Saturday, June 19, 2004

Liberalism and Gnosticism

Sunset SkyIt takes only a brief review of conservative web sites, print media, and pundit blogs to be left with the impression of a deep frustration with liberalism. Not merely the disagreement with their beliefs and priorities, mind you - that is a given - but rather with their peculiar unresponsiveness to arguments of reason and logic. The scenario goes something like this: Some Democrat in Congress or liberal pundit makes an outrageous charge about Bush, or Iraq, or Republicans, or Christians, or whatever. The conservative blogs explode with the news, followed shortly by detailed rebuttal of the charges, or ample testimony to prior events proving the hypocrisy of the attack. Well-reasoned, factual defense is the rule rather than the exception. Yet all to no avail. Those on the Left either shrug, or respond with even more outrageous accusations, or go ad hominem. I often wonder whether all this energy and effort has accomplished anything beyond making us feel better about ourselves and venting our frustration.

I believe the problem is that we don't understand liberals.

Now, before you start thinking I'm having a kumbaya moment, hear me out: we don't understand liberals because contemporary liberalism is the new Gnosticism.

Gnosticism as a religion is ancient - predating Christianity by at least several centuries, and coexisting with it for several more before dying out. It was in many ways a syncretic belief system, drawing elements from virtually every religion it touched: Buddhism, Indian pantheism, Greek philosophy and myth, Jewish mysticism, and Christianity.

Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, to know, or knowledge) was manifested in many forms and sects, but all shared common core beliefs: dualism, wherein the world was evil and the immaterial good; the importance of secret knowledge, magical in nature, by which those possessing such knowledge could overcome the evil of the material world; and pantheism. It was also a profoundly pessimistic belief system. As J.P. Arendzen, in his excellent summary of Gnosticism, explains:

This utter pessimism, bemoaning the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity, with a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence -- this is the foundation of all Gnostic thought ... Gnosticism is pseudo-intellectual, and trusts exclusively to magical knowledge.

So in what ways is modern liberalism Gnostic in nature?

First and foremost, in modern liberalism, what you believe is more important than how you act. Gnostic sects were often hedonistic - after all, since you possess special knowledge of the truth, and the physical world is evil, why pursue noble behavior with an inherently wicked material body? While not all - or even most - liberals are hedonistic (although Hollywood does come to mind...), contemporary liberalism has enshrined tolerance of hedonism as a core belief.

More fundamentally, there is a disconnect in liberalism between belief and action. As a result, there is no such thing as hypocrisy. So the National Organization of Women, tireless in its campaign on violence against women, sexual harassment, and the tyranny of men in the workplace and in society, stands wholeheartedly behind Bill Clinton, who used a dim-witted intern for sex (in the workplace, moreover!) and who was credibly charged with sexual assault on Juanita Brodderick. Hypocrisy? No, Bill Clinton "understood" women and women's issues - his knowledge trumped his behavior, no matter how despicable.

There are many such similar examples, once you start looking for them. I recall a gay activist on NPR instructing Terry Gross that the solution to "anti-gay intolerance" (i.e., anyone who had qualms about homosexuality, either in its morality or social agenda) was "education". If we religious or socially conservative cretins were only properly "educated" - if and when we finally "got it" - then all of our opposition to homosexuality would melt away like an ice sculpture in August.

It is no accident that many of our most liberal intellectuals reside in the universities, in the rarefied atmosphere where ideas are everything and their practical application moot. We conservatives often marvel at the naivete of the peace movement, where World Peace can be achieved if only we "visualize" it. Like the magic formulae used by the Gnostics to dispel evil spirits and emanations, simply believing that peace can be achieved by "loving one another", and mutual understanding is sufficient to transform those intent on evil, destruction, and domination. Human shields defend tyrannical monsters who would shred them in a heartbeat were they not so useful, in order to "put an end to war". Judges implement rulings based on higher Sophia rather than the law, blissfully dismissing their profound impact on the Great Unknowing Masses below.

The profound pessimism of the Gnostic world view is seen in contemporary liberalism as well. If ever there was a gentle giant in history - a nation overwhelmingly dominant yet benign in its use of power - it is the United States of the 20th and 21st century. Yet we are treated to an endless litany of tirades about our racist, sexist, imperialist ways, which will only end when the Left "takes America back" - ignoring that a nation so administered would cease to exist in short order. American liberalism was not always so. As recently as twenty years ago, it was optimistic, hopeful and other-oriented, albeit with misconceptions about human nature which proved the undoing of its policies and programs. Only at its farthest fringes did pessimism reign, but today this dark view is increasingly the dominant one.

Analogies have their limits, as does this one. Ancient Gnosticism was deeply religious, although pantheistic, whereas modern liberal thinking is profoundly secular and agnostic, for example. But even here similarities persist: how many New Age conservatives do you know? Modern secular liberalism is far more religion than political philosophy, and therefore largely resistant to confrontation or compromise based on logic and reason.

Gnosticism as a religious force collapsed of its own weight, crippled by its internal inconsistencies and the lack of power sufficient to transform and ennoble the human spirit. Yet failed ideas die hard, given the intransigence of human pride. How very odd that our predominant postmodern political philosophy is so ancient in origin.