Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 3: Gnosticism Today
This blog is the third in a multi-part series arguing that science should not be viewed as a secular form of knowledge needing to be ‘integrated’ with Christian faith. I began the series by stating:
To put it succinctly, even to talk about ‘secular knowledge’ and the ‘integration’ of science and faith is to buy into a problematic bifurcation of knowledge. The basic assumption lying behind such a distinction is that the world of knowledge can be divided into two discreet realms. On the one hand we have the world of secular knowledge, the goal of which is pure objectivity, which is governed by reason and humility, and which finds its ideals embodied in the practice of science. On the other we have the world of religion, which has a completely different set of goals and ideals. Religious knowledge is based upon faith, for the goal of religion is fidelity to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Bible as inspired by God and revelatory of God’s truth. There are multiple problems with this bifurcation of types of knowledge.
Moreover, I am seeking to make the case that anti-scientific attitudes among some Christians are grounded in an unbiblical theology that was rejected by the early church. Finally, I would suggest that we may identify this theology as a sort of resurgence of ideas which characterized an ancient movement called Gnosticism.
As we saw in the previous blog, Gnostics possessed a negative view of both the material world and the human beings who lived in it. For Gnostics, creation ultimately revealed nothing of the truth of God, and human beings were so deeply involved in the brokenness, evil and ignorance of the world that any human endeavor to understand Truth was an exercise in futility. In fact, for Gnostics, it was only possible to know God because God revealed secret knowledge (or ‘gnosis’) about Himself through a solely divine messenger, Jesus, who then passed this gnosis on to certain followers, such as Mary Magdalene or Judas Iscariot (at least, according to the Gnostic writings that bear their names).
If something resembling Gnosticism were to reappear today, one would expect its adherents to have little regard for an enterprise such as science. After all, as I stated in the last blog:
Gnostics generally held a pretty negative view of the physical world, treating it as a realm of evil and ignorance. This presents us with a serious problem, claimed Gnostics, because each of us has (or, more properly, is) a soul that has become separated from its true home with God and trapped within a physical body within this world of materiality, ignorance and evil. To make matters worse, the ways that we naturally learn as physically bound beings is through our senses, which are directed toward and therefore can only give us knowledge about the petty and/or evil matters of the material world. In other words, our senses only lead us deeper into the dungeon of our ignorance.
According to this view, science—the disciplined study of the physical world primarily using observation and testing, and conclusions drawn from the results of such study—is in general a distraction from our true end, which is eternal life as spiritual beings in Heaven. Even if there were some value in learning about the material world, our knowledge of it would ultimately be untrustworthy because our “senses only lead us deeper into the dungeon of our ignorance.” Indeed, for a Gnostic, the only way one could expect to learn the Truth about the physical world, much less the spiritual world, would be through specially revealed gnosis. That is, through one very particular and very privileged understanding or interpretative lens. For the historic Gnostics, this was secret teachings passed on through divinely selected messengers.
Where we find this particular Gnostic tendency reappearing today is in ways that some Christians affirm certain privileged interpretations of Scripture. We see this, for instance, in many arguments for a ‘plain reading’ of scripture among those who only apply the plain reading selectively. So, many who argue for a plain reading nevertheless agree with science that the sky is not a solid dome that holds back water and that the earth is floating through space rather than resting on foundations, despite the fact that a plain reading of Genesis 1:6-7 and Isaiah 48:13 would clearly indicate otherwise. Indeed, any form of knowledge other than their special interpretation of God's direct, unmediated self-revelation (i.e., this inconsistently applied ‘plain’ reading of scripture) is ultimately untrustworthy because it has been tainted by “evil minds of the material world.” Science, because it is practiced by those who are “trapped within a physical body within this world of materiality, ignorance and evil” is properly an enterprise of the secular world of unbelievers and their petty, sinful ways.
Are these the kinds of things we find many Christians today affirming about the world, about science, and about divine revelation? Are there Christians who believe that science cannot be trusted because of both the irreparable fallenness of the world and the extent to which nearly all those who practice science have been corrupted by sin (except, of course, for the chosen few who possess special gnosis and who therefore are able to do ‘science’ correctly)? I believe the answer to this, sadly, is yes.
There are three things in particular that I wish to identify as problematic here: (1) that scripture can and should only be read ‘plainly’, (2) that scripture is the only way that we can learn the truth about God's creation, and (3) that the findings of mainstream science are at odds with Christian faith and scripture. Rather, I want to claim, in agreement with both scripture and Christian tradition, that we find God's truth revealed through all of God's works, including both scripture and creation, and that science is a tool given to us by God to help us understand His creation. This is one of the main reasons why, as a Christian, I reject the sharp distinction between science and faith: science, properly understood, is a powerful way for us to hear the Word of God spoken through creation!
