Christian, can we talk?
Lend help, here, if you can. If you follow this site you know that it is not intended to be deeply theological, but rather philosophical about the necessity of there being a God, and not only that but that He reconciles us to Himself through Christ, in just the way the Bible says. But, and I know I’m not the first one to ask this, is there a disconnect between Christianity as it is understood and practiced among evangelicals at this date in the United States, and the historical working out of a systematic theology that comprises basic Christianity?
Ross Douthat suggests there is, and gives a number of modern heresies that we should be conscious of. We posted on his book Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics, reviewed here. Among others, they include accomodationist theologies which adopt contrary materialist ideology; pernicious prosperity theology; a family of “God within” beliefs that are more akin to pantheist Eastern religions than the personal God embodied in Christ; a mix of pop psychology and Christian moral concepts, resulting in a vague soup of feel-good beliefs; and finally, a civic religion comprised of jingoistic patriotism, worship of democracy, and Christianity presented more as a tribal totem than the salvation of the world.
Gnosticism: The American Religion
May we humbly suggest that we should be on our guard about another element in the popular culture, which threatens to supplant real Christianity: Gnosticism. Now if we were to google Gnosticism we’d read a lot about weird beliefs based on a stridently dualist point of view that results in strict ascetism, or its opposite, libidinous excess. But the element of Gnosticism that is relevant here is the idea that one has “gnosis,” or knowing, which is an interior, experiential, unarguable knowing. Knowing on the same level as knowing that you live and breathe. It is the idea of a special, experiential, revelation. Harold Bloom went so far as to express this as “The American Religion,” in his book by that name.
On Sunday morning, across the country, people go to church and look for emotional experience, or for the glory of God to be manifested in music, architecture, or clever speech. Or they invoke pop psychology and translate the difficult message to a more palatable “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” to try to slake their thirst for authentic spiritual truth. Often they drink in tainted water, however, and are left thirstier than before. They may feel satisfied for the moment, but it doesn’t last. What’s going on?
Many people, especially young people, conclude that “nothing” is going on. In their urgent quest for authenticity, they decide that when those trappings or experiences of religion are removed, there’s just nothing there at all; that it just wasn’t true.
They may come to conclude that it’s not true because of a misguided idea that faith is based on some inward heavenly light; some special knowing; some experiential and unmistakeable revelation. In short, Gnosticism.
What happens with this false Gnosticism is that we come to believe that interior knowing takes the place of reasoning from evidence. If “faith” does not rest upon reason, but transcends reason, then reason must be immaterial to faith. Therefore our belief is not based on reason, therefore evidence to support our reasoning is not necessary, therefore faith does not require evidence, therefore faith is believing despite the absence of evidence. The strident atheists are right, they feel.
Extrapolating Physical Evidence
The subject-matter of faith is that which is unseen, as Hebrews 11 tells us. It is faith based on evidence, but not just physical evidence. It is faith based on a higher level of reasoning than simply processing sense impressions.
At the simplest level, we take sensory inputs and reason from it. We hear a lion growl, and we reason from that sound and our experience that danger lurks. We investigate the constituents of water, and engage in observation and experimentation to reason that it is composed of hydrogen and water. If we are atheists, we say that reasoning from sensory inputs is all that we do.
At higher levels of reasoning, we make inferences not only from what we see, hear, and touch, but also from abstract reasoning itself. The very fact of existence points to a necessary creator entity, as even pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle held. The nature of our consciousness implies a non-physical component to our being. The baseline and shared orientation to desire the good, the true, and the beautiful implies an Author of those transcendent values. Reasoning from these aspects of our being leads us inexorably to God. Faith is based on this reasoning evidence in addition to the sensory inputs generated by the physical world around us.
We believe in what is unseen not because we believe without evidence, but because the evidence is that which appeals to our higher reasoning rather than the sensory inputs which brute beasts rely upon exclusively.
Gnosticism discourages a proper view of the evidence-based reasoning upon which genuine faith should be based, and encourages a phenomenon we observe in self-described “agnostics.”
“Agnostic” is a word many people use when they want to get out of the whole discussion. The word “agnostic,” taken literally, means the absence of that special interior experiential knowing. What they’re literally saying is that there is no God because they don’t have an absolute knowing of His existence, on the same level as knowing they have a body and breathe air.
That standard of “knowing” is not what really applies, however. Ultimately it’s dismissive of any belief of any kind in any version of ultimate reality – except, of course, atheism. A-gnostics in effect put blinders on themselves, and with their range of vision thus limited, see only the version of reality that says that what they see, hear, and touch is all there is. Reality is thought to consist only in that which we can know in the same way we know that we ourselves exist. It’s a way of confining oneself to lower-order evidence. This habit of mind is abetted by the perception that Christian “knowing” is of the same kind – a special knowing rather than reason applied to evidence.
Out of The Frying Pan
So back to those young people who search openly but don’t find the special knowing they think they’re supposed to have. Young people are particularly vulnerable to mis-guided Gnosticism-as-Christianity, for the reasons we observed in Numinous Light. Not finding it, they tend to throw over belief in God altogether, rather than maturing to understand what faith really is.
It matters what we believe, and what we teach.