Gnosticism. Some of Its Beliefs, Practices, and Continued Influences in the World. Part VIII-2. The Christian Response.
“Every creature is constituted in being by the efficient cause, made to conform to the exemplary cause, and ordained to a purpose. Hence every creature is one, true, and good; limited, well-formed, and well-ordered; measured, distinguished, and weighted. Weight is an ordered inclination. This we say in general about every creature whether corporeal or incorporeal or composed of both qualities, as is the case with human nature,” St Bonaventure, Breviloquium. Trans. Erwin Nemmers (St Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1946), II-I.4.The world (and all that exists in it) is good by its nature. We are responsible for how we treat it. The privation of a good is what constitutes evil. We must be concerned about the world, not just because of the people who live on it will be affected by the degradation of the earth, but because the world itself is a created good with its own qualities and characteristics which God wants preserved. Anything less, either by deed or lack of deed, is sin. Indeed, the protection and care of the earth is a part of our common vocation, having been given this duty from God. “After creating the heavens, the sea, the earth and all it contains, God created man and woman. At this point the refrain changes markedly: ‘And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good (Gen 1:31).’ God entrusted the whole of creation to the man and woman, and only then – as we read – could he rest ‘from all his work’ (Gen 2:3),” Pope John Paul II, “Message for the World Day of Peace 1990” (Vatican: 1990), par 3.
Christians have long neglected the world because they still do not appreciate the role the world has in eternity. Gnosticism has had a great amount of influence here. While popular Christianity views eternity as a heavenly, spirit-only existence, prophecy indicates that the world and its inhabitants shall share in the eschaton with us. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD,” (Isaiah 65:25). Christianity has always understood that the incarnation affects not only us, but all existence, and the way to the eschaton is not outside the world we live in but with it as we all are transfigured in Christ. “The risen Christ is the fulfillment of the meaning, as prescribed by the Father, of man, history and the cosmos; and, therefore, the advance of the created world cannot be indifferent or foreign to this end. All that impels the cosmos toward the realization of its meaning, while remaining subject to its supernatural causality, must be integrated into the miracle of the supernatural order, of grace and redemption, the miracle of the resurrection of the body,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Some Points of Eschatology,” pages 255 – 277 in Explorations in Theology I: The Word Made Flesh. Trans. A. V. Littledale with Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 275. What we do in the world and with the world will be reflected in eternity. We cannot mistreat the world or its inhabitants. They are as related to us as we are to one another. And the whole cosmos shares a common end in Christ. He will look to us and judge us according to how well we have followed the dictates of the new law, the law of love; it demands the selfless giving up of ourselves for the sake of the kingdom of God instead of the selfish taking for ourselves anything we want from the world as an object for our sole pleasure.
This misunderstanding of our place in the world and our relationship with the world allows us to compartmentalize the world into different spheres of existence, and in each we only manifests an element of our personal existence, never its whole. We split up our allegiances, often allowing one aspect of ourselves to be seen with one, another aspect with another, but without any sense of actual unity behind our activity. We live in the world as a secular citizen one day, realizing we are of the world, but then we go to church on another, thinking ourselves as a spiritual entity and looking for the time when we have overcome the world and left it behind. Christian anthropology reminds us that the two must be one in order for a person to function appropriately. Just as Christ is not divided into two persons despite the fact he is fully man and fully God, so we are not to be divided into two persons, one, a temporal, limited person according to our physical being, the other an eternal, immortal person according to the spirit. “Man is essentially a historical being. His spirit comes to its fullness in time, in a single, irreversible curve that leads him through an uninterrupted succession of states, childhood, youth, maturity and age, though no one of these can assure attainment of the next. There is a definite logic in this sequence, though as Paul reminds us a certain alogical element is involved: death; time, as a rushing toward a final catastrophe, contain an element of futility, of nothingness, but this element itself is contained in a higher logic of grace in that God leans down over the abyss for which the creature, not the Creator, was responsible,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “God Speaks as Man” pages 69-93 in Explorations in Theology Vol. I: The Word Made Flesh. Trans. A. V. Littledale with Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 72. Our spiritual life and existence can only be all it should be when it is holistically united with our physical existence. “For if any one take away the substance of flesh, that is, of the handiwork [of God], and understand that which is purely spiritual, such then would not be a spiritual man but would be the spirit of a man, or the Spirit of God. But when the spirit here blended with the soul is united to [God’s] handiwork, the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God,” Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses. trans Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. ANF1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing), V-6.1. We must not split ourselves up into spiritual and physical entities, because when we do so, we will end up as schizophrenics with split personalities.
