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I have a problem. Pope Francis says I might not be alone. You might have it too.
I know a lot about my faith, but I’m not always great about saying my prayers. I regularly evangelize with words — but I only occasionally actually serve people in my community. I might not always like admit it, but I am quick to dismiss certain people in my mind.
In short I am guilty of falling prey to a temptation Christians have fallen into for millennia: Gnosticism.
Several early heresies believed that a “secret knowledge” — a “gnosis” — about the spiritual realm was what saved us. I would never call myself a “Gnostic” but I imitate them in several ways, according to Francis. Maybe you do too.
You may be Gnostic if you are defining religion by feelings.
A line from an old song by Leonard Cohen seems to describe what has happened in my life again and again: “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”
While being able to have feelings is part of what makes us human, we tend to confuse our feelings — positive or negative — with the real state of our soul.
In 2013’s The Joy of the Gospel, Francis called this a gnostic tendency and warned against “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.”
It’s not whether you feel holy or not that matters. Holiness is about love of God and neighbor, not what you’re feeling.
You may be Gnostic if you think what you know is more important than what you do.
St. Jerome, the early Christian scholar, is famous because of his time spent translating the Bible — but he is a saint because he was willing to stop translating it sometimes.
He ceased all scholarly work for months to care for refugees. “Today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds,” he said. “Instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”
For Christians, “a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity,” Francis says in Rejoice and Be Glad. “Gnostics do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines.”
You may be a Gnostic if you divide believers into different groups.
Once we think our knowledge is what matters, though, we begin to think of ourselves as “perfect and better than the ‘ignorant masses,’” says Francis, quoting St. John Paul II’s warning that the highly educated must not “feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful.”
Gnostic bishop Stephan Hoeller writes that Gnostics separate humanity into three types of people: “Hyletics” are earthbound pleasure seekers, “Psychics” are religious rule-followers. “Pneumatics” are the special few capable of real Gnosis.
Catholics can divide the world up the same way: First, the hopelessly worldly people who are sadly out of reach; second the “Sunday Catholics” who come to church but don’t “get it” like we do; and third the “devout” or “serious” Catholics who buy the right books and read the right blogs and know the Catechism.
This is almost the opposite of how Jesus sees the world: He reached out to sinners and prostitutes, appreciated all of his disciples, and kept his harshest words for the Pharisees who thought they were special.
Francis says to stop feeling special. “We can and must try to find the Lord in every human life,” he writes.
You may be Gnostic if you feel you totally understand the faith.
Embracing God means embracing a mystery. We cannot understand God or exhaust his meaning. At best, we stand in front of him and appreciate him.
But “Gnostics think that their explanations can make the entirety of the faith and the Gospel perfectly comprehensible,” writes Pope Francis.
Yes, you can and should think through the Church’s teachings. But Francis warns against the tendency to “reduce Jesus’ teaching to a cold and harsh logic that seeks to dominate everything.”
If you think you have God figured out, and think you can judge exactly as he would — you may be a Gnostic.
But you can stop being a Gnostic.
Pope Francis says much more about Gnosticism in the document — but he also says that it is possible to be delivered from Gnosticism by faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is in fact the one who said it best: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom … but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”