Conservative critics of contemporary culture often remark that our contemporary age is marked by Gnosticism. And it’s not just conservative Christians or Catholics who make the observation. The Yale literary critic, Harold Bloom, who was raised an Orthodox Jew but as an aged adult once described himself as a “Jewish Gnostic,” wrote in his seminal 1992 work The American Religion that “the American religion, for its two centuries of existence, seems to me irretrievably Gnostic”; we are “an obsessed society wholly in the grip of a dominant Gnosticism”; “Gnosticism is now, and always has been, the hidden religion of the United States, the American religion proper”. At more length:
The oddity of our American Gnosis is that it is a mass phenomenon. There are tens of millions of Americans whose obsessive idea of spiritual freedom violates the normative basis of historical Christianity, though they are incapable of realizing how little they share of what once was considered Christian doctrine.
Given the claims made about our society, it behooves us to understand what it is and how we might combat it. For Gnosticism is perennial challenge to the Church, whether a heretical temptation to Christians within or an operative philosophy of the dominant culture without. As perennial, it remains a challenge today, and I would suggest we live now in the West under a Gnostic empire of desire.
But what is Gnosticism? At its point of historical origin, it is fundamentally a radical reading of Plato as regards matter and the body. In Plato’s dialogues, arguments are presented claiming the senses deceive, for the visible realm of sense perception is illusory and a realm of constant flux, while it is the invisible, intelligible realm that is stable, unchanging, and ultimately Real. We may attain knowledge of it through the spiritual soul’s contemplation of it. And so in Plato’s dialogues, the body is a problem. Indeed, it’s described even as a “tomb” or a “prison,” neither of which are nice places:
There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness—we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining impure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. (Plato, Phaedrus 250c)
I think this admits of many explanations, if a little, even very little, change is made; for some say it [the body] is the tomb (sēma) of the soul, their notion being that the soul is buried in the present life; and again, because by its means the soul gives any signs which it gives, it is for this reason also properly called “sign” (sēma). But I think it most likely that the Orphic poets gave this name, with the idea that the soul is undergoing punishment for something; they think it has the body as an enclosure to keep it safe, like a prison, and this is, as the name itself denotes, the safe (sōma) for the soul, until the penalty is paid, and not even a letter needs to be changed. (Plato, Cratylus 400b-c)
Gnosticism, then, as radical Platonism, is a worldview which sees matter, and thus bodies, not just as a problem but as fundamentally evil, something with imprisons and entombs spirits. Plato’s demiurge (the fashioner of the cosmos lower than the One, the true and highest divinity) becomes a wicked, evil agent fashioning the evil visible world, and imprisoning souls in bodies. And so Gnosticism sees the true essence of a person as the spiritual soul, and since the body is a prison or tomb, Gnosticism sees salvation as striving for the liberation of the soul from the body and its constraints.
Gnosticism was the greatest heretical challenge to the early Church. Christian Gnostics basically interpreted Christian beliefs through the lens of their radical Platonism, while Gnostics outside the Church (like the Manichaeans with whom St. Augustine was affiliated for a decade) competed for converts. And so Gnostics necessarily believed in at least two gods, with the creator god of the material, visible world as presented in the Old Testament as an evil deity responsible for imprisoning spirits in bodies, while the kind, loving father-god of Jesus as presented in the New Testament worked to liberate spirits from bodies. Indeed, the historic creeds of the early Church were anti-Gnostic by effect and by design: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
So much for Gnostics on the question of God and gods. With regard to humanity, Gnosticism was, and is, also elitist, holding that there is a hierarchy within humanity. The highest rank comprises the pneumatics, the “spirituals” (as pneuma in Greek means “spirit”). These people have spirits that can be liberated from their bodies. The next rank comprises the psychics, “soulish” people (psychē meaning “soul”) who may not be able to be saved as they lack spirits but who, having some sort of souls, can achieve some degree of illumination. And the final rank comprises the vast mass of humanity, the hylics (hulē meaning “matter”), who are only bodies, lacking spirits and souls. They’re cattle, and cannot be illuminated or saved.
