The genesis of gnosticism

In this essay, Kristor explains the etiology of gnostic beliefs as a response to the crisis of adolescence, the period of life when reality has withdrawn the enchantments and protections of childhood, and the young person is suddenly left facing reality on his own. In an unsound culture, the crisis of adolescence leads the youth to rebel from this disenchanted reality, and he begins seeking various nihilistic utopias. In a sound culture, the youth, particularly the male youth, is provided with an opportunity to learn to grapple with harsh reality in ways sanctioned by his culture’s traditions. He becomes a man and a full member of his culture in the act of accepting and learning to cope with the imperfections of the world, and thus is spared the need and desire for a gnostic escape. By contrast, in an unsound culture, the individual is not provided with an efficacious avenue toward adulthood via acceptance of the world, and gnosticism becomes an option.

Kristor writes:

When I read this entry, “Cameron’s cinematic liberal paradise makes viewers hate reality,” I got to thinking about Gnosticism and the movies, and came up with a few things.

When I was a teenager Jeremiah Johnson had much the same effect on me that Avatar seems to be having on these people. The purity and beauty and the raw adventure of his life as a mountain man appealed to me enormously. Like Johnson, I wanted to leave civilization behind and venture off alone into the wilderness. So I did. Like him, I discovered that, while less greasy and noisy than cities, the wilderness is no less beset with tragedy, no less painful or messy. Going into the wilderness doesn’t solve anything. That’s the difference between Jeremiah Johnson and Avatar. The former does not sugar coat reality, does not make the Indians or the Mountain Men inherently nobler than the men of the town. It is, in fact, a Greek tragedy, its dramatic engine a conflict between legitimate moral imperatives that force themselves upon Johnson and the other dramatis personae. All are driven by a vision of what is right and good, and by the furies unleashed by the conflict between mutually contradictory goods, by reverence, love, vengeance, retribution and honor, to a universally fatal end.

You wrote that Avatar’s gnosticism is something new. But really it isn’t. Avatar recapitulates a trope so hackworn in Hollywood that it has become venerable, and obeisance in its direction almost obligatory in movies set anywhere but the present day ironic cosmopolitan West: evil industrial civilization of our forefathers versus innocent noble savages. One of the earliest instances of the theme was the movie Mad Max, with Mel Gibson as a post-apocalyptic loner, a lethal, cynical former good guy who has been disillusioned by the collapse of the civilization he once defended, and is now out for himself alone. He comes upon a band of inept and pacific hippies clad in white burlap, who have cadged together a commune in the middle of the wilderness. But they are bedeviled by a band of selfish depraved unwashed outlaws who all wear black leather and studs, drive tractor-trailers and armored Harleys, and who use 50 caliber machine guns against the breech-loading antiques of the hapless hippies. Mad Max is an outlaw like the bad guys: he doesn’t wash, and he wears black leather and studs, drives a muscle car and wields shotguns. He is not a hippie. But he has a code of honor, that leads him to befriend the hippies, and so against overwhelming odds he utterly defeats the bad guys. Then he becomes king, or something; or else disappears again into the wilderness.

This theme has been done to death, particularly by Kevin Costner, who reprises it in most of his movies. Dances with Wolves is an archetype of the genre. Matrix descended to the same pathetic depths after an inspired opening (massive orgiastic dance of the burlap-clad hippies deep in their enlightened underground city as the evil machines inexorably approach). Beware when you see a bunch of actors in burlap, because it almost always portends a formulaic play on this decrepit theme. Another sure tipoff: Mad Max casts a jaundiced eye on the beta villagers in their simple happy dance as outlaw bad guys thunder ever nearer. Other instances: The Mission (DeNiro is Mad Max); The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood is Mad Max); Little Big Man (Dustin Hoffman is Mad Max); The Patriot and Braveheart (Mad Max is Mad Max).

OK. What does this theme, in its relentless stultifying recurrence in our popular culture, say about us? This is where my thinking started. You may find that in what follows I have gone a saltation too far, but bear with me.

