Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Existential Drift

There are as many definitions of existentialism as there are philosophers, but to be noted here is the negative view on reason and science. Existentialism is first and foremost about addressing a cognitive and emotional crisis in Western thought.

It was around 1990 when I became aware of the similarities between certain practices of the contemporary evangelical church and traditional Gnosticism. Gnosticism majors on the dualist belief that in a superior spirituality God is known through an initiation into the inner light of an inexpressible intuitive knowledge, or "gnosis". With the coming of the 1994 Toronto Blessing the similarities between traditional Gnosticism and the new big experience of God became all the more clear. When I look back today I marvel at how slow I was on the uptake; I'd been a Christian for over 15 years before I made this connection! One of the essays where I documented some of my thinking can be picked up from this post. Another essay on the subject can be downloaded from this post

I'm glad to see, however, that I'm not the only one who has made the gnostic connection of some modern manifestations of Christianity. After an all too favorable article in the January edition of Premier Christianity magazine on the excesses of a church specialising in bizarre manifestations such as trance states, angel feathers and gold dust clouds I was pleased to see that the March edition of the magazine carried three negative responses on the letters page (with no other responses on the subject). One letter in particular piqued my interest and I reproduce it below:

Andy Peck finds only one aspect of Bethel's theology troubling. But Bill Johnson does not believe that Jesus was both human and divine. He therefore denies the basic Christian message of the cross.
Examples of his typically gnostic search for esoteric knowledge to gain redemption proliferate.
Johnson misquotes scripture and texts taken out of context in a manner that denies the foundations of the Christian faith; Jesus is subordinated  to God, and the gross heresy  of  'experience' , whatever the source, is elevated over truth.
Cynthia Walker.

Now, I haven't studied Johnson's theology, but I find the reference to gnosticism very interesting. Also of interest to me is that the letter is an example of the tendency of Christians (understandably enough) to use the crucial doctrine of the God-head as a faith testing shibboleth. However, I myself I'm inclined to be generous with people's attempt to over-clarify the doctrine of the Trinity in terms that fit in with their perceptions but which so often end in grief; after all the doctrine is notoriously vague and the temptation to clarify it is immense. But the real trouble comes when the new "clarification" (if such it is!) is pushed as yet another literalist shibboleth, rather than its true status as a limited human metaphor which to a greater or lesser extent assists in an understanding of the Godhead. In any case it seems the wisest course is to leave the doctrine as a cluster of contrasting metaphors, else someone is bound to shout "heresy" at the hapless clarifiers! So lets be generous about the weakness of the human mind and its need for sometimes crass metaphors that are often taken too literally. But in the case of Bethel I suspect its gnosto-spiritual elite are unlikely to return generosity for generosity so Cynthia Walker's condemnation is probably well deserved!

 A generalised form of gnosticism seems to be a Christain way of attempting to get an existential fix for an existential crisis and that crisis traces back to a crisis in Western thought.  Hence, I have framed this post with references to existentialism. Recently I have found myself corresponding on the existentialist drift in churches and the creeping existential "fix" of gnosticism found in many contemporary Christian circles. For the record I reproduce that correspondence below:


Like many other evangelical churches [our church] is skewed toward the existential belief that authenticity and truth are found in experience rather than in narrative. Hence, there is a spiritual premium placed upon intimate, sublime and deeply intuitive encounters with God.  There is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, but it’s all a question of right balance.  At its most extreme this malady can turn into fully blown Gnosticism. Gnosticism seems to be an extreme religious response whereby the heart turns in on its self as it fails to come to terms with or make sense of the puzzling and alienating narratives that explain, or fail to explain, the world beyond. It thus seeks solace and escape in its inner life and that’s where it believes revelation will largely be found. For the extreme existentialist only experiential truth is relevant.

There is an existential drift in many Western churches today that probably has come about, I guess,  because strong existentially satisfying narratives no longer exist for many Westerners. Hence there has been a retreat into a more esoteric experience based faith among Christians because this seems to address the existential crises that  many Western minds face, post  Copernican revolution. Conceivably it is this existential drift that is helping to drive Western dualism, the bugbear of mission in Africa.

Many mainstream Christians are completely unable to detect the "Gnostic" drift of many Western charismatically orientated churches because for them it's just normalcy. But evidence that it has a strong perspective element perhaps could be gained from a probing to contact with the Strict Baptist Chapel just over the road from us. They are part of the ultra-traditional evangelical reaction against existentialism and as a church they are as culture specific as any African indigenous Church! They eschew the experience based existentialism of many mainstream churches. and have reacted strongly against it by resort to very authoritarian narratives and doctrinal formulae.

The above really outlines the existential crises in Western thought. Unless the existential crises is fixed the outcome may be nihilism and extreme postmodernism in the secular case. For the religionist an escape is sought in gnosticism and fideism; basically an escape into the inner life, with the promise of a sublime inner life intimacy with God.

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