Crunchy Pope, Part Two: Against Gnostic Economics


The obscuring of the faith in creation is a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity.

As I survey all the perplexing shifts in the spiritual landscape of today, only these two basic models seem to me to be up for discussion. The first I should like to call the Gnostic model, the other the Christian model. I see the common core of Gnosticism, in all its different forms and versions, as the repudiation of creation.

Joseph Ratzinger, “The Consequences of the Faith in Creation” (1979)

Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Pope Benedict’s diagnosis of the ills of the modern world has been influenced deeply by the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin identified Gnosticism as the central pathology of modern political thought. By Gnosticism, Voegelin meant the belief that we can achieve heaven on earth through our own efforts guided by superior knowledge. In this sense, Marxist utopianism serves as a prime example of gnostic modernism, both for Voegelin and for Benedict.

I think, however, that Benedict has improved on this thesis by identifying repudiation of creation as the heart of gnosticism. The ancient Gnostics (such as the Manicheans Augustine got mixed up with in his youth) looked upon the material world as bad, a prison for the pure spirit. If only the spirit could be liberated into its purity, it would be wholly good.

Thus Gnostics rejected the Hebrew Old Testament as a book of materialistic immersion in the things of the world. They saw the Creator God depicted there as the passionate evil spirit responsible for imprisoning our souls in matter and subjecting them to the passions. The New Testament, according to the Gnostics, depicted the spiritual and peaceful God in the person of Jesus. (This remains a perennially attractive reading of the two texts; as far as I can tell, most of my Catholic students are taught some version of it in their early religious education.)

At first glance, it is not easy to see the connection between this otherworldly spiritualism and the quite worldly materialism that dominates modern life. The key to recognizing the continuity lies in understanding that for moderns, the spirit is more or less identified with the will. The ancient Gnostics saw that the world was not as they wished it to be, and created a fictional world of pure spirit as an alternative. They avoided acknowledging that this other world was the construct of their escapist will. As Augustine saw quite clearly, the Manicheans refused to admit that there could be anything wrong with their own wills, and placed the blame on the flesh that a malevolent power had trapped them within. Moderns refuse to accept that there could possibly be a problem with their own wills, but for a different reason: for them the will is the source of all values. Both ancient and modern gnosticisms deny that the world is good, but the modern form acknowledges that this is an assertion of the will against the world, and proposes to take the world in hand and set it straight.

The doctrine of creation presented in the Book of Genesis tells us that the world is good, that human beings receive this world as an undeserved gift, and that this makes them dependent upon their creator and bound in humility to acknowledge this gift with gratitude. Central to that gratitude is acknowledgment of a responsibility to “till and keep” the earth given to us and not to abuse it. (See “Crunchy Pope, Part One.”)

Marxism opposes itself to this acknowledgment of dependence and limits:

Its place is taken by the category of self-creation, which is accomplished through work. Since creation equals dependence, and dependence is the antithesis of freedom, the doctrine of creation is opposed to the fundamental direction of Marxist thought …. The decisive option underlying all the thought of Karl Marx is ultimately a protest against the dependence that creation signifies: the hatred of life as we encounter it.

As a European writing primarily for Europeans, the then Cardinal Ratzinger rightly focused on Marxism. We have to recognize, however, that everything said here of Marx applies just as well to John Locke, the philosopher of British and American liberal political economy. Though less stridently and forthrightly than Marx, Locke just as deeply rejects the Christian understanding of creation and dependence.

In chapter five of his Second Treatise, Locke defends the individual right to property by arguing that the entire value of commodities derives from human labor. After reflecting a bit on the complexity of human economic activity, Locke ends up estimating that human labor contributes all but about 1/1000 of the value of things, whereas “Nature and the Earth furnished only the almost worthless materials.” The given world is essentially worthless, except as a source of the raw materials for human making. If a nation encourages industry, humans can use those raw materials for increasingly limitless increase in valuable commodities, and that nation will become wealthy and powerful. The rising tide will, Locke assures us, lift all boats.

No one can deny the importance of human labor for producing necessary and useful goods, and for improving the productive capacities of nature. At the same time, the attitude of Locke and Marx toward the given world can hardly be described as one exhibiting gratitude and reverence. It’s all what we make of it.

But not only is the world what we make of it. We are also what we make of ourselves.

