Are We Tacit Gnostics?
As a consequence of recently joining a history book club, yesterday I received a free copy of The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a compendium of the group of texts that launched the modern scholarly interest in Gnosticism. Key to Gnosticism is the disavowal of the body. The body is merely a prison for the soul, something to be transcended. As many others have noted, this view is at odds with historic Christian orthodoxy which affirms the value of the physical as a evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus. However, I wonder if we at times are still Gnostics at heart in the manner in which we treat our bodies? When we consistently deprive ourselves of bodily necessities like sleep, exercise, food, and recreation, or when we persistently indulge in harmful pleasures, we are demonstrating whether or not we truly value the body. I’m not saying that if you have ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper, or if you have eaten an entire quart of ice cream in one sitting then you are a Gnostic. There probably are legitimate places for both of those activities. What I am saying is we need to examine our unspoken assumptions that drive out actions. Do we really see value in our physical bodies? Or do we consider them merely a tool to be used or mistreated in order to accomplish our goal, whether it is a hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure, or the ascetic pursuit of an impressive degree?
A colleague recently told me a pithy statement that gets at the solution to this tacit Gnosticism. He said, “We were creatures before we were Christians.” That is, before we became followers of Christ we were physical beings, and once we experience the regenerating power of God, we remain physical beings, albeit with remarkably changed desires and outlooks. Part of the calling of being a “new man” in Christ is to care for this old body that is still very much a part of who we are. As Christians our highest calling is to glorify God. Doing so will at times necessitate what Paul called “beating our bodies” – sleepless nights, lack of food, rigorous discipline, and the like. However, let us remember as we do so that this calling to glorify God exists in the same book that emphatically affirms the goodness of our bodies. Persistent neglect of caring for the body might be a sign that our theology is not in keeping with that propounded in the pages of the New Testament, for the apostle who denied himself bodily pleasure in his labor for the church was also the one who showed concern for his young protégé’s health by telling him to take a little wine. I leave you with a couple of passages to ponder:
“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2)
“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18)