To begin at the beginning, I think Voegelin is not quite right in arguing that gnosticism stems in the first instance from a realization that God has withdrawn from the world, or that he utterly transcends it. Rather, it stems from a feeling that the world has somehow or other been disenchanted. Its first historical roots do indeed lie in the collapse of the innocent paganism that first sustained our ancestors, for whom the whole world was suffused by spirits. But this same feeling of disenchantment and meaninglessness today afflicts most moderns, who have never thought as pagans. They find life disenchanted and meaningless, not because the gods, dryads and hamadryads don’t exist, but because the transcendent God of monotheism doesn’t exist. So it isn’t transcendence per se that is the problem, but disenchantment. And the disenchantment arises because the patrimonial religion has for them become incredible, or incomprehensible. So long as that religion is credible, and has power to constrain and organize men’s thoughts and feelings, gnosticism will gain little traction.

All human beings long for Eden, and we can’t have it. This is the basic existential problem we all face; no other problem is more fundamental. We long for a world where things are as they should be, and lo we live in a world where they are not. In our early childhood—for those of us fortunate enough to have had a reasonably good one—we lived for a time in Eden. Our father and mother loved us, and each other; there was harmony in the home, and warmth; we did as we were told, and behold it was good. Soon enough, and too soon, we found out that not all is so well with the world as we had thought. There are mean dogs, and bullies, and Mummy and Daddy fight, and we must go out alone into the cold to school. And we do not always as we are told. This process of loss and compounding disaster continues until we are dead, with a brief interlude wherein—for those of us who are fortunate—we recapitulate it vicariously with our own children.

For all but the most sheltered children, the disillusionment of our innocence is complete by the time we reach adolescence. There are two possible responses to this adolescent discovery. Either we conclude that the world is inherently evil, deficient, worthless, or that we are ourselves the source of the problem. The latter is rare among the young, naturally enough; for looking back, the adolescent can clearly see that he bears no responsibility for the mess in which he has landed. The mess has, rather, been inflicted upon him undeservedly. The whole thing is deeply unfair. So most of us conclude that the fault of the world is the world’s fault. In particular, we conclude that the basic problem is embodied in our parents, and in the whole system of things, the weltanschauung and institutions, the customs and traditions, that they represent, practice, and have inculcated in us. Thus begins the adolescent rebellion.

The adolescent rebel rejects the world and all its evils and messy compromises. The system of his elders has not succeeded in banishing evil from the world, so he rejects that, too, root and branch. He rejects their gods; he rejects their very categories of thought. In the limit, he rejects thought altogether. He becomes a nominalist, not just with respect to the transcendent reliability and appropriateness of his inherited folkways, but with respect to the very notions of goodness, truth, and beauty. He rejects the Limit, and especially the limit of logical compossibility, that prevents him from having his cake and eating it too (or, e.g., from making the Grand Canyon both pristine and wheelchair accessible). He wants all possible goods, now, without limit, to the max; and he wants no tragedy in life. Finally, he rejects the limit of form: he rejects formality in art, dress, sex, work, politics, worship, diction, comportment, station, and so forth; and with them, he rejects beauty, truth, order, goodness, for all of them are revealed to the laser eye of his skepticism as merely conventional, thus false and “inauthentic,” and therefore evil. His art is “transgressive” or aleatory; the great theme of his literature is rebellion, revolution, the outlaw and the pervert—sex, death, and finally death by sex.

But the rejection of the patrimonial order leads to radical uncertainty about everything. Life is perilous for everyone, but for the nominalist rebel there is no transcendent order that can be relied upon to govern and set things finally right, just and true, in terms of which the things that now seem so wrong and painful may therefore be understood as falling toward their due and proper Providential order. For the nominalist, as for everyone, nothing in life is really certain; but for the nominalist, nothing in life is reliably good, either. Even worse, the nominalist rebel can rely on no one but himself. So he turns to a program of revolutionary action. He becomes a Pelagian Utopian [one who believes that moral perfection through human action is attainable in this life without the assistance of divine gracc], out to save the world, building proud towers that cannot reach to Heaven. Even nihilist anarchists and atheists, who insist that in reality nothing matters, work to increase the influence of their doctrines.

