Gnosticism vs. The Incarnation: The Ancient Battle Renewed

The contemporary sexual revolution is thoroughly Gnostic, attacking the institution of marriage, thwarting the conception of children, and denying the differences between men and women

"Follow me, Satan"(Temptation of Jesus Christ) [1901-03) by Ilya Repin []

There is a tale, whose threads are too long to unravel here, of the meanderings of an idea through history—the idea that, as Nicolas Gómez-Davila parsed it, man is “a god imprisoned in the dull inertia of his flesh, or a god who elevates matter as his cry of victory.” This is the “knowledge” of both the old and the new Gnostics: We are not who we think we are, but gods imprisoned in matter. And knowing that we are gods is the condition for freedom, for it is only our wills that keep us from rising up divine.

If man is a god, then his essence is a will, exercised in purely unrestricted freedom. His sovereignty is expressed gratuitously. That sovereign will must be identical in everyone (or else it is not sovereign), and everything else about individuals exists as mere accidents, signs, or externalities. Indeed such things are impediments to which our wills are shackled.

The ancient form of the tale includes these basic propositions:

The prison in which we are shackled is matter. Yet matter does not matter. It is a dream into which we were born, and in which our spirits serve time in blind darkness, until death, or emancipation.

The creator of this world of matter was demented or malevolent. He is not the One who is the source of our spirit and our freedom.

Being born into this world is our problem. Exiting this world is the solution. Our bodies—and all the things that derive from being embodied and being pinned down into particularity—are features of our prison. That is most especially true of the most basic particularity of our bodies: the division into male and female. It is the primordial cleft, which ramifies throughout all other distinctions. In our highest form, we are androgynous.

Acting upon the sexual distinction, therefore, is the most basic sin. Above all, conceiving and bringing children into this fallen world of matter merely traps their free spirits and consigns them to bondage. When born, everyone has been conceived in the sin of his parents and is clothed in the prison uniform of his signifying flesh.

The ancient Gnostic responded by avoiding the generation of children. Some of them became extreme ascetics and totally celibate and even sacramentalized their fasting unto death. But some of them became “free spirits” who flouted all sexual taboos and customs—upon which the world’s prison bars were built—and engaged in every sort of sexual irregularity. It demonstrated the Gnostics’ contempt for the deep distinctions and features of the material world and how they were living purely in the spirit, and no longer bound by the world. It was a sign of contradiction to the fallen world, and was, in itself, a way to arise out of it, ringing the changes on what that world held to be sin, entering into it, but without being caught in it, and thereby wearing it out, exploding it from the inside, deconstructing it, turning the sexual act into something that would not result in the conception of children. Such acts too, for the Gnostic, could be sacramental.

Sexual activity engaged in by the unenlightened followed the logic of the prison world and resulted in its continuation into succeeding generations. Sexual activity that might be engaged in by the enlightened was done to arouse the “spirit,” but then to turn it to a purely spiritual purpose and away from the generation of children. The strategy was the uncoupling of the act from its worldly consequence, the generation of children.

At the very heart of this was the determination to undermine the foundation of this prison world. Whether the strategy was one of extreme asceticism or extreme licentiousness, the point was the same—the defeat of the material world by the freed spirit, whose essence was its own divine, sovereign will, unencumbered by any consequences that were not the expressions of its free choice.

The Current Gnosticism

This Gnostic logic underlies our contemporary sexual revolution, including the sacramentalizing of same-sex activities, the attack on traditional marriage, the evaluation of procreation as mere breeding, the treating of pregnancy as an unhealthy state that should be annulled or healed, the offering of contraception as a means to avoid that state, the evaluation of abortion as a way to avoid the supreme sin of bringing into the unwelcoming world a soul that would be marked with the sign of its iniquitous conception, and the offering of assistance—as a kindness—to those who would freely choose to end their lives.

Extending the logic: pregnancy is now an aesthetic project of the mother; the child in the womb is only clay until it magically becomes a person when the mother exercises her “choice” (made without interference from anyone else); one’s body itself as merely the expression of one’s sovereign choices; effacing the integrity of its natural state is an act of enlightened choice and a powerful contradiction to its given character; tattoos, piercings, and other mutilations and transmogrifications are therefore “beautiful” and a sign of “authenticity” because they clarify that the given material form of the body signifies nothing that is ultimately true.

