The Western
world is the creation of the Church, and the crisis of the West is always at
bottom the crisis of the Church.  This is
especially so where the Church has receded into the background of the Western
mind – where men’s plans are hatched in the name of progress, science, social
justice, equity, or some other purportedly secular value, and make little or no
reference to religion.  For liberalism, socialism,
communism, scientism, progressivism, identity politics, globalism, and all the
rest – this Hydra’s head of modernist projects, however ostensibly secular, is
united by two features that are irreducibly theological.

First, they
are all essentially apostate
projects, enterprises that have arisen in the midst of Christian civilization
with the aim of supplanting it.  And they
could have arisen only within the Christian context, because, second, these
projects are all heretical in the
broad sense of that term.  That is to say,
they are all founded on some idea inherited from Christianity (the dignity of
the individual, human equality, a law-governed universe, a final consummation, etc.)
but removed from the theological framework that originally gave it meaning, and
radically distorted in the process.

As an
essentially apostate and heretical phenomenon, modernity is also an Oedipal phenomenon.  Its series of grand, mad schemes amount to
the West fitfully seeking – now this way, now that – finally to free itself
from the authority of its heavenly Father and to defile the doctrine of its ecclesiastical
Mother.  And in the process, the would-be
parricides always make themselves over into parodies – remolding the world in
their image, suppressing dissent, and otherwise acting precisely like the
oppressive God and Church that haunt their imaginations.

Eric
Voegelin (1901-1985) was among the most important thinkers to analyze modernity
under the category of heresy, and the specific heresy he regarded as the key to
the analysis was Gnosticism.  The Gnostic heresy is one that has recurred
many times in the long history of the Church, under various guises –
Marcionism, Manicheanism, Paulicianism, Albigensianism, Catharism, and so
on. 
Like Hilaire
Belloc
, Voegelin regarded Puritanism as a more recent riff on the
same basic mindset.  And he argued that modern
ideologies like communism, National Socialism, progressivism, and scientism are
all essentially secularized versions of Gnosticism.  Voegelin’s best-known statement of this
thesis appears in The
New Science of Politics
, though he revisited and expanded upon
it in later
work
. 

Now, what
Voegelin saw in these ideologies is manifestly present in Critical Race Theory
and the rest of the “woke” insanity now spreading like a cancer through the
body politic.  But it is also to be found
in certain tendencies coming from the opposite political direction, such as the
lunatic QAnon theory.  Voegelin’s
analysis is thus as relevant to understanding the present moment as it was to
understanding the mid-twentieth-century totalitarianisms that originally
inspired it.  It reveals to us the true
nature of the insurgency that is working to take over the Left, and will do so
if more sober liberals do not act decisively to check its influence.  But it also serves as a grave warning to the
Right firmly to resist any temptation to respond to left-wing Gnosticism with a
right-wing counter-Gnosticism.

Notes of the Gnostic mindset

The Gnostic
mentality – considered at a high level of abstraction that leaves out the many
differences between the various specific Gnosticizing movements that have
arisen over the centuries – can be characterized in terms of tendencies like
the following:

First, it
sees evil as all-pervasive and nearly omnipotent, absolutely permeating the
established order of things.  You might
wonder how this differs from the Christian doctrine of original sin.  It differs radically.  Christianity teaches the basic goodness of the created order.  It teaches that human beings have a natural
capacity for knowledge and practice of the good – the idea of natural law.  It teaches that basic social institutions
like the family and the state are grounded in the natural law, and are
therefore good.  To be sure, it also
teaches that original sin has massively damaged our moral capacities and social
life.  But it has not obliterated the
good that is in them.  And its damage has
been mitigated by special divine revelation since the beginning of the human
race, as recorded in scripture.  The
Gnostic mindset takes a much darker view. 
The original Gnostic movements regarded the material world as
essentially evil.  They saw marriage and family as evil.  They regarded the God of the Old Testament as
the malign creator and ruler of the present sinister order of things.  The Gnostic mentality is thus one of radical alienation from the created
order.  It sees that order as something
to be destroyed or escaped from rather than redeemed.

