How Gnostic Is the God-Within Movement?

Ross Douthat, as I stated last Friday, believes that modern American Christianity has been co-opted by ancient Gnostic ideas. But his argument is actually better developed than that of many pop-evangelical apologists who make the same claim but with very little clear distinction.

Douthat writes:

The cult of the God Within owes a debt to the ancient Gnostics, clearly, but it takes their impulse in a more democratic and optimistic direction, shedding both the spiritual elitism woven into texts like the Gospel of Judas and the idea that the physical universe itself is corrupt and needs to be escaped. It accepts the Gnostic premise that we should seek after our divine spark, but it locates this spark both inside and outside the self. The human soul has God within it, but so does the entirety of the natural world as well (Bad Religion, 221).

I find myself in agreement with Douthat when he says that from Emerson to Elizabeth Gilbert, American God Within theology “blurs naturally into a kind of pantheism” (Bad Religion, 222). The appeal of this conception of God Within is sharpened by both materialism and scientism. The threat of global warming, which one can believe is true and demonstrable, has often led to a crusading spirit rooted in a view of the apocalypse linked to a specific set of “thou shalt nots.”  This important issue is thus framed in pantheistic and religious language. The enemy is always technology (which clearly does pose real threats). The answer is the God Within.

One of the more obvious problems with this pantheistic view is that radical atheists find great hope in it. Richard Dawkins, a strident opponent of Christianity, has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism” while Sam Harris has referred to this type of spirituality as “the rolling mystery of the world” (223). With endorsements like these we clearly have moved away from a faith remotely close to orthodox Christianity, which is Douthat’s central point arguing that we have become a nation of heretics. If the God of St. Augustine and Teresa of Avila is not radically different from the god of pantheism then Christianity has little to contribute to the nation or to its own membership. 

The greatest intellectual-popular promoter of this heresy is Karen Armstrong. (No relationship, so far as I know, except perhaps in our ancient Scottish border-rogue past!) Armstrong’s vision is to show how all religions share common themes (there is, of course, some truth to this). By this she wants us to understand that propositions of faith, or doctrines, are not the heart of any meaningful faith/religion. Armstrong rightly speaks of God by telling us that words could never adequately express his divine essence and being. Her great mistake, however, is to deny that there is a relationship between the personal God revealed in Jesus with actual divine revelation. Here is classic Armstrong: “There is no selfhood in the Trinity, Instead, there is silence and kenosis” (224). All I can say to this claim is: “Are you kidding me?” How could she draw such a conclusion from reading Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine? The answer is beyond the bounds of logic or human reason. I believe the great theologians would have said, “What on earth are you talking about Karen?”

So, if we accept Karen Armstrong’s view of history and religion today’s “mass-market spirituality doesn’t really represent a rupture with the deepest message of Christianity . . . it represents an attempt to take an insight that was historically the property of the faith’s greatest spiritual adepts–theologians, philosophers, mystics–and democratize it, popularize it, bring it to the masses” (225, italics are mine).

In a stroke of obvious insight Douthat says Karen Armstrong’s story is “provocative but frustratingly incomplete. Nothing she says is quite wrong” (225)! This is the nature of heresy. It is not so much entirely wrong as it is incomplete. Remember, it is a denial of the paradoxical nature of God and truth as understood in real orthodoxy. While Armstrong grasps the power of apophatic theology (the negative, or what we cannot know about God) she misses the true power and beauty of this type of classical theology by preaching a universal deity who is not the God of Christian teaching. Again, the nature of heresy is underscored by her ideas, ideas that have become so widespread.

But what is the point of all of this for my ordinary readers? Well, if our churches and ministers do not teach a robust and experiential Christianity the result will not be nothing but heresies that become more and more appealing. This is what has happened. Far too few of us understand the difference between the American God Within and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This loss is not minor. A parasitic set of ideas has found an ecclesial host. This parasite is false teaching and the host is the visible American church. This kind of mysticism, now very popular, is not Christian. It is, as Luke Timothy Johnson has argued, a kind of solipsism. Johnson concludes that: “Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming” (cited on 228). Much of what now passes for faith is the “self-grooming” of our emotional and spiritual life. The emperor has no clothes. The church has no power.

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