The sovereign will of the individual that is the supposed center of gravity of this, however, is actually a thin reed. For the immutable and unassailable will that is supposed to be the individual’s is, by definition, unconditioned by accidents of time and place and history. It is, and can only be, Will. And for it to be free, it must act without regard to what any individual might need or think. It is for this reason that the “sovereign will” in our age has been so easily transferred to the tribe, the clan, the State, and the amorphous, collective People. When that Will is exercised, it clashes with and often negates the mere wills of individuals, who are not in perfect agreement with it, and who—by that very disagreement, are demonstrated to have not yet achieved enlightened freedom, and are guilty of “false consciousness,” or, as we might say, have not achieved true Gnosis. Their resistance must be annulled. In this is contained the follies and horrors of the past century, which are by no means over. Indeed, the Gnostic idea continues to advance from victory to victory.

The Gnostic Pose as True Christianity

The Gnostic idea mimics the Christian idea, and then, once inside the gates, throws off its disguise and destroys the city of the false god who created this prison world and entrapped free spirits within it. It presents the case for same-sex marriage, for example, as merely an extension of Christian charity to all, while hiding, until it is safe to unveil it, its animus for the procreative union of male and female. For the old Gnostics as well as the new ones, that demented god, the Patriarch, who created this world and who pretends to be the true God is the God of the Old Testament. And for them, the New Testament is precisely an outline that gives the strategy for overthrowing him.

The Gnostic idea is wholly opposed to the actual Christian idea, whose central pillar is the Incarnation of God in the person of a man, Jesus Christ. The Gnostic idea rejects the Incarnation, and replaces it with a narrative of disguised secrets and salvation via deception. It does not accept the reality of Christ’s true birth in the flesh, his true life as a man, fully embodied. Nor does it accept the reality of his true suffering and true death. It turns all this into a sham, a simulacrum of life and death, a show by a divine actor in disguise. For the good God could not embrace matter.

In short, it refuses the idea that the Creator of the world is good, and that the world He created is good, and that the body we have is good, and that it is good that we should go forth and multiply. It cannot allow that the natural world that God created is good and true and beautiful as it is, but only that it must be turned to the purposes of pure spirit, to our purposes, not to his. We must all strain to be “spiritual, but not religious.” We must look forward to the resurrection from the body. We all must become as angels, a process that proceeds through mimicking the Christian process of regeneration.

All of this makes the Gnostic idea a heresy. (Or, if it is not a heresy, then nothing is a heresy.) And its particular danger is its close resemblance to the Christian truth, so close that it has confused many Christians (lay and cleric both) into thinking that it is the Christian truth, rather than the anti-Christian “truth.” We are not gods. We are not pure spirits. We are not angels. We look forward to the resurrection of the body. Our wills are not the will of God. We enter into the most perilous territory when we try to redirect our own futures simply to suit our own wills. There is a tremendous cost in blood when we accept the “knowledge” of the serpent in Eden.

There are indeed dark “structures of oppression” in this material world. That oppression is not in accord with God’s will. The Christian looks to salvation and is convinced that we are ultimately in the world but not of the world, that our true and lasting home is heaven. But the Creator of this world made it good.

The truth of the Incarnation was not simply that Christ came, disguised as the lowest of men, to smuggle, into our prison, directions on how to flee it, but that, when he came, as fully God and fully man, God also re-affirmed and fulfilled His judgment that the world He had created, in all its variegated and sometimes frail forms, was good and, as the product of His handwork, was blessed. He confirmed that He loves the world, and loves us as a father loves his children. And so it is holy and righteous to be fruitful and multiply. Children are a gift from the good God, and their generation is blessed. Baptism is not just a negation of their fleshly generation, but is also a fulfillment of it—a regeneration.

