A Guide to Overcoming Gnosticism & Living the New Creation
If you were to walk up to a random person in a busy coffee shop in midtown Manhattan and ask, “What’s the world’s biggest issue today?”, I’m guessing the response wouldn’t be “Gnosticism.” It’s a strange word, foreign to contemporary lingo. But while the term might not register with the typical American, including the American Christian, the idea behind ancient Gnosticism is very much alive and thriving. At least, that’s the claim Robin Phillips makes in his new book, Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manual for Recovering Gnostics.
Mind Versus Matter
In layman’s terms, Gnosticism pits mind against matter. For Gnostics, the spiritual realm exists in conflict with its material counterpart. Spirit is good. Matter is evil. While this may sound simplistic, Gnosticism affects everything, and Phillips opens by summarizing how far-reaching it was in his early life:
Along with this anti-material outlook came an exaggerated antithesis between the sacred and the secular, the physical and the spiritual, this world and the next. My framework for thinking about the spiritual life had no place for how Christ’s lordship might extend to this-worldly areas such as social justice, art, education, ecology, and the vast gamut of human culture.
Part of what makes this book so engaging is its spiritual-autobiography aspect. Phillips introduces his thesis by sharing his own experiences with various shades of Gnostic thought. His early exposure to Christian faith was guided by an overly narrow approach to God’s word and God’s world that did not encourage integrating faith with life. The dichotomy was implicit; you were either devoted to the purely spiritual world of faith or to the demonic mire of the physical world. At age twenty, he went to a Bible college where his dorm room might be searched for “worldly” things like “jazz, rock music, and love stories,” but where the education imparted no wisdom on integrating scriptural truth with such things as art, economics, politics, and culture.
Fast forward, and Phillips moved to the UK where he became involved in an esoteric society fixated on “secret revelations,” extrabiblical “prophecies,” and other lines of thought consistent with the meaning of Gnosticism’s root word gnosis:a secret light that’s supposed to uncover the spiritual truths behind the veil of a decaying world.
New Creation Theology
By God’s grace, Phillips ditched the secret society and became acquainted with what’s called New Creation theology. Consistent with what we see in Genesis, where God created this world good, New Creation doctrine holds that matter is good. Phillips gives an overview of the origin of Gnosticism and its influence on the church, and he shows how it is a departure from the biblical story, which maps creation from its founding to the fall and ultimately to its redemption.
Phillips goes on to pull from the helpful work of such figures as New Testament theologian N. T. Wright and visual artist Makoto Fujimura. You might say these two make a dyad. Wright lays out a theological foundation, while Fujimura represents the vision artistically. Fujimura has long worked in a traditional Japanese form called kintsugi. Kintsugi artists take broken fragments of pottery and restitch them with colorful seams. Fujimura connects the process to the New Creation paradigm in that what was broken is repaired in such a way that its restored form is more beautiful and purposeful than the original.
But we don’t have to wait around for death to practice this vision of resurrection. Phillips writes:
The glorious vision of the New Jerusalem may seem remote, even a “pie in the sky” hope. Yet Christian theologians speak of inaugurated eschatology to describe how the advance signs of this future hope are being realized in the here and now.
The doctrine of the Resurrection is the ultimate validation of the inherent goodness of the physical world, including our own bodies. The gospel message is not merely about accepting Jesus so you can “go to heaven” after death, but about becoming one with Christ, sharing in his life, and ultimately, enjoying a new heavens and earth in a resurrected body in the age to come.
I personally found this a wonderful portion of the book. Phillips went from seeing the Bible as a “how-to manual” to viewing it as primarily a story—one that connects from beginning to end and centers on Jesus as its fulfillment. His research is informative, engaging, and comprehensive. It will also renew your interest in experiencing the Bible as a coherent narrative, instead of as a body of disconnected books and scattered moral lessons.
Phillips has done his homework, having investigated not only anti-matter attitudes in the church but also some countermovement. He’s careful to note that while Gnosticism thrives in many congregations, there’s also a strain of “anti-Gnosticism” that prides itself on a kind of gluttony. In response to the ascetic practice of fasting, some churches promote feasting. Others criticize ascetical practices, including Lenten fasting and traditional spiritual disciplines, or even promote eating junk food. This seems more like an unhealthy reaction to Gnosticism than a helpful resistance. It could even be said to partner with Gnosticism in that filling the body with junk implies that the body isn’t to be especially cared for or valued.
For his part, Phillips has worked out a rhythm that includes both ascetic practices and an emphasis on the goodness of creation in the Eastern Orthodox Church:
At this point, my theology began to take on a seasonal element: every year during winter and into Lent, I began to feel the transitory and passing nature of the present order of creation, while at Easter and into summer, I would begin feeling that God was renewing this creation.
A Glorious Reclamation
I found myself nodding along to many of the book’s insights. I grew up in a church tradition that placed much more emphasis on the “saving of souls” than on God’s reclamation project for all of creation. Some congregants, dear and godly people though they were, occasionally would claim there’s really no need to read anything besides the Bible.
Granted, the Bible should be read and reread, but the implication was clear: all those novels, fairy tales, and extrabiblical media you’re consuming are a waste of time. More than that, they may be sinful. I was a kid who read and wrote fiction from a young age, eventually marking novel writing as my primary vocation in life—but it took a long time to feel like I wasn’t just wasting my time scribbling down words when there was so much soul saving to be done. Part of my own recovery journey has included affirming the goodness of those artistic and literary pursuits.
Phillips ends by giving practical steps to identify and overcome Gnostic thinking. He encourages readers to care for their bodies, marvel at beauty, and appreciate how God often works through his people and the means of creation. All of this challenges us to reject the “sacred/secular dualism” implicit in Gnosticism and to instead approach the whole world as an arena of God’s glory.
Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation helped me remember that God cares about the world he created and that he calls us to join him in his reclamation project. Whether we’re artists, ministers, carpenters, husbands, wives, or children, we can confidently declare that this world is good and that ultimately, it will be completely made new.Peter Biles
Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #67, Winter 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo67/gods-good-stuff