The Ends of Contemporary Gnostic Thinking

Extensive tattoos and multiple skin piercings amaze most people over sixty. Yet there seems hardly a word of critique of these body deformations in journals. Thinking about Gnosticism, I suspect that this ancient philosophical aberration has given rise to the current exotic fashion. Would that its influence had started and stopped there! Instead, it seems that reinvented Gnosticism has racked up intensely more injurious effects. By examining a few gnostic principles, I want to show its detrimental legacy in contemporary life. Baby boomers are justly alarmed by the showcasing of the body, and outraged by other developments.

Early Gnosticism
Gnosticism is a generic name for a group of philosophical and religious systems that grew up around the same time as Christianity. Basically, it held that humans are saved by a secret gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism did not start within the Church, but its similarity to Christian faith allowed for its adoption in Christian circles.

Our faith is often taken as a kind of knowledge to which we give assent in order to be saved. It is this, of course, and much more. But it was likely the Christian repudiation of sexual promiscuity, mistaken by Gnostics as a denial of the body, that allowed the heresy to gain a foothold in early Christianity.

Complementing their theory of salvation via a secret knowledge, most Gnostics believed that spiritual creation is good, while material creation is inherently evil. This way of thinking is sometimes termed “dualistic” because it opposes the two orders, leaving adherents with a fundamental choice. Either they shun the material world, especially their own bodies, or face damnation. Church Fathers saw here a denial of the salvation won by Christ’s bodily death on the cross, and of the efficacy of the sacraments.

Disregard for material creation did not mean that early Gnostics necessarily spurned sexual activity. Although some groups promoted asceticism by foregoing marriage, others were ambivalent about sex. They claimed that the best way to show contempt for the body is to ignore the rules of morality. For this reason, St. Irenaeus ridiculed Gnostics for sexual licentiousness. He wrote, “…the ‘most perfect’ among them do unafraid all the forbidden things of which the Scripture tells us that ‘they who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’”

At heart, here is the gnostic understanding of the mind-body relationship. It held that because the mind is spiritual, and opposed to the material body, it does not really matter what persons do with their bodies. All that is ultimately important is their thinking. If they think correctly, they will be saved.

Gnosticism had a revival during the Middle Ages, especially in southern France and northern Italy. Forming different sects—the Cathari, Albigensians, and Waldenses being the chief ones—followers practiced a distorted form of evangelical life. They largely rejected the Old Testament, and saw the sacraments of the Church, especially marriage, as useless. Medieval Gnostics, however, seem to have been more consistent than their predecessors in their abhorrence of sex. In any case, Pope Innocent III called a crusade against the Cathari in the thirteenth century which eventually all but eliminated them. The preaching and evangelical example of Dominican and Franciscan friars were also determinative in their virtual extinction.

Contemporary Gnosticism
Recently Catholic scholars have noted a mutated form of gnostic dualism emerging in contemporary society. Princeton philosopher, Robert George, sees many people having a gnostic disposition. Because social liberals justify abortion and same-sex marriage with a gnostic conception of reality, Professor George labels the current mindset “gnostic liberalism.”

Gnostic liberalism does not abhor material reality as most previous forms of Gnosticism did. But it does see a mind-body split in the human person. with pre-eminence belonging to the mind. It becomes the true self, and the body is relegated to instrumental status. This is to say that to neo-Gnostics, the mind is more than the person’s control center; rather, it encapsulates the person herself or himself. If it is not processing information into thought, the person—they say—does not exist.

Practically, this way of thinking has deadly ramifications. Since an embryo, a fetus, and even an infant cannot think like an older person, they are not technically human persons, and are subject to elimination. Demented people also have lost their human status, along with their judgment, and may be killed or, as is sometimes said, “euthanized.”

Gnostic thinking plays a role in the debate over gender assignment, as well as in same-sex marriage. Since the mind is the determining factor, it assigns the person’s gender. If a woman thinks of herself as a male, then she is a male, according to gnostic logic. One’s chromosomal makeup is secondary, no more than a pointer, which can be misleading. For this reason, contemporary Gnostics encourage people of the same biological sex to marry civilly if they wish.

The Mind—Body Duality
The Judeo-Christian conception of the human person markedly differs from the Gnostic version. We believe in the goodness of material creation, although we recognize that its perfection is readily compromised. We further see the mind (or soul) and body, as integral parts of the human person. Each serves the other, something like lyrics and music make up a song. When we hum the tune of “Amazing Grace,” we search for the words so that we might sing the song. Just so, the body is lost without the soul, and vice versa.

Forming a dynamic duality (and not a dualism), body and soul co-exist until death. At that moment, they are said to separate with the spiritual soul surviving because it is not constituted of corruptible matter. The body disintegrates until—we believe—it will be resurrected by Christ on the last day. At that time, the human person will be reintegrated in a glorified way, never to experience either imperfection or corruption again.

Most critical here is the fundamental part the human body plays in a human life. Vitalized by the soul, the human body becomes, in a real sense, the human person. When it comes into existence—generally recognized today as at the moment of conception—human life begins. When it ceases to function, human life ends. The body provides the soul means to experience its environs, to translate intake into knowledge and wisdom, and to communicate both ideas and affections. It is fair to say, as biblical scholars often do, that the human person is as much an animated body, as it is an enfleshed soul.

