I just know that people I respect are going to be mad at me for this, but the misuse of this term is becoming ever more annoying to me, so here goes:
When I was in my early twenties, I studied the history of the era in which Christianity began as well as the various forms of early Christianity, including long-discarded heresies. Gnosticism was one of the most interesting to me. I remember sitting in a dormitory laundry room reading The Nag Hammadi Library.
Gnosticism was the solution some people came up with when they could not reconcile the perfection and goodness of God, which they had accepted, with the imperfection and pain of the material world, which they could not deny. The details of how this came about vary, but Gnostics absolved God of having created a bad world by deciding that He did not do it, one of His creatures did. The creator was called the “Demiurge”; some Gnostic sects considered the Demiurge to be evil, others thought he was good but, not being God, was imperfect and thus could not help creating an imperfect world.
Gnostics generally believed that eventually the material world would fade away and we would all be free of its pain and imperfection and would be reunited with God, Who we can only dimly detect through this vale of tears. Some Gnostic sects also believed that through meditation or ritual, we could help the universe’s evolution back to spiritual matter, away from material matter.
All of this was in a dusty trunk in my mental attic when last year, a Christian friend of mine made a remark in passing blasting Gnosticism and claiming that it was “everywhere”. Since I had scarcely even heard the word in nearly two decades, this was news to me. Then I suddenly started coming across rabid attacks on Gnosticism by reactionaries and conservatives – you know, people like me- not on theological grounds, but on political and ideological ones. This surprised me, since I hadn’t seen anything in the doctrine which should have made us see it as the basis of any political problems. It inspired me to do fresh research on what actual historical Gnosticism was, which was still what I learned it was decades ago.
But these attacks are everywhere. I went for years without hearing the word, but for the past year I’ve tripped over it all over the place. I haven’t been able to trace it back to the source, but I’m going to assume that some influential conservative published something that brought it back into circulation.
Some googling and I discovered the rationale, from Lawrence Auster:
See Chapter Four of Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics: “Gnosticism–the Nature of Modernity.” Voegelin says that modernity in its various forms is a rebellion against the Christian articulation of reality into the transcendent and the immanent and an attempt to return the world to a less complex structure, a reality without the transcendent. But this can’t be done, because the transcendent has already been discovered, is already a part of human consciousness. Therefore the attempt to rid reality of the transcendent only results in the creation of substitute forms of transcendence, by squeezing transcendence into some immanent form.
Thus equality becomes a god (and inequality becomes the devil).
He then lists several other progressive ideals that have taken the place of God in modern society. As far as that goes, he’s right. Basically, his and Voegelin’s argument is that Gnosticism is the root of utopian ideology.
Oh, and also, he says Gnosticism includes “the enlargement of the soul so as to include God within man, and thus eliminate the frustrating and uncomfortable experience that God is outside and above man.”
Another example of this definition of Gnosticism was quoted here:
Gnostics are dissatisfied with the world, which they deem “instrinsically poorly organized.” They believe that salvation from the world’s evil is possible within the immanent historical process and that this will require a structural change in the “order of being”; finally, they believe that the means of effecting such change necessitates seeking special knowledge— or gnosis—available only to the Gnostics themselves.
The one problem with Voegelin’s theory is that he used the word “Gnosticism”. After having refreshed my memory with several essays, historical and philosophical, about Gnosticism, I could only stare at the above in bewilderment. Nothing should have led anyone to conclude that Gnostics denied the transcendent; they’re all about the transcendent. Nothing should have led anyone to conclude that Gnostics are prone to trying to force the world into Utopia; the entire point of Gnosticism is that this world is so inherently imperfect that doing so is impossible. And the enlargement of the soul thing is ludicrous. I think it might be a third-hand echo of the gnostic belief in the “divine spark” in each of us, which I suppose Gnostics interpret somewhat differently than most of us Judeo-Christian sorts, but not all that differently. Gnostics believe that God, the Creator of everything, the First Cause, is so remote that we can barely even conceive of Him. In other words, pretty much the precise opposite of what Auster said.
However, Voegelin, it turns out, is very popular among conservative intellectuals – William F. Buckley was a particular admirer of his. Because of that, Voegelin’s interpretation of the word “Gnosticism”, which he apparently came up with completely on his own and which bears no resemblance to anything anyone before him ever thought of Gnosticism, has spread among my people (conservatives). Meaning that if I try to use the concept in discussion among conservatives, a lot of them are going to think I’m talking about something completely different because Voegelin attached the word to something it doesn’t go with.
