If the Da Vinci Code taught us anything — and it did, it taught us many, many things, most of them wrong — we say, if Dan Brown’s rollercoaster-iffic Da Vinci Code and its pre-clone Angels & Demons taught us anything, it’s that humans love solved codes. Love to feel they are (a) smarter than other people, and thus (b) have secret saving knowledge dumber people do not.
As we ponder the recent failed prophecies of Family Radio’s Harold Camping, we are reminded that this attraction to secrecy and special knowledge has been a part of Christianity (and Judaism) for centuries.
Orthodox Christianity was in some ways a reaction against this impulse, as apparently widely-held beliefs were declared “heresy” after the fact by Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyon. (Brown got this part right.)
Irenaeus’ special target was a loose group of sects known as the Gnostics. The Greek word “gnosis” means “knowledge,” and these groups were known to emphasize certain “secret teachings” (see the opening of the celebrated Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas“), which are highly coded and revealed only to the elect. In fact, it’s secret knowledge which saves, not anything so ordinary (orthodox) as faith or grace or going to your First Communion.
Gnosticism shares some family traits with Zoroastrianism, Jewish Kabbalah, Greek philosophy, even modern New Age spirituality. And — in its emphasis on being an insider, on knowing the Secret Truth — with modern Evangelicals like Hal Lindsay, Pat Roberts and, yes, our old, old, old friend Harold Camping. (Did we say old?)
Here’s how the Gnostic vibe is described by Fr. Brian Daley, S.J., in his groovy series of lectures on “Early Christianity and the First Christians” —
Gnosticism is, says Daley:
“Religion for the enlightened insider. Religion that is based on information and revelation that isn’t generally available to the wider population — but which comes from a group and from a founder and is communicated to those who seek it out.
“Gnostic religion is essentially revisionary thinking — the kind of thinking which enables … someone who learns the tradition to see that much of the ordinary concerns of their contemporaries are in fact based on illusion.”
Gnostics purposely oppose the mass market:
“Turning a good deal of it on its head, devaluing some of its practices and seeing that the core of a person’s welfare and salvation came from knowing things right, getting things right.”