Second, the
Gnostic mentality holds that only an elect who have received a special gnosis or “knowledge” from a Gnostic
sage can see through the illusory appearances of things to the reality of the
incorrigible evil of this world.  You
might wonder how this differs from Christian appeal to special divine
revelation.  Once again, the difference
is radical.  Christian teaching is
essentially exoteric.  Christianity holds, first, that at least the
basic truths of natural law and natural theology are available in principle to
everyone and at any time, just by using their natural rational powers.  Second, it holds also that even special
divine revelation is publicly available to all, and backed by evidence that
anyone can examine, viz. the evidence that a prophet claiming a revelation has
performed genuine miracles.  Gnostic
teaching, by contrast, is esoteric.  It holds that the truth cannot be known from the appearances of things or from any official
sources, but has been passed along “under the radar” and is accessible only to
the initiated.  The Gnostic epistemology
is what today would be called a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Third, the
Gnostic mindset sees reality in starkly Manichean terms, as a twilight struggle
between the sinister forces that rule this evil world and those who have been “purified”
of it and armed with gnosis.  Once again, you might think this differs
little from Christian teaching, but once again you’d be wrong.  Christian doctrine holds that natural reason
and natural law provide common ground by which the Christian and the unbeliever
can debate their differences and cooperate in pursuing common ends.  And it holds that the righteous and the
wicked – the wheat and the tares – will in any event always be intermingled in
this life, to be separated only at the Last Judgment.  The Gnostic mindset is not interested in such
common ground or tolerant of such differences.

Fourth, the
Gnostic lives in what Voegelin calls a “dream world.”  This is inevitable given the subjectivism and
irrationality entailed by the Gnostic’s esotericism, and the paranoia entailed by
his Manicheanism.  The Gnostic sees the
manifestation of evil forces everywhere. 
He inverts common sense and everyday morality, seeing these as
reflective of the evil order of things and the sinister forces behind it.  Nothing that happens is taken to falsify his
beliefs, because any bad effects are interpreted as merely further
manifestations of the evil forces, rather than reflecting any defect in the
Gnostic’s belief system.  Voegelin
writes:

The gap between intended and real
effect will be imputed not to the Gnostic immorality of ignoring the structure
of reality but to the immorality of some other person or society that does not
behave as it should behave according to the dream conception of cause and
effect
. (The New Science of Politics, pp. 169-70)

Fifth,
Gnostic moral practice veers between the extremes of puritanism and libertinism.  Initially this might seem puzzling, but it
makes perfect sense given the Gnostic’s other commitments.  On the one hand, given the Gnostic hatred of
the created order and of conventional moral and social life, what the normal
person takes to be permissible or even necessary to ordinary life is prissily
condemned.  Hence, Gnostic heretical
movements over the centuries famously emphasized vegetarianism, pacifism, the
purported evil of capital punishment, and similarly utopian attitudes, pitting the
“mercy” of a Gnosticized interpretation of Jesus against what they regarded as
the sinister Old Testament God of justice. 
On the other hand, since the material world is taken by the Gnostic to
have no value, nothing that happens within it ultimately matters, and the most
licentious behavior can be excused.  Hence,
sexual immorality was often tolerated in practice – as long as it was not
associated with marriage and procreation, which would tie us to the ordinary material
and social order.

Sixth, the
Gnostic posits a final victory of the “pure” over the evil forces that govern
everyday reality.  For Gnostic heretical
movements of the past, this entailed an ultimate release from the material
world.  But the modern political
successors of Gnosticism tend to be materialist, seeing no hope for a life
beyond this one.  Here is where Voegelin
sees the greatest difference between ancient and modern forms of
Gnosticism.  As Voegelin famously put it,
modern forms of Gnosticism “immanentize the eschaton” – that is to say, they
relocate the final victory of the righteous in this world rather than the next, and look forward to a heaven on
earth.

