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Essay
May 02, 2011
An ancient hatred of the material world takes many modern forms.

One of the oldest heresies besetting the Church is Gnosticism. We can say “is” rather than “was” because the temptation to entirely spiritualize Christianity and demonize the material world never really goes away. In fact, we are seeing it in a new form today in the notion that the material world, as it’s been “given” to us by evolution, is radically defective, and we therefore need to transform it completely by human will.

This new Gnosticism is rooted in modern science, rather than ancient spiritualism, and sees the human body itself—even the distinction of male and female—to be something that is fundamentally flawed and in need of transformation by human technological power. To understand the new form of Gnosticism, we’d better remind ourselves of the old.

The heresy of Gnosticism had its origin in paganism but burst into full flower in its disruption of early Christianity. At its heart is a hatred of the material world, in particular, the human body. Gnostics rejected the material world as the evil creation of an inferior Demiurge, the world-making deity that the Gnostic heretics identified with Creator God revealed in the Old Testament. Against the orthodox understanding of the goodness of all creation, they believed that the material world was irredeemable, and therefore that human redemption meant salvation of the immaterial soul—the divine spark—from its imprisonment.

Salvation came through gnōsis (“knowledge” in Greek), and it was Jesus Christ who brought this knowledge into the world as a messenger of the Supreme Being. Jesus was divine, but since the flesh was evil, he wasn’t really incarnate. Gnostics believed him to be a purely spiritual being who came to save souls from their entrapment in bodies. He appeared to have a body, but didn’t; he seemed as if he was crucified and died, but he really wasn’t and he didn’t.

And so, hatred of the flesh led to a rejection of the possibility that the Word could become flesh. It also led to an ethic rooted in extreme asceticism, which rejected sexuality both because it was so deeply bound up with sexual pleasure and because it led to more divine sparks becoming trapped in bodies. Rejection of sexuality led to a denial of the goodness and importance of male and female. As part of this tendency, Gnosticism elevated the status of certain woman “spiritual” elites, but as purely spiritual beings, i.e., androgynous immaterial sparks freed from confines of earthly biological gender.

The difficulty Christianity faced is that it was not battling a complete falsehood, but a half-truth, a fervent affirmation of Jesus’ divinity, but at the expense of his full humanity.

That is the way of heresies. They are almost always human simplifications of Divine mysteries. God reveals something that is above human understanding, and the heretic tries to reformulate it to accord with human understanding. The Incarnation—purely spiritual God made flesh—troubles our merely human minds. We get the idea of God being purely spiritual, and we get the idea of the material flesh, but that the two became united in one person—that is above our human intellectual powers to grasp.

Faced with this mystery, we then have two choices. We may admit its truth, and humbly accept the Incarnation as above the ken of our human intellectual abilities, or we may deny what is beyond our grasp. The first is the way of orthodoxy, the second of heresy.

The orthodox acceptance of Christ’s full divinity and humanity had immense ramifications for understanding our own humanity. Just as Christ was not a pure spirit merely appearing to have a body, we are not souls trapped in bodies. Our essential union of immaterial soul and material body is meant to be by the good Creator God. The limitations of the human body are proper to our place in the hierarchy of creation, our benevolently and divinely designed position between immaterial angels and material animals. Being divided into male and female is not a punishment from which we escape, but a privilege, an intended gift of the Creator that defines, for each person, the very depths of his or her being.

One of the most insightful of figures of the 20th century was the political philosopher Eric Voegelin, whose classic New Science of Politics revealed the Gnostic origins of modernity, or better, of certain powerful and influential strains of modern thought and practice.

The new Gnosticism didn’t spring forth all at once, but was gradually built up over several centuries using four key elements: first, the belief that the goal of science is not the discovery of truth itself but the relief of human suffering and the extension of human life; second, the acceptance of an entirely materialist view of reality; third, the Darwinian belief that things in nature are randomly rather than divinely contrived; and finally, an aggressive secularism rooted in atheism.