Brussels Journal admits that there is a problem with the definition:
Voegelin’s use of the term Gnosticism generated controversy from the beginning because scholars could not immediately see any obvious connection between the modern world and a set of baroque theological positions associated, as was also Christianity, with the breakdown of Pagan religiosity in the period of Late Antiquity.
That is, actual experts on actual Gnosticism pointed out that what Voegelin was talking about was not what the dudes who wrote The Nag Hammadi Library were talking about. To no avail; the essay I just linked goes on to detail Voegelin’s arguments that modern liberals and ancient Gnostics have the same psychology. (The essayist agrees with Voegelin. I remain unconvinced.)
Eric Voegelin made use of the terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” in a way unrelated to, and inconsistent with, scholarly work on the subject. In the 1950s Voegelin entered into an academic debate concerning the classification of modernity following Karl Löwith’s 1949 Meaning in History: the Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History; and Jacob Taubes’s 1947 Abendländishe Eschatologie. In this context, Voegelin put forward his “gnosticism thesis”: criticizing modernity by identifying an “immanentist eschatology” as the “gnostic nature” of modernity. Differing with Löwith, he did not criticize eschatology as such, but rather the immanentization which he described as a “pneumopathological” deformation. Voegelin did not respond to criticisms of his gnosticism thesis, having left this debate about historical categorization to pursue an “anamnetic” approach to history. However, he remained identified with his gnosticism thesis, which subsequently became popular in neo-conservative and cold war political thought.
Certainly there is plenty in Gnosticism for Christians and Jews to disagree with, but Gnosticism is currently accused of being a utopian ideology, which could not be further from the truth. It is fundamentally pessimistic about this world and mankind.
Why don’t we ask actual Gnostics?
One of the most confusing voices comes from the discipline of political science. In his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951, émigré scholar Eric Voegelin rose to the defense of what he called the “classic and Christian tradition” against what he perceived as the “growth of Gnosticism.” This opening salvo was followed by such books as The New Science of Politics, the multivolume Order and History, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism. Voegelin became a prophet of a new theory of history, in which Gnosticism played a most nefarious role. All modern totalitarian ideologies were in some way spiritually related to Gnosticism, said Voegelin. Marxists, Nazis, and just about everybody else the good professor found reprehensible were in reality Gnostics, engaged in “immanentizing the eschaton” by reconstituting society into a heaven on earth. Since Gnostics did not accept the conventional Christian eschaton of heaven and hell, Voegelin concluded that they must be engaged in a millenarian revolutionizing of earthly existence. At the same time, Voegelin was bound to admit that the Gnostics regarded the earthly realm as generally hopeless and unredeemable. One wonders how the unredeemable earthly kingdom could be turned into the “immanentized eschaton” of an earthly utopia. That Voegelin’s new Gnostics had no knowledge of or sympathy with historical Gnosticism did not bother him either. Gnostics they were, and that was that. [Emphasis added.]
In short, you can strive to immanentize the eschaton, OR you can be a Gnostic. To do both simultaneously is impossible.
Of late the word is slung about by conservatives with the same abandon with which liberals sling about the word “Nazi”. Anyone would think there were well documented accounts of hordes of Gnostics ravaging the countryside, torturing, murdering and laying waste wherever they went. Even science fiction writers have picked it up. At Auster’s site, the word is applied to everyone with whom he and his cronies disagree, including promiscuous men, UN supporters, people who dislike uncertainty, and people who believe that the earthquake in Haiti happened because God is racist.
A Catholic writer declares that the recent remake of “The Prisoner” is Gnostic:
In this telling of the tale, the allegory has become consciously Gnostic. The Village, as it turns out in the end, is not some actual place in our world, but a realm deep within the layers of the subconscious, created or discovered by a dreaming woman who has the power of drawing the subconscious selves of other persons into its meshes. Its purpose is a kind of psychotherapy, by which imperfect or damaged persons in this world are repaired through being captured, strictly controlled, and recreated from within.
I watched the series and am at a loss as to how he drew this conclusion. Let alone what such a story, if someone had told it, would have to do with Gnosticism. In the next paragraph he does a little better:
The Gnostic themes, moreover, are not hidden. It is made clear that The Village contains two sorts of persons: those born there (who can never leave because it is their only home), and those who come from the other world, “up there,” who cannot remember their true home, but who nevertheless often long for escape.
