Merion West

Christian Conservatism and Neo-Gnosticism: A Reply to Nick Opyrchal

(Catholic News Service/Nancy Wiechec)

However, Žižek’s entire point is that the dialectical method reveals a shocking truth about the world: that certain limitations cannot be overcome because they are built into the structure of reality itself.”

Introduction 

I read Nick Opyrchal’s recent Merion West article “The Monstrosity of Gnosticism” with great interest and appreciation. Opyrchal frames this piece as a response to my take on the Milbank-Žižek debate, particularly as expressed in their joint 2009 book The Monstrosity of Christ. Opyrchal claims that, while he admires my writing (the feeling is mutual), he takes issue with the “radically heterodox” interpretation of Christianity offered by Slavoj Žižek and myself. He is also critical of my appraisal of the conservative tradition’s approach to the relationship among religious traditionalism, modernity, and post-modernity. 

Opyrchal’s raises two primary objections to the piece. The first is that I was uncharitable to various conservative religious commentators, who actually have a more subtle take on the relationship among traditionalism, modernity, and post-modernity than I suggest. In particular conservative commentators such as Eric Voegelin and Kenneth Minogue are sensitive to both the historical antecedents and modern analogues of religious traditions in a way most progressive interpreters are not. Opyrchal writes:

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.” 

The second objection is that the kind of materialist and emancipatory Christianity put forward by Žižek and myself is not especially novel. Indeed, it is a type of regressive “secular Gnosticism.” It stresses the need for a historically immanent self-transcendence that can be achieved solely through human effort. The problem for Opyrchal is that “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.” Consequently, the radically heterodox view espoused by Žižek and myself is so deviant from what is essential to the Christian message that it cannot be accepted.

I think there are serious problems with this reading of both my own argument and, for that matter, Žižek’s. Much of this goes beyond what can be adequately addressed in an article of this length; however, I will try to respond to both points economically.

On Conservative Christianity 

Opyrchal is undoubtedly correct that, generally speaking, conservative thinkers tend to have more nuanced and closely argued interpretations of the religious tradition than their left-wing counterparts. There are many reasons for this—not least of which is the misreading of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the people” in the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This has led even remarkably smart critical theorists such as Wendy Brown largely to dismiss religion as epiphenomenal—an unusual development given the influence of Nietzsche on many variants of post-structural analysis. But, of course, Marx was far too subtle a dialectician—not to mention a student of Ludwig Feuerbach—to miss the importance of religion, and a more nuanced take would recognize it as serving some vital psychological and social role through symbolic coding. This is, of course, exactly what Žižek is aspiring to do (more on that in a minute). 

Putting it more simply, the target was a peculiar kind of Catholic conservatism that has become deeply influential in post-liberal conservatism today.

Saying that, I do not think Opyrchal recognized that the target of my critiques were not conservative commentators generally but, rather, a specific group of authors whom I listed quite clearly. This included Milbank, of course—but also Peter Lawler and Patrick Deneen. And one might add John Finnis and Alasdair MacIntyre, as well. Putting it more simply, the target was a peculiar kind of Catholic conservatism that has become deeply influential in post-liberal conservatism today. These figures, needless to say, have very distinct views on a wide variety of topics; however, what unites them is their critique of Enlightenment reason and its consequent political formulations. Summarizing crudely, these authors define modernity as committed to a mind of Promethean nominalism. Drawing on Aristotelian essentialism, Christian scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas held to a kind of realism about the world. Each object that existed was something in and of itself, while also playing a moral and teleological role in the divine plan, as set by God. What distinguished this scholasticism from its Aristotelian antecedents is that—while Aristotle thought it was possible to achieve one’s telos through the cultivation of the virtues in a good society, for Aquinas and his followers—divine help was, of course, necessary.  

By contrast, from Francis Bacon onwards, modernity was characterized by a growing anti-essentialism. The ascendant scientific rationality and materialism portrayed the world as little more than matter in motion, with no underpinning telos or consequent moral or divine purpose. This meant it could be endlessly manipulated and recreated for human purposes, which became entirely subjective and based on mere will and whim. This is why George Grant and Alasdair MacIntyre see some kind of commitment to a nihilistic “will to power” as the final and inevitable consequence of modernity, which never had the philosophical or spiritual resources to ground itself in a sufficiently realistic outlook to support both scientific rationality and universal morality. The only solution, according to these (specific) conservative Christian authors is a return to a type of pre-modern outlook—albeit one that carries forward the achievements of modernity, though what exactly these achievements are typically remains vague. 

The reason that I find these analyses regressive is that they typically adopt an overly simplistic (sometimes apocalyptic) narrative of decline and fall that is insufficiently dialectical in its tact. For a post-liberal like Patrick Deneen, it is clear that the political project of modernity has “failed” due to its bad metaphysics and anthropology relative to those offered by the Ancients and scholastics. For a self-described post-modern conservative like Peter Lawler, we need to reject the “hyper modern” doctrines offered by the contemporary political left and “return” to realism.  MacIntyre puts it even more dramatically in After Virtue; he compares our time period to that of before the fall of Rome (more Augustinian than Aristotelian one must say):

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point.” 