Locke’s Second Treatise is the sequel to his less-often read First Treatise, in which he attacks the monarchist Sir Robert Filmer. Filmer teaches, in Locke’s paraphrase, that “Men are not naturally free.” What Filmer seems most directly to mean by this is that we are born dependent, that this dependence is ultimately constitutive of our way of being. Locke quotes Filmer as claiming that “A natural Freedom of Mankind cannot be supposed without the Denial of the Creation of Adam.” At bottom Locke is rejecting the principle of dependence that lies at the heart of Filmer’s understanding of our status as children of parents and as creatures of God. Locke’s account of the relationship of children to parents undermines gratitude for the gift of our own being every bit as much as his account of labor and value undermines gratitude for the gift of the world’s being.

In a sense, Locke treats the parent-child relationship as something accidental, a relationship of convenience between beings capable of free exercise of will. The child needs the parents because he is not yet capable of “the Freedom … of acting according to his own Will.” The parents provide nutrition and education during the period of preparation for independence, and the child’s duty to honor his parents is in exact proportion to the care taken for his education. The “bare act of begetting” carries with it no claim to gratitude.

The human body, like the rest of nature, begins as worthless material until it is labored upon by the will of the person whose body it becomes. It is by the action of our will that we develop all of our capacities beyond the merely nutritive. Education is the great labor by which the human species makes of itself something worthwhile, and whatever role the parents play in that education, it can accomplish nothing without the exercise of the child’s will. Hence my mind too attains its worth from the labor that I will to invest in it.

This is the sense in which Locke understands human beings as being their own individual property. All that they are that is of any value results from the labor they exercise upon themselves. Parents are, at best, the enablers of our self-creation, providing us with the material that is nearly worthless until improved by our own efforts.

In short, just as nature and the earth constitute the worthless world whose value lies in what humans can make of it, so too my body and mind are initially parts of that worthless world. It is when my will reshapes all this and turns it into some embodiment of itself that I lay claim to it. The world as given is essentially worthless, and the value things have results from our laboring to make the worthless material suitable to our wishes. It is the will that imparts value both by determining what will make something valuable and by causing that valuable something to be built up in it.

The older Gnostics turned away from the created world in revulsion; the newer Gnosticism turns against it in active opposition. By reducing the terms to world and will, modern Gnosticism more forthrightly declares that the world can only be good if our will declares it such.

On this view it is reasonable to understand our bodies as our own property. It is reasonable to understand the gestating child as the property of the mother as long as it remains part of her body and is far more the product of her labor than of its own. If we view human beings as abstract choosers, wholly equal as such, it is reasonable to view them as only accidentally related to other abstract choosers, such as parents, who are moved by whatever incentives nature has planted in them to help along our project of attaining independence. It is reasonable to understand life and the given world as in themselves negligible, as little to merit gratitude.

All this accords with Benedict’s description Gnosticism:

Human beings want to understand the discovered world only as material for their own creativity…. Gnosticism will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.

This means that Gnosticism will always be prepared to sacrifice what is, or “life as we encounter it,” to its vision of the unfettered life of the will, and to deny the reality of whatever places limits on our choices, such as the normative principles built into intergenerational relationships or into long-term sustenance of productive soil. Modern Gnosticism, under the guise of worldliness, is more thoroughly and intransigently world-negating than its ancestor.

As Benedict observes, this vision of the person confronting the world sets us in a new total antagonism to the created order:

Previously human beings could only transform particular things in nature; nature as such was not the object but rather the presupposition of their activity. Now, however, it itself has been delivered over to them in toto. Yet as a result they suddenly see themselves imperiled as never before.

Christianity, by contrast, recognizes the created order as a gift:

The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on “love.” … The doctrine of redemption is based on the doctrine of creation, of an irrevocable Yes to creation…. Only if the being of creation is good, only if trust in being is fundamentally justified, are humans at all redeemable.

If we do not recognize the created order as harboring a goodness that comes to us from outside and makes claims upon us, we can recognize nothing as good except what is said to be so by our own act of valuing. Only if we are not the source of all value can we embrace the possibility of redemption.

Thus faith in creation is not (as modern theology too often treats it) “devoid of anthropological importance.” The question of creation, and of whether the creation and the Creator deserve our love and gratitude, goes to the very heart of what it means to be human, of what it means to be a laboring being, of what constitutes wealth and prosperity and an economy consonant with human aspirations and the human good.

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