Modern Gnosticisms

The many
variations on the Gnostic heresy that arose in the ancient and medieval worlds
did so in a context where the reality of the supernatural was taken for
granted.  The influence of classical
philosophical traditions like Neo-Platonism and the dominance of the Church
made this reflexive supernaturalism possible. 
But the Enlightenment radically changed the basic cultural situation,
breaking the power of the Church over Western civilization and putting Western
philosophy and intellectual life in general on a trajectory toward
naturalism. 

Voegelin’s
deep insight is that this by no means destroyed the Gnostic mindset, but merely
transformed it.  Gnosticism didn’t
disappear with the decline of supernaturalism; instead, it adapted to the new
cultural situation by naturalizing itself. 
“Immanentizing the eschaton” is the most obvious adaptation, but all the
other elements of the Gnostic mindset were also transformed in various ways in
the different modern forms of Gnosticism.

Hence,
consider Marxism from the point of view of Voegelin’s analysis.  Here the all-pervasive and near omnipotent
evil that the Gnostic sees in the world becomes capitalism and the bourgeois
power that it sustains.  This power is
taken to permeate every aspect of life, on the Marxist analysis, insofar as the
legal, moral, religious and general cultural “superstructure” of society are
all held to reflect the capitalist economic “base.”  Everyday moral assumptions are mere
ideologies that mask the interests of bourgeois power, religion is a mere
opiate to reconcile the oppressed to that power, and so on.  Marxist theory is the gnosis that reveals this dark and hidden truth about the world, and
Marx, Engels, Lenin and Co. play the role that Gnostic sages like Valentinus,
Marcion, and Mani did in the Gnosticisms of the past.  The Manichean roles of the forces of darkness
and of light are played by the bourgeois oppressor on the one hand, and the proletariat
and its intellectual vanguard on the other. 

The Marxist
position is made as subjectivist and unfalsifiable as that of earlier Gnostics
to the extent that criticism of the Marxist analysis is dismissed as an
ideological mask for bourgeois power, and the critics are tarred as “objective
allies” of that power (even when they happen to be left-wing themselves).  The paradoxical puritan/libertine dynamic is
evident in the moralistic rejection of bourgeois moral norms.  The final victory over evil – the
“immanentized eschaton” – is the realization of communism, in which
exploitation will disappear, alienation will be overcome, the state will wither
away, and liberated man will (as Marx famously put it) “hunt in the morning, fish
in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticize after dinner.”

Or consider
the analysis of Nazism as a kind of Gnosticism. 
Here it is the Jews who are cast in the role of omnipotent villain, portrayed
in Nazi propaganda as the puppet masters behind capitalist exploitation and
communist oppression alike, and as alien and subhuman parasites who subvert the
health and moral order of the German nation. 
The gnosis that claims to
reveal this is the teaching of the Führer. 
The Führer and the Aryan people he leads on the one hand, and the Jews
and their allies on the other, play the familiar Manichean roles.  The cultural relativism of Nazi ideology
gives it an essentially subjectivist and irrationalist character.  The libertine/puritan dynamic finds
expression in the Nazi’s contempt for ordinary notions of justice and rights on
the one hand, and an austere ethos of self-sacrifice for the German Volk on the other.  (See Claudia Koonz’s book The
Nazi Conscience
for an illuminating account of Nazi
pseudo-moralism.)  The Nazis’ own
depraved “immanentized eschaton” involved the “Final Solution” and the
“Thousand Year Reich.”

Woke Gnosticism

Critical
Race Theory (CRT) is in exactly the same mold.  The difference is that, unlike Marxism and
Nazism, it has not (yet?) been implemented as a political program.  But the ravings of an Ibram Kendi or Robin
DiAngelo manifest the same paranoia, irrationalism, and Manichean fanaticism as
any other form of Gnosticism.  And CRT’s
violent implications have already been seen on the streets of Washington,
Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, Kenosha, and other American cities during
the summer of 2020 – an echo of Gnostic mobs of the past (SA Brownshirts, Young
Maoists, and the like) and a foretaste of things to come.