For the new Gnosticism, God doesn’t exist and material reality is the only reality. The material universe (not God) is eternal, and our world was created and is continually formed and reformed by the fickle ministrations of chance. The fickle “god” Chance, therefore, becomes the equivalent of the ancient Gnostic demiurgic deity who created the evil material world. Creation by chance—the random variation and natural selection of Darwinism—gives us a faulty material biological world that causes so much evil and suffering. The goal of science is to transform the faulty material by technological power, so that we may live in a this-worldly utopia, where nature provides plenty without our labor, all sickness has been wiped away, endless physical pleasures abound, there is perpetual peace, and medicine has bestowed on us physical immortality.

We can now see why Voegelin labeled this belief a revived form of Christian heresy. Heresy takes orthodoxy and bends it to its own purposes. The new Gnosticism takes the Christian doctrine of heaven and materializes it, setting as its historical goal the creation of a utopian heaven-on-earth that mimics the Christian understanding of Paradise.

Also evident is the old Gnostic desire to simplify things, to mold them according to what the human intellect can easily and completely grasp, to replace divine mystery with human clarity. Materialism itself is a great simplification, reducing all the vast complexity of reality to a few simple things we can understand. It’s easier to reduce everything in nature to a few laws of physics or a few basic chemical reactions; it’s easier to reduce the intricate, deep, and often entirely mysterious nature of human thought, choice, and action to some simple mechanism (like stimulus and response) or passion (like fear, sexual desire, or the desire for selfpreservation).

We also find heretical simplifications of the Christian doctrines concerning sin, but with a twist. As with the old Gnosticism, the cause of sin and suffering is the bad material world. The new Gnostic believes that nature is randomly contrived. The human body itself is the result of blind processes, cobbled together over millions of years of evolutionary meandering. Evil action, physical suffering, and material want are not the result of the human disorder of sin, but are the inevitable outcome of unguided evolution. Nature, including human nature, is a mixed bag. But bad luck in nature, especially human nature, can be overcome by the union of human intelligence and human technical power.

Precisely here we can see how the ancient Gnostic Supreme Being reenters in a new form: human beings themselves perform the function of the redeeming deity; their increasing technical power saves humanity from the ill effects, the suff ering, and the limitations of the human flesh; the scientist himself becomes the savior who reveals scientific knowledge— gnōsis—that allows us to escape from the evils of the material world into a paradise of our own making.

Here, we must stave off a possible misconception. Christianity isn’t antiscientific or anti-technological. The development of pure science and technology are both essential aspects of our nature. Nor is the amelioration of human suffering and want a bad thing. The orthodox Christian differs from the modern Gnostic, not in having technology, but in the spirit of its use. The Christian accepts the limitations of human nature as good, and subordinates technology to them; the new Gnostic sees those limitations themselves as evil, or at least arbitrary, and therefore sees no problem with overriding them.

We should now begin to understand why, in our times, the aim of technology is so often and so avidly the manipulation and recreation of human nature. The assumption of the new Gnostic is that he has been handed a work in progress, a work brought to an arbitrary and unsatisfying point by blind evolution, and that his most important task is to take this defective material (genetic or otherwise) as his clay, and remold it according to the desired purposes.

And so the common complaint that contemporary scientists are playing God is not misplaced. In the materialist universe, human beings are the only rational creatures, and therefore the only ones who can act as intelligent demiurges recreating the material world and human nature itself.

We can therefore understand the endless excitement about fiddling with our genome, driven by the notion that all diseases and bad behavior are caused by our having been dealt a bad genetic hand. Technology can cure what used to be considered the effects of sin and a fallen world. Of course, death is itself the greatest defect, and now we understand why our medicine, saturated by the new Gnosticism, tries so mightily for the greatest prize, the bestowal of material immortality. Reconstruction replaces resurrection.

But such defects aren’t the only target of Gnostic techno-manipulation. We cannot understand much of our contemporary social and political situation unless we grasp, deeply and thoroughly, one very important point: the natural distinction of male and female is one more natural limitation that the new Gnostic seeks to remove. Again, in ancient Gnosticism, some women were given a place of precedence, not because they were women, but because Gnostics considered the pure spirit trapped in the body to be androgynous, or better, to be like the angels, neither male nor female. Gnosticism provided an escape from the confines of gender.

