Some things just won’t go away. Denim jackets, bell bottoms, vinyl – some things tend to creep back into the mainstream just when you thought society had finally forgotten about them for good. Not just fashion either: ideas have a habit of popping up again after thoroughly being put to rest years or even centuries ago. Though less conspicuous, ideas tend to be a bit more consequential to society than hipster fashion is. One idea that just won’t die – even though all its most fervent followers have – is Gnosticism. Gnosticism, a religion that hasn’t been taken seriously for 1500 years, has crept back into mainstream thought by disguising itself in new movements. The modern transgender and transhumanist movements borrow some of their most essential doctrines from the ancient religion.
What is Gnosticism?
Gnosticism was a collection of religious sects that arose out of early Christianity in the late 1st century. Gnostics placed personal spiritual knowledge above the tradition and authority of defined religious institutions. One of the core beliefs among Gnostics centered around a dualistic worldview. Gnostics viewed the physical world as inherently flawed or even evil and claimed that the material universe was created by a lesser divinity known as the demiurge. During creation, bits of divinity were mixed in along with tainted material, and Christ undertook the mission to re-order this chaos. Therefore, the spirit of the supreme God entered into the shell of a man’s body to remedy the situation and help believers reach gnosis – the revelation of man’s true divine nature. In the gnostic view, what defines personhood is not the union of spirit and body (the traditional Christian view), but a divine spirit which merely occupies a physical body. After initially flourishing in the first two centuries after Christ’s birth, Gnosticism was denounced as heresy and lost popularity in the centuries following.
Without the backing of church authority, gnosticism largely disappeared by the year 500 AD. Though largely abandoned as a religion today, echoes of gnostic teaching persist unbeknownst to its adherents.
Transgender ideology stems from the dualist philosophy of the gnostics. In transgenderism, a person’s feelings and beliefs about their identity reveal their “true” self, while the physical reality of their genitals or hormones can be false. If a person believes themselves to be a female despite having male reproductive organs, the will wins out, not the material reality. Whether the adherents understand or not, they are promoting a dualist interpretation of the cosmos. There is the spiritual “real” (divine) world of the mind which cannot be wrong, and then there is the physical (fallen) world of material, which can be mistaken if it conflicts with the reality created in the mind.
Like its gnostic roots, transgender ideology is in direct opposition to Christian beliefs, which firmly state that mankind was created by God as a union between spirit and body. Though subordinate to the spirit, the body is intrinsic to a person’s identity, hence the importance of the “resurrection of the body” referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. The Creed affirms the goodness of God’s physical creation and rejects the idea that salvation is gnosis or any other merely esoteric transformation or enlightenment.
The notable New Testament theologian N.T. Wright voices a similar observation:
“The confusion about gender identity is a modern, and now internet-fueled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance …. This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world.”London Times
Like transgenderism, much of transhumanist thought is rooted in gnosticism. Although there are various strains of transhumanist thought, many adherents seek to augment or transcend natural human evolution. Transhumanists believe that our future as a species is dependent on furthering our evolutionary process through the aid of modern science or technology. One common though far-fetched belief is that one day we will be able to upload human consciousness into a computer, freeing humans from the bonds of physicality and allowing people to process information faster and have unlimited access to the “cloud” of information.
In this scenario “consciousness” can be viewed as synonymous with the “divine spirit” central to gnosticism. Transhumanists assume that only consciousness is fundamental to a person’s identity, and that the body is merely a receptacle to house consciousness. Once consciousness is uploaded into a machine, the person will now be in the machine. This of course suffers from the same fallacy as transgender ideology and gnosticism: that our bodies are unimportant to our identity and only the spirit/consciousness is of ultimate value.
Another strain of transhumanism seeks not to transcend our physical bodies altogether, but to ease our dependency on the tedious chore of satisfying our physical needs like eating or sleeping. A popular term today is “life-hack” – a work-around to the traditional way of doing a task. A life-hack is usually a quicker, more efficient way of doing anything that “gets in the way” of productive work. Whether it be popular meal-replacement shakes, nutrient bars, or the attempt to reduce sleeping hours to maximize productivity, the strive to “life-hack” our way out of physical needs sacrifices the good of creation to the stale, cold altar of efficiency. Again, this philosophy stems from the same gnostic thinking that devalues material existence, thus devaluing bodily experience.
Let the Dead Rest
Overall I don’t think that a resurgence in gnostic philosophy is unique to the modern trans movements. A large percentage of western people today are unwittingly carrying along gnostic baggage. Phrases like “live your own truth” or the idea that morality is subjective deny the objective truth conveyed to us by physical reality. Similar to gnosticism, these ideas follow a tradition of thought that places subjective experience over the material world.
Like denim jackets or vinyl, it’s best when we move on as a society and let the dead rest peacefully. Let’s all agree to leave denim in the 90’s and Gnosticism in the 5th century.