Virtual Gnosticism and the Church – some disturbing thoughts about Covid19
June 16, 2020

Gnosticism by any other name would smell the same. But does the church have much of a theological sense of smell, these days, when it comes to the seductions of virtuality in our worshipping communities? Social isolation during a global pandemic makes good public health sense, but whether church should or even could seamlessly migrate to an on-line ‘space’ does not seem to get much serious attention. We just ‘innovate’ and do it. Perhaps this is because we are already perilously close to being gnostic in the way we understand religion itself.

Gnosticism is a very old form of religious consciousness. This type of spirituality is essentially about personal salvation, inner mystical knowledge, ecstatic experience, and the esoteric mastery of obscure symbolic literatures. In ancient times it had its cultus and ceremony – sometimes highly elaborate – and its mind-boggling theologies, but it had no churches. Carefully ‘signed in’ adepts (in the Freemason manner) met at private gatherings, but there is no corporate necessity in Gnosticism. Indeed the body (the corporeal bit of corporate) was an obstacle to be overcome in this very spiritual, very individualistic religious sensibility. The ‘beat-death-by-down-loading-your-mind-into-a-computer’ people of today are modern gnostics bent on escaping the icky organic body and the indignities of mundane human dependence. Virtuality is a technological means of attaining the gnostic ambition of liberation from the body, where narcissistic cyber-enhanced reality is better (and, of course, safer) than the real thing.

Gnostic spirituality fits our times like a glove. In accord with the spirit of the age, the gnostic religious sensibility is “deeply personal” and entirely discrete from politics and the common good. Unwittingly – as Brad Gregory points out in The Unintended Reformation – the manner in which Western Christianity produced the modern secular age made religion itself an entirely private and personal affair. The firm handing over of all public concerns to the State, and the ‘religious  freedom’ that enables each individual to believe or disbelieve whatever they so choose within the unlimited sovereignty of their own personal convictions, makes the very idea of public religion (unless it is in aid of the military glories of the State) inconceivable.

Unlike ancient Christianity, gnostic cults were of no interest to public authorities, because gnostic believers really were private, personal and other-worldly. Had the corona virus ripped thought the Greco-Roman world in the 3rd century, and had public religious gatherings been outlawed, the many expressions of gnostic faith at that time would have been entirely unaffected. Apart from not being public forms of religion in the first place, the gathering together of gnostic believers was in no manner essential to their spiritual quest. Should they have had the internet in those days, a seamless transition from the private religious gatherings of those enlightened spiritual sojourners to on-line forums (password protected no doubt) would have been rapidly rolled out, to everyone’s satisfaction.

Christians in the 3rd century met in each other’s homes (there were no public church buildings until the 4th century), but they were clandestine meetings. Imperially indorsed pogroms against Christians were sporadically practiced until Constantine’s ‘conversion’ (he was only baptised on his death-bed) for two reasons. Firstly, the unusual nature of the Christian faith and life-style made Christians easy scapegoats if anything inconvenient happened that someone (other than those in power) needed to be blamed for. This is a very important political function; ask the World Health Organization about Donald Trump and this sort of practice. Secondly, Christians were seditious; they were a political threat to the Empire. It is now almost impossible to realize how believing in the divinity of Jesus and proclaiming the phrase “Jesus is Lord” was so obviously seditious, unless you recall that the proclaimed divinity of Caesar, and the loyalty to the empire test – saying “Caesar is Lord” and sprinkling a little incense on the Emperor’s alter – kept the sprawling Greco-Roman world together; backed up by force of course. Christians had a Lord above Caesar. And, with astonishing boldness, the Church of the Martyrs turned the ‘There Is No Alternative’ symbol of imperial power – the cross – against the inexorability and legitimacy of imperial violence. What a faith! As historian Tom Holland points out (Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind) almost everything modern Western people now take for granted about legitimate power and human dignity flows from this seditious Christian upending of imperial Roman norms.

The above is in aid of making a simple point: the Christian faith is not a private religious cult.

The Greek origin of the Christian word for ‘church’ is ‘ecclesia’. ‘Ecclesia’ means ‘public assembly’ and is directly lifted from the political life of the Greek city-state. Members of the body politic were ‘called out’ (ek, meaning ‘out of’, and kaleo, meaning ‘to call’) from their private lives, to gather together. Once gathered, they would engage in dialogue and deliberation (logos rather than dynamis being the guiding common light), seeking the unity of the civic body as guided by the highest good. As the theologian Christos Yannaras points out, we get the notion of community (com unity) from this Greek idea of a ‘polis’ (a doxologically unified ‘city’; see Augustine’s City of God), in striking contrast to the Latin business term ‘societas’ which describes a collection of private individuals who make a specific pact for their mutual commercial benefit. A society is a collection of individuals pursuing their own interests via a constructible and dissolvable legal entity, for as long as it is beneficial for each individual. But an ecclesia is not a societas. A church is not a religious society.

Gnostics were – in the modern sense – religious societies, totally discrete from public life and concerned only with their own souls, their own salvation, and with entirely spiritual meanings and aspirations. They were no trouble to imperial power and needed no corporate public space. If we treat the Christian faith as if it too is essentially a private religious society this fits very neatly with liberal secular modernity. Here the state controlled domain of the public is strictly separated from the privately free domain of personal religious conviction. Our political life-form now functionally forces us to treat all religion as a private society concern. So – given how we understand what religion is – it is not surprising that many of our religious leaders and laity cannot see any real problem with closing churches and performing sermons and religious rituals to a camera, then propagating them on-line. But… Christian theologians should know better. 