Salvation for Gnosticism is a matter of knowledge. Indeed, that’s where “Gnostic” comes from, as the Greek word for knowledge is gnōsis, as in the English words prognosis (knowledge of how a disease will progress), diagnosis (knowledge of a disease through its symptoms), and agnostic (someone who doesn’t know if there’s a god). One must know reality is really how Gnostics understand it, know that one is one of the elite who can be saved, and know the secret code that will liberate spirit from body.
Secrecy: Gnosticism trades in it, and the elites were the ones who possessed the secret knowledge about the cosmos and the secret codes for escaping it. The elites simply know the very structure of the universe and simply know the secret code of salvation. Christian Gnostics also claimed to know secret sayings of Jesus. Gnostic Gospels composed long after Jesus lived concoct secret sayings of Jesus and conversations with him in which he happens to support their ideology. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas (dated to about A.D. 150) begins, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” The Gospel of Judas similarly begins, “The secret discourse of the pronouncement in which Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot for eight days, three days before he celebrated Passover.” And so secrecy empowers elites: they just know how things are, and are thus intellectually superior to lower humans, especially hylics, who are not to question their judgment.
The Gnostic ideology meant, and means, three major things in the realm of faith and morals, all flowing from the idea that matter, and thus bodies, are intrinsically evil. In terms of the Christian faith, it first means sacraments were senseless. Sacraments are essentially God working through matter, but Gnostics regard matter as intrinsically evil, so no god and certainly not the highest god would work through it.
In terms of morality, it means second that babies were bad; what else is a newborn but seven pounds of inherently evil matter? And so Gnostics advocated and practiced contraception, abortion, and infanticide, all of which were common in the ancient world. They also had a disdain for the female form since females bore babies, and saw the human person not as dimorphic (male and female) in principle but as androgynous. For instance, the last saying (#114) in the Gospel of Thomas is an exchange between a fictional Jesus and fictional Peter: “Simon Peter said, ‘Mary [Magdalene] should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ And Jesus said, “Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she becomes a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male shall enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
And then again as regards morals, in the third place Gnostics were often antinomian, meaning that they rejected any rules or laws disciplining the body, and so felt free to engage in licentious behavior; if the body does not matter, if we are not ultimately our bodies, why not use them as we please? But the logic could cut the other way, too, leading some Gnostics to extreme asceticism; if the body is evil, best not to feed its passions for food, drink, or sex in any way.
At every point, then, heretical Christian Gnosticism understood the Christian story in a way diametrically opposed to the Church’s understanding of her own story. Catholics like St. Irenaeus fought Gnosticism by emphasizing the ancient rule of faith (regula fidei) going back to Jesus. The rule of faith as found in the Church Fathers looks much like what we know today as the Apostles Creed. It is monotheist, affirming there is one God, the Creator, who made everything, including matter and bodies: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” It’s Trinitarian: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord”—and so the creator God is the Father of Jesus, not a different God. And of course the third person of the Trinity is affirmed, and that Holy Spirit guides and empowers the visible Church: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church.” Church follows Spirit in the rule of faith and our Apostles Creed for these reasons.
With regard to supposedly secret traditions known to the elite leaders of the Gnostic antichurch, St. Irenaeus affirmed apostolic succession (he himself traces his lineage back to Jesus through his mentor Polycarp and Polycarp’s mentor, St. John the Apostle) in the visible Church established by Jesus and declared that anyone can walk into any Church and find true Christian teaching proclaimed publicly there. And not only teaching, but sacraments were there as well. The creator God, Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, made matter and works through matter, giving his people sacramental nourishment for body and soul. And on that point, the Catholic Church was for everyone, for there is no fundamental division of humanity. Every single person has a spiritual soul, not just a body, from the Emperor and the sage to the lowest slave girl. And as regards morality, the early Church rejected contraception and abortion outright.