For CRT, the
all-pervasive and near omnipotent source of evil in the world is the “racist
power” of “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” and indeed “whiteness” itself.  This racism is “systemic” in a
Foucauldian sense
– it percolates down, in capillary fashion, into
every nook and cranny of society and the unconscious assumptions of every
citizen.  It is especially manifest in all
“inequities,” which result from the “implicit biases” lurking even in people
who think of themselves as free of racism. 
And it is to be found even in the most seemingly innocuous of offenses,
which are in reality “micro-aggressions.” 
Even self-consciously “anti-racist” CRT adepts themselves are not free of racism, but must constantly engage in a
Maoist-style self-critical struggle to root out and confess ever deeper and
unexamined racist assumptions.

In CRT, this
imagined totalitarian “white supremacy” plays the role that the God of the Old
Testament does in the original forms of Gnosticism, that the bourgeois does in
Marxist theory, and that the Jews play in Nazi mythology.  It is the devil figure on which every
misfortune can be blamed and to which every hatred and resentment can be directed,
the bogeyman lurking under every bed and in every shadowy corner, waiting to
terrorize.  Indeed, as critics of CRT point
out, if you take a work of Critical Race Theory and replace terms like
“whiteness” and “white supremacy” with “Jewishness” and “Jewry,” the result
reads chillingly like a work of Nazi propaganda.

Other forms
of woke Gnosticism have their own bogeymen – “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity,”
etc. – which, like “whiteness,” are abstractions spoken of as if they were
concrete demonic powers.  And just when
you thought you’d heard of every kind of “oppression” imaginable, the Critical
Theorists come along with the notion of “intersectionality,” by which ever more
exotic forms can be fantasized into being. 
For example, if you are a transgender lesbian woman of color, you suffer
a special kind of oppression – one
defined by the “intersection” of oppressions suffered by each of the groups to
which you belong – that is different from the kind suffered by (say) a gay immigrant
with disabilities.  (Wokesters don’t play
the victim card; they play a whole 52 card deck.)

The gnosis that purportedly reveals all of
this suffocating oppression is to be found in the writings of gurus like Kendi
and DiAngelo, whose main difference from the likes of Marcion and Mani is the
size of their royalty checks.  Their books
are almost entirely free of any actual argumentation.  There is, instead, page after tedious page of
sheer tendentious and question-begging assertion, with all disagreement
preemptively dismissed a priori as
“racist,” the expression of “white fragility,” and so on.  CRT claims are textbook examples of Popperian
unfalsifiability: Everything is interpreted as evidence for them, and nothing is
permitted to count as evidence against them. 

Of course, there
really is racism in the world, just as capitalists really do sometimes exploit
their workers.  And such racism ought
indeed to be condemned
.  Naturally,
CRT authors do cite some actual examples of racism.  But that racists exist comes nowhere close to
establishing the entire paranoid CRT worldview, any more than the existence of
exploitative capitalists suffices to establish the truth of Marxism.

It is no
accident that CRT adepts think of themselves as “woke.”  For it is not rational argumentation that
compels them but a kind of conversion experience, and Kendi, DiAngelo, et al.
are essentially Gnostic preachers rather than philosophers or social scientists.  Their reliance on inflammatory rhetoric,
preemptive dismissal of all criticism as racist, and insistence on putting the
most sinister imaginable interpretation on every aspect of social life, create
a “dream world” of exactly the kind Voegelin describes.  As Greg Lukianoff has noted,
“wokeness” inculcates distorting and paranoid habits of thought of precisely
the sort that Cognitive Behavioral therapists warn their patients to avoid.

