Crass Gnosticism: We Have Met the Enemy, and They Are Us

(Thanks to Walker Percy, Jason Peters (heck, the entire Front Porch Republic crew, especially Jeff Bilbro), Cardinal Robert Sarah, Joshua Schwartz, Marko Papic, James Howard Kunstler, Chris Arnade, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (I really can’t stand him but his coinage of IYI does constantly inspire me), Neil Postman, Howard Marks, Grace Olmstead, Elizabeth Bruenig and many others who ended up writing much of what inspired the following rumination. Any of the following is not their fault, by the way.)

1: 2021

Never one to pass up an opportunity to pilfer the murky, swampish depths of my brain, I selected the subtitle above with a distinct purpose. I want to avoid anything that smacks of whataboutism, pointing fingers, ever-so-slightly casting blame or really anything that avoids the sad brutal crux of life at really any point: If you are very unhappy with what is going on in your life, it’s usually on you. Not that you deliberately chose for everything to happen to you as if from a menu, with full knowledge and consent; in fact, pretty much every one of us has not had a say in most things that have happened to us. But what is done is done, and how we respond is up to us. Also, it is worth noting that we may have contributed, usually by way of omission, more to our current state of affairs than we’d like to admit.

The same often goes for broader states of affairs, especially in a democracy or republic. We reap what we sow, more often than we’d care to think about. At this present moment, in the early days of 2021, Trump fans are still declaiming wildly that the leftists are enacting the true coup, while progressives shriek that Trump must be taught a lesson or fascists will be emboldened, just as Hitler was after minor punishments for a putsch. Neither will care to hear that they both in large part brought this outcome upon themselves – the former for enabling a clearly inept, narcissistic blowhard that never should have been elected president, and the latter for softpedaling earlier violent riots and refusing to even compromise on pretty much any issue. I quite enjoy doing this, so I’ll state one more: The complete failure on the part of many pundits on the left to acknowledge how the Obama administration was mediocre at best and deathly passive at worst is only matched by the not-so-subtle racism and faux-conservatism exhibited by many on the right in their kneejerk opposition to much of what the Obama administration tried to do.

It would be too easy to go on for forever, but the takeaway is pretty clear. In other words, we have met the enemy, and they are us.

That subtitle comes from a Walt Kelly comic, Pogo. I’m not really familiar with the strip or artist, apart from some passing references in reading interviews with Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame, but I learned of the phrase’s origin when Googling it on a whim, while writing this introduction. In a way, that search also hints at some of the themes in the following, in that for much of my life I have been offhandedly referencing or using that phrase with a decent approximation of its meaning, but never once put two and two together and connected it to the famous American military quote “We have met the enemy, and they are ours” that it parodies, nor realized the Pogo quote originally applied to environmentalism. Our minds are marvelous machines, capable of much abstraction, but only so much. In fact, I often wonder if the rabid push toward AI is a tacit acknowledgment of the sheer degree of abstraction required in many fields now for original research that is beyond our capability. We’re not all John von Neumann, sadly. But like him, we are human – we are half-holy hybrids, an odd chimera of body and soul. It’s our blessing and curse, and grappling with it has been one of our perennial struggles. The problem is, right now, we have the tools to make that struggle worse than it ever has been before… and perhaps better.

2: A cut-rate Gnosticism: the vague unifying belief that underlies the early 21st century’s zeitgeist

Like any younger millennial, I know how to write a good research paper, so let me show off: 1) Go to Wikipedia; 2) find what seems like the most reputable batch of articles; 3) cull from the citations at the bottom of said articles the array of related materials that may or may not support your hypothesis. In addition, let me quickly Google the definition of Gnosticism, as frankly speaking that’s kind of a weird one.

From the illustrious Britannica: “The designation gnosticism is a term of modern scholarship. It was first used by the English poet and philosopher of religion Henry More (1614–87), who applied it to the religious groups referred to in ancient sources as gnostikoi (Greek: “those who have gnosis, or ‘knowledge’ ”). The Greek adjective gnostikos (“leading to knowledge” or “pertaining to knowledge”) was first used by Plato to describe the cognitive or intellectual dimension of learning, as opposed to the practical.”