All societies have had to deal with these tendencies toward nominalism, anarchism, and nihilism in their adolescents. Traditional societies dealt with them by forcing all their young through traumatic rites of passage in which they were stripped of their adolescence, and from which they emerged as mature exponents and defenders of their patrimonial tradition—as men, and women. These rites vary greatly from one group to another, but wherever they are effective, it is because the adults all give their own credence to the ontology and morality they have themselves inherited from their forbears. Where adults are confident in their patrimonial Limit, in all its formal expressions, and impose it therefore consistently and rigorously upon their children from an early age, the full-blown adolescent revolt is unthinkable. The adolescent is then, rather, eager to assume the mantle of full adulthood, of full mature participation in the maintenance of the sacred order that in the eyes of all his people is so important to the life of the whole world. For we all crave and seek order in our experience, children most of all. The discovery of the limit and order of the world is after all the forecondition of survival and prosperity.

In many societies, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood—at least for boys—takes the form of the walkabout, the solo: the youngster ventures forth alone beyond the pale, there to test himself against the wilderness, and to find his peculiar genius. Once he has found it, the prodigal son may return, to enrich the tradition of his people with the contribution of his own heroic journey. As a man, tested and often blooded in combat, he has become himself one of the heroes that peopled the legends of his childhood.

But what happens when the grownups begin to doubt their own story? They fail to live as if it were true, fail to teach their children that it is true, fail fully to want their children to grow up believing it is true, or to follow it. The rite of passage then becomes an empty form; a lie. And no one is fooled by such empty gestures. Indeed, they eventually elicit contempt, adding fuel to the adolescent fire consuming all social forms. The young son may then never wander out beyond the pale. In that case, he becomes a hapless hippie, clad in burlap and fumbling with his pathetic Garand. He becomes, in the language of Game, a beta, or worse. But some young men, goaded mercilessly by their animal spirits, may wander out beyond the pale, and never come back. They become rogues, outlaws, alpha males: they become Mad Max. Mad Max is an adolescent who has never fully grown up, who has begun his rite of passage, but never finished. He has never fully accepted, or else has explicitly rejected, the limits and responsibilities of manhood in full; has never let himself be tied down by obligations to wife, family, people. He has never bought the story.

Interestingly, it is precisely the young men who are ready to go on Walkabout that female adolescents, who have not yet themselves undergone their rite of passage to womanhood, are programmed to find attractive, for such adolescent males are in their own age cohort, and offer them the best chance of long term protection—provided they finish the passage to manhood. Men and women today have never finished growing up. So, far into their third and fourth decades of life, the women act like adolescent girls, and the men act like adolescent boys. The women go for the masculine hero types, the Mad Max alpha males; the men go for the nubile, perky young women.

Even without a vibrant traditional society to push us through a traumatic rite of passage, the exigencies of life generally provide all the trauma we could ask for, and more. So we do eventually grow up. As we grow we sooner or later learn that the world is not a movie about us (having children of our own often sparks this realization). We learn that the adolescent’s feeling that he has been unfairly plunged into a horrible situation is simply inapposite, for the world is what it is, regardless of what we want. The mature adult knows that the world has not been done to him; if he is wise, he realizes indeed that, on the contrary, it has been done, in part, for him. He will be what he would be, and the world is provided to him as the proscenium for his decision. The world is not unfair. It is, rather, pitilessly just, logical, ordered (logic and justice have to be pitiless or they can’t be ordered; can’t be just or logical). We grow more conservative as we age because in living we learn more and more about the world, which everywhere conserves order.

