The Bible reveals God as the Creator of the world and as the Creator of man. He created man out of love, in His image, and He calls man to communion with Himself in eternal life. Man should rejoice at this message—but he does not. Why? Because God makes ethical demands. These demands appear as limitations on man’s freedom. But man wants to be like God, and wants to decide for himself what is good and what is evil. He does not want to be dependent on God, not even on His mercy.
The spirit of rebellion against God is the inner core of the gnostic worldview. Gnosis means knowledge, and gnosticism is a school of thought that moves through the centuries in diverse forms and which has now seized the modern world. Already in antiquity, the gnostic spirit opposed the Jewish Creator God. For the gnostic, God exists solely as pure light beyond the universe. Evil demiurges have created an evil world into which man has been thrown. As man is imprisoned in the world, so is his spirit imprisoned in his body. He can only free himself from it through a secret knowledge, gnosis. This secret knowledge is passed on by the Electi or, according to the Medieval gnostics, the Perfecti. Thus, man is not understood to be a sinner, responsible for his deeds, redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus, but rather as a victim of malignant higher powers.
Ancient gnostic teachings endeavored to answer ineradicable questions in the heart of man—such as where he comes from and where he will go—albeit with mythological speculations lacking any real-world evidence. Modern gnosticism, however, plunges man into the abyss of nihilism. The satisfaction of limitless desires becomes the meaning of life. This satisfaction appears to the autonomous individual as freedom—but this is, in the words of French legal scholar Grégor Puppinck, the “freedom of an orphan” who has lost his roots in God, in nation, in family. Such satisfaction delivers man to that which is more powerful than his will: his own desires and the desires of those who have more power than he does.
Gender theory as modern Gnosticism
Gnosticism is thus pervaded with a spirit of rebellion against the Creator, against the world, and against the body of the human person. The body is seen as a limitation on the freedom of the self-willed mind. In today’s world, this gnostic rebellion has been taken to extremes by contemporary gender theory. Stripped of all transcendence, gender theory is the philosophical and practical attempt to abolish the binary nature of man and woman and to surrender man to the arbitrary self-definition of his identity.
But, in reality, the attempt to give the mind dominion over the body in no way brings about an increase of freedom. Man, who exercises power over his body, becomes divided within himself and trapped in the dialectics of the domination of the will over the body, which turns into the domination of the body over the will. Ultimately, the attempt to control the body for the purpose of sensuous gratification and the elimination of suffering leads to a domination of the body over the person.
The desire to exert dominion over the body shapes the attitude of the individual towards the world. The autonomous, autocratic individual does not respect the dignity of the person as a unity of body and soul, nor does he respect the limitations on his freedom in the created world. This has led to the exploitation of man and nature and tends to build totalitarian societies.
Modern gnosticism today can be identified in four areas: the idolatry of sexuality, gender ideology, the transformation of natural human rights into arbitrary individual rights, and in what we will call ‘digital disembodiment.’
The idolatry of sexuality
The Destruction of Sodom (1712), a 12.7 x 7.3 cm etching by Jan Luyken, part of a series of proofs for a Bible printed in Amsterdam by Pieter Arentsz in the 18th century.
PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN.
The ‘sexual liberation’ proclaimed in 1968 by rebellious students and their teachers Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Alfred Kinsey, Simone de Beauvoir, and others meant the tearing down of all moral limitations on sexuality. The intellectual trailblazers were atheist, communist, anarchist thinkers—and their followers still are. If one looks at the personal lives of these intellectual ‘leaders,’ one finds all kinds of ‘liberated’ sexual practices. They used the power of their intellects to conform the world to their own sexual appetites, instead of adapting themselves to the order of creation by striving for virtue.
Sexual liberation, however, did not lead to the paradise of the ‘pleasure principle’ free from domination, as Herbert Marcuse prophesied in his 1955 book, Eros and Civilization. Rather, it led to the idolatry of sexuality. But idols tend to devour their worshippers. While man attempts to subjugate his body and exploit it as a means of obtaining sexual pleasure for its own sake, the sexualized body becomes an idol that subjugates the will of the person through a chronic dissatisfaction with one’s body and ever-intensifying sexual addiction. The sexual drive becomes a tyrannical ruler, and man a slave to that sexual drive.
The ultimate exertion of power over the body is the self-determined termination of his life. Man cannot decide his birth, but he can decide to end his life—and the lives of those weaker than himself. Hence, we face the growing acceptance of the killing of the unborn, the aged, the sick, and the suffering.
Human beings come into the world as either male or female (irrespective of naturally occurring abnormalities). Gender ideology sees this basic fact of human existence as a limitation of individual freedom. The small minority who cannot or do not want to fit into the ‘heterosexual normativity’ view the binary structure of sex as discriminating and unacceptable. They claim the autonomy of the individual over the body and the satisfaction of any sexual preference as their ‘human right.’
In 1990, Judith Butler—philosopher of nihilistic deconstructionism and avowed lesbian—published the book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. The title conveys the agenda: to subvert identity. She claims that there is no binary structure of the sexes and that gender—defined as social sex—is independent of biological sex. In her view, the body is not a reality but a fictional construction that is determined by the language of domination in patriarchal society. Therefore, language must be changed. As a consequence, nature and reason are thrown overboard as criteria for anthropology and law. The intellectual violence of this theory inevitably leads to the suppression of freedom of speech because every contradiction unmasks the lie and the liar.
Another version of The Destruction of Sodom (1712), a 13.2 x 6.9 cm etching by Jan Luyken, part of the same series of proofs printed in Amsterdam by Pieter Arentsz.
PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN.
No one could have imagined in 1990 that this reality-denying theory would infiltrate and change society from the universities down to kindergarten and eventually be codified in law. In 2017 Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court introduced a ‘third gender.’ Employers must now advertise vacancies as ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or ‘diverse.’
Since the body is seen as material and, therefore, not as a meaningful expression of the person, a person can feel that he or she is ‘in the wrong body.’ He or she can no longer experience himself or herself as a unity of body, mind, and soul. Instead of seeking to heal this personality split with therapeutic help, violence is done to the body by the intake of hormones or even surgical mutilation of the body.
The number of those who want to change their gender by puberty-delaying hormones or even surgical mutilation has exploded in recent years, especially among pubescent girls. The fact that numerous states allow, by law, adolescents to damage their lives irreversibly is a grave offense against the young generation.
From natural human rights to arbitrary individual rights
The sexual revolution could only be enforced by discrediting the Christian anthropology on which the legal systems of our once-Christian societies were based.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was the result of a tug-of-war between states with differing religious majorities, including atheistic materialists. The concept of human rights that ensued after two years of negotiation was founded on the acknowledgement of natural rights of each and every person. It was associated with the hope that a repetition of the inconceivable atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi and Communist dictatorships could be averted through an international commitment to the inviolable dignity of the human person. Yet, there was no mention of God as the source of natural law. Not God, but the conscience of the individual was seen as the ultimate sovereign, thus opening the door to the redefinition of human rights as rights of the individual.
During the 70 years that have passed since the Declaration, the idea of human rights has undergone a fundamental transformation. Human rights are no longer a codification of the natural rights that belong to every human being, at all times and places, but focus instead on the rights of the individual—without reference to the common good. This has given rise to unnatural ‘rights’—such as the killing of the unborn child, the killing of suffering human beings through euthanasia, eugenics through pre-natal selection, the arbitrary redefinition of marriage by opening it up to same-sex couples, the denial of the right of the child to his or her biological father and mother by the introduction of artificial reproduction and surrogate motherhood, the choice of sex by means of juridical attribution, the recognition as real of the fantasy of a ‘third sex,’ and the sacrilegious transgressions of the order of creation by transhuman experiments that merge man and machine, and man and animal.
When neither God nor nature nor the common good give orientation to society, and only the arbitrary rights of the individual are considered valid, then man becomes a wolf to man—homo homini lupus, as Thomas Hobbes put it. The negation of nature—most importantly of human nature—has been interpreted as liberation and progress. But this ‘progress’ turns out to be a progression into barbarism and totalitarianism. The transformation of human rights derived from human nature and Christian anthropology into arbitrary, limitless rights of the isolated individual is just one expression of the gnostic heresy in our time. And its root is the gnostic division of the person into mind and body.
In synchronicity with the ideological-political dissolution of the unity of mind and body, the development of digital technology seems to overcome the limits of the body. It almost seems as if we have freed ourselves from the limitations of physical existence in time and space through the internet. The enforced social isolation caused by the COVID pandemic has been considerably mitigated through the fantastic possibility of being able to communicate with others without leaving our homes.
But an essential aspect of being human has been lost in the process: physical touch, eye contact, the nuances of facial expression; bonding, building trust, a sense of responsibility and accountability have all fallen by the wayside. Digital disembodiment has plunged people into loneliness and is facilitating the manipulation of the mind and total surveillance by the new masters of the world: the uncontrollable giants of big tech.
This is a development that not only brings about a global totalitarian surveillance state but also permanent changes to man himself. The more we use technological means of communication, the more we ourselves become technologized beings that have lost contact with the subtle inner world of love and sacrifice, beauty and art.
Restoring the unity of body, mind, and soul
Antithetical to the gnostic heresy and the destructive ideologies of modernity is the “Theology of the Body” of Pope St. John Paul II. Therein is an answer to the misery caused by the false promises of sexual ‘liberation’ in a world turned away from God. John Paul II unfolded God’s plan of salvation for man as revealed in the Old and New Testaments in a sort of triptych: man in Paradise before the Fall, historical man after the Fall, and man redeemed by Jesus Christ.
God is love, and God created human beings male and female out of love, calling them to learn to love during this life on Earth. Man and woman are complete human beings; they are equal in dignity but different in body and mind. The difference between the sexes is complementary, like lock and key. In Paradise, there was unity between God and man, as well as unity of body, mind, and soul within the human being. There was also unity between man and woman: they became “one flesh.”
The Destruction of Sodom (1708), a 33.5 x 41.5 cm etching by printmaker Jan Luyken for the Icones Biblicae Veteris et Novi Testamenti, published in Amsterdam by Pieter Mortierin in 1708.
PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN.
By giving in to the temptation of seeking to be like God, this unity was broken. “You will not die,” the serpent lied, “for God knows that when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Paradise was lost, and man was plunged into the broken world of history. But God did not cease to court His chosen people—like a bridegroom to a bride—as the prophets of the Old Testament revealed. He finally sent his own son to open the path of man to be in communion with God—in this life and the next. On the Last Day, man will be resurrected in his transfigured body as man and woman.
The challenge before us is the following: we must decide whether we believe in a universe created by a loving God who called us into being and who has destined us for eternal Communion with Himself, or whether we can only be free by making ourselves like God and imposing our own will on our body and the world? The wide path of ‘liberation’ from the ethical demands of God leads into the abyss of a totalitarian world; the narrow path of love leads to the only true freedom—as God’s children. Let us choose this freedom over the tyranny of modernity.
This essay appears in the Winter 2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 21: 36-41.