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Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee (Oxford University: $22.50; 336 pp.)

February 22, 1987|D. Keith Mano | Mano's most recent novel is "Take Five" (Doubleday).

G nostic has become a fashionable tag. You commonly read about political and scientific gnosticism now. In this reduced sense, gnostic might designate an elitist group that appropriates crucial knowledge to itself. But Gnosticism, the heretical Christian doctrine, is a far more complex syndrome. One so persistent in church chronicles that you might almost suppose orthodox faith regularly extruded it. And to some degree, you would be right: in that gnosticism is predictably a repudiation of, or escape from, traditional Christian practice.

As set forth by Philip J. Lee, a Presbyterian parish minister, historical Gnosticism has incorporated these themes:

--An escapist repudiation of the material world, including nature itself, time, history, ritual and sacrament. (God is exonerated from evil creation. Some demiurge or other force takes blame.)

--An emphasis on secret, saving knowledge rather than any biblical text available to all men. As Martin Buber, quoted by Lee, has said: "The perpetual enemy of faith in the true God is not atheism (the claim that there is no God), but rather gnosticism (the claim that God is known)."

--A secession from institutional and communal worship.

--A narcissistic exaltation of self as sole repository for knowledge and delivering grace.

--An elitist attitude derived from the two preceding themes.

--An omnivorous syncretism that will co-opt any method, Christian or not, to achieve election. If this check list doesn't appear relevant today, "Against the Protestant Gnostics" will make it so soon enough.

In patristic times, as Lee would have it, Gnosticism was inspired and perpetuated by despair. Whether this despondency is attributable to a decrepit Roman Empire or the stillborn Second Coming or both or other, he can't be certain. But, in American Protestantism, where Lee has located our modern gnostic spirit, cause for despair seems much more determinate. ". . . The Puritan apocalyptic hope had been in the concrete establishment of a Wilderness Zion, a Holy Commonwealth. . . . From this disappointing experience, North American evangelicalism developed its own distinctive experience, its own distinctive character, a chief ingredient of which was an abiding sense of alienation ." Self had taken hold. The first Me Decade began around 1770 or so, long before Tom Wolfe.

Lee, for more than half of his text, applies a gnostic checklist to modern American Protestantism. The fit is near perfect. Certainly Protestantism has been elitist--both in an intellectual and in a class sense. It stresses one-on-one man-God interaction over the two or three minimum gathering specified by Christ. As for communal and eucharistic worship: "North American Protestants have chosen to confine the wine, or rather grape juice, in the fatal vortex of the individual cup, destroying the memory of the Passover feast of the people of God." Protestantism, moreover, has never been comfortable with a material cosmos: It will tend to "spiritualize" nature, history and, in particular, the human form. And, with their passion for non-biblical input--whether Freud or Eastern religion or rock Mass or marriage encounter--Protestants are about as syncretistic as a UCLA Extension catalogue.

This diagnostic test is interesting and probably accurate, if somewhat overwrought. But the pertinent question might be: So what? Lee's purpose, after all, is reformist and exhortatory, not just academic. He would like to shock the American Protestant communion: Look here, you've been countenancing heresy. But, for modern Protestants, the distinction between heretical and orthodox is quaint at best. People who welcome Zen and consciousness chic are more likely to start a gnostic support group than to reform their belief.

Furthermore, the blanket in Lee's blanket indictment is never broad enough. Understand that he has tracked an identical gnostic bias through right wing fundamentalist and left wing liberal Protestantism. Though conservative in church practice, Lee is leftist, and heatedly so, in his political outlook. Because he considers Protestant middle-class culture to be almost synonymous with American culture, he has blamed a whole Easter offering of phenomena--Nagasaki, Vietnam, homeless people, anti-communism--on gnostic behavior. One might make that case, if with some harshness, against fundamentalism. But for anyone familiar with New York Episcopal Diocese or radical programming at a World Council of Churches session, this accusation is quite disorienting. To backlight his gnostic thesis, Lee has scanted the great diversity in American Protestantism.

Lee concludes with an earnest prescription for renewal. Unfortunately, given his trenchant and impressive arraignment of Protestant gnosticism, that platform would seem naive at best. In fact, gnosticism is just the theological way to denote a moral and psychological truth. Sin precedes heresy. Each gnostic trait is, at base, one aspect or another of human pride. What Lee has done here ultimately is to show that elitism and selfishness and arrogance and narcissism have a long and well-documented pedigree--one that has run parallel with gnosticism throughout the Christian account. This is perhaps not as helpful as he intended it to be.

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