CHAPTER FOUR HETERODOXY IN TODAY’S CHRISTIANITY
I. THE DISSOLUTION IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
In 1500 the European world was beginning to see social, political, and scientific revolutions that wrought radical transformations. Besides the factors we have already mentioned, such as the power of the printing press and the learning of the Renaissance, there was even the discovery of new continents to explore, conquer, civilize, and evangelize.
The single event which marked the beginning of a new, and still current, era in the history of Christianity and, to a great extent, of the entire world was Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517. The Protestant movement within the Christian Church was at least as profound and extensive as any split that took place in Christianity before the sixteenth century. It quickly had world-wide repercussions, whereas the split between the Eastern churches and the Western, or Roman, churches had affected but one continent. The variety of doctrines and practices in the earlier division was small compared with that of the second.
We must, however, not forget the Christian Church’s struggles of the first fourteen centuries to define orthodoxy. The defeated Gnosticism and Dualism were complex; they rested on philosophical and historical foundations from numerous diverse European and Asian cultures, but they were effectively gone from the scene by Martin Luther’s time. At this point the evolution of the Christian religion, and in particular the Western Church, had been like a multi-strand rope. Before the sixteenth century many of the strands had withered away or had been cut off, so that there remained only one. In the sixteenth century, however, the rope again became multi-strand.
The initial challenge of the Protestant Reformation, the theme of the 95 Theses posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg for disputation, was the sale of indulgences. Entrepreneurial clerics obtained from the pope indulgences as if they were commodities, and distributed them throughout Christian lands for a price. Without, at that time, calling for revolution, Luther complained vigorously about the pope’s handling of the matter. The lively imagery of Thesis 27, however, ”They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” indicates that there were weightier matters at stake. The accusation that the Church of Rome did, indeed, preach human doctrine, soon expanded far beyond the matter of indulgences And so it was that only 13 years later, in 1530, the German states were divided from one another, and most of them were separated from Rome; by 1534 Henry VIII had made himself the head of the Christian Church in England; and by 1536 John Calvin had published the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Consensus on religious matters was blown away. “The Reformation,” writes Thomas Max Safley, “included a cacophony of voices and a multitude of texts that questioned and addressed the entire range of Christian teaching and life … It seemed that the entire Christian religion had come suddenly under assault, or, viewed from the perspective of those seeking change, opened finally to renewal.” (Safley 2011, 3)
It is not the task of the present study to pursue the historical unfolding of the new era in Western Christianity; rather, our question is, what was orthodox, what was heterodox, and what was heretical in this movement? In consequence of the movement, what do virtually all Christians of the Western tradition believe? What significant variations are there among Western Christians regarding these beliefs? and what beliefs are there among people of Western traditions that cannot be called Christian, although some, or even many, aspects of them are Christian? To answer these questions it helps to know the differences between a creed, which is a statement of the basic Christian belief, common to virtually all Christisns, a confession, which is a statement of the interpretation of the creed shared by segment of the Christian population, and a denomination, which is an organizational unit of congregations that share a confession.
In the second chapter of this work we observed that the early councils of the Christian Church settled basic matters about God, about Jesus, and about our relationship to God. These decisions were worked into creeds, the first of which, that of the Council of Nicea in 325, slightly revised by Second Council of Constantinople in 381. Termed the Nicene Creed it has been adopted by virtually all Christian bodies, West and East, ever since. If there is any basic statement of the Christian faith, it is this, although one of its assertions, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father, was, as we noted earlier, a problem. We place here for reference a copy of the English translation of it found in the Lutheran Book of Worship and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, courtesy of www.creeds.net.
We believe in one God,
The Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
Of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
True God from true God,
Begotten, not made,
Of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven:
By the power of the Holy Sprit
He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
And was made man.
For our sake he was crucified uder Pontius Pilate;
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
And is seated at the righthand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
And his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come. Amen.
The degree of adherence of Americans to the Nicene Creed is shown by recent studies:
In the 2008-2009 wave of the U. S. Congregational Life Survey, 94 percent of evangelicals, 91 percent of Catholics and 78 percent of mainline Protestants said Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was an actual event, said three-quarters of the more than 25,000 respondents to congregational surveys offered by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research from 2004 to 2010. Most of the participants were mainline Protestants.
