Seth wrote a great post the other day about two types of gnosticism.
He wrote about the charismatic gnostics who have special knowledge from God about people. Specifically, he told a story about being “ambushed” in the library by a group of folks claiming that God told them to pray for Seth.
He also wrote about academic gnostics who respond to claims about scripture or theology with their own expert knowledge: “actually, the text really says . . .”
Seth wants to know how we are to respond to these gnostics.
I made a comment on Seth’s blog, but I wanted to hash out my larger idea here.
Full disclosure: These days, I tend to be an academic gnostic. It’s makes some people afraid to talk to me about the bible/theology because I usually know more than they do. Used right, this knowledge enriches people in the life of love—the Way of Jesus. Used poorly, this is a way to boost one’s ego. I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of someone who knows a whole hell of a lot more than me about a scripture that I hold dear to my heart. I’m usually afraid of losing the precious meaning I have given to the scripture in the light of this person’s knowledge.
I also used to be a charismatic gnostic. I “received words” for people from God. They were almost always vague, general encouragements that—when couched in “thus sayeth the Lord” language—gave an impression of greater gravity and authority than they had. I never lied to people (I honestly believed that God had “put this on my heart” for others), but my reasons for attributing such encouragements to God’s supernatural activity as opposed to my own natural activity are murky at best. Just because a thought crossed my brain, or because a scripture came to mind, does not mean that God caused it.
These days, I am supremely uncomfortable around people who claim God has told them something specific. I don’t get it, I don’t think God acts in that way, and I think making the claim that God has told one something takes a lot of gumption.
Now, in light of this, how should we follow the Jesus Way?
I am not going to split this down the middle and say “both sides are equally wrong.” I hate that kind of reasoning to the center. The charismatic gnostic is worse because it makes unverifiable claims with certainty, while at least the academic gnostic can be debated on academic terms.
The problem with both approaches, though, is that they are unloving.
Seriously. If you are a stranger, and I didn’t ask for your insight into my life, then don’t offer it. That’s just rude, even if God “told” you too. Unsolicited advice is unloving even if it is true. And hiding behind “God told me to” to lend authority to your statement means that you are not required to take ownership of your beliefs or opinions. If you are a good friend of mine, one who knows me well, then your insight into my life is always welcome because I trust you, and I trust that you would not speak with certainty about the Holy Spirit unless you were certain. And, even then, I would trust you to have humility.
I have less of a problem with the academic gnostic because they tend to not run around confronting people with esoteric bits of theology or textual study. Nevertheless, in certain situations (especially on blogs or social media) they come out of the woodwork with their “the bible really says” knowledge. Maybe it does. But I don’t trust you because I don’t know you. And I certainly don’t trust that you have my wellbeing at heart. Again, if you are a good friend of mine, then I want your push back. I want your theology and your knowledge. And I trust that you will speak in humility and love.
St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that knowing all things or having faith to move a mountain or anything else does not matter if you have not love, and love requires one put aside oneself for the sake of another person. This means, among other things, treating other people as people and not projects or problems. People who know their life situation best. People who walk through life in a complicated way just like you. It means not coercing people with exaggerated claims of your knowledge. And it often means shutting up and giving people space.
Of course, we who are approached by the gnostics also must act in love. As I wrote in the comments on Seth’s blog:
My first inclination is to ask the Charismatic gnostic how they know (that it’s the Spirit, that they are hearing right, that God acts in such ways, etc), to maybe move the conversation into a dialogue. To place myself as the student/learner (while remaining discerning and self-confident) is productive, I think. The danger, of course, is asking the question sarcastically (just how do you KNOW?) rather than being genuine. I guess if I can’t be genuine, then a polite refusal might be best. Just because I think people have bizarre and/or dangerous theology does not mean that they are not my neighbors. None of us, I think, would respond to a religious person of another faith in a rude way. It doesn’t make it ok if the person is family, so to speak, though we are often rudest to our siblings and spouses.
My response to the academic gnostic (I happen to be one, more or less) is to affirm their academic expertise/knowledge while maintaining my essential belief that there are different kinds of knowledge–different epistemologies. Thus, I know that the OT is (historically) not concerned about Jesus himself, though I choose to read it through a christocentric hermeneutic. I affirm that this is revisionist, but that’s what I want. Or, to use another example, I have poetic and mystical tendencies. I practice Lectio Divina on occasion, and I know that the insights I gain from that practice are different than the insights gained from textual scholarship. Again, it’s about love of neighbor.