Gnosticism did acknowledge that some people don’t seem aware of the divine spark within them and of the spiritual, transcendent realm, but then, all religious people acknowledge that. And this seems to me a rather overthought interpretation of a TV show about a dictatorship, which (within the fictional universe) indisputably existed on the same solid material Earth as America and Spain and Japan, and in which people are trapped, as many people have been trapped in dictatorships in real life on this Earth which is made of molecules. Had the movie been set in the Soviet Union, would he denounce that as a “Gnostic theme”?
The same gentleman has also written another essay in which he interprets various works of fiction as “Gnostic”. The Little Prince is a Gnostic allegory because “[t]he Little Prince is—if not a savior figure—nonetheless a bearer of a higher wisdom, blessed with a positively transcendent innocence, too pure for our fallen reality and so no more than a temporary sojourner here on earth.” If that is what makes a story Gnostic, then the Gospels are also a Gnostic allegory, as is the movie E.T. And Superman comics. Later in the essay, the author claims that Gattaca is also Gnostic, though in what way he does not explain and I cannot imagine. So are the Matrix movies, apparently because they depict the reality we know as an illusion. Personally I think that the reason The Matrix appealed to people is more likely that everyone realizes, at some level, that we are being lied to constantly by the MSM and our so-called schools, aside from that it was a fun well-told movie, rather than because we have unconsciously absorbed some heresy.
In contrast to the denunciation of the promiscuous blogger linked a few paragraphs above as a Gnostic, one Catholic writer has denounced people who do not believe in the resurrection of the body (including the many Christians who do not know that this is traditional Christian dogma) as “Gnostics”.
I submit that when the same term is being used to disparage people who are excessively materialistic and people who are insufficiently materialistic, the term has become useless. First the word “Gnosticism” was given a new and inaccurate definition, then it was used so freely that it has lost all meaning.
In addition, since most historical religions have believed that only the spirit survives death – the only exceptions I have been able to find are the Zoroastrians, the ancient Egyptians, and the three Abrahamic faiths – it hardly seems fair to pick on Gnostics. Why not urge them to “stop being Buddhist” or “stop being a Hellenistic pagan”? This detail is especially ironic to me as I suspect that one origin of modern utopian thought, aside from natural human hubris, is in a garbled understanding of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the world to come. That is, traditional Jews and Christians believe that our bodies shall be resurrected and perfected, and that this world shall also perfected. It has been observed that modern liberalism is a perverted version of Protestantism, that it is “Christianity without Christ”. At first glance, it would seem that the consequences to earthly society of taking a religious code and eliminating God from it might not be so dire – there’s still codes of ethics and values like mercy, right? – until you realize that something has to take the place of God, and that is Man. I believe that in the garbling and twisting that occurred as Calvinism was deformed into liberalism, the doctrine of perfecting the human race and the material world emerged in perverted form. What remained of the belief that someday, God will make us and this world perfect, was the idea that we and this world could be made perfect. And without God to do it, that leaves the job to Man.
Not even any Christian is safe from the charge of Gnosticism. One author insists that contemporary Fundamentalist Christianity is actually Gnosticism. An Eastern Orthodox Christian blogger contends that both Protestantism and Catholicism are both contaminated with Gnosticism by St. Augustine. A Darwinian blogger basically says that everyone who believes in the soul is a Gnostic. He correctly points out that those of us who believe in souls necessarily believe that this material world is not our true home; instead the next world, Heaven, is. “According to Lawler, all human beings are “aliens” in the universe, because their true selves transcend the natural order of the universe, and thus natural science can never truly account for the alienated spirit of humanity.”
That people have souls is a belief on which Gnostics agree with Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Theosophists, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, Hindus, etc. Therefore, it is Gnostic. He dismisses the whole lot of us by decreeing, “We come from nature. It is our home.” Yes, we naked apes must not aspire to anything better than this mortal coil and this vale of tears, we are fit for nothing better.
(To the Darwinian’s credit, he is one of the few who acknowledges the problem with this definition of Gnosticism: “As a footnote, I should say that there is a lot of scholarly debate these days over the accuracy of Jonas’s account of Gnosticism.”)
To reduce confusion, I request that conservatives refer to utopians as “utopians” rather than as “Gnostics”.