More than two-thirds of Christian respondents, including 84 percent of black and evangelical respondents, strongly agreed with the statement, “Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead,” According to the Portaits of American Life Study.
(“Knowing where they stand: Belief in resurrection central to religious identity across Christian landscape.” By David Briggs in www.thearda.com, April 5, 2012.)
Certain basic doctrines were shared by virtually all Protestants in the beginning (and still are shared by them): 1. Justification by faith, 2. the priesthood of all believers [as opposed to an institutional hierarchy of clergy], and 3. the Bible as the final standard of faith. There were, however, three broad groups of sixteenth century Protestants: 1. Lutheran, 2. Reformed (Zwingli and Calvin), 3. Anabaptist, as well as the anomalous Church of England. (Norwood 1956, 66-68) The Augsburg Confession of 1530 states the Lutheran position. The Canons of Dordt, promulgated by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619, contain the confession of the Calvinistic branch of Protestantism. The Swiss Brethren’s Schleitheim Confession of 1527 speaks for Anabaptists. The 39 Articles of the Church of England, first set forth in 1562, serve as the confession of this church
Within the framework of the general confessional groups, the fractionalization of Christianity resulted quickly in a multitude of particular confessions. In fact, “No 16th-century confession, from the briefest to the longest, addressed only one or two points of doctrine, and no 16th-century confession diverged from other confessions on only one or two points of doctrine. Their differences were as numerous as the points of doctrine they addressed.” (Safley 2011, 34)
The denominations arose as as one group of individual congregations split institutionally from another of the same confession. Whereas confessions are statements of what congregants believe, denominations are the names of the administrative groups to which the congregants adhere. Some local churches belong to no denomination at all, but they follow some tradition or lineage, which derives ultimately from one of the confessions.
Various attempts have been made to categorize the denominations based on doctrines and on historical lineages. Under the heading “The range of associations” in Chapter 1 of Santa Cruz Spirituality, I noted some of them. In organizing Santa Cruz Spirituality I adopted the widely used approach of J. Gordon Melton, who divided Christian congregations into “families.” The coherence of each family stems from similarities in confession, in denomination, and in history. Melton’s Christian families are:
Western Liturgical (Anglican Communion and Roman Catholic)
Eastern Liturgical (the “Orthodox” churches)
And, in addition to these the controversial “families,”
Liberal (such as Unitarian-Universalist)
Christian Science and Metaphysical
It should be clear from consideration of what is not expressed in the Nicene Creed that all the main points shared by sixteenth century Protestants, that is, justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and adherence to the Bible as the final standard of faith, are matters of confessions, and not of creeds. An objective observer can conclude that all Christians who profess the Nicene Creed are fundamentally non-heretical. Denominations, singly or individually, can declare members to be heretics because of some particular belief which they have or do not have.
To the Roman, or Catholic, Church of the sixteenth century all the Protestants were heretics. Even now, although the Catholic Church has softened its language since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, calling Protestants “separated brethren,” its official position is that they teach false doctrine. On the opposite side of the question many Protestants consider their form of Christianity to be so much truer than the Catholic form, that Catholics are heretics..
Before and after the time of Martin Luther the Catholic Church has promulgated as articles of faith a number of statements which others can interpret as confessional, rather than creedal, thus affording some hope that the common faith will at some time in the future be regarded as more important than the differences. Even the Catholic and the Protestant understandings of justification by faith could be reconciled according to “Are Protestants Heretics?” a study by Edward T. Oakes, a Jesuit scholar. (Oakes, 2007)
A declaration by one Christian group that another group or an individual is heretical does not imply that the rest of Christians agree with the accusation of heresy. In fact to people outside the denominations involved, these accusations of heresy can better be interpreted as deviations from orthodoxy, that is, heterodoxy. Heterodox might also be used to represent the fact that much of the doctrine of any Christian Church is different in some respects from the doctrine of any or all the rest of them.
