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The Monstrosity of Gnosticism

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Milbank is perhaps correct, then, in seeing that Žižek is so heterodox in his reading that he has crossed the Rubicon into something detached from the stream of Christian thought.”

I feel I should start this article by offering an apology to Matt McManus; although we seem to share the same interests and read the same books (and I am a fan of his writing), I often find myself positioned on the opposite side of the argument. Therefore, I feel prompted occasionally by his generous output of academic work to voice dissent. This is the case with his most recent article, in which he reviews the book The Monstrosity of Christ and in doing so sides with one of the authors, Slavoj Žižek, against the second author, John Milbank, in arguing that modernism and postmodernism do not represent a strong departure from Christian thought but, instead, represent a continuation of the Christian position. In doing so, he suggests that conservative thinkers do not realize this contingency and that Slavoj Žižek’s own Hegelian reading of Christianity represents a sort of authentic Christian growth in comparison to Milbank’s tepid orthodoxy. As I read this, I can feel the presence of the ghost of G.K. Chesterton, imploring me to attack my keyboard and offer a riposte. 

One of the central issues which I take with these arguments is that I believe that McManus (and Žižek whom he is drawing upon) conflates Gnostic paradigms of interpreting the world (which emphasize the collapse of the transcendent into the immanent, human experience) with Christian positions (which maintain a separation between a divine transcendence and everyday, immanent experience). This lack of differentiation in Žižek’s analysis between these two religious streams means that Žižek (and McManus), unfortunately, attribute the moments of the genesis of modernist and post-modernist thought to the cultural milieu emerging from Christianity itself, rather than the parallel, contemporary, and often competing religious stream of Gnosticism. This is far more suitable as a point of origin for these modernist and postmodern emergences into culture philosophically. Žižek makes a mistake in naming this as being a sort of “heterodox” natural outcome of taking the presuppositions of Christianity to their end. He does this instead of acknowledging that he has entered into the realm of an entirely different religion in his attempt to collapse the transcendent totally in favor of the immanent. Modernism and postmodernism undeniably draw upon and partly develop from Christianity; however, in their central philosophical tendencies and modus operandi they—generally—deviate strongly from this and are far more akin to this Gnostic paradigm, which emphasizes the collapse of the transcendent into immanence, self-creation through knowledge, and release from limitation. Žižek states

“God’s manifestation in human history is part of his very essence. In this way, God is no longer a monarch who eternally dwells in his absolute transcendence—the very difference between eternal essence and its manifestation (the divine ‘economy’) should be abandoned.” 

He also writes: 

“…it is man himself who gives birth to God. God is nothing outside man—although this nothing is not a mere nothing, but the abyss of Godhead prior to God, and in this abyss, the very difference between God and man is annihilated—obliterated…” 

When doing so, however, he does not profess anything approaching the profound radical theology or “end point” of Christianity that he seemingly attributes to himself (and McManus attributes to him). Instead, he offers a Hegelian reading in which transcendence is collapsed. As such, he “jumps ship” from a Christian orientation into a Gnostic one that—as theorists such as Eric Voegelin have observed in detail—is largely the religious orientation that underpins the current orthodoxy and dominant philosophies of the modern world. Žižek’s Hegelian movement to conflate the transcendent with the immanent is, in fact, named explicitly by a number of conservative theorists, such as Augusto Del Noce, as one of the pivotal distortions that has led modernity away from Christian paradigms of interpreting the world and towards adopting what is often called a “secular” Gnostic orientation. 

Therefore, he conflates the two religious streams together, believing that Christianity suffices as a label for both. In doing so, he is also mistaken in the belief that conservative commentators do the same.

Secular Gnosticism

McManus makes the assertion that conservative thinkers have not adequately interrogated the religious influences on the culture of the modern world. However, in obvious contradiction to this claim, many well-known philosophers such as Voegelin, Kenneth Minogue, and Del Noce (among a wealth of others) have written in intricate detail about Christian and Gnostic influence on modern culture. In contrast to the conflation of Gnosticism and Christian thought that Žižek offers, these conservative authors have often produced more nuanced analysis in highlighting the difference between these two related and parallel (yet profoundly different) streams of religious thought in the West and their modern cultural analogues. Gnosticism emphasizes the collapse of transcendence and, therefore, a continuous drive toward self-creation and a potential self-perfection in the immanent. Christianity, on the other hand, emphasizes acceptance of the human condition as containing an invariable alienation from transcendent perfection, one which cannot be overcome through human effort alone. Žižek (and by proxy McManus) seems perhaps to be unfamiliar with these arguments, categories, and differentiations. Therefore, he conflates the two religious streams together, believing that Christianity suffices as a label for both. In doing so, he is also mistaken in the belief that conservative commentators do the same.

In reality, the emergence of the modern and post-modern from religious thought is a central theme and area of exploration for many conservative political philosophers (often a far more central theme than in the work of most left-wing thinkers). Yet these theorists often draw out in detail the differentiation between orthodox Christian influences on culture from traditional Gnostic influences—and their more modern secular Gnostic progeny. 

Voegelin is perhaps the point of origin for much of the most important commentary on modern secular Gnostic movements. He is careful to differentiate these from traditional Gnostic religious movements, in which the central aim is the realization of transcendent divinity (God) through the immanent subjective experience of the individual. This traditional Gnosticism, while emphasizing the ability of the individual to attain a divine state through his own esoteric practices and knowledge, retains the belief in a transcendent being that one “channels” through one’s immanent experience.