The adult, then, realizes that the great existential problem of man is, not the world’s disorder, but his own; not the evil of the world, but his own sinfulness. He realizes that the problem with his life is … himself. So he takes responsibility. He works to amend his life, and to turn and live toward God. Further, he takes responsibility for those he loves. Only thus is his predicament as a mundane creature ever resolved. He lives in the world, but is less about it. So he transcends his accidents.

If what I’ve said so far about a sound patriomonial culture and the transition to adulthood within that culture is correct, then it is the case gnosticism flowers when a patrimonial religion has somehow weakened or failed, or lost its popular credence. Gnosticism is an attempt to find a solution to the social crisis brough on by the failure of the patrimonial religion. Most of its products are sports, mere incoherent heresies, such as the wild Gnostic sects of the early centuries AD. But often the wild experimentation and social chaos characteristic of such eras opens social room for a new order that transcends the patrimonial order without negating it, as Christianity transcended and carried forward—or, as the earliest Christians thought, revivified and fulfilled—the religion of Judah.

What, then, is to be done? How can the world be re-enchanted, and a durable social order restored? There is only one way. The philosophical credentials of religious belief—which means, in the West, Christianity—must be popularly rehabilitated. Only when most people admit that Christianity is philosophically respectable can our patrimonial ontology and morality hope for a renascence. Only after such a renascence can the young grow up admiring the vision of order and beauty that their parents also forthrightly admire. Only thus will the young ever give credence to that vision.

Perhaps the most acute perversity of our perverse age is that the multitudes who criticize or reject Christianity on philosophical grounds know almost nothing either about Christianity or philosophy. Only thus could they bring themselves to embrace incoherent, self-refuting doctrines such as nominalism or materialism. The first step, then, of a Traditionalist apologetics must be to make that incoherence explicit and unmistakable. We must first harrow. Then may we sow.

LA replies:

Three points. First, when I said Avatar’s gnosticism was something new, I meant that the movie presents a condemnation of white America so extreme and an alternative reality so beautiful and fulfilling that, as we were informed, viewers were afterward depressed and unhappy to return to the real world. I don’t think anyone was depressed to walk out of Dances with Wolves.

Second, I don’t think Voegelin says that the withdrawal of the divine from the world is the defining feature of gnosticism; but rather dissatisfaction with the world, whatever the cause.

Finally, your point that the cause of modern gnosticism is not the revelation of the transcendent God but rather the loss of belief in the transcendent God strikes me as original. It’s also a clever reversal of the usual conservative view of gnosticism. Instead of saying that gnosticism at its root is a longing for something that cannot be, namely (using Voegelin’s terms) a re-compacted cosmos in which man participates massively once again in the divine, you’re saying that gnosticism is at its root an unacknowledged longing for the transcendent Christian God, and a renewed membership in the Christian society. That is an original and hopeful way of seeing the problem.

- end of initial entry -

Gintas writes:

There’s something that Kristor doesn’t mention explicitly, although it suffuses his essay. The disenchantment we find isn’t something we just discover at adolescence—we are helped along into it by most of our culture, the schools especially. Disenchantment is a way of life right from birth. And we are told that the feeling of disenchantment we have is a good thing. I think that at adolescence one discovers his utter alienation from his own society. It’s not that he’s disenchanted, but he realizes he hates it. This alienation/hate generates an energy in a person that is harnessed easily for cultural revolution.

LA replies:

What you’ve just described is not gnosticism as a mood or a movement, but gnosticism as the very nature of our society. Your true observation provides powerful support for Voegelin’s idea that gnosticism is modernity, or at least it’s the growing, progressive edge of it. While he wrote about various contemporary phenomena as examples of gnosticism, I don’t think that he wrote about the adversary culture, the culture of alienation which you describe.

Rick Darby writes:

Kristor writes:

How can the world be re-enchanted, and a durable social order restored? There is only one way. The philosophical credentials of religious belief—which means, in the West, Christianity—must be popularly rehabilitated. Only when most people admit that Christianity is philosophically respectable can our patrimonial ontology and morality hope for a renascence.

