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Are the Woke the New Gnostics?
What an early Christian heresy tells us about modern progressivism
In the Garden, Adam and Eve deviated by devouring fruit from the tree of knowledge. God demanded that they not – but Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation and Adam was seduced too. And so, humans are ejected from Eden and condemned to mortality.
In the Americas, a new republic was born of the conviction that men are created equal. Early Americans fought and died for liberty and happiness – and the United States entered the world stage. One rooted in egalitarianism and freedom.
But what if these origin stories have it exactly wrong? Consider two different versions of the same events.
Adam and Eve are guided to the tree of life by wisdom. They eat from the tree, against God’s wishes. They learn that the material world is the product of a malevolent and lesser God. In anger, this God banishes them from the Garden and condemns humanity to death.
Elite men made America for themselves and other elites. No one in power believed that all men were created equal, let alone all humans. A new moral myth entered the world stage, but not a fundamentally new state. Western values are and have always been moral myths.
The revision of the Garden story was told by the Christian Gnostics. The Gnostics were early Christians who emerged in the late first and early second century. Though their origin myths had variations and a complex host of characters, the fundamental reversal was omnipresent: the God of genesis was the product of a mistake. Rejection from the Garden was only the continuation of a spiritual war between the good spirit and the evil God of the old testament. This lesser God will hound humanity wielding floods, fate, and false prophets.
The second origin story is the world according to the woke and progressive. According to this story, the early liberal ideology was instrumentally useful, but insincere. The religious tolerance of John Locke did not extend to atheists. The political equality of the founders ignored the majority of the human race. The “democracy” of our nation was implemented as a variant of aristocracy and oligarchy. And on and on.
Both Christian Gnostics and woke progressives reject what were dominant origin myths. They share much more in common. In “The True Purpose of the Word ‘Woke’”, Scott Beauchamp wrote that Gnosticism “encapsulates the logos of millennial progressivism in our time.”
Given the presence of American progressivism, it’s not surprising that Christianity is the first religion picked from the shelf when one’s hungry for comparisons. Indeed, it’s been argued that progressivism is just a modern expression of Gnosticism. Progressivism has also been described as an outgrowth of protestantism, notably by author Joseph Bottum. These genealogies are in conflict, since Gnosticism and protestantism contradict each other. To get around this issue, one can see the new progressivism as a successor ideology or new religion that takes ingredients from multiple traditions.
The idea that wokeness is a religion does not seem like a useful one to me, but that’s not what I’m interested in arguing here. What is an interesting exercise is looking at parallels between current political life philosophies and past attempts to make sense of human life. This isn’t a normative project. To say that a political movement has much in common with a religion is just a description, not an argument for the idea that the political movement is irrational or bad.
Instead, comparing ancient views frames progressivism in a sharper light. It's only when it is made visible, that we can judge it appropriately.
Why the New Progressives Are Gnostic
What do the Gnostics and the new progressives have in common? Both believe they possess valuable secrets. As James M Patterson noted:
Wokeness is grounded in a Gnostic understanding of the world, which distinguishes between appearances accessible to everyone and the reality perceptible only to a certain few. To join the community of those who recognize this ultimate reality, one must undergo a kind of "awakening" — or, in identity-politics parlance, "become woke."
Gnostics saw Jesus as the great revealer. It was through gnosis, knowledge, that humans can be saved. Most importantly, the knowledge that this world is created by a demiurge, not the true God (the universal virgin spirit).
But in that respect, the two movements aren’t different from other forms of religion or politics. Other early Christians also believed themselves to be in possession of metaphysical secrets. Saint Paul, whose writings are Christian canon, emphasized the idea that he possessed a secret that was only now being revealed:
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!
We can sharpen the similarities by focusing on Gnosticism and progressivism’s shared rejection of institutions, epistemology, androgyny, and interior nature.