In contrast, Voegelin identified the modern secular Gnostic movements as taking this a step further and expressing a wish to collapse the transcendent entirely into the immanent. This includes the desire to “kill” god as a transcendent object beyond the self (as is evident in the Hegelian example Žižek provides). Correspondingly, it also aims to deify the immanent, historical experience of the self (and of humanity entirely over any limitations), which the existence of a transcendent object would necessarily impose. 

The “re-interpretation” that Žižek provides (and McManus highlights) of the story of the dawn of consciousness in the Garden of Eden by Hegel is also well-known as a classically Gnostic reading. (It is, in fact, the example the conservative theorist Kenneth Minogue highlights in his 2013 book The Servile Mind as the paradigmatic example of gnostic thinking.) This reading stresses the transgression of limitations as the path towards a personal enlightenment and of self-consciousness. It is a reading that stresses the importance of self-creation and is also a movement towards self-deification and self-perfection. This is rather opposed to the emphasis on the acceptance of psychological alienation and the “fall” of man that the orthodox Christian reading emphasizes.

The other philosophers whom McManus names in his article as favored (Nietzsche and Marx) are also named by Voegelin (and other commentators such as Del Noce and Vladimir Tismăneanu) as central figures in the development of this secular Gnosticism. Even a cursory study of these figures can show that philosophically they are far closer to a secular Gnostic thought than any orthodox Christian origin, from which they radically (and often self-consciously and deliberately) depart. Although obviously massively deviating in details (which this article does not provide space to address), these thinkers have some similarity in that they hinge their respective Weltanschauungs upon the overthrow of a transcendence that limits subjectivity, instead broadly emphasizing the realizing of a subjectivity unlimited by the impact of transcendent rules as an immanent project in some form. They also hold the largely unlimited reshaping of subjectivity and the world through knowledge as central to their particular philosophical paradigms—even if these projects are vastly different in detail and execution. 

These thinkers—I contend—could not, in any way, meaningfully be seen as contingent with the orthodox Christian paradigm and do, in fact, constitute a radical break with it. They could, however, be attributed to (and be seen as contingent with) the Gnostic paradigm, especially the secular, modern Gnosticism proposed by Voegelin and company. Taking McManus’s own example of Nietzsche and his conception of slave morality and the death of god: In some ways, it is not easy to see how much more of a radical break one could have with Christian thinking than this example. To say this retains fidelity to the Christian tradition because it concerns liberation seems as nonsensical as saying that black is not a strong break from white because it concerns color. Sacrificing infants to Beelzebub would perhaps still retain a closer fidelity in some ways as it would still at least conform to the belief in a transcendent being and a transcendent moral framework, even if repugnant. The Nietzsche example cannot in good faith be attributed to an outgrowth of Christian thinking, except in a mode which is so broad that it loses all meaning. In contrast, the emphasis on liberation from moral limitation, the idea of knowledge separating one from the “slaves,” and the conception of the transcendent as tyrannical is one which links and is not in any way a significant departure from some traditional strands of Gnostic thought. This is one of the reasons why Nietzsche is another figure (alongside Hegel), who is highlighted by conservative commentators such as Del Noce and Voegelin in the genesis of modern secular Gnosticism. 

Conclusion

I agree wholeheartedly with McManus that religion has a huge influence on politics and that there needs to be investigation and differentiation between the different aspects of its influence. McManus and Žižek seemingly promote paradigms that seek the collapse of the absolute into the immanent as essentially continuations of Christianity. I believe that this is a bad misreading born from the lack of familiarity with the Gnostic strain of religiosity, which runs parallel with Christian thinking. The “immanentizing of the eschaton” as Voegelin called the attempted realization (through human effort) of the transcendence within an immanent, historical moment is absolutely a radical departure from orthodox Christianity. However, it is not a radical departure from Gnostic thought. Milbank is perhaps correct, then, in seeing that Žižek is so heterodox in his reading that he has crossed the Rubicon into something detached from the stream of Christian thought. 

Theorists of totalitarianism of all stripes—Leszek Kołakowski, Tismăneanu, Minogue, and Voegelin—have identified the impulse to collapse the transcendent into the immanent as being one of the central philosophical motors behind the most murderous and deadly regimes of the 20th century. And, as I have written previously, this is also the central philosophical influence on our current moment of identity politics. When there is no limitation hypothesized beyond the personal, the narcissistic desire to install oneself or one’s political ideology as a divine tyrant or realize a utopian project at the expense of any moral impediment is potentially given free rein. The results have been the monstrosities that have blighted humankind for the last century and probably will do so for a long time into the future. 

To say that conservative political theorists do not recognize the religious influence on the current political and cultural strands that constitute modernism and postmodernism is incorrect. It misses the large body of work by conservative and centrist thinkers (some of which I have named here) who deal with this very explicitly—but at a level that parses the different religious currents and influences of the West apart. The idea that these ideas can all be lumped into a single catch-all category, which is a continuation or outgrowth of Christian thought, is perhaps about as accurate as describing our current moment with the label “postmodern-neo Marxism.” It contains—at some level—a grain of truth that appeals to partisans as it attributes the monstrosity that we currently find ourselves in to a political enemy. However, without the necessary differentiation and acknowledgment of the ways in which the current moment radically breaks from Christian thinking, it remains inadequate as a meaningful attempt at analysis.

Nick Opyrchal is a psychotherapist in private practice. For his M.A., he researched the intersection between Lacanian and transpersonal perspectives in psychotherapy. His current doctoral work investigates the intersection of identity politics and the transpersonal within psychotherapy.

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