Around the turn of the Millennium, a movement known as the New Atheism gained a certain amount of prominence. No one cares about it now, except for a few of its die-hard zealots, and a disproportionate number of Christian apologists.
Far more insidious is a movement that some are calling the New Gnosticism, which, largely unrecognised, has taken almost complete hold of the central institutions of Western society.
Why the ‘New Gnosticism’?
The old Gnosticism devalued the body, and saw it as a mere instrument for encountering a deeper, invisible reality. So it is with the New Gnosticism, which holds that
the body doesn’t matter. … We are subjects of desire and consent, who use bodily equipment for spiritual and emotional expression.
So writes Sherif Girgis, who is completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton University, in a fascinating article published on First Things in June, ‘Obergefell and the New Gnosticism’.
The context for the article is a 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling, which required all states to recognise same-sex marriages (whether they wanted to or not). The case is known as Obergefell (OH-bur-guh-fell), after James Obergefell, who wanted his same-sex marriage to be legally recognised in his home state of Ohio.
In Obergefell we therefore see the Supreme Court actually forcing US states to express approval of same-sex marriage.
For decades, the Sexual Revolution was supposed to be about freedom. Today, it is about coercion. Once, it sought to free our sexual choices from restrictive laws and unwanted consequences. Now, it seeks to free our sexual choices from other people’s disapproval.
Girgis sees this enforced approval as an inevitable outworking of the Sexual Revolution.
Absorb its vision of the human person wholesale, and you will soon conclude that social justice requires getting others to subscribe to that vision.
Why is this? What is it about this New Gnostic vision for human personhood that means we must express our approval of other people’s lifestyle choices? Can’t we just agree to disagree, or ‘live and let live’?
To answer that question, we need to consider, according to the New Gnosticism, what it is that constitutes a human person.
Because the real me is internal, my sexual identity is just what I sense it to be. The same goes for other valuable aspects of my identity. My essence is what I say and feel that it is.
So, if the real you is the invisible inner you, then how can I get to know you as a person?
But if the real me lies within, only I know what I am. You have to take my word for it … .
But why does that mean I have to express my approval of what you say and do? Can I not respect you as a person, but not respect your lifestyle choices? Can I not ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’? Definitely not.
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.
This account of things helps us to make sense of many recent trends.
This vision of the self explains otherwise novel and puzzling ideas: e.g., that you can’t be authentic without acting on your sexual desires, and that a physically healthy biological male might have been a woman all along. And its consequent illiberalism—the impulse to police dissent—explains an otherwise astonishing development. It explains how the status of absolute orthodoxy—which same-sex marriage advocates fought for decades to secure, and still achieved with astonishing speed—was transferred to transgenderism virtually overnight.
Disturbing stuff: make sure you read the whole article.
I don’t think this New Gnosticism is particularly new, fundamentally. I suspect it has been brewing slowly for the past few centuries, particularly in the 20th century with its heightened focus on the autonomous self (see the documentary, ‘The Century of the Self’). But it does seem to have assumed a new prominence in recent years. I’ve touched on these themes a few times over the years: most recently in ‘Why are we so obsessed with gender?’.
It’s definitely something that we in the church need to think about much more seriously. Just consider why it is that we tend to value authenticity over holiness, for example: is it not because we see self-expression as the greatest virtue? Or ask yourself why much of the modern church has adopted a kind of spiritual reductionism, according to which it is only our invisible souls that matter? Why do we not think our bodies matter? Have we not been influenced by this New Gnosticism more than we often recognise?
Then, in terms of evangelism and apologetics, how can we articulate the gospel so that it communicates to followers of the New Gnosticism? Have we been downplaying the call of Christ to self-denial, in order to accommodate the gospel to those who are committed to ‘being true to yourself’ as the essence of the good life? Have we been neglecting both the present importance of our bodies and our hope for the future in an attempt to appeal to those who want both to escape from the limitations of their bodies, and to find that liberation now? Once we recognise the nature of the New Gnosticism, and the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it becomes clear that we face a massive plausibility problem, such that that gospel sounds foolish to modern ears. What could be more absurd—or even immoral—than the gospel’s call to self-denial?