Since the sixteenth century the greatest impulse for Western Christian religious leaders to found new denominations has not been a matter of creed or confession, but has been the desire to return to the primitive simplicity of the Christian Church. The back-to-the-origins movement has been very conspicuous in the United States, where not only the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal congregations have embraced it to the extent of dropping their original denominational affiliation.
In current American society, interchurch religious dialog has less to do with either creedal or confessional tenets than it does with shared spirituality. I have treated the meaning of spirituality at length in the fifth chapter of the ebook Santa Cruz Spirituality. I add here that when spirituality is cultivated by members of various religious traditions, this does not mean that “traditional issues of religious dialog are about to be replaced by the emergence of a vague, unbounded spirituality; rather it suggests that spiritual seeking is elevated as a prominent religious theme and can itself be a creative, revitalizing experience, even a venue to transforming the meaning of the religious life itself.” (Taylor 2007, 75)
II. GNOSTIC/DUALIST TRADITION WITHIN CHRISTIANITY SINCE THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
We do not have to look far to see traces of Gnosticism and Dualism in modern Christianity. The more apparent of the two is Dualism, which can be found in the doctrine of original sin and in the perception of the powerful Satan. The more subtle Christian Gnosticism involves the secret knowledge of faith and the superhuman power of grace
Dualism The doctrine of original sin or human depravity, which is not mentioned in the creed, goes deeper into human nature than the Old Testament’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden., Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, the first blast of Protestantism, were concerned strictly with the Church and indulgences, but soon strong statements about human evil appeared. An early Lutheran statement, the Augsburg Confession of 1530, asserted, “… since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, … ” (italics mine)
Soon after that John Calvin explained that
This is the hereditary corruption to which early Christian writers gave the name of Original Sin, meaning by the term the depravation [depravity] of a nature formerly good and pure. The subject gave rise to much discussion, there being nothing more remote from common apprehension, than that the fault of one should render all guilty, and so become a common sin. This seems to be the reason why the oldest doctors of the church only glance obscurely at the point, or, at least, do not explain it so clearly as it required. This timidity, however, could not prevent the rise of a Pelagius with his profane fiction--that Adam sinned only to his own hurt, but did no hurt to his posterity. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 text, the last by Calvin himself, Book 2, Chapter 1.Section 5)
Then there are the 1619 Canons of Dordt, which reflect the Reformed, or gloomy side of Calvinism; Article 1 of the “First Main Point of Doctrine” is entitled “God’s Right to Condemn all People.”
The doctrine of original sin presents an extreme view of the extent and depth of evil that arises from the action of one person. Adam’s disobedience affects all the billions of humans and makes all of them not just inclined to evil, but despicably depraved. Moreover, the depravity of the human race results not from human free will, nor from the intention of Adam, who certainly did not foresee and will it, but from the free will of God. This, of course, leads back to the weakness of monotheistic explanations of evil.
Apart from the question of the cause of human depravity, the doctrine of original sin at least reflects a fundamentally negative attitude toward self. At most it is taken to its extreme logical consequence, that all humans are damned except the few chosen by God. While no church holds that evil is stronger than the redemptive action of Christ, many have taught that this redemption applies only to a chosen group. John Calvin presented a grim picture:
Still the observation of Augustine is true, that all who are strangers to the true God, however excellent they may be deemed on account of their virtues are more deserving of punishment than of reward, because, by the pollution of their heart, they contaminate the pure gifts of God (August. contra Julia. Lib. 4). For though they are instruments of God to preserve human society by justice, continence, friendship, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, yet they execute these good works of God in the worst manner, because they are kept from acting ill, not by a sincere love of goodness, but merely by ambition or self-love, or some other sinister affection. Seeing then that these actions are polluted as in their very source, by impurity of heart, they have no better title to be classed among virtues than vices, which impose upon us by their affinity or resemblance to virtue. In short, when we remember that the object at which righteousness always aims is the service of God, whatever is of a different tendency deservedly forfeits the name. Hence, as they have no regard to the end which the divine wisdom prescribes, although from the performance the act seems good, yet from the perverse motive it is sin. Augustine, therefore, concludes that all the Fabriciuses, the Scipios, and Catos, in their illustrious deeds, sinned in this, that, wanting the light of faith, they did not refer them to the proper end, and that, therefore, there was no true righteousness in them, because duties are estimated not by acts but by motives. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559 text, Book 3, Chapter 14.Section 3)
