Is this world important to God, or are His purposes entirely focused on a heavenly here-after? Do our physical experiences on the earth matter, or are we “just a passing through”? These are some of the questions I’ve taken up in a new 365-page book, which Ancient Faith is releasing this Spring.
Titled Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manual for Recovering Gnostics, the book uses Biblical theology to show that from the beginning of creation through the twists and turns of redemption history, God has maintained a consistent plan for the earth. That plan is to bring the world to perfection under the loving stewardship of men and women. Thus, the material world is not evil as the heresy of Gnosticism taught, nor will the earth be destroyed as so much modern Christianity teaches. Rather, the Orthodox Christian hope is that this earth, like our physical bodies, will one day be resurrected. Moreover, understanding God’s purposes for the material world gives meaning to our present-day engagement in ecology, culture, art, worship, social justice, and ascetism.
From the back cover:
Though it’s often too subtle to see, much of modern Christianity has fallen prey to the ancient Gnostic heresy which taught that the material world has no lasting spiritual value. Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation diagnoses the problem, takes us through its history, and helps us discover “the purposefulness of the material world, the goodness of the human body, and the eschatological hope of a transformed universe.” But this is not just a book about heresy. Rather, through the author’s exploration of his own spiritual biography, you’ll also see how incipient Gnosticism can show up in our lives, and you’ll learn how to recover from your own Gnostic tendencies through the spiritual practices of ancient Christianity.
In chapters 1 and 2, I share my own spiritual journey struggling with the goodness of creation, and how part of the impetus for this book emerged out of work I used to do in the behavioral health industry following theological studies at Kings College London.
After my studies at King’s College London, I worked as a writer and researcher for corporate clients in the behavioral-health industry. Even in this new field, however, I could not escape from the specter of implicit Gnosticism. As I delved into the world of psychology and the behavioral sciences, I encountered a hostility to the physical body that resembled that of the ancient Gnostics. Utopian ideas about technology often animate such hostility. One very common narrative says that our materiality represents a type of fall from which our machines can liberate us. The most obvious manifestation of this Gnostic-like hostility toward the body is the Silicon Valley futurists working on the next phase of human evolution, one in which machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and in the process liberate us from the constraints of an embodied existence. The early stages of this quest for liberation from physical reality—which we see most starkly with experiments in virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality—explicitly treat the limitations of time, place, and body as problems to overcome. But even in more mainstream applications, the digital revolution has made it possible to treat our physical existence as a predicament requiring a solution. Such solutions have been forthcoming at breakneck speed. Through new communication technologies, we can break free from the constraints of space to enjoy live videoconferencing with people across the world; through algorithms that organize people according to nonphysical criteria (i.e. our likes, preferences, and viewpoints), we can enjoy social communities unbound by place; by allowing machines to mediate our communication, we can suspend the vulnerability that comes with face-to-face encounters and buffer ourselves from the challenges of material presence. Despite the benefits brought by these advances, the freedom to untether ourselves from the fixities of time, place, and presence comes at a heavy cost. We can easily find a range of identity confusions and dissociative disorders emerging among a population increasingly disengaged from their physical experience. This hit me particularly hard as I began to see individuals appropriating new technologies and communication media with the express purpose of liberating themselves from both the challenges and joys of having a physical body. This sometimes correlated with a sense of shame about being physical, leading to a complex range of maladaptive behaviors.
As I explored these pathologies from the standpoint of mental health, I found myself returning to the thinking of Church Fathers such as St. Irenaeus, who countered Gnosticism with strong assertions about the goodness of the material world and the dignity of the physical body. By this time, I was also doing work and public speaking on the psychology of gratitude, and I increasingly found myself wondering if a posture of thankfulness might provide an antidote to the pessimistic impulses of our neo-Gnostic climate. This interest reached fruition in my book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong. That book did not explore Gnosticism specifically but, rather, aimed to help individuals rediscover goodness in their lives and circumstances despite turmoil and suffering. A fundamental concern in that work was questions such as, “How can I see God’s hand in the turmoil and grief of my life?” and “Does my life have meaning and purpose even when it feels like everything is falling apart?” But we can also address these questions at the larger cosmic level:
- How can we see God’s hand in the turmoil and grief of the world?
- Does the physical world and its history have meaning and purpose even when it seems like everything is falling apart?
- Is the physical world moving toward a goal, or were the Gnostics right in thinking that the realm of matter is one of meaninglessness and futility?
I am convinced the implicit Gnosticism that has become the taken-for-granted background for so much of modern Christianity has hampered attempts to address these larger cosmic questions. Gnosticism, whether in its explicit or merely implicit form, blocks us from appreciating God’s good plan for the earth and the role you and I are privileged to play as part of that plan. Indeed, as I talk to Christians—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—about God’s plan for the universe, I find them struggling against various barriers created by bad theology, including false dichotomies between the physical and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, and a strong antithesis between this age and the age to come that undermines the ultimate purposefulness of the present age. These problematic theological moves are often born out of the larger problem of biblical illiteracy and unfamiliarity with what Jesus actually accomplished through His life-giving death and Resurrection. I was eager to address this gap, so when Ancient Faith asked me to write this present volume, I jumped at the opportunity. What Gratitude in Life’s Trenches attempted to do on the personal level—to help individuals find meaning and purpose in their lives—this book attempts to do on a cosmic level: to help us see the meaning and purpose of this world and its history.
