(This excerpt is taken from Dr. Tiel's book, "Why Did Adam Fall?" and other Unasked-for Sermons. To read more, you can get the book from our bookstore here.)
Text: “ Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Colossians 2:18).
The problem of Gnosticism is very old. It threatened the Church in her earliest days in the form of Simon Magus’s attempt to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter condemned him, for Magus sought power not for the sake of others (love) but for his own advancement (pride). But what Gnosticism holds out to its adherents has a much longer history than its form within the Church, for outside and even before the Church, the quest for esoteric truth and its corresponding promise of power aroused the aspirations of a great portion of pagan and mystical ancient religion.
Gnosticism in all of its various forms offers man gnosis, one of the Greek terms we translate as “knowledge.” Of course, as our nature is rational, it’s hardly out of the ordinary for human beings to desire knowledge. So, what is wrong with gnosis? Another way to put the question is this: what’s the difference between esoteric knowledge and ordinary knowledge? Well, esoteric knowledge (gnosis) is inaccessible to human reason, because what it is about (its subject matter) is not something for which we possess any evidence. Suppose, for example, that you were to come across a book that described events that occurred between two classes of angels prior to the creation of the material universe. How could you possibly confirm or disconfirm such information? You couldn’t, of course, because we have no access to such information . . . unless, that is, an angel involved in the actual event were to tell us. And if an angel appeared and told you the story, you could then write it in a book. You’d be a sort of prophet or oracle. The rest of us would have to trust that you were telling the truth (rather than fabricating the entire story) about the angelic visitation as well as the content of the angelic message. You yourself would have to trust that what the angel told you was an accurate report of what occurred between the angels. That is why esoteric knowledge always requires faith, because the content of the story cannot be directly verified by human beings. Thus, we’re stuck trusting the veracity of the messenger.
Now, let’s add the ethical dimension to our account of gnosis. Why would the angel be telling us this story? An angel is a finite spirit who either serves God or opposes Him. If the angel serves God, then he is a traditional angel (like Gabriel, e.g., in his visitation to the Virgin Mary), and our believing him is an act of traditional faith. We call this information from the angel (e.g., that Mary’s baby will be the Son of God), “revelation.” It is fitting for God to reveal important information to human beings concerning His divine love for us by this special means. And it is fitting for human beings to receive it, because being finite creatures, we cannot possibly use our finite natural reasoning capacities to know everything there is to know about an infinite God.
What, then, is different about esoteric gnosis? Well, esoteric knowledge differs from revelation, because the source is not an angel serving God. The only other source is an angel opposed to God, what the Church calls a demon. Demons know a good deal more than human beings, and they may choose to share some of that information (or misinformation, depending on their strategy), if doing so furthers their objectives of hostility toward God. But trusting a demon or his human messenger is not traditional faith at all, because a demon is not trustworthy. In fact, we might call such trust “anti-faith,” because it’s a diabolical perversion of what real faith is. Then, too, we might call the hope that the Gnostics place in their demonic sources anti-hope, because the promises made by the demons will never fulfill the longing of the Gnostic initiates. And, finally, the ends that are actually served by the demonic information are not the goods of the hearers, but, instead, their ultimate destruction in separation from the love of God. And so, the end for which such information is given is not love, but anti-love, i.e., malice or hatred. Therefore, the demons offer their duped followers a trio of supernatural vices to parallel the traditional supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love.
For what reason would a human being trust an esoteric (we now realize it must be demonic) source of knowledge? Well, it cannot be for the sake of love of the truth, because there is no basis for trusting that what the demon says is actually true. So, it must be for the sake of power, to employ that information (whether true or false) for the purpose of empowerment of oneself over others. This is the usual motive for people to endorse Gnostic religions, to use special, secret knowledge available only to themselves and a small cadre of initiates for the purposes of acquiring power of some kind. That power may take any particular shape (political, personal, financial, religious, etc.), but its function is to command others, not to serve them. Thus, it is not the power of love.
The demons nearly always require tremendous sacrifice on the part of the initiates. The devotees are required, in effect, to abandon their natural quest for human flourishing and to replace it with something fundamentally anti-human. This is why the Gnostic cults always tend toward degradation of traditional human modes of life: orgies instead of loving marriage, black masses instead of the holy rite. The demons seek to trample afresh the sanctity that God created in the human family, so they demand that their adherents ascend above the limitations of the human body to the status of pure spirit. The kind of power the Gnostic is offered lies outside what is available to traditional human life (that’s why it’s attractive to him, after all); that power is angelic in its nature, purely mental power, the power of the will to realize its objectives by pure choice. This power is seen by the Gnostic as a means to escape the captivity of the human body, to exceed physical limitations, and to “ascend to a higher plane of existence.” But such transcendence is not fitting for human beings, because it requires that we cease being what we are, that we cease aiming for the fulfillment of our own nature, that we—in effect—abandon our natures for the pursuit of another nature entirely. It’d be like a human being wishing to be a kangaroo, or a mermaid wishing to be a human being. You will only be happy being what you are. But what esoteric knowledge suggests is that it is possible to transcend your nature—that you can become something else entirely: a pure spirit. It is for this reason that St. Paul says that the Gnostics worship angels, because they worship spirit itself (naturally, they characterize themselves as “spiritual” when in fact they are really “spiritists”).
Let’s summarize the three major planks of the Gnostic seduction. First, the offer of secret information not available to the rest of human beings. Second, the hope that this secret information will enable the initiate to acquire supernatural power in this life. Third, that this supernatural power will ultimately end in his transcending the limits of the body to live on a plane of pure will, pure spirit—an alternative version of eternal life.
Let’s review the three problems with this scheme. First, while there is information known to God that we don’t know, that knowledge that God wishes man to know is given to all, not to a select few, by means of traditional revelation. This is the supernatural virtue of faith, and it has been deposited into the Church for all who wish to know God. Second, the hope of true faith is the acquisition of the supernatural power of love of my neighbor, not the power of domination over others. And third, the hope of Christ leads to the fulfillment of human nature in a resurrected body and a new planetary physical existence of full human experience. The Christian end is a thoroughly human end, for the Son of God was incarnate as a human baby, resurrected in a human body, ascended as a human being, and promised to return again as a human person. Man was created in the image of God. If our nature is good enough for God, you’d think it’d be good enough for man.