The attitude of today’s American Protestants toward the likelihood of their damnation is drasticly different from that of Augustine, Calvin, and the proverbial fire and brimstone preachers of Puritan and frontier America. In a 2007 survey conducted by Baylor University, when asked “How certain are you that you will get into heaven?” 60% of the Protestant respondents answered “Quite certain” or “Very certain.” Of Catholics, only 35% answered similarly, and overall, 36% answered in the same way. Eleven percent of the respondents, including 3% of the Protestants and 5% of the Catholics, did not believe there is a heaven. (www.thearda.com/quickstats/qs_155_p.asp)
Another dualistic feature in Christian doctrine on evil is the figure of Satan, or the Devil, as an explanation of particular instances of evil action. Satan in the apocalyptic writings, including even those in the approved canon of the New Testament, is God’s powerful adversary. John Calvin wrote,
But as the devil was created by God, we must remember that this malice which we attribute to his nature is not from creation, but from depravation. Every thing damnable in him he brought upon himself, by his revolt and fall. Of this Scripture reminds us, lest, by believing that he was so created at first, we should ascribe to God what is most foreign to his nature. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chater 14, Section 16)
Not only is Satan himself bad, but he leads people to oppose God. Accounts of people’s yielding to the power of Satan and doing his will abounded in the Middle Ages and have continued to this day.
The casting out of devils through exorcisms is still taken very seriously by the Catholic Church. Exorcism, the action by which the Church combats Satan in the individual, is performed by clergy who are designated for this by the hierarchy.
Gnosticism Perhaps more foreign to the general tenor of Christianity are the vestiges of Gnosticism in it. The general attitude of Christian congregations of all denominations is to be open to outsiders, to proclaim their beliefs to them, and to hide nothing from them. The import of the message stated in the Nicene Creed is that it is for everyone, everywhere. Nevertheless, by looking closely at the Christian faith that all are supposed to have, one finds it to be knowledge that one cannot acquire by the exercise of human power. It is acquired not in a secret ceremony with symbols that only the initiated know, but in an open and public way, ordinarily a ceremony. Coming forward in the midst of the congregation to “confess Jesus” or similar protestations is one way. Another is the reception of sacraments, especially Baptism, but also Confirmation.
A forceful variant is found in the modern Pentecostal movement, which proposes that the Holy Spirit enables the worshippers in a congregation to speak in languages, make prophetic statements, heal the sick, and perform miracles. As in Gnosticism, initiation (by the Holy Spirit in this case) is required in order to possess these gifts. Speaking in unknown languages and prophesying are manifestations of hidden knowledge, whereas healing and performing miracles involve special powers given the individual. Simon Magus, as we have seen, according to the Acts of the Apostles became a Gnostic upon being refused the Holy Spirit. By one route or another he was determined to have superhuman powers.
While many scholars have been elucidating the true nature of Gnosticism as revealed by the finds in Qumran and Nag Hammadi, a thought-provoking study by Phiip J. Lee brings out many Gnostic tendencies in contemporary Protestantism. Lee echos Hans Jonas’s view that the secrecy and elitism of ancient Gnosticism were nurtured by a perception of the alienation of man like that proclaimed by modern Existentialism. Now a strong current among Protestants emphasizes individualism and the sense of one’s own religion being not only private, but even secret. In its attempt to cure Existentialism Christianity has been infected by it. (Lee 1987, most strongly expressed on pages 192 and 193)
Modern Catholicism, as defined sharply since the sixteenth century Counter Reformation, retains the doctrine of original sin, which is cleansed from the individual by baptism. Catholics believe that baptism works an inner change in the recipient, who is no longer fundamentally depraved. Similarly, they believe that the sacaments of confirmation and holy orders make an indelible mark on the soul. The Catholic Church explains the meaning of indelible mark on the soul in terms furnished by Scholastic Philosophy.