The latter description, however, has been given preference in Catholic theology because it better accommodates the tradition’s understanding of the person as an image of God. We see ourselves as God-like in that we can think and choose freely. This capacity, however, does not make us autonomous subjects in the sense that we are individuals who rule ourselves implicitly. We are subject to Divine Law, especially in its rational manifestation—natural law. The precepts derived from natural law tell us what not to do and, to a lesser extent, what we must do. Regarding our bodies, they forbid us from mutilating them, and command us to care for them.

Abuses of the Body
Still some, acting as autonomous subjects, treat their bodies as if they were instruments of personal utility. They see their bodies much like clothes, once used as insulation protecting wearers’ modesty and warmth, but now frequently employed as playbills reflecting personal whims and designs. They do not see the body’s uniqueness, which now can be identified in one’s genome, as integrated with the soul to express a concrete instance of human life. Thus, they fail to appreciate their bodies as who they are, as surely as their minds give them identity. The artist Michelangelo never made this mistake. He was able to craft such magnificent figures, as the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica, because he recognized that the human body is the material correlative of what one author calls “God’s supreme organic creation.”

Most people mistreat their bodies, at least a little. We eat to excess, refuse to exercise, and/or deny ourselves sleep. These are old abuses resulting mainly from a lack of virtue. They are being supplemented and, indeed, overshadowed by the more direct attacks on the body, reflective of gnostic thinking mentioned above. Those, however, are not the only detrimental effects of Gnosticism today.

Something about tattoos has perplexed me for years. I am edified by stories of Coptic Christians who tattoo crosses on their arms as a way of demonstrating their lifelong commitment to Christ in a Muslim culture. And I would not criticize other modest tattoos expressing devotion to a person or a cause. But when I see them covering a whole arm, or the whole upper torso, I am taken aback with pity. I imagine their bearers, sooner or later, getting out of bed in the morning, pining: “What made me do this to myself?” It seems to me that the person has submitted to the gnostic impulse of instrumentalizing the body. His or her body has become a canvass on which the person expresses the whims of a moment, but regrettably in a permanent way.

Cremation poses another way of mistreating or abusing the body. Granted that a dead body is technically not a human body, the corpse still resembles the human life that was present. The rush to render it into ash seems to me an impulse to deny its significance. Although it is said that cremation is done for economic reasons, I wonder if there is something deeper at play. Ashes, however nicely they are packaged, are no more representative of the deceased than sea sand. Moreover, the Christian custom of burying the dead, with head facing the rising sun, pointedly demonstrates the hope for the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Cremation was long forbidden in the Church because it was considered a way of denying this central Christian belief. For practical reasons, the Church has had to modify its opposition. Still bringing the “cremains” into church, sprinkling them with water, and reminiscing over them on the life of the deceased, seem slim gestures in comparison with traditional funeral rites. Moreover, the long tradition of venerating relics of saints, speaks to the significance of the dead body.

Cremation may well reflect one’s sense of domination over, rather than integration with, her/his body. This seems more than the will wanting its own way. It appears to me as the mind asserting that the body has no ultimate importance, that it is but a shell containing the real person. Yes, cremation makes life simpler in practice for everyone, but that is the point. It tends to overlook the mind-body duality with the unorthodox claim that with death, the soul becomes a free agent that may go wherever, and do whatever, it pleases.

Gnosticism easily fits into postmodern culture. Its lack of attention to moral norms corresponds to the destructuralism that characterizes many current thinkers recognized as being on the cusp. Its ambivalence regarding the body that both exalts in corporal pleasures, and refuses the body’s role in determining one’s destiny, reflects popular contemporary values.

The central flaw of current gnostic thinking was unmasked by Pope Benedict’s analysis of eros and agape in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (2005). The former pope promoted bodily love, but not in an unbridled way. He observes, “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity.” Benedict goes on to challenge the gnostic view: “Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility.” This nobility represents an exalted love in which human persons forsake dominance and, primarily, self-gratification. Rather they experience, agape, Christ’s love for his followers, characterized by joy, mutuality, and abiding assurance.

Our bodies are good and beautiful. Integrated with the mind or soul, they make up who we are. We are to take special care for them. Even after death, when they begin to disintegrate, they retain value. Very importantly, we should resist the gnostic way of relativizing the body, of making it an instrument for our pleasure or convenience.

Fr. Carmen Mele, O.P. About Fr. Carmen Mele, O.P.

Fr. Carmen Mele, O.P., (Padre Carmelo) is a bilingual preacher who hails from Chicago, IL. He recently finished a tenure of nine years as director of the lay ministry formation program for the Diocese of Fort Worth. Thirty-seven years ordained, he has served as a parish priest, a missionary, a diocesan promoter of peace and justice, and a catechist. He lives in St. Albert the Great priory in Irving, Texas on the campus of the University of Dallas.


  1. […] The Ends of Contemporary Gnostic Thinking […]