It likely takes an updated form of Gnosticism to complete the post-modern Christian world view. For, post-modern Christianity by itself offers only the negation of religious truth as divine revelation conveyed by the objective truth of human language. That is, post-modern Christianity has the power to destroy Scriptural revelation, but is powerless to replace it with an alternative. That’s where Gnosticism, with its subjective truth carried by a “secret knowledge” elite comes into play.
As I’ve previously stated, the number of actual Gnostics is likely relatively small. However, as with post-modernism, many people can be strongly influenced by its ideas without realizing the source, or, even knowing of its existence.
The best way to explain the last point is by example. Please note that I am not accusing either of these ministers of being Gnostic. Rather, I am pointing out that their stated positions may well be best explained by the influence of Gnostic ideas. From the point of view of results it makes little difference if the motivation of Gnostic or not. Of course, from the point of view of theological integrity it does make a difference.
Emergence of the “Secret Knowledge” Elite?
In order to delve deeper into this mindset, review the PCUSA web article titled “What’s next? NEXT Church gathering explores what PC(USA) is becoming.” Here, the Rev. Jessica Tate speaks to the NEXT Church national gathering about both the church’s current struggles and the process to determine “what’s next.”
The Rev. Tate uses the Biblical account of the Annunciation as the starting point for hew sermon on “what’s next.” In her telling, “The story was made possible because someone — Mary — said yes.”
From an orthodox Reformed theological point of view this is a profoundly erroneous statement. The sovereign LORD God, the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not dependent on human assent for His will to be done. I will not here delve into the perplexing issue of human free will versus God’s acts of providence. Rather, I will simply point out that the orthodox Reformed understanding of this dichotomy does not allow for the necessity of human cooperation for God’s will to be done (see paragraph 6.012 from the Westminster Confession in “Counting Equality with God a Thing to be Grasped”).
Thus, when the Rev. Tate elevates Mary’s position to that of a necessary enabler of God’s will, she also elevates human will as a means by which God becomes Incarnate. Mary’s key contribution is described as inhabiting the “space of radical availability to God.”
Why would the Rev. Tate invest so heavily in Mary’s presumed power as an enabler of the Incarnation? The answer is found at the end of the talk, starting around minute nineteen (total length is 19:36).
To you this day a savior is born Christ the Lord. Did you hear that? It’s so familiar I don’t know if we hear it. Don’t be afraid. Because when you enter that uncertain creative space that allows God’s unexpectedness to happen, salvation is born. That’s the promise, that’s the true hope. To you, today, a savior is born. Not 2000 years ago, not far far away in Bethlehem, but to you today a savior is born. God is with us; prepare to be surprised. Amen
What is the stated prerequisite for salvation to be born? It is that human beings “enter that uncertain creative space that allows God’s unexpectedness to happen.” And, in particular, the human beings at this NEXT Church gathering: “Not 2000 years ago, not far far away in Bethlehem, but to you today a savior is born. God is with us; prepare to be surprised.”
Obviously, the Rev. Tate is not referring to an actual physical incarnation when she speaks of a new salvation being born at this gathering. However, isn’t it likely that she envisions that the “creative space” of this gathering will create an “adaptive change” in how we understand Jesus Christ that will enable what’s next?
There are numerous benign explanations for the Rev. Tate’s elitist rhetoric. However, there’s something arrogant, unseemly and ultimately narcissistic about comparing the experience and purpose of a conference to that of Mary. An analogue would be, as I write these words, to imagine myself comparable to the Apostle Paul – which would be an absolutely fantastic and absurd conception. Were we to seek a justification for this level of elitism, the influence of Gnosticism would be a good fit.
Echo of the Demiurge?
The Rev. Shawna Bowman is a prominent, influential member of the Presbytery of Chicago. She is the pastor at Friendship Presbyterian Church and an artist. The Rev. Bowman has preached at a Presbytery Assembly, represented the Presbytery at the “What is Marriage, Why does it matter?” event at the April 2014 Assembly meeting and presented at the 2014 Next Church National Gathering (the PCUSA article excerpted above was about the 2013 Next Church National Gathering). I am not acquainted with her, but she appears to be a creative, caring, prolific and intelligent individual. The Rev. Bowman is also deeply engaged in Scriptural study and interpretation.
Therefore, when the Rev. Bowman openly discusses her understanding of God, we should pay close attention. She does just that in a sermon titled “Unbinding,” posted on her web site on September 16, 2013. The sermon topic was that terrible, fraught Biblical incident in which God instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
As the Rev. Bowman struggles to understand and communicate the meaning of this event to her congregation, she uses a statement by one of her friends. This statement is not in the slightest questioned or corrected. Rather, it is presented as a particularly wise, perceptive thought. The paragraph in question is excerpted below (bolded text, not in the original).
These prophets show how complex our story of God is, but they also give us permission to not only see the way in which the people of God change but how God might be changed by the people… a friend of mine suggests that it is God that learns something in this story, “God learns that God’s capable of wounding God’s loved ones, even though God was sure it was the right thing to challenge and grow Abraham’s faith in this dramatic way.” He says, “Maybe God finally learned how fragile people are, and how little God knows about them, maybe it’s events like these that makes God finally determine to, ultimately, simply become one of us.”
Note that the ellipsis (…) at the beginning of this section is not there to indicate that I have removed text. Rather, it is in the original as a connecting mechanism from the Rev. Bowman’s observation about “permission” to the suggestion of her friend.
And so to what does this presumed “permission” to contemplate “how God might be changed by the people” lead? Here it clearly leads to a very low conception of God. First, note that it is God who is the learner in this story. The first thing that God “learns” is that He is capable of wounding His loved ones. Apparently the Flood in Genesis 6-8 had not sufficiently registered upon God’s mind. He is also found to be mistaken by testing Abraham in this manner. Though His intentions had been good, He erred terribly in turning these intentions into actions.
No wonder then the air of exasperation with this dimwitted God, who “finally” learns that people are fragile. I’m confident that these individuals are not young earth creationists. However, even if we make this assumption (to be the most charitable), this phrase is saying that God had not learned in thousands of years what most human beings are capable of learning in well less than a lifetime!
And so, what can happen if we assert a “permission” to teach God, to find in Scripture “something deeper, something more true,” even if that something contradicts the very words of Scripture? Here, we find that it leads to a conception of God so low that it is an act of human generosity to deign equality between ourselves and Him.
Once again, there are numerous benign explanations for this conception of God. However, isn’t it also true that the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge is an excellent fit? The main difference is that the old concept of an evil god has been updated to make this god a pathetic victim who is in need of our help to save him from his idiotic errors.