I once gave a lecture in a Northwestern diocese—up in the morning, back to San Diego in the afternoon, the entire trip taking only ten hours—and came away with a renewed sense that things were turning around. I had been invited by the diocese to participate in a series on Catholic apologetics. Talks were geared toward CCD instructors, parish evangelization leaders, and those engaged in adult education.
That a diocese would host such a series was itself a little surprising. Apologetics had been making a comeback over the prior decades, but most laymen interested in apologetics had the sense (not entirely unjustified) that dioceses and their departments generally were lacking in enthusiasm for this mainly lay-run movement. “Apologetics” has been a word more warmly received, at times, outside the pastoral center than inside. So it was refreshing to see a major diocese sponsor a program that was explicitly apologetical.
I was asked to compare Catholic beliefs with the beliefs of Mormons, atheists, and New Agers. When I received the assignment, I wasn’t sure how to blend such disparate groups. What did they have in common? A little reflection brought the answer: each engages in a kind of Gnosticism. That ancient heresy was the first great intellectual and affective challenge to Christianity. It promised shortcuts to salvation via private knowledge.
Much as young boys always have had their clubhouses and secret signs and handshakes, so Gnostics had gatherings and rites open only to initiates. Early Christianity may have required catechumens to exit Mass at the conclusion of the liturgy of the word, but it didn’t hide from them what would happen in the remainder of the Mass. Gnostics tended to be far more secretive, and there was an attractiveness in that.
The three groups I was assigned to talk about claim to have secret knowledge of their own, even if, in a technological world, that knowledge is incapable of remaining hidden not just from proselytes but from the general public. Nevertheless, the groups bank on the disinclination of most people to investigate, and that means the not-so-secret knowledge appears to most to be secret, and its revelation remains an enticing promise.
Start with the Mormons. The missionaries don’t share their church’s secret knowledge with you when they come to your door. They don’t volunteer that Mormons believe in thousands of gods, that their gods are limited in power and knowledge, that dark skin has been considered a curse—and that dark-skinned Mormons who are faithful to the teachings of their church may hope to see their skin turned white in this lifetime. Such beliefs are kept from those being proselytized, and even some Mormons don’t know about them.
Mormons insist they aren’t polytheists, and by that they mean that they don’t worship a whole panoply of gods—just the three gods who rule this world: the “Heavenly Father,” the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Not believing in the Trinity in the Christian sense of the term—three Persons in one divine nature—Mormons end up with a trio of gods. In fact, they believe in far more than just three. They believe in countless gods, with the others ruling other universes. Each god used to be a man and went through a kind of evolution that resulted in his achieving godhood.
Our “Heavenly Father” used to be a man on some other planet, and he lived a good life, became a god, and established this world. Mormons believe that all devout Mormon men will become gods in the afterlife, each to rule over his own universe. By any non-Mormon’s definition, that’s polytheism, and it’s a doctrine the young “elders” don’t voluntarily bring up at your door.
Atheists, for their part, claim to be the supreme rationalists. Only they are able to manipulate reason properly. They say the full use of reason can come only when one abandons any notion of God. What they don’t volunteer—what they probably don’t realize—is that atheism is less an intellectual position than a consequence of mental and moral lapses. It has no answers to life’s problems.
Is there suffering in the world? Christians can give at least a purpose in suffering: to unite ourselves with the sufferings of our Savior. Atheists have no savior, but they’re still stuck with suffering, and for them there is no answer. For the atheist suffering is entirely purposeless, so he finds himself falling into a kind of despair. The advocate of pure reason is unable to give a reason for life’s most troubling question.
Still, the promoter of atheism believes in a kind of secret knowledge. It isn’t knowledge that is kept from prospective converts (if that is the right word). It is accessible to anyone who uses reason rightly. The problem is that most people don’t, and so this knowledge is kept from them by their own intellectual errors. True knowledge is all around them, but their syllogistic errors and their emotional needs (religion is a crutch for those who don’t yet exercise their minds properly) keep them from grasping this.
And New Agers? They claim there is no personal God, no individualized soul, no sin (only “mistakes”), and therefore no judgment, heaven, or hell. Yet there is a hereafter, and it is perpetual, redundant, and cyclical. Through reincarnation, one evolves through higher and higher lives, in each losing a little bad karma, in each coming closer to nirvana—but never quite reaching it.
The New Age movement operates through feelings and intuition, not through reflection and ratiocination, so in this sense it is somewhat the opposite of the atheist movement. For New Agers, truth lies outside the thinking mind. No New Ager worships at the pedestal of Reason.
The most a New Ager will say—really, just a way to avoid the discussion—is that “there is a truth for you and a truth for me.” If he knew what the word “truth” meant, he wouldn’t say such a thing because the principle of contradiction tells us that either “A” or “Not A” is true, but not both. If we flip a coin and I say, “It’s heads,” and you say, “It’s tails,” only one of us can be right. “My truth” is true only if it conforms to reality. If it does, then “your truth” is false, which means it isn’t true at all.
New Agers don’t think in such terms. (At least they don’t talk and write in such terms.) They think in terms of revelation coming down to us from the “ascended masters”—their version of Gnostic teaching. You can discover such revelation by studying at the feet of masters who have not yet ascended or, more conveniently and more affordably, by attending seminars through which you discover your inner self and through books that give you the rudiments of the New Age version of Gnosticism.
Whatever form it takes—Mormonism, atheism, the New Age—Gnosticism remains the perennial heresy. It never has disappeared; it simply has morphed. At its core, its attraction is the earliest we have record of: “you shall be as gods.” Our first parents fell because they sought secret knowledge. Perhaps for them, as for so many today, the attraction lay less in the knowledge itself than in the secrecy: everybody wants to be an insider.