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Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part Three

This post is the final instalment in my three-part series on the central doctrinal pillars of the classical, mainstream synthesis of Christian theology as it has developed since approximately the 4th C. (A bit earlier, to be truthful, but this isn’t history class…)

My central contention in this series is that there is a lot more wrong with this core synthesis than most of us recognize. But if we are going to move towards a new synthesis – which I think is now inevitable – we need to start to engage in a much more open and comfortable critique of these older ideas.

The final pillar in my triad is the idea that Christian faith is a kind of knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. It’s the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest, ancient sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life.

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, the effect is pretty dramatic.

Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge

  1. What Do I Mean by “Faith as Knowledge”?
  2. So What’s the Problem?
  3. “Reason is the devil’s foremost whore”
  4. Upstairs/Downstairs: Christian Elitism
  5. Conclusion

What Do I Mean by “Faith as Knowledge”?

Christianity becomes a religion of knowledge when we understand the life of faith to be principally about gaining true knowledge of the nature of God and reality. In this framework, our core questions are: Who is Jesus? Who is God? What is reality? What is creation? Where do we fit into the whole? Learning and contemplating the answers to these questions becomes the principal dynamic of Christian life. Belief and faith are understood as realizing and assenting to a certain set of ideas about how things truly are. In effect, Christianity becomes a contemplative exploration of an ultimate metaphysics.

Knowledge-Christianity is nevertheless not concerned simply with intellectual reflection. Quite the contrary. Almost every flavour of Christianity that has emphasized “faith as knowledge” has been exceptionally interested in ethical practice. Knowledge is meant to be understood holistically: true knowledge and right action are intrinsically related. In fact, on the surface, Christian theologies of this type are often much more interested in morality and action than metaphysics. They frequently develop elaborate philosophies and psychologies of virtue and political life. Knowledge nevertheless remains their core concern since right behaviour is understood to flow exclusively from right understanding. Wrong behaviour is ultimately ignorance.

Traditionally, Christians of this gnostic variety (“gnosis” simply means knowledge and should not be understood pejoratively) have approached theology as an elaboration of comprehensive and consistent systems of knowledge. These can be logical-philosophical systems (think Aquinas, much Roman Catholic theology, or the Protestant scholastics); biblical-exegetical systems (Calvin, Barth, much modern “biblical theology”); or tradition-oriented systems (knowledge as a network of traditional authorities – think Eastern Orthodox or Anglican theology).

More recently, as system-building has fallen out of favour, knowledge-Christianities have shifted their focus from systematizing correct conclusions to developing correct processes and attitudes of knowing. True knowledge is now found more in the right method of thinking – which is dynamic, and might afford multiple conclusions – than in the right set of static and univocal doctrines. The emphasis has moved from propositional truths to the truths of how we understand things and the limits of what we might know: we have shifted from metaphysics to epistemology. Awareness of the contingent, fragile and multivariate nature of truth – and what this means for human life and our relationship with the divine – has become the summum preoccupation of newer gnostic theologies.

The older metaphysical systems and the newer epistemological problematics are nevertheless only different sides of the same coin. The scholastic who constructs a huge systematic edifice and the post-modern theologian who questions the very possibility of theological knowledge may appear to be at logger-heads, but they are not. In both cases the issues of what we know, and how we know it, are still understood as absolutely critical to Christian life and to salvation itself. For both, the basic problem of right knowledge is central to the Christian life, albeit in different ways. Ultimately, human intellection and reason have inherent truth-value.

