Critical Theory Is A New Species Of Gnosticism

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.

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.” Read more»

Edward Feser, “The Gnostic Heresy’s Political Successors,” January 8, 2021


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  1. At what point are we simply engaged in name calling? Not every ism we disagree with needs to be placed under the category of Gnosticism does it?

    • No, but Gnosticism was a real phenomenon and it has made a serious comeback in the late-modern period. I don’t agree with Voeglin’s assessment of “the Puritans.” It’s lazy but his greater point seems sound.

  2. C. S. Lewis calls reason a “damsel” (yet conquering, and on a horse) in Pilgrim’s Regress. A simple questioning of the Freudian giant disposes of him, in the allegory. The Gnosticism giants, living off the fear of disagreement with them (fear of losing job, influence, popularity in the academic institutions) can be disposed of (Lord’s help and will involved) with the similar image of a damsel on a horse, the combination of the beauty of a reasoned argument, and the joy of its simplicity.

    What I would like opportunities to ask those who spout critical race theory is, does God show favoritism to a race when He judges? When we see more that God shows no partiality (Rm 2), it can joyfully propel us to point out simple examples of it in the theory. For example, the definition of anti-racism as preferentially treating a race, and racism as treating all races with no favoritism, is so obviously the reverse of the truth, that the term “anti-racism” becomes a laughable (to reason) self-contradiction. The “giant” theory just collapses under a glance from reason.

    This is an example of a basic tenet, that if something is self-contradictory, it’s nonsense. Just before it collapses, of course, a refuted argument resorts to scorn and ridicule — more elements, besides self-contradictoriness, of non-rationality of “Gnosticism” — knowledge built upon scorn and ridicule, falls.

  3. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and even some of our arminians-protestants very often labelled Calvinism and Lutheranism as a “sorts of Gnosticism”.

    • Vogelin did that. It’s rubbish. He calls the “Puritans” (a problematic category) Gnostics. The Protestants were anti-Gnostic! They recovered Irenaeus’ doctrine of creation. They affirmed the goodness of creation and the true humanity of Christ. The Reformed recovery of the unity of the covenant of grace is anti-Gnostic. The Gnostics for which the critics are looking is to be found in the Anabaptist movements, in their denial of the unity of the covenant of grace, in their denial of the essential goodness of creation, in their world-flight, and in their denial of the true humanity of Jesus.

  4. RSC, thanks, this is helpful.

    I want to make a note about what Feser calls the “gnostic libertine/puritan” dynamic. Some will associate gnosticism with a low view of the body, but this libertine/puritan dynamic means it’s much more complex.

    For example, some say that pornography is good because of a low view of the body: “It’s JUST my body so it doesn’t matter.” But others will say pornography is good because of a high view of the body: “Of course we must do what our bodies desire.”

    A second example: In racial fundamentalism, people are now saying some should repent for whiteness. This could be because of a LOW view of the body: “It’s JUST your body so it doesn’t matter.” Or it could be because of a high view of the body: “Multi ethnic bodies are holier so repent for not being holy.”

    In the PCA we often only see one part of this thinking at a time. For instance, Duke Kwon’s “White Normativity” is about the ethnic body thing, and Revoicer’s advocacy for gay identification challenges the “heteronormativity” part, but when we zoom out we can see they’re using many of the same tools to do many of the same things.

    As Feser points out, these claims will be moral in nature. The Christian response is not just to identify something as “gnostic” but to use Scripture to identify wrong teaching of the law and the Gospel.

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