First, there is a distrust of institutions, especially of traditional media, corporate, and government bodies. This mirrors the fundamental Gnostic distrust of the material plane, but is not as extreme. The Gnostic attitude is more fundamental. Take your favorite golden age and the Gnostic sees a corpse. In the coptic Gospel of Thomas, an early extra-canonical gospel that influenced the Gnostics, we read:
Whoever has come to understand the world has found (only) a corpse, and whoever has found a corpse is superior to the world.
Gospel of Thomas, 56
In the Gnostic view, the world is worse than fake, it’s the material that holds our spirit back from salvation. There are parallels to the marxist idea of superstructure here: the dominant ideology, the prism, through which we see the world, is almost inescapably determined by economic and class dynamics. The progressive version of this world moves beyond the purely economic, taking gender, race, and other factors into account. We inhabit an ideological world created by factors that are divorced from truth.
A second similarity is the emphasis on experience. Progressives place experiential ways of knowing over the other forms of empirical science. See standpoint epistemology for the sophisticated version of this. In its worst form, perceiving offense is sufficient for something being offensive. Pushing back against this just compounds the problem. There’s a sense in which this is a Gnostic attitude – a privileging of the personal and interior over the world of matter and numbers. The Gnostics would have seen the natural sciences as studying a corrupted object, one created by the lesser God. The new progressives see much of it as corrupted by historical, economic, and political factors. In both cases, one’s own experience is to be trusted over findings from third parties.
Gender offers a third parallel, but this is a complicated story. New Progressivism is possibly the most feminine mass cultural and political movement in history. The makeup of its members, favored modes of argumentation, rejection of patriarchy, and presence in generally more feminized age are evidence for that claim.
The Gnostics may not have been early feminists. But relatively speaking, they gave women a higher place than “orthodox” Christians and Jews. Early Gnostic texts paint Mary Magdalene as a close companion of Jesus. Someone to be trusted, in contrast with the angry apostle Peter. Consider the puzzling extract from the coptic Gospel of Thomas:
Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
Gospel of Thomas, 114
This is a strange passage. It captures the ancient view that women were lesser males, while promoting a woman above the other apostles.
The Gnostic’s approach can’t be called gender egalitarian, even if it may be closer to that ideal than other religions. On one hand, Eve is less guilty than she may be in the original version of the myth. On the other hand, the common origin myth casts the demiurge as a product of the feminime wisdom engaging in a creative act without the consent of her consort – ie doing something without asking her male counterpart.
Some Gnostics would see salvation itself, at least in a metaphorical way, as a matter of being made male. Others would see it a more androgynous fashion, where salvation lie in the union of the female and male.
The analyst and writer, N.S. Lyons tied Gnostic thought to progressive androgyny, discussing a mysterious manifesto:
In 2018, from the furthest depths of the online gender-sphere emerged Gender Acceleration: A Blackpaper. Authored by an anonymous transwoman, the paper rages against the assumed masculinity of the physical world, the gender binary, and the suffering it allegedly produces. Then, directly citing “the Gnostic view of the God of the Old Testament as an evil imposter, a Demiurge,” it declares that, “To be human in the service of humanity and human civilization, to seek for peace, equilibrium, and the continuation of the species [in the world as it is]… is merely orthodoxy in service of a fragile and self-righteous tyrant.”
Gender Acceleration is unhinged, but more mainstream landmark feminist texts, like the Dialectic of Sex, also promote abolishing sex. This is not unlike the Gnostic emphasis on the male. Of course, a world without gender, wouldn’t be seen as male by progressive feminists, but it’s effectively the androdynous future some forms of Gnosticism envisioned. A world without the complications and ugliness of the male and female.
The fourth and most significant similarity between Gnosticism and progressivism, however, is the focus on the internal and interior. The Gnostic places significant focus on the internal and interior. Knowledge is not a matter of action, but experience. Salvation is through our internal spirit.
This secret knowledge of Gnosticism is world-negating. Therefore, Salvation involves transcending this world as a spirit.
It is our role on Earth to transcend the material world and join our spirits with the true God, the invisible virgin spirit. We do this through personal and interior work. Through meditation and understanding of Gnostic myth, Gnostic believers can associate more closely with spirit and the wisdom inside themselves.