And in addition: “Many of the so-called gnostic groups are characterized by a mythology that distinguishes between an inferior creator of the world (a demiurge) and a more transcendent god or order of being. Another frequently encountered theme is that there is a special class or race of humans that is descended from the transcendent realm and is destined to achieve salvation and to return to its spiritual origins. Salvation is understood as a revelation that reawakens knowledge (gnosis) of the race’s divine identity; […] it is often asserted that in the gnostic myths there is a far sharper dualism, involving a much more negative attitude toward the inferior creator god, the material cosmos, and the human body.”

Identifying the primary intellectual force behind the early 21st century’s zeitgeist as the above may seem out of left field, but bear with me. It’s easy to establish that much of the rich, primarily western world is, with all due respect to R.E.M., losing their official religion at a rapid clip, turning toward more dynamic, personal belief systems. (That is as of now, although I strongly suspect in a decade or more much of the Middle East will follow suit.) What is it, you would say, that the typical secular human in a developed nation nowadays actually worships? Even if nominally Christian or Muslim or any related denomination, if they don’t attend a single religious service at all or do anything recognized as prayer, what do they do that ancient humans would recognize simply as worship?

God help us all, one of us may have thought of Sunday brunch. However, beyond such accursed inventions, what many of us aspire to, rather than what we actually end up doing (classic hallmarks of religious practice, as most of us aren’t that good at our own religions), is the pursuit of being… them.

And by them, I mean that group of people that various elites at times try to persuade everyone and especially each other that they are. This superior class is always physically fit but body-positive, charming but inoffensive, knowledgeable but open, connected yet individualist, genteel but woke… They are unburdened and uninhibited by the sins of their ancestors, no longer just not racist but antiracist, free of the messy reality that is the human body that confines us into particular identities.

They do not exist. Not only does the vast machinery of modern consumer marketing try to sell us on all the products and services that will enable us to become them, but also growing movements in academia and media are trying to establish them as the apotheosis of post-liberal, post-capitalist, post-religious society.

Tell me, how does this worship differ from being a crasser slant on the transcendent race of superior beings that the Gnostics sought to be on their route to salvation or tacitly proclaimed they already were? How does this not reek of a clear rejection of actual mental, moral and material limitations in our world?

To walk through one example, one may say that the trend of body-positivity goes counter toward the silent, subtle nudge of so much of our culture toward achieving the hairless, toned, wrinkle-free physiques of the superior beings we should all be. I concur – the body-positive advocates are pushing back against this worshipful rat-race toward the unattainable. I just think they’re losing, because they also try to swing the pendulum back too far in the other direction (e.g., if a role model like Lizzo gets decried just because she posts about a diet she’s trying out, then such reactionaries are approaching the ludicrous). Furthermore, in a way, the philosophical underpinnings of that trend and others of its ilk are equally Gnostic: They proclaim that their selves as they stand are superior already, with no need for change – “I’m doing me” and “This is my truth” – as they are, in a way, their own higher authorities.

With either the absence of a God or the relegation of any religion to more of a vague, benign background of atheism, agnosticism or belief in higher powers, much of the richest, most technically advanced societies on earth are lost in the worship of their conceptions of their highest selves. What is slowly killing all of those seeking such a realization, those who half-embrace it yet half-emulate traditional hallmarks of personal achievement and happiness in their culture (e.g., homeownership, marriage, financial stability), those who repudiate it by embracing its opposite – unfettered hedonism – is the cold truth that without an objective system of absolute truths, there is no firm measure of worth. To take one example of a new iteration of the path to this higher selfhood, how can a well-off white person in the UK truly flagellate themselves in all the ways necessary to maintain being an antiracist, given their inevitable complicity in a legacy of imperialism and racism? Who will help this person define their true antiracist status?

Oh, and the internet has ruined and will continue to ruin most illusions around the superiority that some people have ostensibly achieved. For those who adulate billionaires as self-made genius visionaries, there lurks the specter of Jeffrey Epstein. For those who still believed in completely noble politicians, there are plenty of drone killing videos to select from that were done at the behest of the Obama administration. But ironically enough, despite all this, the fever dream at the center of this 21st century flavor of Gnosticism still remains a firm belief in humanity’s ability to invent technology and advance science, which will save us from our many flaws.

Part 2 of this post to come (it was all getting rather long).

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