Recently I have been reading G.K. Chesterton’s excellent biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas’s chief task in life was to theologically battle the various forms of Gnosticism that threatened to overwhelm orthodox Christianity in the thirteenth century—forms both outside the church (such as the Persian Manichees) and inside it (such as the French Cathars). Both of these groups, however, shared a basic dualistic belief in an evil deity who had created the evil material world and a benevolent deity who was purely spiritual. This, of course, led to the belief that the world as a whole was evil, and matter only a trap for believers.
A very interesting juxtaposition struck me as I read this description of the Gnostic heresies. On one hand, it bears a striking similarity to one version of the popular perception of Christianity. “Christianity hates sex,” “Christians hate the world and just want to get out of it to heaven,” and so on. The especially pernicious thing about this perception of Christianity is that it doesn’t come up in reasoned debate; instead, it is the hallmark of bad Hollywood movies and books that want to use pseudo-religious debates as the background for adventure stories. This means that hardly anyone would say that they strictly agree with this picture of Christianity—it’s just fiction, right?—but it colors the background of all their thinking.
On the other hand, the sources of these subliminal messages praise anyone who goes against the religious hierarchy as freethinking, independent lovers of life and liberty. They praise heretics while blaming Christians for holding the beliefs that heretics actually held. What are Christians to do about this? I think that the mission of the Ichthus is an important step in the right direction. It is necessary for Christians to point out the misconceptions of the general public and fight against them by word and example. If Christians are often portrayed as dull, stupid bigots, we must not only point out that Jesus told us to be “as crafty as serpents and as innocent as doves”, but also work to be well-informed and well-reasoned ourselves.
And here, again, we can learn from St. Thomas Aquinas. When he was faced with Gnosticism, he looked not only to his Christian theological forbearers but also to Aristotle. He was able to adapt—to baptize, if you will—Greek philosophy in a Christian way. Some valuable truths about the material world were getting lost among the cultural biases and habits of thirteenth-century Christendom, and so St. Thomas looked outside Christendom for renewal. This is not to say that he compromised one whit his orthodoxy. Instead, he took what was vividly true in Aristotle, conformed it to the Gospel (rather than the other way around), and used this new way of thinking to cut through the Gordian knot of debates between confused Christians and heretical Gnostics. If our Christianity has undergone so many amputations of our dislikes or bears so many burdens of our additions that it is not whole and strong enough to confront the heresies of our time, we should not be afraid to prayerfully look for God’s inspiration outside the Christian bubble. The full truth necessary for salvation only resides in Jesus Christ our lord; but God has sprinkled veiled revelations of himself to all. Perhaps looking at this blurred reflection can help us if we refuse to look at our own much clearer pool.