The Gnostic
libertine/puritan dynamic manifests in the shrill condemnation of traditional
institutions and morals as oppressively “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” etc.
– which gives license both to violate existing norms in the name of “social
justice,” and self-righteously to condemn and “cancel” anyone who objects.  The Manichean element is manifest in Kendi’s
notorious insistence that there is no “non-racist” neutral middle ground.  You must either be “anti-racist” in Kendi’s understanding of that term,
or you are a racist.  In general, the
“woke” or “social justice warrior” mentality is absolutely intolerant of nuance
or dissent.  You are either on their
bandwagon, or you are part of the “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” etc. enemy.  The immanentized eschaton of the wokester is
a radically egalitarian world that has been purified of every last trace of
“inequity,” “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” etc., whether in deed or in
thought.  Though, since there are always
new and ever more exotic strata of “oppression” to be identified and confessed
to, that eschaton is very far off indeed.

A war of Gnosticisms

With
wokeness suddenly flooding universities,
high
schools
, the medical
profession
, the military,
business,
and seemingly everywhere else, we are seeing something comparable to the Arian
crisis of the 4th century or the Albigensian crisis of the 13th
century – the alarmingly rapid spread of a toxic religious cult that threatens
the general sociopolitical order no less than it does the Church.  As in these earlier crises, there are many
Christians, already heterodox anyway, who are happy to cave in to the
madness.  And there are also some
otherwise orthodox Christians who, out of cowardice and/or muddle-headedness,
try to accommodate themselves to it.  In
the secular context, we see a similar dynamic among conservatives.

But the vast
majority of orthodox Christians and of conservatives see the insanity for what
it is, and are alarmed by it.  Applying
Voegelin’s analysis, which I think reveals the true nature of the phenomenon,
shows that they ought to be very alarmed
by it.  But Voegelin’s analysis also
shows how not to respond to the
crisis – namely, with any sort of counter-Gnosticism.  Yet the bizarre QAnon phenomenon
on the Right appears to be exactly that. 
It has all the key marks of the Gnostic mindset – the positing of unseen
malign forces, the hermeneutics of suspicion and “dream world” theorizing,
Manicheanism and shrill intolerance of all dissenters, even something like an
immanentized eschaton (“The Storm”). 

In the long
run, Critical Race Theory and other forms of “wokeness,” though not much more
intellectually substantive than the QAnon lunacy, are manifestly far more
dangerous, given their pseudo-academic nature and appeal to the temper of
mainstream opinion.  Again, “woke” ideas
now pervade media, universities, high schools, churches, corporate board rooms
and HR departments, and on and on – the commanding heights of the mainstream
social and economic order.  QAnon, by
contrast, while having some mass appeal, extends no higher up among those with
power and influence than a handful of crank lawyers and congressmen.  And unlike CRT and the other elements of
wokeness, it has no intellectual lineage or cultural framework that could give it the heft to extend much farther than that. 
Here’s the acid test:  Few
Republican politicians want to associate themselves with QAnon.  But few Democratic politicians dare to disassociate themselves from CRT and other
forms of wokeness.  That shows you which
of these warring Gnosticisms has the upper hand.

All the
same, in its short life, the QAnon madness has already caused enormous harm,
both by rotting out minds and by playing a role in both the
Republican loss of the Georgia Senate elections
and in the
breach of the U.S. Capitol
.  And
as the history of Weimar Germany teaches us, a war of Gnosticisms does not end
well.

Gnostic woke
madness will not be remedied by aping it. 
On the contrary, more than ever, what the times call for is conservative
sobriety.  And orthodoxy.  Heresies not only
aim to subvert the Church, but they fill the vacuum that opens up when the Church
loses its self-confidence, its fidelity to its traditional teaching, and its sense
of mission – and as a consequence, loses its attractiveness.  The crisis of the West is the crisis of the
Church.  The West will not be restored to
health until the Church is restored to health. 
And that is a project that requires us to see beyond election cycles,
and indeed beyond politics.

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