The doctrine of grace, the conferral of God’s favor on a person, either to do good or to be good, is scarcely to be confused with Gnosticism. Still, the idea that the means of the salvation of a person, of the lifting of a person to a spiritual status, come from outside the person paints a picture of a very different world from that of a world in which humans, for better or worse, are completely responsible for their individual and collective fate.
III. GNOSTIC/DUALIST TRADITION ALONG THE BOUNDARY OF CHRISTIANITY SINCE THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
Along the boundary of the Christian religion lie three religions which have arisen from Christianity and share many elements of doctrine and practice with Protestants and Catholics. They do not, however, subscribe to the Nicene Creed. It seems fair and proper to term them heterodox Christians. Then we shall consider Modern Gnostic and Dualistic religions which are rooted in Christianity and share Christian culture, but diverge significantly from Christianity in many significant respects.
Not meant to be adequate treatments of the beliefs and practices of these groups, the observations made here pick out from them their threads of Dualism and Gnosticism. The selection of these religions by no means exhausts the list of such organizations, but represents those which, as far as I know, are familiar to the Americans who are most apt to read this material.
A. ON THE BOUNDARY
Church of Christ, Scientist. Santa Cruz Spirituality, in its preface to the list of Christian Science churches in Santa Cruz County, notes that
Mary Baker Eddy experienced spiritual enlightenment as a consciousness that only the spirit is real and sin and evil are a deviation from spirit. Sin and evil are not illusions; neither are they powers in themselves, but with the guidance of Christ Scientist we free ourselves from them. The ability to heal ourselves of what we call physical ailments is the form of this creed which attracts the greatest attention. The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded in 1879 in Boston, and within a few years [in 1897] it had spread all the way to Santa Cruz.
Mrs. Eddy’s central position is Platonist, in that to her the world of our senses is real in one way and not real in another. It is not pantheistic any more than Plato’s world is, as she makes clear by the Scientific Statement of Being:
There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.
All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.
Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.
Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.
Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.
Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual. (Science & Health: with key to the Scriptures. Eddy 1910, 468)
Evil enters into Mrs. Eddy’s world as error; it is not imaginary or merely in the mind, neither does it have a real force to it; rather evil has no existence of its own:
Mind is God. The exterminator of error is the great truth that God, good, is the only Mind, and that the supposititious opposite of infinite Mind – called devil or evil – is not Mind, is not Truth, but error, without intelligence or reality. There can be but one Mind, because there is but one God; and if mortals claimed no other Mind and accepted no other, sin would be unknown. We can have but one Mind, if that one is infinite. We bury the sense of infinitude, when we admit that, although God is infinite evil has a place in this infinity, for evil can have no place, where all space is filled with God.
We lose the high signification of omnipotence, when after admitting that God, or good, is omnipresent and has all-power, we still believe there is another power, named evil. This belief that there is more than one mind is as pernicious to divine theology as are ancient mythology and pagan idolatry. (ibid, 469)
Mrs. Eddy explicitly disavows any creed, although there are certain “tenets” including acceptance of the “inspired Word of the Bible as our sufficient guide to eternal life,” and belief in God’s “Son, one Christ,” and the “Holy Ghost or divine Comforter.” (ibid, 497)
As to the figure of Jesus, she sees him in a very particular way, reminiscent of Docetism:
Jesus called himself “the Son of man,” but not the son of Joseph. As woman is but a species of the genera, he was literally the Son of Man. Jesus was the highest human concept of the perfect man. He was inseparable from Christ, the Messiah, — the divine idea of God outside the flesh. This enabled Jesus to demonstrate his control over matter. Angels announced to the Wisemen of old this dual appearing, and angels whisper it, through faith, to the hungering heart in every age. (ibid, 482)
Although its view of Jesus is Gnostic to a degree, Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science is totally devoid of the pessimism of Gnosticism. Its goal is to free us from error, not to free us from an evil world. Furthermore, unlike the Gnostics, who considered themselves a special people, an elite, Mrs. Eddy’s followers are plain people. The fact is, however, that they look a little different to other “ordinary” people because they do not agree with the normal human perceptions of sickness and illness, of evil and good.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Once upon a time people everywhere said we are not Christians. They have come to recognize that we are and that we have very vital and dynamic religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.” So answered Gordon B. Hinckley, prior president of the Mormon Church, to the question, “Are Mormons Christians? (http://mormon.org/fac)
Examination of the Thirteen Articles of Faith, written by the founder, Joseph Smith, (http://mormon.org) indeed shows so many points shared with Protestant and Catholic Christians that Mormons certainly form part of the Christian community at least in a broad sense. Thus, Articles 1 and 3 through 7 are incontrovertibly Christian:
1. We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
4. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
5. We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.
6. We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.
7. We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
Articles 11, 12, and 13 refer to practicalities of relationships with people and civil authority.
