Christianity and Gnosticism: A Conflict About Method

The Method Is the Incarnation, Through which the Divine Becomes our Companion as a Concrete Human Presence

In the last verse of the Gnostic text the Gospel of Thomas, Peter asks
Jesus to send Mary Magdalene away because “women are not worthy of life.” Jesus replies, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that
she too might become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This Gnostic text is not mentioned in The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown, the pro-feminist novel that has been among the top best-selling books in the country for months and months now. Mr Brown has to be selective in the Gnostic literature upon which he basis his fictional story about a plot by the Catholic Church to suppress evidence of a form of early Christianity in which women were more important than the apostles. The problem is that this does not correspond exactly to many Gnostic views about women. It is true that Gnostic doctrine is not easy to summarize neatly because it is an amalgam of pagan, Jewish, Christian, and ancient Oriental religious and spiritual currents. Still, it was not an exalted view of women that characterized Gnosticism; it was androgyny. Gnostics despised the material universe, seeing it not as the creation of the transcendent God, but of a lower demigod (identified with the God of the Old Testament) that obscured our view of the true God and imprisoned us in the flesh. The Gnostics were those who “knew” this truth and were thus able to be saved from the evil material world. They were the pneumatics or spiritualists. The human body (and therefore gender), therefore, was an obstacle to salvation. According to this view, men were the truly spiritual humans, and women, if not totally identified with the material, represented the “spiritual principle within the material,” set free precisely by becoming “like men,” that is, spiritually androgynous. Feminist interest in Gnosticism is not something new. It is present at the beginning of the 19th century, when the text of the document Pistis Sophia (published in English in 1846) showed Mary Magdalene as the prime apostle of Jesus. However, it is not concrete Gnostic doctrines that attract modern feminists. It is the method of approaching Christianity that allows views such as these. This method is perfectly summarized by the main character in Brown's novel, Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon: “Every faith is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith–acceptance of what we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our mind process the unprocessable. The problem arises when we begin to believe literally in our metaphors. Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” (Indeed, it is not the texts that compel Langdon to believe in their teachings; it is a “mystical experience” at Mary Magdalene’s tomb in which she explains it all to him. So much for the novel’s academic pretensions of historical analysis.) The ultimate conflict between the Church and Gnosticism, both at the beginning of Christianity and now, is not thus a conflict about feminism, or about historical criticism, or about textual interpretations. These are secondary. It is a conflict about method. Put succinctly, Gnosticism–both ancient and contemporary–is unable to escape the poverty of our wounded religious sense, and thus reduces the Christian proposal to a purely religious experience. But religious experience is not the “method” through which we reach our true destiny. The Christian proposal is not a message to be learned or a metaphor to be deciphered. It is an event to be verified, an encounter with a human presence. The method is the Incarnation, through which the divine becomes our companion as a concrete human presence in human flesh. Salvation springs from the earth, from human flesh, from human matter, from the very body despised by the Gnostics. Thus the Church prays: You wonderfully manifested Your great glory, not only by rescuing us from our mortality with the power of Your divinity, but by foreseeing the remedy in the very same mortality, making that which had brought about our ruin the beginning of our salvation, through Christ our Lord.

(Sunday Preface V, author's translation.)