Guarding Church doctrine, as Chesterton pointed out, has been like holding the reins of a team of horses who constantly wish to veer off to one side or the other. The Church guards a single mysterious truth in the Incarnation and has to keep a grip on two reins so that it does not deny that this world is redeemed but yet, that its redemption is incomplete until time itself is rolled up, and Christ comes again in glory. It will be his victory, not ours, no matter what we try to do to make his kingdom come. A utopian kingdom built solely by our own “divine” hands, will betray its goals—it will not be “inclusive” of all, but will dissolve each person into a mere class and ruthlessly divide humankind into the Elect and the Damned, the children of Light and the children of Darkness, the sainted class of victims (who have come to recognize themselves as such) and the damned class of oppressors. It will not usher in a millennium of progress, but a State of unyielding stasis that crushes variation and individual initiative.

Bootstrap Regeneration

The contemporary sexual revolution is thoroughly Gnostic. It attacks the institution of marriage and, therefore, the sacrament of Matrimony, which sanctifies and consecrates the production of children, challenging it by encouraging sexual activity that does not produce children, and then, most recently, by attempting to replace it with what denies that most fundamental material artifice of the demented creator god—sexual difference. Nevertheless, perhaps the ultimate source of antagonism between the Gnostic idea being played out in the sexual revolution and the Christian idea is not centered around the sacrament of Matrimony, but rather the sacrament of Baptism—regeneration.

That portion of our tale also has threads that are too long and twisted to unravel here, and involved such things as the troubadours of Southern France and Italy traveling in once-Cathar (and so Gnostic) regions, praising the unhooking of marriage from “true,” “spiritual” love, which did not bear material fruit. It also involved the spread of an iconoclastic idea of limitless human freedom, conveyed in mostly secret conventicles along the Rhine and in the Low Countries of Europe.

It eventuated in a theological crisis that crystalized around the sacraments, and, in so doing, pointed to a loss of conviction in the truth of the Incarnation. In this loss the “imprisonment” of the holy, of the free spirit, in mere matter—the bread of the Eucharist, the water of Baptism, the sexual act of male and female that produced children—seemed to be repulsive and even blasphemous. All that was progressively denied.

So then how were humans to escape from this prison of sinful materiality, in which they were interwined from the very moment of their conception, their generation? Traditionally, a Christian would say one was freed by the sacrament of Baptism. That was regeneration. And afterwards, by the continuing graces of that regeneration, one would continue and deepen its effects in one’s life through repentance and inner reconversion.

However, for a Gnostic (or whatever he called himself), the sacrament of Baptism seemed a sham. It was effected through the “matter” of water, and it was done through the power of the materially-visible and therefore fundamentally corrupt Church, and it could be effected without the will, the spirit, of the person being obviously involved—such as in infant baptism. At best the sacrament was a mere metaphor for something purely spiritual and internal. At worst, it was a delusion that could never deliver what it promised.

But if it could not really effect the regeneration of man, what could? Such regeneration would be something wrought wholly out of the individual’s fully formed (and divine) will. It would also be entirely spiritual and unmixed with the material. Yet it would allow the man-god not only to escape “the dull inertia of his fleshly prison,” but also “to hold up matter as his cry of victory.”

The full force of the logic only appeared gradually—showing itself sporadically and half-hidden until the Enlightenment and then the 18th and 19th century European revolutions. There, “regeneration” became much more than an individual matter (as I said, “individual” freedom is a frail reed that is quickly broken and then consumed in the bonfire of the collective will), but rather something that communities, states, “peoples” were required to undergo.

But on the individual level, it meant that regeneration would be something that occurred incrementally, progressively, over the course of generations. This would be a “progression” that was always ascending higher in spirit, just as in the Gnostic description of the ascent of the soul into pure spirit. Each generation would provide the next generation with a successively more refined, purer, and more spiritual start. The acquired virtues of the parents would be passed on to the next generation, which would begin their upward progress from there. Education, properly done, and technology would accomplish the task. But each generation would also need self-examination and self-criticism, struggle sessions, and re-education camps. Sometimes the transition to the next stage would be easy, but often it would be difficult and only effected by a violent and revolutionary inner or outer crisis. For at each stage in this successive ascent, the further stage would be still hidden and unclear, and its definition would have to come from outside and above the earlier stage’s view. In this way, it was thought, man could bootstrap his own salvation. The sequence of generation and then regeneration would be overcome: the regeneration of the parents would affect the subsequent generation of their children.

