Earthen Bodies & Why Religious Feminists Hate Them

Written by Father Bill 1 Comment

Courtesy Robin PhillipsIs mainstream evangelicalism gnostic? Matthew Lee Anderson, in the introduction to his book Earthen Bodies, observes that it’s popular to think so. Certainly, the charge is not difficult to find (see Robin Phillip’s succinct survey)  and the idea was extensively developed by Phillip J. Lee in his 1987 work Against the Protestant Gnostics.  

Anderson, however, thinks the issue is more complex than, say, Phillip’s explanation. I confess to impatience with the first two chapters of Earthen Bodies, for Anderson’s analysis of the more complex issue is itself too complex by far and does not evince a lucid understanding of the malady he attempts to analyze.

But before I comment directly on Anderson’s first two chapters (an upcoming blog) I’ll revisit what Anderson passes over – that mainstream evangelicalism is gnostic – attempting a simple unpacking of that opinion as it relates to evangelical feminists. Mainstream evangelicalism is accurately judged to be gnostic, and such gnosticism is most clearly evinced in the religious feminism that infects mainstream evangelicalism today.

 What Does “Gnostic” Mean?

Wikipedia tells us that Gnosticism “is a scholarly term for a set of religious beliefs and spiritual practices common to early Christianity, Hellenistic Judaism, Greco-Roman mystery religions, Zoroastrianism (especially Zurvanism), and Neoplatonism.” Today, however, something can be called gnostic if it sufficiently resembles “the religious beliefs and spiritual practices” common to a grab-bag of religions in the First Century.

The problem with tossing the word gnostic around the room is this: First Century religions were a bewildering variation of concepts, convictions, and practices attached to gnostic religion and philosophy. Just as C. S. Lewis sought to expound a “mere Christianity” common to Orthodox, Roman, and Protestant variants of the Christian faith, so modern thinkers – when they use the term gnostic – usually point to at least two ideas fundamental to all gnostic thinking and belief.

 Mere Gnosticism

Mere gnosticism espouses these two basic ideas:

  • Spirit Good, Matter Bad or irrelevant; and
  • Knowledge is what saves.

There are additional ideas often found in gnostic thinking. However, let’s examine these two ideas in turn.

Gnosticism affirms a fundamental disconnect, if not an actual antagonism, between the material and the spiritual, with spirituality being good, materiality being less good or evil. Sometimes this opposition between matter ans spirit is expounded in complex religious myth such as Greco-Roman mystery religions. Other times (as in NeoPlatonism) gnosticism takes the form of esoteric philosophy.

How does spirit triumph over matter? It is through knowledge, and this is the second basic concept common to all forms of gnosticism. The spiritual triumphs over the material through knowledge of special (often secret) truths. The gnostic would seize on Jesus’ words – “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” – and claim Jesus as one of their own! Early “Christian” gnostics claimed to have special secret truth from Jesus or His disciples, which they dispensed to their own disciples. Paul warned his disciple Timothy against an early version of this error, telling him to avoid “the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Timothy 6:20). The entirety of 1 John is probably written to correct early gnostic encroachments into the belief of the congregations over which John ruled as bishop.

 Why is Religious Feminism Gnostic?

Religious feminism, known within the evangelical academy as egalitarianism (from French égalité, “equality”), is gnostic insofar as it rests on modern variants of the two basic ideas common to all gnosticism.

The matter/spirit opposition that characterizes gnosticism is found in religious feminism’s insistence that sex (a biological, material dimension to our being) is irrelevant to spiritual qualifications for church office, or for entitlement to various spiritual ministries within the Church. The notion of differing social roles assigned to the two sexes is particularly noxious to religious feminists. And their greatest outrage is focused on patriarchy, the arrangement of society that is not only ordered along sexual lines, but which vests leadership in males within marriage, family, church (for Christians) and the larger community.

