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.

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