“The Long Slow Victory of Gnostic over Catholic Christianity”

There’s a fascinating interview with John Dominic Crossan about his new book In Search of Paul over at the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture (via Michael Pahl at the stuff of earth). The section that caught my attention has Crossan commenting on the direction Christianity has taken since the early 20th Century into an apolitical gnosticism. His critique has particular relevance in the current climate of violence and empire.

“Let me put it in a larger framework. One thing that I noticed in researching for this book is that way back in the beginning of the last century, 1907, two different scholars, a British scholar named William Mitchell Ramsay and a German scholar named Gustav Adolph Deissmann, got on a train and a boat and a horse and went around the Pauline sites and saw the inscriptions that say that Caesar Augustus was divine, was the son of god, was god, was lord, was redeemer, was savior of the world. They saw all that and they said, as it were: Oh, my God! That is what it’s all about! They saw that when Jesus was called by those same titles it was not simply the result of picking up the cultural debris of his contemporary world. It was saying, in effect: these are the titles of Caesar, but we refuse them to Caesar and assign them instead to Jesus. They were not simply applying to Jesus ordinary words in everyday language. So in 1907 these scholars saw the implications. But instead of the twentieth century building a theology on this realization – which of course would have been one-hundred percent political and one-hundred percent religious, something capable of pointing to that deep basis where religion and politics coincide – we went off into existential demythologization and it was the last thing the twentieth century needed. We went into a kind of personalized, existentialized individualism when what we needed was the kind of powerful political/religious understanding of Christianity authentic to the first century. I’m not even talking about an application of it. I’m just talking about seeing what was there, seeing why Jesus was crucified, seeing that the Romans got it right. That’s part of what I see happening right now. On the one hand we have – though they are only straws in the wind at the moment, they are big straws in a big wind – a growing insistence on the political and religious implications of Christianity. I’m extremely excited. This is not just talking politics but talking about what Jesus called the kingdom of God, what Paul called the Lordship of Christ, which is simply a way of saying who is in charge of the world. And counterpointed with this I find a Gnosticism that coalesces magnificently with American individualism – inside not outside, religion not politics, spirituality not religion – everything that makes the whole thing Gnostic and safe.”

Spot on! I work in an ignatian spirituality Centre where our aim is to get those two journeys to coalesce, inward and outward, so that spirituality is oriented to the world, to politics, to life and ceases to be safe.

5 replies on ““The Long Slow Victory of Gnostic over Catholic Christianity””

  1. One of my blog-friends is a Protestant Pentacostal guy. He’s always been uncomfortable with the term ‘social justice’ because it puts a political twist on religion. For me, it’s just natural that my Catholicism affects the world I move in – politics being part of that world.

    I wonder, how much of this is like a pendulum swinging? I’m also reading about church history, and in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance the church was probably too intertwined with politics. Can society find a balance?

  2. Hi Steve – I liked your blog post the other day on the missing angel :-).

    About combining politics and religion, I belong to a site with a politics forum – most of the members are not christians (and many aren’t american) and most of them are somewhat horrified by the intermingling of religion and politics … Bush and the religious right being an example of that idea gone wrong.

  3. I agree with both your comments–there’s a pernicious way of mixing up religion and politics, whether its Christendom of the Middle Ages or the right-wing religion of the American Empire. Jesus faced his own version of politicized religion and criticized it powerfully enough to have it murder him. How do we hear the message of Jesus as both religious and political and respond in a way that makes us similarly irritating?

Comments are closed.