In the same way, the new Gnostic drive for equality assumes that the fundamental sexual distinction and its effects on the ordering of social and moral life are ultimately accidents of evolutionary history that can be repaired and superseded. Technology embodies the knowledge and power to eliminate the sexual and bodily distinctions, so that male and female can slowly fade and then disappear in a final utopian world of asexual “individuals.” To cite an obvious example, the great energy put into “alternative reproduction technologies” is really, at heart, directed to the elimination of the fundamental reason for the natural division between male and female.

But the essential biological distinction between male and female has obvious moral and social effects, and the new Gnostic is bent on eliminating the effects of gender using a thorough moral and societal reconstruction. Obvious examples abound: the redefinition of sexuality in terms of pleasure (which is common to both sexes) rather than procreation (where the contributions of each are quite different); following upon this, the advocacy of contraception and abortion so that both men and woman are equally removed from the connection between sexuality and childbearing; the redefinition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman to mean nearly any association, including its opposite, homosexual marriage; the notion that being a wife and mother is a kind of biological punishment or inferior vocation from which technology and politics must help women escape, rather than (as Christianity maintains) a noble vocation essential to our natural good; the notion that father and mother are not unique aspects of the natural family but can be replaced by the gender-indifferent “parent” or “caregiver.”

Other aspects of Gnostic reconstruction are a bit more subtle and contain mixed motives. While state-sponsored care of single mothers may arise from good intentions, the practical result has been to remove men from the natural position as responsible husbands and fathers. The drive for women to work outside the home was initiated in part by the desire not to be entirely beholden to ne’er-do-well or tyrannical husbands, but even more by the Gnostic notion that being a wife and mother was a kind of slavery to biology. The mixed motives are also present in the passion for state-sponsored daycare. Whatever the motive, the result is the social dissolution of the gender-defined family.

We must add some things that normally go unnoticed. The production of infant formula was in part aimed at helping women who were biologically unable to provide enough breast milk. But the greater impetus was the belief that natural mother’s milk was inferior to what science could provide—an essentially new Gnostic notion. In either case, the result was to free women up from another great, defining “chain” of natural childbearing, which for time immemorial had defined her necessary tasks. Anyone, or anything, can hold a bottle of chemicals for a baby. If you doubt the dramatic effects of the introduction of infant formula on society, try this intellectual exercise: imagine the dramatic reconstruction of our current way of life that would occur if infant formula suddenly disappeared from grocery store shelves.

The Gnostic urge finds its way into other areas that we have labeled “politically correct,” a tag that doesn’t illuminate the deeper causes. To point to the obvious, the politically correct elimination of gendered pronouns—not just the he/she imbroglio, but the already noted substitution of “parent” or “caregiver” for mother and father, and we may add, of “partner” for husband and wife.

Reconstructing speech in this way isn’t just the result of a desire to eliminate injustices against women, but even more, to signal that gender and what comes from it are things we need to transcend. The elimination of gender in speech is a reflection of the desire to eliminate the effects of gender in society and in nature itself. With the abovementioned efforts, we may also include the holding up of manly females and effeminate men as iconic by the various media, and the pushing of woman into traditionally male jobs (construction worker, fireman, policeman, soldier), and the pulling of men into jobs usually associated with woman (nursing). All serve, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, the elimination from society of the divisions and distinctions caused by male and female.

We have then uncovered an important aspect of the new Gnosticism that was not in the old: given that the new form is bent on the this-worldly task of recreating defective nature, it is essentially political. Political correctness isn’t just a matter of correcting speech or history textbooks. The new Gnosticism understands politics to be half the essential means of correcting reality. Technical power and political power are yoked for the sake of a complete recreation of our world where the defects and limitations of the human body have been entirely overcome by the human will and the benefits have been spread evenly throughout society (if even by force).

 

 
About the Author
Benjamin Wiker 

Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. is Visiting Associate Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. His most recent book is Worshipping the State: How Liberalism Became Our State Religion. His website is www.benjaminwiker.com.
 

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