As one who acknowledges that Christianity is philosophically respectable, I still have to take issue with Kristor about there being “only one way.” An unbiased study of the history of religion and mysticism leaves no doubt that there are many, many ways to re-connect with our spiritual center. Adding the qualification “in the West” makes no difference.

Christianity has affected Western culture over the two millennia more than any other religious tradition, and probably more Westerners are likely to accept Christianity than an alternative in a renascent social order. But the key issue is opening to transcendence, not the brand name of the religion. Surely a devout Jew can be part of a sound Western culture, Judaism predating Christianity even in the ancient Roman world. And while it is ludicrous to claim that “all religions are the same” (or “equal”), Westerners can derive inspiration from the spiritual practices of non-Western cultures such as Vedanta and Buddhism.

You or Kristor may say this is a multi-cultural heresy, but spiritual practices—insofar as they lead to knowledge of God—do cross cultures. Christianity could never have taken root in the Roman Empire if that weren’t so. I presume Kristor would have no objection to Egyptian Copts or Koreans practicing Christianity in non-Western countries; why not the reverse?

I am sympathetic to what I take to be Kristor’s larger point, that we court disaster by not giving young people a spiritual truth to find refuge and healing in when their adolescent fantasies of perfection turn out to be futile. A large part of leftist politics is a genuine, though perverted, spiritual urge. But the goal can’t be attained through an all-powerful, supposedly caring government, or through scientific materialism. We need to bring back the love of God and the God of love into the social fabric, though not through a particular religion.

Thanks to Kristor for this superb insight:

The adult, then, realizes that the great existential problem of man is, not the world’s disorder, but his own; not the evil of the world, but his own sinfulness. He realizes that the problem with his life is … himself. So he takes responsibility. He works to amend his life, and to turn and live toward God. Further, he takes responsibility for those he loves. Only thus is his predicament as a mundane creature ever resolved. He lives in the world, but is less about it. So he transcends his accidents.

RV writes:

I’d like to write my own take on this. I believe that people are attracted to the gnostic liberalism because it gives them the impression that they will be able to achieve unimpeded satisfaction of their whims and instincts, which on a base level all of us want (knowing Maslow’s pyramid of desires and needs helps here), while promising people that they will also attain the higher levels of satisfaction, like achievement or being respected. And to do this, liberalism has to make each life turn out the same, regardless of the decisions people took throughout it and in doing so, it actually demeans and destroys the upper needs we have and gives people a sense of entitlement that is so common in the Western European and American culture.

Now, the unhappiness and disillusion people feel of the world comes from that sense of entitlement and that we can have it all. I will use two examples to try to illustrate this. One would be the way feminism promises women success and a career, while initially never mentioning the fact that family life will take the backseat and this leads to the unhappiness a lot of women have today. Or a better one, that isn’t so historical (considering that feminism now openly finds the family subjugation), the idea that girls can sleep around without being considered a slut and that men not minding this, which is false in the real world and to any logical person the opposite of this would be just a statement of fact. Basically, girls are promised the upside of satisfying their primal urge of having sex, without the loss of respect that it entails and when they realize this isn’t exactly true, they will enter the cognitive dissonance phase of things and find reasons like sexism or patriarchy that are to blame. In Avatar (my friends basically wanted to kidnap me and force me to go to watch it with them, but I heroically resisted and nobody went in the end), for example it’s the environmental and racial idea, not the sexual one, but it follows a similar pattern and due to Westerners taking for granted the luxuries that their society now gives them (while wasting the inheritance that their forefathers gave them), it works. For example, as a little girl, I had to wash my socks by hand because we didn’t have a washing machine, so a person that would be in the position in which I was, but living in a pristine environment, would see the movie as deeply irrational.

