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The attractions and failings of the modern Gnosticisms

However much we may try to cultivate a radical skepticism, the human mind was not created for the howling void: by nature we crave pattern, coherence, and order. And that is precisely what the modern Gnosticisms offer.

A scene from the Matrix films (Image: matrix.fandom.com/wiki/Matrix)

In a wise and penetrating article for Catholic World Report, Edward Feser recently argued that the “wokeness” of the modern left and the fringe QAnon theories of the right can both be read as modern political reflexes of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. On Feser’s reading, both movements are marked by the same beliefs in the malignity of the world, the commitment to Manichean struggle, and the desire for a liberating gnosis; both movements succumb to the desire to immanentize the eschaton. These conclusions seem to me inescapably correct.

Nonetheless, I think that Feser’s analysis can be – and should be – pushed even further. We can certainly find Gnosticism in Critical Race Theory or online conspiracies, just as Voegelin found it in Marxism. But political Gnosticism is not limited to this or that political movement: it is a defining feature of modern discourse. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if you live today, you breathe in Gnosticism.

There are two reasons why the old heresy enjoys such wide currency in our day and age. In the first place, we have our nation’s declining trust in erstwhile authorities: according to Axios and the Edelman Trust Barometer, confidence in government and media have never been lower. This lack of trust seems to me richly deserved; I’ve suggested elsewhere that our ruling class is dominated by fools, knaves, and liars. This ruling class is no longer shy about its machinations. Only recently, a Time magazine article celebrated “the conspiracy to save the 2020 election” and the efforts of “a well-funded cabal of powerful people…working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.” Daily news reports confirm that an alien and inhuman ideology has captured the great corporations, the tech giants, the media and entertainment industries, the government, and education from preschool to the Ph.D. Whoever wishes to see the world rightly must begin by resisting its influence.

Thus the citizen is caught in a cleft stick. If he does nothing, he will be swept along by the prevailing Gnosticisms of Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+ ideology, and the rest. But resistance itself is bound up with a clear temptation to Gnosticism: it is easy to believe the world is evil when so many of its leaders manifestly are. Even more dramatically, however, the crisis of public confidence makes the allure of gnosis especially hard to resist. Grant that mainstream media and government outlets lie consistently: what then should the good citizen do? He could spend hours each day wading through the range of contradictory and self-serving reporting to sift true from false, and carefully – and with great labor – curate his own personal news service. Or he could reject the whole affair as sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Neither option is safe. In the former case, the citizen has set himself up as the definitive arbiter of true and false – a precarious position, and one closely linked to the pride of Gnosticism. The agnosticism of the second option, however, comes out too much the same thing in the end. However much we may try to cultivate a radical skepticism, the human mind was not created for the howling void: by nature we crave pattern, coherence, and order. And that is precisely what the modern Gnosticisms offer. Any piece of news can be filtered through the adept’s hermeneutical matrix, which will provide him with a quick, easy, and coherent explanation. If authoritative sources will not provide a reasonable semblance of stability, clarity, and truth, the gnostic conspiracy theory (whether CRT or QAnon or anything else) will.

The second major factor contributing to rise of 21st-century Gnosticisim is the all-encompassing embrace of the Internet. The old Gnostics despised the Body and exalted the Spirit, seeking to free the soul from the shackles of the flesh. They strove to achieve, as Feser notes, “radical alienation from the created order.” Granting this, the Internet is in many ways the Gnostic invention par excellence: it provides access to a dream world of unfettered Spirit, overwhelming us with limitless information far disproportionate to man’s capacity to know. If that were not enough, social media algorithms are designed to be addictive, drawing their users ever-deeper into this virtual world. Finally, the triumph of the smartphone means that nearly everyone today carries his own personal portal into this disembodied world.

But habitual immersion in the pseudo-world of the internet does more than this. Its torrent of information comes at us raw and unfiltered and overwhelming. This too contributes to its gnosticizing tendency. In ordinary, embodied human interactions, a hundred nonverbal cues mediate and temper our consumption of and response to merely verbal information. Our interlocutor’s tone of voice, facial expression, and body language condition how we respond to her words; preexisting affection, reluctance to give offense, or even simple physical proximity soften our response to them. For all the information it contains, the internet generally provides none of this; and, unless conscious efforts are taken to correct this, communication on the web tends to be both dehumanized and dehumanizing. In the past ten years, Americans have been increasingly aware of the dangers of cyberbullying and general online thuggery among teenagers, but even the briefest acquaintance with Twitter is enough to demonstrate that it is not only minors who suffer from this temptation.

The loss of trust in public officials and the dehumanizing influence of the internet combine to create a perfect storm of cultural Gnosticism – one that is as overt as it is pervasive. Consider for a moment the rise of the internet slang term “red pill.” The term is, of course, drawn from the Matrix (that most Gnostic of movies); used as a verb, the word means something like “to shatter someone’s comfortable illusions and cause him to see the dark truth of the world as it is.” It is an apt enough term. In the film, the protagonist Neo takes the red pill and learns that the world as he knows it (the world of 1999) is an illusion used by malevolent machines to enslave the human population; he must reject the illusion of the Matrix and join in the battle for humanity. Just so the red-pilled online warrior leaves behind a world of lies for the stark battlefield of reality.

So far, so good. I worry, however, that the term may be a bit more apt than is commonly realized. The Matrix films are notorious for the heroes’ appalling disregard for ordinary human life; Neo and company kill scores upon scores of everyday citizens in stylistically choreographed violence. All for a simple reason: any person not liberated from the Matrix is at least a potential enemy – and, perhaps, not truly alive anyway. In this, the heroes are good Gnostics, engaged in what Feser calls the “twilight struggle between the sinister forces that rule this evil world and those who have been “purified” of it and armed with gnosis.” Once again, we see the same tendencies at work in the public square: it is all too easy to find those, left and right, who are all too ready to reduce politics to mutual hatred.

What can be done to fight the new Gnosticism? No program will save us, and individual responses will vary according to one’s state in life. At the core, however, we must learn again to foster wisdom instead of mere knowledge, and to turn – as best we can – from the pseudo-world of social media, propaganda, and relentless news towards reality: life with our families, reading of Scriptures and the writings of the Saints, and especially liturgical prayer and the Sacraments. The Incarnate Christ was, after all, always the great scandal and enemy of the Gnostics.

But perhaps the first step is simply to recognize that the problem exists. It seems likely to me that anyone who reads this article is subject to some of the Gnostic temptations outlined above; the one who wrote it certainly is.


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About Ben Reinhard 3 Articles
Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.

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