Historically, gnostic Christianities have been characterized by a number of recurring themes or motifs. These can be used as “field guide” indicators of this type of Christianity:

  • the mind is considered the highest faculty of the human person; either literally or by implication it is often understood as divine, and/or the point of contact with the divine
  • salvation is characterized as an ascent, which is accomplished at least in part through a series of realizations or insights, and through the broadening of one’s horizons
  • the paradigm of the teacher/student is fundamental, and the church is often understood as essentially a school
  • there are usually different “levels” of Christians, and there is an intellectual or spiritually wise elite that must guide those of lesser knowledge
  • wisdom literature is prominent (wise sayings, maxims)
  • sermons and pastoral discourse are dominated by the language of contemplation, reflection, attentiveness, and truth
  • the intellectual struggle with specific beliefs is a central component of the spiritual life
  • hermeneutics and questions of interpretation are central preoccupations
  • the relationship of faith to philosophy and/or science is an existentially critical problem
  • the value of a sophisticated and usually technical (i.e. you need special training) philosophical theology is considered self-evident
  • there is a pronounced concern for a developed, formal ethics
  • there is usually an elaborate analysis of the human soul and the means for its improvement
  • the idea of paradox and mystery are central, since the problems of the nature of knowledge and its limits are central
  • the highest levels of knowledge may be understood as secret/occult

So What’s the Problem?

The basic problem – once again – is that the gnostic synthesis fails to convey the Good News, the core message of Christianity, in a few critical ways.

Christianity does, of course, entail knowing. Even the simplest articulation or reception of the Gospel requires basic faculties of reason – as does the comprehension of this sentence or this post.

But there is a way to get this right and a way to get this wrong.

To get it right, we have to understand that, as far as Christian faith goes, knowing doesn’t matter. By it “doesn’t matter” I mean that it has nothing to do with salvation. Faith in the Gospel requires us to realize that what is going on in my head or in anyone else’s head doesn’t ultimately affect salvation, because salvation is entirely God’s doing, God’s affair.

This is best illustrated with an example. A Biblical gnostic will be extremely concerned about propounding “the truth” about the creation: that is was accomplished in seven days, that it happened 6000 years ago, that dinosaurs didn’t exist, etc. They will think that it is critical to our salvation that we assent to these truths; for faith to matter, we must assent to the correct ideas. Faith is assenting to the correct ideas. The same thing would go for a tradition or systematic gnostic concerned about us all holding exactly the right Christological formula in our head.

But this whole idea is very strange. Go to Calvary and picture God, dead on the cross. The temple curtain has been torn in two, the sun has gone dark, the earth shakes, God has died and made the ultimate sacrifice for us, freely granting salvation to everyone, sacrificing himself, pouring out himself, changing the whole cosmos in a blink of an eye – and (!) simultaneously, God is deeply concerned about our opinions on prehistory and our musings on his nature, so much so that he is making our salvation contingent upon those opinions! What?!

It’s a very odd, even grotesque, idea. With one hand God extends total love and forgiveness to us; and with the other, a sort of supplemental doctrinal quiz.

Yet this kind of thinking is absolutely routine among gnostic variants of Christianity. Whatever God has done, we must still get some ideas right in our brains. God is critically concerned about our synapses.

But the Gospel is precisely the message that God has freely done everything for our salvation, and simply given this salvation to us! The only mind that matters is God’s, so why all the deep anxiety about what we know?

The gnostic’s anxiety stems, of course, from the assumption that we do still have some role to play in salvation. We assume that our minds share at least in some small degree in the divine work. Without us, without our perception, our intellection, our “reception”, salvation cannot happen.

This means that our minds – with their tremendously important epistemological function (that’s sarcasm) – remain our last refuge for the primeval temptation to be God. Our hemeneutic faculty becomes our final idol.

To be fair, it’s an understandable error. Quite aside from the fact that we like to flatter ourselves, from a human perspective our mind is constantly active in our understanding, receiving, and living out of the Gospel. We naturally assume that because it is active it is therefore causative, effective, and important. In fact, from a human perspective, it’s probably impossible not to see our minds as not somehow formative of our reception of the Gospel, if even in the most passive way.

But the Gospel is precisely the assertion in the face of this reality that, as pertains to salvation, only God’s perspective matters. It’s the assertion that, even if our minds literally cannot conceive of a way in which they are not somehow sharing in the work of salvation, in fact they are not, and that is part of what trusting in God’s grace is about.