The early church typically spoke of this view in terms of 'two books' that need to be read together in order to understand the fullness of God's truth. The two books are the Book of Scripture--the Bible, of course--and the Book of Nature--creation itself, viewed and understood through the distinctive lens of Christian faith. l will now focus on explaining why I think this 'two book' model provides a better alternative to thinking about the relationship between science and Christian faith than either the ephemeral Gnosticism, a trap into which many of us have fallen, or the “science-is-an-essentially-secular-enterprise” trap, into which others have slipped.
First, allow me to modify the two-book model a bit. In the modern era, the term 'nature' has come to connote something that I find highly problematic as a Christian. That is, it tends to speak of the world and its processes as if they exist purely in and of themselves, as with 'natural law' or 'natural selection'. Indeed, even to speak of the universe as ‘nature’ is in some sense to have already bought into the bifurcation that I have sought to critique from the beginning, to suggest that understanding the world is ultimately a secular enterprise because it exists somehow completely separate from God. Since, as a Christian, I affirm that the world only exists at all and as it does because of God, I wish instead to call the second book the Book of Creation.
And this is the first reason why we should view the universe itself as a kind of book through which God speaks—God is its creator! Indeed, Genesis 1 even uses the language of speech to talk about God's creative activity in the world. God speaks and light, earth, the heavens, plants and animals come into being. We find this very point further strengthened in the great prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-5), which speaks of Christ as the very Word (in Greek 'logos') through which God has created all things! And this affirmation is echoed in Col 1:15-17, which states that 'all things hold together' in Christ, for they were created for and through Him! To God, the world is not just some dead, inert, secular stuff. As numerous passages in scripture proclaim (see Ps 19:1-6, Ps 97:1-6, Job 38:7 just to name a few), creation itself speaks of the glory, the majesty, and even the righteousness of God!
Of course, the secular world and those who adopt Gnostic-like beliefs struggle to see this truth. This is what is meant when John 1:10 states that “[Jesus] was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.” The Word of God woven into the very fabric of the universe must be seen and heard through the eyes and ears of faith in the Son of God as one who became fully human (“became flesh” says John 1:14). This is a pivotal point that is often overlooked when thinking about the ways in which God speaks to us.
Nonbelievers and secularists at best think of Jesus as a human being who provided good moral teachings. Gnostics, on the other hand, did not believe that material creation and flesh could express God's goodness and truth, and therefore rejected that Christ was fully human, but only appeared to be so. But, as we saw in the last blog, the orthodox Christian tradition has affirmed that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and that the divine and human natures co-exist in Jesus "inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably" (Creed of Chaldecon, 353 AD). What this means is that the full divinity and self-revelation of God came into full expression within the created order in a fully physical way! This is not to equate God with the world in anyway. Rather, the implication of the doctrine of the incarnation is that the created world is a medium through which God speaks. Indeed, it is the very medium through which God has spoken decisively in the person of Jesus Christ. If God is capable of speaking His own way, truth, and life into the world through human flesh, God is certainly capable of speaking through the rest of Creation as well!
One may of course argue that we are inhibited from hearing God's Word spoken in and through the Book of Creation because of sin, and its effects on both creation and humanity. And it is true that scripture speaks of creation as fallen and subject to sin (see esp. Gen 3:17 and Rom 8:18-23). But this does not mean that creation has completely lost the capacity to express the truth of God, as those who hold Gnostic-like beliefs seem too affirm. Rather, a better way to understand the affliction of sin upon creation is to look at it in terms of the ways that human beings have failed to fulfill our call to exhibit proper dominion in creation by caring for it as God cares for it. This would be the clear implication of Rom 8:20-22, which ties both human sin and salvation to the sin and salvation of creation by declaring that creation's bondage to decay and futility is coming to an end through the redemption provided in Christ. This same promise is reiterated in 2 Cor 5:17, which announces that Christ's coming has initiated a NEW creation, and Col 1:20, which declares that the blood of Christ on the cross has initiated the redemption of ALL things!
Contrary to Gnostic teachings, from the beginning of time God has revealed his Word through the Book of Creation, a process come to full fruition in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, while our ability to hear God's Word in creation might have been inhibited because of sin, the power of sin has been decisively overcome by the death and resurrection of Christ, and Christians may once again read the Book of Creation in confidence that it can reveal to us truth about God and God's handiwork. What I have yet to show, in my desire to reclaim science as a distinctly Christian enterprise, is how science might be considered a tool for reading the Book of Creation, and how we might consider ways in which the Books of Creation and Scripture may be shown to work together for us to understand the fullness of God's Word. This is the task of our next blog.
Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.