For the feminist, whether secular or religious, the sexual body – the sexed nature which constitutes everyone either male or female – has no bearing at all, no significance at all as far as an individual’s capacity, entitlement, or success in any endeavor. Female soldiers? Of course! Stay-at-home Dads, supported by wives with corporate careers? Why not? Women elders, priests, bishops? How unjust and gospel-denying to contest this welcome development within Christendom!

 The Flawed Bible

The hostility found in modern religious feminism toward patriarchy raises an obvious question: how can one reconcile feminism’s hostility toward patriarchy with a Holy Writ that is patriarchal from cover to cover? The answer is found in the handy tools of postmodern deconstruction of sexist texts, including the Bible. Just how this project proceeds is a matter for another blog (or a whole book!). For now, it’s enough to say that this project has been underway with gusto within the evangelical academy since at least the mid-1970s.

So, today, mainstream evangelicalism has achieved a superficial,occasionally uneasy peace with the patriarchy of the Bible. Where the Scriptures cannot be deconstructed so as to dismiss its patriarchal warts, religious feminists do what sectarian Christians have always done – to cherry-pick their favorite passages, ignoring what can’t be deconstructed.

 Who cares?

Within BEAPerdom almost no one knows what gnostic means. Evangelicals usually hear it as some academic term that proves its user is educated (or that he can consult a dictionary). Religious feminists will correctly guess that gnostic is no compliment when applied to them by a patriarchalist. And, I’ve done so when discussing religious feminism with a religious feminist. “So what?” he retorted.

And, he’s got a point! It makes little difference to the religious feminist to find himself called a gnostic. It is no threat to him. He’ll not worry about the idea that he is a gnostic. It’s like calling him a booger man. Booger men and gnostics alike are irrelevant to what modern evangelicals think and do.

So, why go to any lengths to explain that religious feminists are modern-day gnostics? Isn’t it the same waste of time that it would be to explain that Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern-day Arians? Who cares that Jehovah’s Witnesses resurrect a heresy 1600 years old? Who cares if religious feminists today defend convictions condemned by musty old fathers of the Church?

 Who is the Church?

The answer, of course, comes down to this: who is the Church – those who, in Chesterton’s telling terms, are “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about?” Or is the Church, instead, a divine company and a divine captain, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners, and possessing the awful authority of a mob, which from the beginning was and still is the pillar and support of the truth?

The Church which sprang from our Lord’s side, the Church His Apostles founded, the Church which the Holy Spirit guided into all sorts of truth – including the nature of the sexes and their relationship to one another – that Church and modern religious feminists are, today, locked in a deadly serious struggle to claim the mantle of “Church” and “Christian.” It is a struggle as old as the First Century when exactly the same struggle raged over next five centuries, through the ecumenical Councils which articulated the faith of that Church concerning the person of our Lord and the Triune glory of God.  A millennium later, the Church is faced with the task of articulating the nature of the sexes and the way human sexuality is woven into the warp and woof of God’s plan of redemption.  How one understands manhood and womanhood, how one confesses and teaches and defends the Biblical revelation in this area is a gospel issue (yes, yes; this also needs to be unpacked in a later blog).

It will not do, therefore, to observe that it’s popular to say that mainstream evangelicalism is gnostic as if observing that some child in the crowd has a runny nose. Nor will it do to gloss over the gnostic character of so much that carries the name “evangelical” today, as if that were too simplistic an observation.

Yes, it is a observation that is simple to state, but it observes something as simple as a raging fever or a wound gushing life-blood. Long before complex analysis of evangelicalism’s infirmity is appropriate, emergency first-aide is required. And, even then first-aide demands a lucid apprehension of just what it is  that afflicts the body of Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Lewis   |  Wednesday, 05 October 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Well! this moves feminism out of the merely annoying category. If the church had confronted this 40 years ago and not just capitulated, perhaps our culture would not be so confused about “gender issues” and even gender numbers!
    Thank you for your post.

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