How does this compare with the new progressivism? Progressivism seeks to shape politics. But much of it is an individual and personal matter. In order to be good, one must recognize one’s privilege. In comparison with rightwing and other forms of leftism, it’s more therapeutic. Far more attention is spent on feelings as is evident by the stress placed on creating and maintaining safe spaces, language, and media. The discourse is full of moves like acknowledging injustice, validating other’s experience, and spreading awareness. This is the stuff of gnosis, not shaping the world.
Bruno Macaes once captured this in The world of pure experience:
Racial equality, for example: understood as a political and social principle, it would reach its goal by dropping out of our consciousness. It would become part of the world around us.
Wokeness begins from the realization that there would be some loss in this. If racial equality is a valuable principle, it seems that we should be vividly aware of it. According to the logic of experience, the goal should be intensity, not naturalness.
In other words, justice demands a change in the spirit, not merely the material.
Differences Between the Gnostic and the Woke
A key difference between progressivism and Gnosticism is that progressivism has more institutional and cultural power. It’s debatable just how much power it has, but it can’t be denied that there have been significant cultural and institutional victories for the movement over the last decade. If one defines the movement more broadly, one should say that the movement has been winning for centuries. In that sense, the woke has more in common with traditional Christians than the Gnostic variety.
Why did the Gnostics lose their bid for defining Christianity? Arguably, it was too elitist and internal.
The competing forms of Christianity were universal. The faith was available to any gentile and Jew. It did not require initiation into a complicated mythical world nor the passing of secrets.
Gnosticism may have been too focused on the internal. Other Christians were better at displaying their faith through ceremony and sacrifice. Many Gnostics argued against martyrdom. What could be a greater defense of the faith than preferring to undergo torture over the defense of the faith?
New Progressivism, like traditional Christianity, is largely a universal philosophy. It works by expanding the circle of justice. Though their version of the American founding is imperfect, it is correct to say that our moral circle has generally expanded over time. The republic began by issuing a larger set of political rights to a class of men and has continued to politically empower others over time. Wokeness continues this trend by bringing additional oppressed and marginalized communities to light.
Indeed, the simple idea to defend the expanding pool of the marginalized and oppressed prevents progressivism from becoming too boring and rigid. There is always another group to look out for and always another privilege to acknowledge.
In these senses, progressivism is universal. However, it does have elitist traits. It threatens to expand the circle of concern too quickly for the common man. The expansion sometimes takes on a purely symbolic manner that maps suspiciously onto those endorsed by rich and highly educated Americans. Enforcement of these norms arguably overstretched itself over the past two years in a way that has damaged the movement's growth.
And what of sacrifice? The anti-progressives put up occasional martys to be canceled. But as a group, they do not care as much about politics. The woke change their speech, increase their donations, and are generally more politically and culturally active.
The good life isn’t just personal. It requires work and ritual, even if largely symbolic. In this way they are not Gnostic. They are much more like orthodox priests going after the Gnostic heretics.
What We Know
Comparisons with Gnosticism highlight New Progressivism's personal and experiential elements.
Both movements rejected the dominant origin myths. The new myths challenged those previously in power.
The Gnostics saw experience and gnosis as sufficient for salvation. The woke see it as necessary, but not sufficient. Both the Gnostic and woke push at gender norms. Both movements are skeptical of dominant institutions.
But these comparisons fail to capture New Progressivism's institutional success, ever expanding nature, and the demands it makes on its participants.
Like the “orthodox” Christians, it may have started as the underdog, but wokeness is now a major stakeholder in the most powerful corporate and government institutions. Talk of the woke hegemony may be overblown, but it has sufficient power to begin purging heretics.
Although the internal factors like acknowledging privilege and the systemic injustices, maybe necessary for justice they are not sufficient. As with many political and religious movements, justice demands social change.
Gnosticism’s focus on the personal was not conducive to its success.
But perhaps these and differences mislead more than they lead. In the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, Jesus states:
In darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then the one who sees will see the light, and the one who is blind will remain in darkness.