The rest of the articles express beliefs that set Mormons off from Christians:
2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
9. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
10. We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
Further examination of Article 1 reveals an explanation of the Holy Trinity at variance with that of the General Councils of the Church:
I think it is accurate to say we believe They are one in every significant and eternal aspect imaginable except believing Them to be three persons combined in one substance, a Trinitarian notion never set forth in the scriptures because it is not true. (Jeffrey Holland in www.lds.org/general-conference-2007 )
Clearly there is nothing dualistic or gnostic about Mormon belief, but one who examines the following statements in Dr. Holland’s 2007 address, finds the ancient Monophysitism brought back to life:
I testify that Jesus Christ is the literal, living Son of our literal, living God.
I testify that He had power over death because He was divine but that He willingly subjected Himself to death for our sake because for a period of time He was also mortal.
Any who dismiss the concept of an embodied God dismiss both the mortal and the resurrected Christ,
In the final analysis, are the Latter-day Saints, who look like Christians and have a Christian worldview, but reject the fundamental Christian understanding of God, an understanding that was clarified through the efforts of Christian leaders over hundreds of years, Christians or not? I submit that the notion of boundaries fits well here.
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Santa Cruz Spirituality prefaces its account of Unitarian Universalist (UU) Churches in Santa Cruz County with this information:
The American Unitarian Church grew mainly as a doctrinally liberal wing of Congregationalism, becoming an independent group in the early 19th century in the East. Totally Christian in spirit, it nevertheless insisted that no one should be bound to adhere to a definitive set of Christian doctrines. The Universalist Church in America, which stressed the equality of peoples and the availability of salvation for all people, was founded in 1793, and the two at length united in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Church.
The earliest direct ancestor of Unitarian Universalism was Antitrinitarianism, or rejection of the historic Christian definition of the Holy Trinity. An Anabaptist belief, it appeared in various places in the newly Protestant areas of Europe. The skepticism inherent in Antitrinitarianism broadened in the following two centuries, partly because of the new variety of interpretations of the Bible and partly on account of philosophical trends, especially the effort to counteract Immanuel Kant’s critique of the validity of human knowledge. In the British Isles, where the movement achieved notable strength in the eighteenth century, it became known as Unitarianism. Then, quite independently from the British group, some American Congregationalists developed their own form of Unitarian faith. The key to the process was Transcendentalism, an intellectual movement which arose in the 1830s and flourished in the next decade as an attempt to establish rational faith that was not bound by the doctrines of the Christian Church or any other religious body. (See Transcendentalism under the Liberal Family in Santa Cruz Spirituality.)
Basic positions of today’s American Unitarians are:
1. “Today Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith which allows individual Unitarian Universalists the freedom to search for truth on many paths,” and
2. “While our congregations hold shared principles, individual Unitarian Universalists may discern their own beliefs about spiritual, ethical, and theological issues.”
3. Of the “seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote,” only principle number three, “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” refers directly to religion or spirituality. (Unitarian-Universalist website, wwwuua.org )
The website contains a large amount of certified Unitarian Universalist teaching through its “Tapestry of Faith Curriculum” of education regarding UU for people of all ages, including adults. The course “Faith Like a River: Themes from Unitarian Universalist History” contains a small proportion of content regarding the development of the Nicene Creed and other issues of the early centuries of Christianity. It devotes somewhat more ample space to the Protestant Reformation. The course “What Moves Us: Unitarian Universalist Theology,” on the contrary, devotes a great deal of time to the American Transcendentalists and to modern Liberal Theology, which seeks to reconcile the tenets of Christian faith with progress in society and the insights of science is to be found among the theologians of many Christian churches. It is clearly congenial to the Unitarian Universalist view of religion. The interests of Unitarian Universalists, in other words, do not lie with the theological definitions which are of great importance to Christians, but with contemporary views of the truth and value of religion.