Too many Christians have forgotten these facts and have acquiesced to one or another Gnostic-influenced ideology. Probably the most popular one is to believe that the world’s existence is temporary and has no lasting value. Indeed, they think it will be annihilated, explaining why it has no place in the eschaton. Those think this do not believe that what they do to the world matters. Those who are vehemently anti-environmentalism and ridicule its goals clearly follow through with this error. Their eschatological vision is that our spirits will move on to eternity after giving up all worldly associations, especially their physical, bodily forms. Why then be concerned about the earth and its resources? And if the body is to be left behind, why be concerned about its welfare? One should only be concerned about the soul and its salvation. Everything else is secondary, and often gets in the way of evangelization. But this is contrary to how Jesus ministered, for he was concerned not only for the souls of his listeners, but for their physical well-being as well. He came to heal both soul and body. “Jesus does not proclaim this Good News of the Kingdom by word alone, but also by his actions, attitudes and options, indeed by means of his whole life and finally through his death and resurrection. His parables, his miracles, the exorcisms he works, all are related to the Kingdom of God which he announces,” Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, Dialogue and Proclamation. Vatican translation (Vatican: 1991), par. 56. Indeed, the healing of the body can be a sign that God is at work. “In the miracles of healing performed by the Lord and by the Twelve, God displays his gracious power over the world. They are essentially ‘signs’ that point to God himself and serve to set man in the motion toward God,” Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth. Trans. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 176. The body cannot be neglected for the sake of the soul, but neither can the soul be neglected for the sake of the body. The two go together. True salvation, true regeneration, is had when the body has become incorruptible, which is at the same time as when the person finds themselves united to God in Christ through the love of the Holy Spirit. “Whoever truly wishes to heal man must see him in his wholeness and must know that his ultimate healing can only be God’s love,” ibid., 177. This explains why Christian missions have never been merely about the proclamation of Christian doctrine, but have also been about meeting the physical needs of the people. Early Christian evangelization found its greatest fulfillment when the two were wedded together. People were converted to the faith because they saw the work of Christ in action. “Any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it. It is impossible to grasp the concept of evangelization unless one tries to keep in view all its essential elements,” Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi. Vatican translation (Rome: 1975), par. 17.
It’s easy to understand why the needs of the body cannot be met without the needs of the soul being met, but we must not forget that the needs of the soul cannot be met without the needs of the body being met. There is a psycho-somatic reciprocal relationship between the two. Sacramental theology realizes this and this is why there is always the need of some material element to the sacraments. The body and spirit are united and the sacraments work upon both levels; even the sacrament of unction of the sick is meant not only to effect physical healing, but also to alleviate the spiritual problems that come from such physical maladies. But it is by this that we can see that spiritual maladies can harm the body and physical maladies can harm the soul. The first is more typically recognized, the second, however, is far less understood. Yet the truth of the second is clearly observable. “Hunger and thirst, heat and cold, stuffiness and freshness, weariness and vitality, psychic sufferings and enjoyments—here is the domain in which our soul most clearly experiences its dependences upon the body. The domain of our physical self-feeling or life-feeling is that real foundation upon which our entire psychic life is built upon and which, as it sometimes appears (and as it is often revealed to be the case), the higher side of our psychic life wholly depends: our thought and moral relations to people, our views of the world and of life, our power in the sphere of intellectual and spiritual creativity. But precisely this foundation is wholly determined by external, bodily conditions, is grounded in the predetermined soil – the independent human will – of our bodily organization and the state of our environment,” S.L. Frank, Man’s Soul. Trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1993), 241-2. As a logical consequence of this, someone whose personal dignity has been squashed – be it by slavery, torture, poverty, or the like – will more often than not be physically weak, and in that physical state, their ability to process spiritual realities will be undermined. Who has time or the proper mental faculty to ponder deep religious questions – the kinds which continue to challenge even the brightest of us – when one is fighting to survive?