Liberalism & 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 naivety of the peace movement, where World Peace can be achieved if only we “visualize” it. Like the magic formulas 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.

The Law of Rules

In contemporary political discourse, we often discuss the Rule of Law, especially in our postmodern culture where bad behavior is often justified (and excused) by situation, upbringing, or historical injustice. But no one ever talks about the Law of Rules.

DaisiesToday in the office I reviewed one of Medicare’s bulletins, clarifying (at least in intent, if not in practice) their regulations in some arcane area of reimbursement for surgical procedures. Few outside of the health care field have any idea of the complexity of regulations governing medicine. When last I checked several years ago, Medicare had about 150,000 pages of regulations in the Federal Register, approximately 3 times of the volume of the IRS tax code. American medicine is more highly regulated than Soviet state industry ever was, and getting more so by the day.

Without launching into a diatribe on the evils of government-funded and regulated medicine (perhaps another time), it strikes me that the explosive growth of rules, laws, and regulations in society as a whole is a reflection of an underlying shift in our culture, values, and individual moral integrity.

There are two ways to implement good behavior in individuals and society: from within or from without. Human beings are morally flawed (a surprisingly controversial statement in our current, “values neutral” culture), and therefore in order to maintain a peaceful, stable, functioning society, laws – and the means to enforce them – are required. Laws exist not for the good in man, but rather for the evil, as a restraint. If man were morally perfect, no laws would be needed. Yet law cannot create morality, but serves only to protect the good from the evil. The more moral goodness there is in a society–restraint from harming one’s neighbor, acts of service, honesty, integrity — the fewer laws are needed and the better those laws already in place function. As individuals (and consequently the society they constitute) change from being other-oriented and self-restrained to self-centered and self-seeking, the more law-breaking occurs, the greater the enforcement required, and the more laws are required to manage and restrict human behavior. Hence the Law of Rules: Rules beget more rules.

We humans are intelligent, resourceful beings who are ever looking for new ways to achieve the goals and desires important to us. If our intent is to deceive, steal, or harm, there is almost always a way around existing law to accomplish our aims. The result of this is twofold: harsher enforcement of existing laws and more laws to cover the loopholes discovered by us innovative creatures, as society seeks to protect itself. Hence the result of a deterioration in individual moral restraint is both more laws and harsher penalties. The logical end result of such a progression is something resembling totalitarianism: there are laws about everything, and brutal punishment for their violation.

We often hear totalitarian regimes such as China or the former Soviet Union boast of their low crime rates and the safety of their streets. And Islamic countries and cultures often proclaim their inherently higher moral status over us libertines in the West, cutting off the hands of robbers and the like. But while it is possible in large measure to restrict behavior through law and retribution, such measures do not make a society or its individuals moral as a consequence. In fact, the effect is quite the opposite. Laws intended to restrict evil behavior often have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting those intent on good. So, for example, the law designed to discourage fraud in Medicare by the few (a worthy goal) results in less time for patient care, restriction of access to care by the needy, and the exodus of good health care providers to other professions to escape their crushing burden — all bad outcomes affecting far more people than the few who would game the system. One need only look at the extreme effects of Islamic teaching on some (not all) of its adherents, with the wanton murdering of women, children, unbelievers–and even other Muslims–to conclude that constrictive law-abiding society does not promote moral goodness as a consequence.

What’s the answer? Other than a fundamental reversal in individual moral virtue–an inside-out change–I fear there are few good alternatives. But I am not gloom-and-doom about the prospects for such change–I have seen and know of too many who have undergone such a change to be pessimistic, and am convinced of the existence of a God capable of implementing such change.