What these narratives of decline and fall miss is the dialectical point stressed by Hegel, Žižek, and perhaps Nietzsche in moments of weakness: If Christianity was, indeed, an immensely powerful world-historical doctrine, then the emergence of secular modernity in post-Christian countries ironically owes something to Christianity itself. This is, of course, a heterodox position and a very bitter pill to swallow. Some of the most subtle commentators like Max Weber and Charles Taylor in A Secular Age have been brave enough to swallow it, but too few have had that kind of gall. Far too many conservative Christians are more attracted to the provocative but ultimately monological account of radical decline, which combines Manichean levels of drama with My Super Sweet 16-levels of shrillness. This can take a dramatically dark turn towards the overtly illiberal (perhaps a post-post liberal?) à la a commentator like Adrian Vermeule. This brings me to my second point. 

The Dialectical and the Gnostic

The more fundamental argument in Opyrchal’s essay concerns the emancipatory and materialist Christianity argued for by Hegel and Žižek. The basic historical point is that where traditional Gnosticism aimed at attaining a transcendent divine unity through “esoteric practices and knowledge,” modern secular Gnosticism suggests that this can only be achieved immanently through history. It, consequently, stresses self-creation and perfection, as opposed to the vision of humankind’s radically fallen status in conventional Christianity. Opyrchal writes:

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.” 

This is an intriguing argument; however, with respect, I feel it misses the mark. Specifically, it downplays the Protestant dimensions of the transition to modernity traced by figures from Hegel and Kierkegaard through to Weber and ultimately left to Hegelians like Žižek and Taylor. This is crucial to understand since the kind of modernism and now post-modernism, which emerges in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, has deep roots in Protestant individualistic egalitarianism and its associated worldliness. The ethos of a personalized faith separated from many meaning-giving authority structures and their associated limitations can be found as far back as Luther, Calvin, and many others. 

More specifically, I think Voegelin and Opyrchal miss the most important way in which this transition was interpreted by the dialectical method. The point of Hegel and his followers was that—far from some return to a neo-Gnosticism fixated on overcoming human limitations—the Protestantization and ultimately secularization of Christianity were, in part, a result of the potentialities concealed within the limitations of orthodoxy. Monological religious reasoning tried to ignore these limitations and suggest that secularism is the result of some kind of fall from grace. The virtue of dialectics was to deny this by bringing the latent potentialities concealed by orthodoxy’s limitations to the forefront of consciousness and to point out that their overcoming through emancipatory and modern secular humanism was possible, in part, because elements of secular humanism were there from the beginning. Far from a return, the novelty of modernity lay in its stripping Christianity of its increasingly inessential symbology, while retaining this latent core. 

Žižek’s reading of Matthew 27 is that, at its most radical, Christian doctrine anticipated this realization when God came to doubt himself and cried out “Why have you forsaken me?” to heaven.

Conclusion 

Beyond that, I think they miss the ontological and moral takeaway of this dialectical approach. Indeed, Voegelin and Opyrchal’s reading of Žižek and myself seems more in line with a classical reading of Hegel and Marx as theorists of the absolute, within which all limitations are gradually overcome and reconciled. In this reading, the neo-Gnostic interpretation of Hegelian modernity is appealing since it seems to explain the yearning of modern human beings to engage in self-creation and the overcoming of their limitations within history. However, Žižek’s entire point is that the dialectical method reveals a shocking truth about the world: that certain limitations cannot be overcome because they are built into the structure of reality itself.

Far from the Aristotelian or Thomistic harmonious whole (where freedom comes from fulfilling one’s telos or participating in the divine plan), the secular material universe is one where reality is entirely imperfect and incomplete and the alienation of human beings from themselves runs the whole way down. Žižek’s reading of Matthew 27 is that, at its most radical, Christian doctrine anticipated this realization when God came to doubt himself and cried out “Why have you forsaken me?” to heaven. The moral takeaway is that—far from overcoming limitations—it is through recognizing that such limitations are built into reality (and human beings irrevocably) that we achieve a certain degree of metaphysical freedom. Rather than each person having a teleology to play in a massively overdetermined universe—let alone an immanent gnostic role to play in the grand narrative sweep of history—the realization of secularism and materialism is it falls to each of us to bear the heavy responsibility of bringing meaning into a world that is originally bare of it. In other words, the greatest limitation that one can overcome is the ideological conviction that there can be some future completion—that either teleology, a transcendent God, or history will fulfill or complete human life. These ideological convictions nihilistically limit freedom through the suggestion that subordination to some kind of a higher power will provide meaning to an existence that would be devoid of it otherwise.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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