Consider the Eucharistic sacrament. Let us start with the Catholics.

As Henri de Lubac pointed out, the Church makes the Eucharist just as much as the Eucharist makes the Church. That is, the presence of Christ in the physical gathering of believers is inseparable from the cultus of the Church and the efficacy of the Eucharist. For the tangible institutions of the Church, the tangible cultus of the Church, the real embodied believers of the Church, the touched and tasted physical elements of the bread and wine, and the physical gathering of the real people, constitute the Body of Christ. Christian worship is not a spectacle that one views, it is a holy meal in which one participates, collectively. Christianity is not a body denying, gnostic mystery religion only concerned with personal and spiritual salvation. Christianity is very concretely an incarnate faith, where God is made flesh among us, and we have seen, touched and known God in the totally human and embodied life of Christ. And the Church that Christ established is to be the expression of His body in the world; the Church is to be the Spirit enabled hands and feet of Christ in the world, until the eschaton. The idea that one could be a Christian without being called out together, to be built up and then sent out into the world, the idea that the taking, touching and tasting of the sacraments could be peripheral to the gathering together of the Body of Christ, must surely be anathema to Catholic theology? The same must apply to Orthodox, Anglican and traditional Reformed sacramental theology.

Thank God for the Orthodox. They have at least one Christian leader who understands the Christian theology of the sacraments. Here is what Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas has to say on this matter:

I don’t agree with the Divine Liturgy being transmitted by television. I’m confined to my home and will not be able to attend Liturgy. However, I will not turn the television on in order to watch the Liturgy. I consider that an expression of impiety.1

The only Christians to whom sacramental theology does not apply are the theological progeny of Zwingli: many modern Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals. But even here, the switch to virtuality should be hard to accept. For the practice of non-conformist ecclesiology is (or, at least until very recently, was) far more orthodox than their theology.

As a representative of modern forms of Evangelical ecclesiology, let us take the Baptists.

Most Baptists reject sacramental theology. The Lord’s Supper is observed, not because it is a sacrament in which the gathered believers partake of the life of Christ, but it is observed simply because it is a command of Christ to observe it as a memorial. Likewise, baptism does not make one a Christian to the Baptist; again, one is baptized out of obedience to Christ, not because there is any sacramental ‘magic’ happening when one is baptized. So one might think that it doesn’t really matter to a Baptist if they observe the Lord’s Supper or not, or even if they physically gather together or not. But that is not so. Baptist have (or traditionally had, before the event of the mega church) a strongly democratic conception of local church governance. Each congregation is a full expression of the Body of Christ, and each member is – like in a Greek city-state – required to be fully involved in church governance and the ‘civic’ life of the congregation. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means that there is full equality among all believers, such that the pastor and the 93 year old lady both have one vote each in church decision making. Baptist ecclesiology believes very strongly in a polis-like active congregational unity where members are deeply bonded to each other in the life of Christ, expressed corporately though the ministries of the gathered faithful, as well as by each Christian who is sent out into the world. On-line fellowship is a very poor substitute for the embodied gathering of the people of God each Sunday, and through the week. That is, the Baptist theological outlook on the ‘civic’ life of a local congregation needs real tangible contact between believers to function.

There is one category of church that might have no problem with going fully on-line, as well as having all of the tech resources and established on-line infrastructure to do it; the mega church. But here again, I say ‘might’. Mega-churches are – by their very nature – far from monolithic. I am aware that some leaders within mega-churches are deeply appreciate the problems of narcissistic consumer religion, of entertainment based (rock concert) conceptions of worship, of the convenient anonymity of the mega-church. Some mega-church leaders are seeking to work within the contemporary culture of individualistic consumerism to work against individualistic consumerism, for the gospel. Some mega-church leaders do not want to market the Christian faith as a gnostic, narcissistic, personal salvation cult, soft targeted to meet the modern spiritual consumer’s felt needs. But actually, that type of religion is entirely compatible with the political life-form of the modern liberal State. So, in Australia (where I live), with a Pentecostal Prime Minister at the forefront of shutting church services down in the interests of public health, incomprehension that there might be theological, ecclesiological and political problems with such a move, is the norm rather than the exception.

I am sure that the public health implications of COVID19 should be treated very seriously by Christians. However, the manner in which Australian Christians under ‘lock-down’ meekly accepted that any sort of gathering for worship was “non-essential” simply because the State said so, and the manner in which many churches just shut the doors and flipped over into on-line fellowship and worship forums, without even considering if there were any theological concerns with that, was just too easy. Perhaps this ease was a function of how we find technologically mediated virtual forms of ‘being in the world’ all very natural now. Perhaps we simply assume that Christian fellowship and worship are compatible with the virtual mode of being. But let us not forget, this on-line way of ‘being in the world’ was invented by modern consumerism, and serves consumerism’s end. And that doxological end is – as Augustine saw so clearly – the idolatry of Self Love. Real bodies, real gatherings, real sacraments, real human communities, bonded in actual time, place, and common disciplines, are abrasive and don’t suit me. And this is their great theological virtue over ‘virtual (gnostic) church.’ Let us not forget that the Love of God and Neighbour before the Love of Self is no easy way of being in the world, and so the world provides us with many attractive ways of not having to do it. Might I add, many safe, ‘innovative’ and legal ways of not having to do it.

Dear Christians. Let us beware of on-line fellowship and worship. Let us be a body of worshipers, with real bodied, in actual space and time, gathered together and made one in Christ, in the tangibly partaken Eucharist.

Dr Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia.

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