In the first chapter of Fleming Rutledge’s impressive book, The Crucifixion, she explains that modern Christianity shares the same widespread rival as early Christianity: gnosticism. She doesn’t mince words bringing the dusty historical term back down to the ground: “All the various forms of gnosticism are grounded in the belief that privileged spiritual knowledge is the way of salvation.” With one swoop of the vested arm, Rutledge knocks down the pawns of self-help, educated elitism, not to mention a massive percentage of the modern-day Christian church—in short, “religion”. To cherry-pick some of her key remarks on this subject:
Defining this philosophy is no easy task, because gnosticism is, by its very nature, diffuse and mercurial; brief descriptions will of necessity be oversimplified. A few basic concepts, however, can be set forth…
1. an emphasis on spiritual knowledge (gnosis)
2. a hierarchy of spiritual accomplishment
3. a devaluation of material/physical life and a corresponding avoidance of ethical struggle in this material world…
Allowing for all of gnosticism’s varieties, we can safely say this, in summary: in gnosticism’s portrayal of salvation, the power to redeem (God’s power) has been subsumed into our capacity for being redeemed. Therefore the crucifixion becomes unnecessary.
If it is spiritual knowledge that saves us, we don’t need God to die for us; we just need the right teacher and a functioning brain–but even those seemingly innocuous requirements force us back into the pyramid-shaped realm of the law where words and knowledge are tools for condemnation and exclusion (“You use your words as weapons” – Birdy); the gospel, on the other hand, is not mere words but the person of Jesus who came into the world, not asking us to reach above it (“the Word became flesh”). Christ himself redeems us, not our mental capacity to understand him.
Henri Nouwen speaks to this in his last-ever book, Adam: God’s Beloved, which was published posthumously and which tells the moving life-story of his dear friend, Adam. Adam had severe developmental disabilities—he couldn’t speak, had frequent seizures, could barely move—he was totally dependent. Nouwen earnestly asks:
Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”
This is why so few church groups touting personal knowledge of a savior–and less the savior himself–have little to say, for example, to those with developmental disabilities. Or to those who have tried to understand but can’t…I tend to find myself here, imagining that if I could understand God better, I could be “on top of” things. (That said, neither Rutledge nor Nouwen seem particularly interested in quashing “knowledge” as a value; as educated and elegant writers themselves, they are more interested in simply reminding us that the means through which God achieves redemption is not by serving dishes of spiritual knowledge to a small dinner party.)
The good news is, in Rutledge’s words, “a gospel of radical leveling.” It is a feast for the poor—the raising of the valleys. In the words of St. Paul, “Knowledge puffs up; love builds up.” If we busy ourselves trying to get into the room where only the “mature” speak in tongues, we undermine the universality of the cross and the universality of suffering as central to the Christian faith. Spiritual enlightenment attempts to leave the world behind and, so doing, attempts to avoid its suffering—we eschew the cross.
The book of Job, both for Christianity and history in general, has a lot to say about this. Its ancient complaint against suffering has inspired at least one Coen Brothers film and countless poems, stories, and philosophies. Its beauty resides in its resistance of the spiritual pyramid: Job is the most righteous ever! He even makes sacrifices on behalf of his kids, but God ruins his life anyway. God acts on Job, regardless of what Job has or hasn’t done, regardless of what he does or doesn’t understand.
It’s important to note that Job’s friends, who try in vain to comfort him, are often right. As far as spiritual enlightenment goes, they are the definition. It can be difficult to play Bible roulette with the book of Job, because you might land on a verse by one of the most-vilified friends and find that his worldview is confusingly legitimate. But their enlightened perspectives, legitimate or not, no longer matter when Job’s house burns down, his children die, he gets fired from his job, an earthquake hits, a bomb explodes, etc.
When Zophar explains to Job how the world works and earnestly tells him, “There is hope…you will be protected…but the eyes of the wicked will fail” (11:18-20), Job feels punched in a contest of wisdom. He jabs back: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Who does not know such things as these?” Knowledge, whether in science or faith, wisdom or common sense, true or false, is of no help to Job. Here we can see that the book of Job stiff-arms gnosticism. Possessing some particular knowledge or perpsective can not alleviate ultimate suffering. No matter who you are, the world can really suck sometimes. But we live in it. This is what Rutledge calls the “not-yet” aspect of the theology of the cross.
It seems that more “gnostic” interpretations of Job have suggested that the lesson to be extracted—the discipline to strive towards—may be persistence or patience. If you suffer and maintain your piety, like Job, God will reward you. This is an embarrassingly dishonest look at the book of Job…after all, Job’s kids, which God gave up to death, aren’t even mentioned in the epilogue, much less resurrected.
If the book of Job models anything, it is helplessness. It sabotages our plans of spiritual enlightenment and leaves us asking. On its own, it is depressing and confusing and not likely intended as a source of comfort; but, when read in conjunction with the Gospel, and the passion narratives, it finds a solution in the cross of Christ: Job isn’t the only character in the Bible forsaken by God. As Rutledge points out: “In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is ‘suffered.’” It is Christ’s suffering, not his teaching, that is the centerpiece of Christianity, and it is his suffering, not his wisdom, that we share in. God’s response to the ancient cry of Job, and to the complaint of modern ennuyeux, is not exclusively for the enlightened thinkers or spiritual gurus; instead, it is found in the common experience of humanity to which God entered and laid claim. To his clueless disciples, he promised, “You will indeed drink from my cup” (Mt 20:23). This is the cup of his death, but also his resurrection, and we need not “get it” to drink it.