The Revolution of the Gnostic Self
There is an ongoing battle for the body and soul of the coming world order. This battle is fought on many fronts: political, social, cultural, religious. Often, this battle is presented as a dispute between “liberalism” and “conservatism”, and in a larger sense, between “liberalism” and everything that opposes it. And yet, the real clash is not between liberals and conservatives – words whose precise meaning have become vague at best, misleading at worst. Rather, the real struggle is between two religious traditions: Gnosticism and its allies, against trinitarian Christianity. By trinitarian Christianity I understand not only the Eastern Church but also any Christian tradition which has fought the Gnostics in the name of the Holy Trinity.
It is not my intention here to trace Gnosticism from its beginnings in the first and second centuries A.D. through the Middle Ages down to the present. It would be a useless enterprise because Gnosticism defies an ordinary historical interpretation. The connection between ancient and modern Gnosticism can be established through the identification of a gnostic type or pattern. A typological methodology is better suited in grasping the relationship between gnostics of all times and the dangers they have posed to our civilization.
The subversion of Christianity by Gnosticism is a vast phenomenon. We do not have time to deal with the many aspects of such subversion. I would like to bring to your attention just a few disturbing issues. First, the Gnostic teaching that gnosis, the knowledge of God received through an inner spiritual journey, was the only path to salvation. According to Gnosticism, a man does not reach heaven by leading a good life, or through faith but through possession of gnosis. Gnostic illumination is not for everybody though. Only a spiritual elite can reach this pure knowledge of God – knowledge unencumbered by time, place, events, persons or any other material entanglement.
The esoteric search for God and the search for the inner, disembodied self-become synonymous due to an ontological identification between the two. The gnostic escape from the world is basically an escape into his own self. When one receives gnosis, the self in effect evolves into a god and cannot be corrupted by anything one can do in this world.
The second issue worth mentioning refers to the total debasement of the tangible world. If the Gnostics disengage from the real world it is because Creation – matter, place, time, change, body and everything seen, heard, touched or smelled – has been an evil mess. To exonerate God for a catastrophically botched job, the Gnostics establish a radical dualism between God and Creation. They attribute the evil to a second power, an incompetent demiurge, co-eternal with but not linked in any way to the God of Love. Against Gnosticism and dualism in all its forms, Christianity affirms the intrinsic goodness of the material world of space and time.
It is true that the order of time is imperfect due to the sin. And yet the natural, the historical and matter itself should not be overcome, they only need to be perfected in and through time by the action of the God of Creation. Creation is a project to be completed eschatologically. It is not perfect but perfectible in the sense that it is not complete. In no way the imperfection of creation is due to an ontological deficiency. Despite the Fall, Christianity celebrates the intrinsic goodness of the created order which was created as blessing. For the Christians life is a pilgrimage through the world, not an escape from the world.
The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once said that America is “a nation with the soul of a church”. A better description would be “a nation with the soul of a gnostic church”. Today’s global consumerism, based on the American model of elite consumption, is utterly gnostic. I would say it is more a religious model than an economic one.
The postmodern self seeks only itself through consumption. “I consume, therefore I am” is his first principle. The act of consuming merely provides the opportunity for self-deification. Reebok’s advertising campaign – “I am what I am” is emblematic for the ego’s infinite desire to fashion and refashion himself through consumption. In a consumer society, the objects in themselves are unimportant. Turned into commodities, they need to be constantly changed in order to keep alive the individual’s desire to reaffirm his own self. Today’s consumer does not attach any value to the external world because any attachment would make him less free. Freedom is understood here in a gnostic way as total independence from external objects and relationships. Any attachment to a restrictive, objective world, any “loyalty” to values, meaning and tradition is perceived as a constraint, a limitation of the individual freedom. What really matters are the commodity as spectacle, the insubstantial but irresistible images offering immediate pleasure and demanding no effort .
In a like manner, the American Empire acts as a colossal, self-deifying consumer who is no longer bounded by the solid realities of the world. The American project is to free its gnostic “imperial sovereign self” ( Weigel) from the plurality in order to become ever more identical to itself. For the American Empire, plurality, characteristic of the realities that exist for their own sake, is a defect of being. Plurality has to be abolished since the American Empire seeks nothing beyond itself. One of George Bush aides, who scoffed at what he calls “reality-based community”, said that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”.
The American Empire figures as the first source and the very principle of reality. Creating “our own reality” over the world of time and space has been an elitist project euphemistically called “global democratic revolution”. A lot of “creative destruction” (like in Syria) and some tyrannical archons, real or invented, have been the main ingredients necessary tokeep the American project going as pure action without specific goals and intentions.
As the neo-conservative analyst Michael Ledeen wrote soon after the 9/11 events: “We should have no misgivings about our ability to destroy tyrannies. It is what we do best. It comes naturally to us, for we are the only truly revolutionary country in the world, as we have been for more than 200 years. Creative destruction is our middle name…In other words, it is time once again to export the democratic revolution. To those who say it cannot be done, we need only to point to the 1980s, when we led a global democratic revolution that toppled tyrants from Moscow to Johannesburg.”
And yet the triumph of the American Empire has not been the destruction of tyrannies but franchising elite consumption around the world. From New York to Johannesburg, from Tehran to Bucharest, masses of interchangeable individuals do not confront reality any longer. By spending money – money is the minimal form of materiality – they crave elite consumption to set them free from the ordinary humanity. Their regained freedom excludes all attachment and renounce all substance except the most insignificant thing of all: the self.
The really devastating “creative destruction” has not been brought from outside. It is arising from within. Like a cluster bomb, “the imperial sovereign self” exploded in billions of insubstantial, empty selves, every single one engaged in its own “creative destruction”.
No matter how disembodied the consuming self might be, it is still dependent on the global network of chain stores, strip malls, vast suburban sprawls and a corporate culture obsessed with the daily “bottom line”: the maximization of the profits. America, in its turn, is still emeshed in a particular culture and history. All this makes its Imperial project poorly equipped to deal with the next phase of the gnostic revolution: the liberation of the self from the self itself and its vanishing into a digital code.