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When Christendom becomes Gnostic

A brutal, ancient paganism is shaping the Western world

A mainline Presbyterian church in Nashville, Tenn. iStock.com/Nicholas Nace

When Christendom becomes Gnostic

In a perceptive essay for First Things titled “A Gentler Christendom,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes the sort of Christendom that prevailed in Christian America up to the mid-20th century. It entailed the separation of church and state but not Christianity and culture.

“Here Christian belief was not imposed, nor was any individual denomination privileged,” he writes. “Nonetheless, America was clearly a Christian society, entrusted to the Almighty in its Pledge of Allegiance and on its currency, more Christian in practice than many European countries, with the power of the faith manifest in the shaping role that Christian ideas played in so many of its institutions and debates.”

Douthat notes that this was a modern version of Christendom, which honored religious freedom by refusing to compel doctrine while not hesitating to enforce public morality: “Without ever demanding creedal conformity, Christian America was constantly arguing about the proper application of both biblical principle and natural law to secular politics.”

The old mainline Protestant churches were the linchpin of this arrangement, and they counted among their members most of the leaders of the republic. Later, the Roman Catholic Church joined the effort to buttress Christian America without imposing a state church. Later still, evangelicals tried to fill the gap created by the decline of mainline Protestantism, but they (along with other conservatives) were relegated to dissident status.

I submit that the churches of mainline Protestantism are still determining the public ethos of America, despite their decline in numbers and prestige. But liberal Protestantism in the 20th century abandoned orthodox Christianity. It began to regress to the pre-Christian paganism that dominated ancient Greco-Roman society until the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century and the resulting emergence of Christendom.

Specifically, liberal Protestantism has embraced a modern version of Gnosticism, a religious philosophy originating in ancient Persia that evolved and became widespread in the lands of the Roman Empire in the centuries just before and just after the life of Christ. Gnostic ideas tended to attach themselves to existing religions, so we find pagan Gnosticism, Jewish Gnosticism, and Christian Gnosticism. Marcion was one of the most famous ancient Gnostic heretics.

We are living through the Great Awokening.

In the second century, the early church fathers, notably Irenaeus of Lyons, fought off Gnostic attempts to infiltrate the Christian Church. Gnosticism taught that the world and the struggle between good and evil are eternal. Matter is evil and spirit is good, so salvation requires an escape from the material world. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body was a powerful bulwark against Gnosticism and was included in the Apostles’ Creed.

Since then, Gnosticism has gone underground but it never completely disappeared.

In the 20th century, it made a comeback by colonizing and shaping the post-Christian “spirituality” found in liberal churches full of people who could no longer quite believe in sin, salvation, and the resurrection of the dead.

Gnosticism comes in two (seemingly opposite) flavors. One says that since bodies are unimportant, you might as well enjoy all the pleasures of the flesh you want. We see this libertine version in the sexual revolution. But it also comes in an ascetic version, and this one is evident in the more recent impulse to mutilate the body that we see in the transgender insanity. The first indulges the body’s desires while the second violently rejects it for failing to align with the feelings of the “real self.”

For Gnostics, the authentic self is the disembodied ego that hovers above the body and considers the body as mere raw material for exercising human will. The real “me” is not my body. This is the basis of transhumanism, as C.S. Lewis saw in his prescient novel That Hideous Strength.

The old liberal Protestant churches, having become Gnostic, are mediating their theology through secular institutions that they control, including schools, universities, and the media.

Douthat names this religious tendency as “Post-Protestant Gnosticism” and says it now operates in American life in approximately the same way that Christianity did a hundred years ago.

It is crucial to understand that the current culture wars are not between Christianity and secularism. There is nothing secular about the woke revolution. We are living through the Great Awokening. Just as Christianity shaped the Anglosphere after the evangelical revivals, a new religion is now shaping the West. But this one is a brutal, ancient, paganism, not the religion of the Bible.

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the research professor of theology at Tyndale University in Toronto, Ontario, and theologian in residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario.

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