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The new gnostics

Gnosticism was a serious heresy that faced the early church. This teaching held that matter was evil, flawed and corrupt, whereas the spirit was good. Consequently, any action performed in the body was considered insignificant since the body and the physical world were of no consequence. This thinking traces its roots back to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught about an eternal world of ideas or forms which transcended the world of matter. The root word in gnosticism is the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.” Gnostics sought secret knowledge that would enable them to transcend the physical world into a higher spiritual plane. This view elevated the spiritual and led to a devaluing of the body and the physical world. The early church father, Irenaeus, wrote a book Against Heresies arguing against Gnosticism, which was associated with heretical teachings about Jesus and the nature of the incarnation.

Elements of Plato’s philosophy still persist in some Christian circles. We see this in attitudes which view church meetings and singing in the choir are somehow more “spiritual” and valuable than tending a garden or making a pot of spaghetti. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to a “world flight” mentality, one that separates the world into the categories of the “sacred” and “profane.” Associated with this is a view of heaven as an escape from the physical world, which will be annihilated in the end. During the rapture, Christians will be whisked away to the clouds where they will exist in a purely spiritual realm. In contrast, rather than discarding the physical realm, the Scriptures clearly teach that God will make all things new. In the end, God will establish a new heaven and new earth where will live forever in our resurrected physical bodies.

Tempting ‘perfection’
Now a new kind of gnosticism is starting to emerge. Our ever-present digital devices can distract and lure us away from the people and places that physically surround us. The appeal of social networking can displace the need for physical community, and electronic media can replace face-to-face conversation. The Internet also provides access to a curated world of perfect forms: pictures of perfect homes, perfect weddings and perfect vacations. Some people have immersed themselves into virtual worlds, complete with enhanced virtual bodies and virtual things that they can create and control. There are even virtual churches that offer online worship services that don’t require physical spaces or bodies.

As computers have become more powerful, many scientists are speculating that one day a computer will be able to replicate the human brain. They believe that once that happens, at a point in the future called the “singularity,” we will be able to “download” our brains into a computer and live forever. Technology will enable us to move beyond our physical limits and shed our imperfect and fragile bodies. The author and current director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, wrote “We don’t always need real bodies. If we happen to be in a virtual environment, then a virtual body will do just fine.” Sentiments such as these illustrate a new kind of gnosticism, but one where the higher knowledge or “gnosis” comes from neuroscience and engineering.

The recent celebration of Easter should remind us that God cares about our physical body, and Christ’s resurrection represents the firstfruits of “those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). We are not destined to live floating in an ephemeral state in the clouds, or in a computer for that matter. God is making all things new – new bodies along with a new heaven and a new earth. In the meantime, Christian organizations that are geared toward alleviating poverty and suffering are a testimony to how we value our physical bodies.

Irenaeus fought against the heresies of gnosticism by affirming that God created a world which was good. But even in our modern world, the ancient philosophy of Plato still captures our imaginations. Like Irenaeus, we need to oppose such thinking, also recognizing how our digital habits shape us and our relation to the physical world. The only true “gnosis” is not found through modern engineering, but a faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
 

Author

  • Derek Schuurman

    Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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