My brother’s last move in our game of “Gnostic Chess” was a lengthy and well-reasoned attempt to undercut my original claim that the Evangelical Church (broadly construed) is influenced (implicitly) by Gnostic ideas. Jim attempts to ground the discussion historically and to bring clarity to our understanding of “Gnosticism,” both beneficial and informative moves.

However, my brother’s characterization of my position is faulty from the outset. In short, he insists on attacking a position I do not hold. He writes: Christians ought to believe in the resurrection of the body. But does failing to believe in the “literal” bodily resurrection–or to understand the subtleties, semantics, and implications of Tertullian’s position–make them Gnostics? The argument fails on lack of evidence and oversimplification.

My original wording was this: “The Gnosticizing of the Christian Church needs to end, and quickly. The body is at the center of Christian theology (see Paul) and the evangelical Church has forgotten it.” The language here is crucial: the statement implies that the evangelical Church has adopted (implicitly) attitudes and ideas that are more suited to Gnosticism than Christianity, and nothing more. This does not entail that my students are Gnostics.

What bearing does this clarification have? I am criticized for having an “oversimplified” view of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, as my brother points out, resists being reduced to one or two central tenets. Fundamentally Gnosticism centers around the body. To quote Wikipedia, Christ was then sent to earth in the form of the man Jesus to give men the gnosis needed to rescue themselves from the physical world and return to spiritual world. It is this impetus to escape matter or even to disregard it that produces the sort of lifestyle Wikipedia explicates: Christ was then sent to earth in the form of the man Jesus to give men the gnosis needed to rescue themselves from the physical world and return to spiritual world. My argument is that my students share this desire to escape physicality by treating heaven as “spiritual.” Notice the claim does not hinge on actual definitions or practices of Gnosticism–rather, it hinges on the Gnostic attitude toward the body. The branches of the Gnostic tree are united by their disdain of all things physical, and it is this disdain that seems to have crept into the evangelical church. Subsequently, the argument that I have “oversimplified” things is not relevant to my position.

As for your list of worship styles that are themselves corporeal, I agree that these are inherently corporeal. However, “kneeling” is not a widespread practice in the evangelical Church and the importance of it is almost NEVER given theoretical grounding. When people are not given the right reasons for a practice, there is a danger (perhaps even a tendency) to adopt the wrong ones. The lack of theological education by the evangelical Church has made its members more prone to adopt anti-Christian attitudes.

At any rate, you asked for specific ways in which the resurrection of the body would matter to a Christian. Let me clarify what I think about worship: if the physical body is given its appropriate position in Christian theology, then a form of worship will develop that will be overtly and intentionally corporeal. Hence the traditional liturgical approaches to worship. If not given prominence, then “corporeality” will be incidental to the worship (i.e. there because it can’t be escaped) and will not form the context or basis of worship. This is the charge against the evangelical Church. Again, attitudes, attitudes, attitudes. The Christian difference toward the body is one of attitude.

Finally, to the charge that my argument suffers from a “hasty generalization,” I answer thus: it is surely a generalization but is most definitely not hasty. The immediate cause of my musings was my experience of my 16 students. The fact that NONE of them took the body seriously surprised me, but perhaps it probably shouldn’t have. I’m not sure what sort of empirical evidence I could marshall for this claim, for as I’ve stated, the practices of Christianity will not be limited to Christianity. I don’t see how empirical evidence could prove the case one way or another. Of the twofold practices of “Gnosticism”–asceticism and disregard–the evangelical Church has clearly adopted the latter. My students had never thought about the role of the body in the spiritual life. For evangelicals, the body (and sex and Creation) are irritants that we’ll be free of once we reach “heaven.”

One final piece of evidence, though: if the corporeal world is to be redeemed, then the corporeal world matters and may provide some sort of knowledge of the next life. Grace doesn’t destroy nature–it perfects it. This seems grounds for also placing a high value on aesthetics–physical beauty can help us acclimatize ourselves to heaven, and subsequently has a place in worship. This aesthetic approach to spirituality (again, not limited to Christianity!) is itself inherently physical. Beauty is a pleasure of the eyes. I take as further evidence of the Gnosticizing of the evangelical church their disavowal of all things aesthetic, especially in their worship. Iconoclasm and anti-physicalism go hand-in-hand. See Calvin (who is just a tad disparaging toward the physical body) for an instance of these tendencies.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.