National Geographic, teamed with Elaine Pagels, may have done an unwitting service, if they lead Christians to ponder anew the writings of one of the greatest figures of the second century Church: St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
For if, as Harold Bloom suggests, gnosticism is the American religion, then Irenaeus can be a precious guide in discerning the incompatibility of gnostic preferences with Gospel proclamation.
Irenaeus embodied in his person the tradition of both East and West, Asia Minor and Gaul -- when the undivided Church breathed deeply "with both lungs." His work, Against the Heresies, for all its dissecting of gnostic fantasies, offers a compelling synthesis of biblical faith. His vision is of an all-generous God, who fashions, redeems, and patiently transfigures humankind and the material universe through the work of his "two hands:" the Word and the Spirit. Thus God is in direct and tangible contact with his creation, despising nothing that he has made.
The Incarnation is at the center of Irenaeus' vision, as it is of Christian faith. But, through Christ's paschal mystery, the Spirit is poured out on all flesh, and the first fruits of this Pentecostal gift is the community of believers, the Church.
Hence Irenaeus' exultant affirmation: "where the Spirit is, there is the Church, and all grace. And the Spirit is truth" (Against the Heresies, III, 24).
The contemporary Orthodox theologian, Olivier Clement, has a wonderful book, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary (New City Press). Here is his commentary, based on Irenaeus, of the relation of Spirit and Church:
In the Spirit the Church is the mystery of the Risen One, his sacramental presence. It might be called the Pneumatosphere, in which the preaching of the Apostles, the Good News, is always alive and present, continuing the witness of the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples. Faithful and creative Tradition is therefore the life of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ; not passing things down, but the newness of the Spirit, the newness that is constantly being renewed in persons. The Spirit abounds most plentifully in the sacramental body of Christ, but wherever the Spirit is at work in history and the universe, the Church is secretly present.
A blessed celebration of Pentecost!