In articulating the meaning and purpose of this world and history, I take things right back to the Garden of Eden to explore God’s intention for humans to shepherd creation towards true flourishing in the heaven-earth synthesis. Despite vocational failure, God’s purpose has not changed. While exploring the opening chapters of Genesis, I take a deep dive into the Ancient Near Eastern context of Scripture, using the interpretive methodology I outlined in last year’s Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy article, “Modern Biblical Studies Meets Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Defense of Historical Scholarship.” The discussion then moves from Genesis through to the eschatological hope outlined in the book of Revelation, while constantly exploring what this hope means for us today, living between the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom and its coming culmination. Drawing from Scripture, the teaching of Saints, and ancient liturgical texts, I show that through incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, continuation, and eschatology, God is moving history forward to its climax, which is nothing short of a renewed world where creation once again flourishes under the loving stewardship of men and women. In the process of making this case, I engage in some close-quarter fighting with various misunderstandings that have become systemic to modern Christianity. One such misunderstanding is a highly individualized model of salvation that eclipses the cosmic implications of Christ’s victory over death. From chapter 8:
We often miss the cosmic implications of Christ’s victory because we have been given a truncated view of redemption. Through centuries of misuse, terms such as redemption and salvation have become approximations for various inner experiences or else synonyms for conditions of the afterlife. These misunderstandings have led modern Christians to neglect what God has redeemed us for and to. God has redeemed us for living as resurrected images of Him in the new heavens and the new earth; He has redeemed us to fulfill our royal-priestly vocation of turning the wilderness into Paradise. He has saved us for asserting His rule over all aspects of human endeavor and cultural activity.
Although the book is written from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and includes testimony of my journey to Eastern Orthodoxy, it has been well-received by reformed Protestant reviewers, as well as Roman Catholic scholars. Here is a teaser of some of the endorsements I’ve been blessed to receive.
“Robin Phillips’s journey from his Gnostic Christianity is such a dramatic portrayal of the attraction of new creation that it puts Dan Brown in the shade. Read it with your family and friends and see how God is calling us to a new view of creation.” —William Dyrness, senior professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of The Facts on the Ground: A Wisdom Theology of Culture (2022)
“This is a deeply personal book—and therefore has something real and profound to offer. Robin Phillips calls us to allow the reality of Christ’s victory to penetrate our daily lives. In Christ, we must not reject the material world but rather must rejoice in new creation and anticipate bodily resurrection. Through critical engagement with the Gnostic heresy, biblical exegesis of Adam-Israel-Christ, and liturgical practice in seeing the world rightly, Phillips develops an Orthodox vision of God’s Edenic paradise reconquering the “wilderness” of this fallen world through the power of the Gospel. Inspiring!” —Matthew Levering, James N. Jr. and Mary D. Perry Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary, former president of the Academy of Catholic Theology, and co-editor of the International Journal of Systematic Theology
“Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation is a remarkable work. It is first an intellectual autobiography, as Robin Phillips describes his gradual shedding of the Gnosticism that pervades so much of American Christianity, and now secular thought, and his discovery of the perennial and central Christian teachings of the resurrection of the body and of the coming of a new heaven and the new earth. He finds this in Orthodox theology, a tradition that many Protestants have thought downplayed such things. This story is complexly interwoven with biblical exegesis, reflections on patristics, church history, and historical theology, yet the result is lucid and engaging reading.” —Paul Marshall, author of Heaven Is Not My Home and the Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University
“Ancient Gnosticism’s repudiation of the physical world has found echoes, Robin Phillips shows, in much of contemporary Christianity. He lays out evidence for this assessment, expounds on how the history of redemption laid out in Scripture indicates God’s delight in His creation, urges Christians to welcome their physicality as basic to who they are and to their redemptive hope, and calls them to discern how this should reshape their approach to life, faith, and vocation. This engaging and wide-ranging book deserves a wide audience.” —James R. Payton Jr. Professor of Patristics and Historical Theology, McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario) and author of The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy
Robin Phillips creatively addresses an old heresy too infrequently acknowledged, namely, the Gnostic denigration of creation, which sadly persists in many forms in the Church today. Combining his own story as a “recovering Gnostic” with perceptive cultural analysis, spot-on readings of the Bible, and astute insights from the Christian tradition, Phillips articulates a strong case for, as the title indicates, rediscovering the goodness of creation. In addition to a robust presentation of the biblical story of new creation, Phillips provides helpful practical advice on “how not to be Gnostic.” A very fine book. Take up and read.” —Steve Bouma-Prediger, Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology, Hope College
The book also features endorsements from
- —Dr. Jeannie Constantinou, host of Search the Scriptures Live on Ancient Faith Radio and author of Thinking Orthodox and The Crucifixion of the King of Glory, both published by Ancient Faith Publishing
- —Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green, author
- —Bishop John, Antiochian Orthodox Bishop of Worcester and New England
- —Very Rev. Archimandrite Seraphim, Abbot of Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia
- —Cyril Gary Jenkins, Van Gorden Professor of History at Eastern University (retired)
- —Dr. Timothy Patitsas, dean of Hellenic College, professor of ethics at Holy Cross Seminary, and author of The Ethics of Beauty.
- —Dr. David C. Ford, professor of church history, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary
Look for the book next Spring on Amazon or Ancient Faith Publishing.