One reason unbelievers should really study the Faith

…is that the intellectual challenges the Faith has had to meet are often the same challenges unbelievers have to meet.

So, for instance, I recall a few years a Dominican priest I know who remarked that one researcher working on Artificial Intelligence was starting to realize that the work of St. Thomas was proving to be mighty helpful in confronting the problem of why AI keeps being stymied.

I don’t know enough about either Thomas or AI to comment intelligently (or artificially). But I do know enough about gnosticism to be able to say that this piece is spot on.

If you want to understand QANON or the MAGA Cult, you need to grasp that it is a resurgent form of one of the earliest Christian heresies: Gnosticism.

Gnosticism appeals to the human itch to believe that one is in possession of Hidden Knowledge, the owner of the Secret kept from the ordinary slob and vouchsafed only to the Special. In short, it appeals to the sin of Pride. Like all the deceits of the Devil, the Ape of God, it bears a superficial resemblance to the gospel. But it differs from it in this crucial respect. Jesus commanded his disciples that what they heard in the inner chamber they were to proclaim from the housetops, not keep secret. Gnostics were all about keeping things secret. Their Christian critics said, “Look, If you want to know what we believe, just ask us.” To be sure, they were cautious about their Faith so as not to get themselves and those they loved killed. But the secrecy was tactical, not essential. Whenever they could, they blabbed about it, as the book of Acts (and the martyrs who went to their deaths singing) makes extremely clear.

It will be interesting to see how a post-Christian culture copes with what is a supremely Christian heresy. It will also be interesting to see how Christians cope with it.

Gnosticism is interesting in no small part because the Church was able to triumph over it without the help of the state in the second and third centuries. And in a non-confessional state like the US, the Church is in a curiously similar boat to that of the Church Fathers of the second century.

If you want to read Gnosticism’s most doughty opponent, read Irenaeus and his Adversus Haereses. Lots of scholars thought he distorted their beliefs into strawmen to make them sound crazy. Then the Nag Hammadi library was discovered and it turned out he had been scrupulously and meticulously honest in describing gthe sundry sect and permutations of Gnosticism. Nobody suppressed Gnostic texts. They just stopped being copied for much the same reason books like Better Living Through Will Power went away: because nobody read them anymore.

Someday, the opponents of QANON will likewise be disbelieved about the batshit crazy things they fought. Meanwhile, for now, the opponents of QANON should really take a look at the ways in which the early fathers of the Church–still living in an Empire that did not distinguish them from the Gnostics–fought the Gnostics.

Short story: they did it with argument, truth, and reason, not swords. And so should Christians today, whose task is not only to defeat whackjob QANON heretics, but to bear witness to Normals seeking truth and finding only whackjob MAGA Qhristians.

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8 Responses

  1. I skimmed through Against Heresies back when deciding whether or not to be an Orthodox catechumen. I believe that was my tipping point. I also remember some really wacky stuff in there that the Gnostics believed.

  2. Thanks. I like the measured tone of the podcast. My oldest son sent it to me too. Way back in the early 90s a good spiritual director warned me about the chasing of the secret sauce.

    Secret sauce plus a steady diet of apparition after apparition –made more important than the gospel, and then topped with an ample garnishing of Catholic Calvinism makes for some seriously scary bat sh*t stew.

  3. The irony is that 18 years ago, a lot of these right-wing Christians were scoffing at Muslims for being so gullible as to believe someone’s unverified claim that an angel had appeared to him in private and told him God had anointed him as a prophet. (eg, “Muslims won’t take polio shots? Just tell them an angel says they have to”, that sort of thing).
    Now they themselves are swallowing whole in the “revelations” of some unverified random who has made patently false statements (eg, that JFK is still alive). And a lot are become anti-vaxxers – seems a well-greased path following their self-beclowning over the medical science of COVID.
    One tactic is to take a germ of truth and use it to prove that anything goes. “You think Ping Pong Pizza was untrue? well, Jeffrey Epstein was real!” (The equivalent of the Left’s “Don’t laugh at Farrakhan for saying the CIA invented AIDS to kill Black people, because the Tuskegee Expertiments and Henrietta Lacks”).
    One response that sort of works goes as follows:
    “You ever had a speeding ticket?”
    “Yeah, maybe, one or two. Or maybe three.”
    “So, if someone’s found dead near your home after a hit-and-run accident, the jury could convict you of vehicular manslaughter based on ‘well, that speeding ticket certainly happened’?”
    “Uh…”

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