Gnosticism and American Culture
Gnosticism is not merely ancient. A perennial ideology, it’s proven itself a powerful cultural current through the ages. In the middle ages it resurfaced in the heresy of Albigensianism (or Catharism), which denied the importance of the Church and its sacraments, claiming people could be “good Christians” on their own, believing in Jesus personally. Certain anti-sacramental strains of the Reformation skewed Gnostic. And many in our own day have found America to be fundamentally Gnostic, such as the aforementioned Harold Bloom of Yale, finding it to be our fundamental American religion. Americans flee the constraints of the visible world, and particularly the constraints of the body. White Americans fled Europe, a product of history with all the constraints historical legacy imposes, and founded a republic based on an idea. While the Founders attempted to establish a republic founded on what the Declaration of Independence termed the “Laws of Nature, and Nature’s God,” Americans today are at heart revolutionaries for revolution’s sake alone, rebelling now not against oppressive monarchies for the sake of ordered liberty but rebelling for disorder against the very truths of Nature and Nature’s God.
Americans today are like Gnostics, then, in rejecting any and all constraints. For us, freedom is antinomian license. During his visit to the United States in 1998 in a homily at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Pope St. John Paul II reminded Americans of the true nature of freedom:
Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.
With these words, John Paul was attempting to correct our warped understanding of freedom. For Americans today see freedom as freedom from any and all constraints, any and all rules, any and all laws, while true freedom is having freedom for virtue, to live virtuous lives ordered to the Good.
With the throwing off of constraints comes the rejection of the body as a gift given by God. In recent years extreme body piercing and tattooing have become common, while disorders like anorexia and bulimia are on the rise, all of which at the least reflect confusion regarding the goodness of the body as given, and even its rejection. So too with the more obvious examples of elective cosmetic surgery, body modification, and sex change operations (or “gender reassignment surgery,” as it’s now often called). Some people have even used surgery to make themselves resemble zombies, or dragons.
Gnosticism is also seen in America’s ready acceptance of contraception, which progressives now see as an absolute right that must be provided by private employers and government entities, and even religious organizations, and also in our abortion regime, under which well over fifty million have died before seeing the light of day. And of course as we operate with a conception of freedom from constraints, America is marked by the same licentiousness early Christians criticized ancient Gnostics for. As St. Irenaeus wrote, “the ‘most perfect’ among them do unafraid all the forbidden things of which the Scripture tells us that ‘they who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’”
Gnosticism and the Law
It’s observed that Gnosticism, particularly in the form of the licentiousness of the sexual revolution, has come to infect American jurisprudence as well. The legal regime legitimizing contraception and abortion and indeed the broader sexual revolution is not found in the text of the Constitution, but rather in its shadows, the “penumbras” and “emanations.” In his opinion in Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965), which struck down state laws banning contraception, Justice William O. Douglas wrote, “The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. Various guarantees create zones of privacy.” Ancient Gnostics used the same terms—“penumbras” and “emanations”—and their elites simply knew what was found in those shadowy domains by virtue of being the elite, much like our justices simply know that a right to privacy undergirding the ideology of the sexual revolution is somehow there not in the words but in the shadows of the Constitution.
Jurisprudential Gnosticism is found in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), which upheld and strengthened the abortion regime of Roe vs. Wade (1973). Writing for the majority, Kennedy asserted,
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
If Gnosticism is radical Platonism, this is radical Gnosticism. Kennedy does not argue for his claim that liberty has at its heart “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” he just asserts it. He simply knows it, as the most elite of an elite, the functional swing vote of the Supreme Court of the United States. He has secret knowledge, somehow.