The broad UU purview affords ample room too, for people with interests in Dualism and Gnosticism. More still, in UU we seem to find an ultimate eclecticism which is willing to embrace all religions without incorporating any of them. However that may be, I include the Unitarian Universalist church on the boundary of the Christianity from which it arose, and to which it is culturally bound..
B. OUTSIDE BUT CLOSE TO THE BOUNDARY
Modern gnosticism. To understand modern Gnosticism one has to be first aware of its context. First. the Renaissance, which had revived and spread throughout Europe far more knowledge about ancient times than had been available to scholars in the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformation then unleashed new approaches to the history and philosophical background of the Christian message. Finally, in the eighteenth century the Enlightenment and the stirrings of modern science cut away all restraints on the intellectual curiosity of many scholars. Small wonder, then, that Mystics, Neo-Platonists, Alchemists, and Deists, people out of the religious mainstream, people who spanned the spectrum from deeply religious to not religious at all, appeared and left a mark on European culture.
Secrecy could be found everywhere. Alchemists needed secrecy to guard their findings, some scientists needed it lest they startle authorities, ecclesiastical and civil, and some mystics, philosophers, and Deists shielded themselves from popular ignorance by sharing their radical ideas only with intimates. Many secret societies were founded, including the Masonic Order. which did not substitute itself for the churches, and the Rosicrucian Order and the Theosophical Society, which did that. Freemasonry is a fraternal organization. It is said that it imparts to its members some knowledge of long-lost ancient knowledge. Rosicrucians and Theosophists, on the contrary, are less fraternal than they are ideological, built on knowledge that is purported to be ancient.
Rosicrucian literature presents the order, “The Order of the Rosy Cross,”as having ancient roots and having acquired an institutional structure in Europe in the sixteenth century. The American body, the Rosicrucian Order AMORC, was founded in 1915 by H. Spencer Lewis, who had been initiated in France in 1909. The ancient roots to which the literature refers consist of a history of the basics of Gnosticism: the secret knowledge that frees us from the forces of this world. There are in this exposition numerous references to Christianity, but the order does not purport to be of Christian inspiration. (www.rosicrucians.org is a good starting place for information on the order.)
Emanuel Swedenborg, Swedish scientist and mystic who died in 1772, was convinced that spirits from the Himalayas, “Greater Tartary,” as he called it came to him to explain that the ancient and true religion had been lost in most of the world, but maintained in their redout. Swedenborg wrote about this at length and so impressed his followers that they founded “The Church of the New Jerusalem” also called simply “The New Church.” His thesis was not that the ancient revelations should supersede Christianity, but that they should enrich it. A hundred years later Helena Blavatsky had a similar experience, but her teachings did not have the Christian potential that Swedenborg’s had, so the religion she founded, Theosophy, lies outside Christianity. Theosophy also had some elements in common with Gnosticism, such as graphic descriptions of the descendingly spiritual layers of beings between God and humans. It became the main bridge by wbich modern Gnosticism entered the world.
Contemporary Gnosticism, cast adrift from any historical social continuity with Bogomils and Cathars, still borrows generously from Christianity. There are contemporary religious organizations which arise out of Christian inspiration and explicitly incorporate elements of gnosticism. Although they can be found in many countries, there is no large worldwide organization for them. We can examine as examples, however, several American Gnostic churches.
Herman Spruit was a member of the American Catholic Church, which was founded in 1915 as a separatist Catholic group. By 1965 the American Catholic Church, in spite of its name had been strongly influenced by Theosophy, considered itself Gnostic, and had divided into several separate churches. Spruit, already consecrated (annointed) bishop, left the American Catholic Church and in 1965 founded the Church of Antioch in Mountain View, California.