So to me it’s a combination of two things: taking your own culture and achievements for granted and having a sense of entitlement. And this combination leads to liberalism being an ideology that thrives on its own disaster. What religion did that prevented this from happening is giving a different rulebook about how to live and due to the two factors people really fail to appreciate the little things in their lives, while seeking the bigger things. I have to say, I’m guilty of this too. I live in a big, crowded city, full of stressed out people (since you live in NYC, you must know how it is), but I do things from time to time that help me find my peace and relax. I realized that many people don’t enjoy reading a book while laying on the grass near a lake or hugging their significant other and feeling their warmth. And about taking things for granted—it’s perfectly normal for this to happen when a society is built by someone else, fought for by someone else. If the West wasn’t so rich, it wouldn’t have experienced this because the cold truth and reality would have been to strong for people to evade. Before, Christianity helped people not to stray. Even though I am an atheist, I can see the importance Christianity had and it’s sad that people replaced the worship of God, with the worship of the state. And even if I am an atheist, I do believe that Christianity is part of the Western culture and tradition and needs to stay here.

Anyway, to sum it up, there are some historical factors at play here too. The generation that completely changed the American social and political landscape is the baby boom generation, due to several factors. One was that their parents grew up during the Great Depression and probably wanted to give everything to their children so that they won’t feel what they felt, and their parents were the generation who fought the Second World War. This probably lead to a more or less appeasing and reconciliatory attitude towards child raising, trying to avoid conflict. This, combined with the leftist overhaul of the academia and a few other influences lead to the 1960s and the popularity of the Frankfurt’s school ideas. Then the baby boomers didn’t have many children, so they remained a political factor and still are one.

I also agree with the rite of passage notion that Kristor put forward.

GH writes:

Thank you for posting Kristor’s comments. I found them very profound.

January 28

Edward writes:

I sent this discussion to my friend, a retired professor of philosophy and comparative religion, and he replies. He provides a traditional definition of gnosticism.

I wrote to him:

The discussion of gnosticism is really a discussion about social radicalism and alienation from society. It is rather long but I think worth reading because it addresses, rightly or wrongly, the illness of today’s western world and it’s cause. Any comments?

He replies:

I’m a little impatient with fanciful, farflung, overgeneralized depictions of gnosticism. Genuine Gnosticism, I believe, arises when the God of the Covenant (Christian, Jewish or even Muslim—the Shi’a) is seen to have broken the Covenant and is rejected as an imposter, a low demiurge who keeps the world in ignorance. The true God is then posited as radically transcendent, revealing himself to the few pneumatic (truly spiritual) souls through a Gnostic messenger bearing Gnosis (knowledge) in the form of revealing to the few their true identity as well as providing them with the magical keys to escape this lower world and return to the true God. Nazism was a form of modern Gnosticism, as was Jewish Sabbatianism, not to mention the Enlightenment itself—as was the mythic infrastructure of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters.” Gnosticism/gnosticism is a product of radical disillusionment with the Divine Promise.

Richard P. writes:

Kristor’s writing on Gnosticism is brilliant and highly explanatory. However, his path for restoring a durable social order falls somewhere between fanciful and delusional. Apologetics are only useful when people wish to discuss and reason with you in good faith.

We need to face the fact that a great many people in the West have a visceral loathing of Christianity. They may be ignorant of philosophy and Christianity (and often are as Kristor points out). But their reaction to Christianity goes beyond simple rejection or criticism to abhorrence. Many of these modern gnostics actively blame Christianity for both the imperfect world against which they are rebelling and for disrupting their utopian dreams. They see their eventual goal as the eradication of Christianity. They see Hitchens and Dawkins as the prophets for their new age.

To address them with apologetics is like trying to convince the Sans-culottes of the wonderful benefits of monarchy. Restoring a traditional social order may require the dissolution of political arrangements where large numbers of such people exist.

Atheists who acknowledge the importance of Christianity (such as your correspondent RV) are another problem entirely, but that is a different subject.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 27, 2010 02:18 PM | Send

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