Our Gnosticism is more relativistic than ancient Gnosticism, however. The ancient Gnostics, at least, believed that the invisible was an objective, stable realm, ultimate Reality, the same for everyone, even if the visible realm was inconstant illusory flux. For Americans today, however, invisible, ultimate Reality is also up for grabs, defined as whatever any individual wants it to be. Gnostics had the principle of universal doctrine, true for everybody. Kennedy’s quote encapsulates the total relativism of our age: we now believe Reality is whatever someone wishes it to be. Robert George, a Catholic who serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:
The moral implications [of contemporary Gnosticism] are clear. It is personal life that we have reason to hold inviolate and protect against harm; by contrast, we can legitimately use other creatures for our purposes. So someone who buys into a Gnostic anthropology that separates person and body in the way I have described will find it easier to speak of those with undeveloped, defective, or diminished mental capacities as non-persons. They will find it easier to justify abortion; infanticide; euthanasia for the cognitively impaired; and the production, use, and destruction of human embryos for biomedical research.
By the same token, such an anthropology underwrites social liberalism’s rejection of traditional marital and sexual ethics and its vision of marriage as a male-female union. That vision makes no sense if the body is a mere instrument of the person, to be used to satisfy subjective goals or produce desirable feelings in the person-as-conscious-subject. If we are not our bodies, marriage cannot essentially involve the one-flesh union of man and woman, as Jewish, Christian, and classical ethics hold. For if the body is not part of the personal reality of the human being, there can be nothing morally or humanly important about “merely biological” union, apart from its contingent psychological effects.
This is why we can speak of a Gnostic empire of desire. The Gnostic empire involves the imperious tendency to promote the sexual revolution by force of the majesty of the law, and now in service of individual conceptions of the self, which usually have desire at the center. And so today’s Gnostic relativism isn’t so relative after all, and once again relativism is shown to be impossible on its own terms, something used as a political and rhetorical wedge to dislodge one worldview and erect another. Beware those claiming everything is gray, for once in power they will paint the world black and white according to their preferred pattern.
Now classical Judaeo-Christian anthropology drew on Genesis 1-2 and the best of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, and so saw man as a body-soul composite, with the soul as the seat of the intellect and will who had as a chief task the ruling of the passions. In the Enlightenment’s “Age of Reason,” man was seen chiefly as a mind, and reason was regarded as universal and supreme. But the postmodern age, inaugurated in philosophy and culture by Friedrich Nietzsche, saw desire as primary. Nietzsche counterposed Dionysian passion against Apollonian reason, predicting the essence of our postmodern age. The desires of the self now define individuals.
And so identity is now bound up with desire, and our Gnostic jurisprudence sees its task as defending and promoting the expression of the self’s desires against any and all would-be legal and cultural constraints. In explaining the “New Gnosticism” undergirding the Supreme Court’s finding of a right to gay marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges, Sherif Girgis writes,
The Court did not simply allow new relationships; it required their recognition as marriages, as similar to opposite-sex bonds in every important way. In other words, it didn’t simply free people to live by the New Gnosticism. It required us, “the People,” to endorse this dogma, by forbidding us to enact distinctions that cut against it. It held that your dignity demands more than the freedom to lead your life as a purely spiritual subject. It requires us all to treat you as a purely spiritual subject. Anything else is demeaning; it implies that you are essentially bound by a body.
It’s not that the New Gnostics are an especially vindictive bunch. It’s that a certain kind of coercion is built into their view from the start. If your most valuable, defining core just is the self that you choose to express, there can be no real difference between you as a person, and your acts of self-expression; I can’t affirm you and oppose those acts. Not to embrace self-expressive acts is to despise the self those acts express. I don’t simply err by gainsaying your sense of self. I deny your existence, and do you an injustice. For the New Gnostic, then, a just society cannot live and let live, when it comes to sex. Sooner or later, the common good—respect for people as self-defining subjects—will require social approval of their self-definition and -expression.
In short, people are what they feel they desire to be, in spite of their bodies, and denying that is a fundamental injustice, which the Law cannot tolerate.
Indeed, as Rod Dreher observed, in overturning the West’s conception of the human person, the sexual revolution involves the institution of a new, dominant, Gnostic cosmology:
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from Behold the Messiah: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road, 2019 [forthcoming])
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