Spruit, in turn, consecrated Lewis S. Keizer as an Independent Bishop in 1975. Keizer founded in Santa Cruz The Garden, which has a regular service entitled “Gnostic Mass” in Santa Cruz. The earliest trace I found of The Garden in local sources was in 2000. Since 2004 the organizational headquarters for The Garden have been in the village of Aromas, California, near Watsonville, under the title Home Temple. Besides offering a “Gnostic-Kabbalistic Mass,“ the Home Temple is a center for teaching “Christian Gnosticism” and for a distance learning course leading to ordination to the Gnostic priesthood.
The Roman Catholic Church’s definition of papal infallibility in1870 was rejected by a number of clergy and scholars who founded several northern European churches which were known as the Old Catholic Church. One distinct group that evolved out of this from a strict Catholic position (except for papal infallibility)and became deeply affected by Theosophy was the Liberal Catholic Church. Organized in England in 1916, and coming to the U. S. only a year after that, the Liberal Catholic Church had a short existence in Santa Cruz, 1963-1965 according to documents I could find. (further information about the American Catholic Church, The Garden, the Home Temple, and the Liberal Catholic Church in Santa Cruz can be found in Santa Cruz Spirituality)
Theosophy certainly opened the way for Gnosticism in the above groups, but other Gnostic Church founders arrived at their worldviews and doctrines through the study of mysticism, occultism, and other esoteric teachings. As an example, one early group originating in Catholicism, but eventually becoming Gnostic, was the Universal Catholic Gnostic Church, founded in 1890 by the French Spiritualist Jules Doinel. Having, he said, contacted the spirits of ancient Gnostics, Bogomils, and Cathars, he founded a church based on theological points derived from them. The Universal Catholic Gnostic Church, to my knowledge, had no congregation in California, but the Ecclesia Gnostica, another non-Theosophical Gnostic Church, was headquartered in Los Angeles. It was founded by Stephan Hoeller out of the English group, the Pre-Nicene Gnostic Catholic Church.
In addition to Santa Cruz Spirituality sources for the above information on contemporary Gnostic churches include Melton 1987, 611-617; A.P. Smith 2008, 212-216; and Stephan Hoeller’s , “Wandering Bishops: Not All Roads Lead to Rome.” Also, from Hoeller, “A Gnostic Catechism” in www.gnosis.org. Some other Internet sources are www.liberalcatholic.org; http://TheLiberalCatholicChurch.org; and www.thelcc.org.
Finally, Beyond these people and others like them, however, “Scores of writers and thinkers of the centuries have been [putatively] labeled Gnostic--Goethe, Schleiermacher, Blake, Hegel, Schelling, Byron, Shelley, Emerson, Marx, Melville, Conrad, Nietzche, Yeats, Hesse, Schweitzer, Tillich, Toynbee, Heidegger, Sartre, Simone Weil, Wallace Stevens, Doris Lessing, I.B.Singer, Walker Percy, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas Pynchon among them.” (Segal 1995, 2-3). Of this broad group – certainly too broad to be based on the understanding of Gnosticism that we have seen in this essay – perhaps only J. W. Goethe and William Blake merit the title of genuine Gnostic. (A. P. Smith 1988, 204, Grimstad 2002)
Dualism: contemporary satanism Although the figure of Satan, the fallen angel and adversary of God, is still powerful to many Christians, the ancient, literal Dualism has not notably persevered in Western society. There are, it is true, satanic religions. Two that were founded in California are the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set. The former, which is adamantly anti-Christian, was founded in 1966 in San Francisco. It does not follow a supreme or even almost-all-powerful evil divinity, but sees satan as a human personification of the great force of evil in the world. The Temple of Set, which is an offshoot of the Church of Satan, was also founded in San Francisco, in 1975, It “seems to take the figure of Set/Satan far more seriously than the Church of Satan.” The Church of Satan was represented in Santa Cruz for at least one year by the Karnak Grotto of the Church of Satan. (Santa Cruz Spirituality)
The goal of these chapters has been to present the broad lines of the intertwining of heterodoxy and orthodoxy, the core of the interplay of the understanding of who Jesus was with Gnosticism, Dualism, and the Christian community’s conception of itself. We have found the topic to be captivating and we hope that it will stimulate readers to choose some of its innumerable details for further study.