Along these lines, by the middle of the 19th century, many had convinced themselves that the inner virtues, the thoughts, and the feelings of a man and a woman during sexual intercourse would have a dominating effect on the formation of the child they conceived: if their thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions were spiritual and virtuous and edifying, then the very physical body and the mental formation of their child would be elevated. If not—which is to say, if the sexual act were not entirely the result of a free choice of the unencumbered will (particularly that of the woman)—then the child would bear the deep marks of deformation in his or her mind and body. The child was, therefore, entirely the product of the spirit of the parents, which would grow more perfect and spiritualized as the generations proceeded. Mostly, children were not to be generated, at least not “haphazardly,” but if they were, they had to be bred “better,” and this could be done only if the child’s parents had already been spiritually and mentally regenerated. This “Lamarckian” notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is the model for the Gnostic overcoming of our fallen condition.  Instead of generation, followed by regeneration, it inverted the sequence: (parental) regeneration, followed by generation (of the child).

The Gnostic Ascent of Man

Everything about the sexual revolution flowed from this: all the encouragement of sex that had no consequences except the stirring of the passion and “vital energies,” the concern to prevent “unwanted” pregnancy, all the exotic physical techniques (for arousing but then withholding and “transmuting” the semen) and all the chemical and mechanical technologies to accomplish that, all the conviction that the mother’s “choice” turned a lifeless mass of tissue into a person of inestimable and divine value, all the segregation of the “breeding” of children from the spiritual (read: made materially inconsequential) act of sex. In general, one might say, the goal was for men to hold in their semen and transform it into spirit, and for women to generate children by sleeping with spirits. All children would then be “immaculate conceptions,” freed from what, today, is being referred to as the “rape culture.” Is this not, in allegedly “secular” and “progressive” terms, merely an aping of something else? Something that Monsignor Ronald Knox, in The Creed in Slow Motion, described this way:

You see, it is as if the message of Gabriel first imprinted on her thoughts the image of the Saviour who was to come, and thereupon the reality of that image began to form itself in her womb. … the Word was made flesh in order that we, creatures of the flesh, might be brought, once more, under the power of the Spirit.

Most of all, this Gnostic “Ascent of Man” requires that only the regenerated should generate children. If others did, the children would be marked with sin and doomed to a world of woe, a destiny so bad, one could say, that they would be better off being put out of their misery, and “released” thereby from their fleshly encasement. At the end of this logic is not only eugenics and euthanasia, but a regime in which only the Elect are allowed to have children—practically speaking, the “regenerated” (read “Progressive”) State would license them—and when they are born their wellbeing and education will be entirely in the hands of the State, not their biological parents. Are these intentions not clear enough already to anyone who can read the newspapers?

And who, today, are those convinced they have been regenerated in this way? It is not difficult to pick them out. They are the ones who, like one reporter who, when commenting on a couple who had a dozen children, snarked, “Don’t they know anything about sex?”—an absurd question on its face, but clearly one that attempted to place the couple as ignorant troglodytes and to place himself as “knowing” about sex, when, in fact, what he “knew” about sex was how to prevent conception. From his “raised consciousness,” he and his comrades will, if they get the chance, prevent those of “false consciousness” from multiplying. It is a eugenics and euthanasia club, with a program for breeding better babies, for taking our evolution into our own hands, for regenerating the human race. For they “know” that gender is merely an adventitious social construct of the oppressive and malevolent “Patriarchy.” They know that the world is shot through with injustice: it is the creation and continuation of a primordial rape by a deluded and lustful Patriarch. Having attended mandatory “sexual harassment orientations,” they know that every act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is, consciously or unconsciously, an echo of that rape.

They know that Jesus was a freedom fighter and social revolutionary, intent on “queering” the customs of the world, and thus healing and reconciling the evil effects of that rape. They know that he was a savior because he was a sign of contradiction and the stone that the builders of the world prison rejected, who shall be the cornerstone of the New Age.

This is the culture that has now arrived. Despite what some may think, it is not devoid of a deeply “religious conviction,” but the conviction is a Gnostic one. And it is not Christian. It is a most profoundly twisted Christian heresy. And Christianity cannot assimilate it or compromise with it, except with fatal results. But that is in fact the Gnostics’ goal.

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).