“Reason is the devil’s foremost whore.”1

Why is it important to realize our minds have nothing to do with our salvation?

Luther sensed that connecting our mind and salvation was a huge weakness of the old synthesis. He thus severed the two in some dramatic and uncomfortable ways.

The quote above is often looked upon with horror. People imagine that it is a slogan for a blind fundamentalism. But Luther’s concern is to warn of a very great danger: despair.

Luther understood that the basic problem with our mind is that, ultimately, it never accepts the Gospel.

Not really. The idea of us receiving salvation as a completely and radically free gift – full, total, finished, and radically outside of our agency – is simply a short-circuit for the human mind. We can’t conceive of getting something for nothing (perhaps in the same way we can’t really conceive of our “creation from nothing”?). There isn’t a “place” for this idea in our minds. Emotionally perhaps we can get it, to some degree: we can accept a feeling of total love. But even so, our minds are incredibly – incredibly – good at convincing us that I at least don’t deserve salvation; that God’s love is impossible; that everything will end in ruin; that there is no real mercy or redemption; that the world is ultimately only suffering and futility; that it is all a delusion.

In this, the mind is revealed to be no special beacon of divinity in us; it is as human and messed up as any other part of us. It is marred by a profound structural sin: it is unable to perceive pure mercy and pure gift. At best, like the Law, it can convict us of wrongdoing, convince us of its own futility, and perhaps recoil from the horror around us. But it cannot itself rise to the Gospel. Something else, outside of us, has to beckon us towards the Gospel.

This means that, ultimately, clear-eyed reason does not see or believe God’s salvation. Reason, as pertains to salvation, ends in despair. Reason is not malfunctioning when it despairs: it is functioning perfectly well when it despairs. In this respect, it is truly the devil’s foremost whore.

This means that we need to be incredibly cautious about our own reasonings as relates to salvation. As relates to everything else, reason is among our greatest gifts. But the Gospel is ultimately hoped for despite our reason, knowledge, and even experience – not because of it. It is accepted irrationally. Radical mercy doesn’t make sense.

Many people will object that they have a way of rationally understanding God’s love and gift. For them, in fact, reason has played a critical role in their faith. I will admit that most of us do have working rationales for our belief, and we should be careful about not offending each other’s “working hypotheses”.

But here we must ask ourselves a few hard questions. Even if our rational explanations, our “systems”, might be working now, will they always? If you embed the Gospel into a certain world-view, what happens when that world-view collapses? Is it wise to make God’s love, God’s Good News, dependent upon any one understanding of the world that you happen to have right now? Might there not come a day when you are unable to maintain any kind of rationale support for the Gospel? What then? And what about those who hold different rationales?

Corporately, knowledge-Christianities have again and again sunk themselves into human systems of knowing. We invest this systems with a divine aura and in effect make the Gospel dependent upon them. Neoplatonism. Aristotelianism. Kantianism. Existentialism. The list goes on. I suspect the long-term damage that this has caused Christianity is quite significant.

Upstairs, Downstairs

There is one other, recurring way that gnostic Christianities undercut the Gospel. When we make the Christian life an exercise in knowing, we create a Christian elitism.

It’s obvious that some people know more stuff than others do. They are wiser, have more understanding, more experience than others. Parents know more than children, teachers than students, masters than apprentices, and so on.

In a gnostic model, this naturally leads to the conclusion that some Christians are more advanced Christians than others. Since there is no firewall between salvation and knowing, those who know and understand more are in some way “more saved” than others. They are seen as higher, more initiated, more “illumined” – even if lip-service is paid to the idea that everyone is equal in God’s eyes, or to an attitude of Christian humility that makes every one of us, even the most wise, “the greatest of sinners”. In practice, salvation becomes a gradient along which one can progress through increased knowledge.

This sets up different levels of Christians, with perhaps different levels of Christianity: more basic versions for the masses, more elite ones for elite, etc.

This gradation of salvation, however, betrays a deep and existential misunderstanding about the Gospel. How can there be a gradient of God’s love? Of God’s forgiveness? There cannot be. God’s gift of love and forgiveness is total and complete for each of us. That’s the gospel. There is not “quantification” of holiness, as gnostic Christianities always end up suggesting. God doesn’t give us a “bit” of holiness, as if grace were some type of energy. God give us God’s own holiness, which is total. The cross and resurrection are not half-measures.

This means that the Good News is radically egalitarian. And this means that Christianity is radically egalitarian. Stratification in the Christian community should always be looked upon with great suspicion. As relates to salvation, the Gospel confounds the wise in their wisdom as much as the simple in their simplicity. And no one becomes less sinful the smarter or more spiritually attuned they get. Our fundamental need for love and forgiveness does not change the wiser and more insightful we become. The face of our sin may change, but its reality and presence remains the same.

Conclusion: Faith is Trust

As complex as much of this is, there is a simple means to avoiding the gnostic error: to remember that faith is ultimately an act of trust. Faith is only quite secondarily an assertion of knowing or understanding or perceiving. My faith is primarily this: I trust that Christ has done and will do something. It does not mean that I believe x or y metaphysical statement about him (e.g. about his “natures” or something of that sort).

This distinction is, in fact, the ultimate litmus test for determining if you’re dealing with a gnostic Christianity or not. Is faith ultimately understood as knowledge or as trust? It’s a hard distinction to get, but once you do, it strikes like a thunderbolt.

If faith is trust, it’s not our intellectual assent to this or that idea of God or reality that is important. Any intellectual assent is quite incidental. Rather, what matters is that we trust in Christ’s gift and promise of love and salvation. Faith is a constant movement of hope. Whatever my brain may now be telling me – or be telling me tomorrow – I nevertheless will trust the Gospel. Faith is always the “nevertheless”, always the “despite of”. It is not the “because”: “Because I believe that God is x, and Christ was y, and the dinosaurs did or did not stomp around the earth 50 million years ago, and this or that has happened or will happen in my life or in the world, therefore I am being saved. Because I have come to this insight, I am being saved. Because I’ve made this intellectual commitment – the correct one – this will mean something. God will respond.”  No. It is “Now I understand, now I do not, now it makes sense, now it doesn’t, now I see hope, now I don’t, now I see God as light, now as darkness, now I feel God, now I don’t – but despite all of this, I nevertheless will trust in Christ’s holiness, God’s promise, God’s simple gift of salvation. I nevertheless surrender to this gift.” Faith is not finding some new insight or solving some intellectual problem. Faith is leaning into the cold, dark wind, and simply holding steady. Faith is throwing it all into God’s hands. Faith is waiting on God’s word and promise.

And here we might be tempted to end this post.

But there is a final rub. There is a final short-circuit for our minds that is perhaps the most difficult to swallow but critically important: in the end, our minds have to despair even of our trust. Our minds might try to pull another fast-one and whisper to us that we can replace our reasonings with our will. But our will doesn’t finally help us either. Most of us don’t trust much. If we do, our trust is easily broken. It comes and goes. We don’t hold steady in the wind. Our will is weak. We can’t throw it all into God’s hands. We can’t simply wait on him. Our trust is broken. Finally, when we die, it too dissolves.

But the Gospel tells us that God knows this too.

And so here, finally, the utter power of the Gospel is made manifest. Here the voice of the Lord is upon the many waters. Here the God of glory thunders.Here we encounter a final affront to our mind: here we tell it that we don’t even need trust. Our faith – even as trust – does not, finally, matter in our salvation. Christ’s faith is given to us. Christ’s trust is given to us. Christ’s holiness is ours. Christ has done all. Christ. Christ.  Let our minds make of that what it will – it doesn’t matter. “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned for ever.” Come Lord, quickly!

______________
  1. From Martin Luther, “Last Sermon at Wittenberg”, Luther’s Works, Volume 51 Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1957; p. 374; altered. []

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