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The Ancient Heresy Driving Modern Identity

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Identity is a hot topic.

Since the 1960’s, the western world has been rocked by different movements around identity. Different groups—especially disenfranchised minority groups—have pushed their identity-based agendas. Women have demanded equal pay for equal work. People of colour have fought for equality under the law. And LGBTI people have demanded rights and freedoms they saw as missing.

But over the last decade, ‘identity’ has only become more politicised, and more controversial. Identity politics has moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Queer theory and its radical view of gender and sexuality has moved from the ivory tower to the public-school classroom.

And so, it’s not surprising that the New York Times Magazine declared 2015 as ‘The Year We Obsessed Over Identity’. (Although that obsession didn’t end in 2015).

And so, what’s driving many of the modern secular views of identity?

While there are many streams flowing into the river of modern identity, one stream is quite old. Ancient, in fact.

It’s called ‘Gnosticism’ (from the Greek ‘gnosis’, meaning ‘knowledge’). It was common in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the 1st century, but it hasn’t disappeared. It influenced Christianity—especially in the early centuries—and was rightly recognised as a heresy—a distortion of the truth.

Surprisingly, it’s still influencing so many of our modern views of identity. Psychiatrist and Christian author Glynn Harrison writes:

According to theologian N.T. Wright, ancient Gnosticism has surged to become a ‘controlling myth’ of our age…[I]n the Gnostic worldview, the material world is essentially evil…As a result, all the so-called ‘natural’ distinctions in the world—for example the difference between male and female, or the notion of there being a natural order to human sexual relations—are at best illusory and at worst corrupted deceptions. All the belongs to the ‘outer’ world of society and religion, indeed the outer world of your own body. It’s all irrelevant and deceptive.’ [1]

In other words, the external world of physical gender, and a ‘natural order’ to sexual relations—these are all imagined and untrue.

Here are 4 features of Gnosticism, which is influencing modern secular views of identity:

1) Freedom is Found by Escaping Any ‘Natural Order’

In Gnosticism, freedom is found by finding a particular type of ‘gnosis’, or wisdom. This wisdom is meant to free you from the false impressions of the material world (which is deceptive, and enslaving). It’s a rebellion against the natural order.

And the more you rebel against the natural order, the better off you’ll be.  [2]

2) Freedom is Found By Looking ‘Within’

Harrison writes:

Ancient Gnosticism…and modern [secular] modes of thought…share the deep-rooted conviction that the source of the self is found by looking within. They share a revolt against the external, against the body, against nature itself. [3]

To put it in biblical categories, both ancient Gnosticism and its modern equivalents share a revolt against God, and against His creation (see Romans 1:18-32).

3) Being a Fulfilled Human Being Means Obeying your Inner Feelings

Even if those feelings contradict your external reality.

Because the external world is deceptive and corrupt (in the Gnostic worldview), it’s our inner ‘world’, our inner feelings that are good. Our inner realities define who we are: they define our identity. And so, if you want to be a fulfilled, flourishing, healthy human being, then you need to express these inner feelings—even if (or especially if) they go against your external body.

As a result, ‘just be yourself’ has come to be viewed as something much more important than simply pleasing yourself. It’s about becoming a proper person: an authentic, flourishing, human person. [4]

4) Being Human Means Creating Your Own Identity

Even if it means erasing the identity given to you.

In the past, your identity was based on several ‘givens’ that you had little control over, like your sex, family background, race, culture and nationality. Your task was to make the most of what we had been given.

But today, secular culture encourages people to ‘discover’ their true identity within, or create their own identity in any way they like. And so, where there is a conflict between your ‘given’ external identity, and your feelings, the modern approach says it’s your external identity that is the problem—and needs fixing—rather than your feelings.

Where there is a conflict between your ‘given’ external identity, and your feelings, the modern approach says it’s your external identity that is the problem—and needs fixing—rather than your feelings.

And there is no better example of this than the transgender movement. Harrison writes:

The experience of people with gender dysphoria is often used to justify a radical new ideology about what gender actually is…But we can be fully sympathetic to the complicated (and mysterious) experience of those who struggle with gender dysphoria, without buying into the new gender ideology that has been built around it.’ [5]

And yet, this gender ideology is being mainstreamed in school classrooms across Australia through programs such as ‘Safe Schools’, which teach children that a person’s gender is not necessarily the same as that ‘assigned at birth’.

But it doesn’t stop with gender. Rachel Dolezal was a 37-year-old black civil rights activist who worked for the NAACP. In 2018, the secular newspaper The Guardian wrote:

There was a time when Dolezal was a well-respected figure in the city; she served as the president of Spokane’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 2014 until June 2015. Things fell apart, however, when it was discovered she’d been lying about her race.’

It turns out Dolezal is not black at all, but white. Yet, she identifies as black, as ‘transracial’. (Netflix released a documentary about her, called ‘The Rachel Divide’).

Interestingly, there are few secular voices affirming her ‘trans-racial’ identity. Evidently, it’s good to be transgender, but trans-racial is going too far—at least for now.

The revolution against reality

Ancient Gnosticism and it’s modern equivalents are revolutionary. They view God’s good order in creation as inherently oppressive, and try to overturn it. The idea that we should live in line with God’s creation is repugnant to such thinking.

When the Revolution Fails

Reality Trumps Man-made Identity.

But like many revolutions, ancient Gnosticism and its modern equivalents are doomed to failure. However much human beings want to rebel against God-given reality, reality will always crash upon them. This happened with ideologies such as communism, which thought they could remake humanity into its own image. And such collisions happen whenever we try to conform our identity to our innerfeelings, if those feelings aren’t in line with reality.

Sadly, many human beings will be hurt in the attempt, before the foolishness of the revolution becomes obvious to all.


First published at http://akosbalogh.com/

[1] Glynn Harrison, A Better Story—God, Sex & Human Flourishing (London: IVP, 2017), 16-17. (Emphasis added.)

[2] Harrison, A Better Story, 17.

[3] Harrison, A Better Story, 17.

[4] Harrison, A Better Story, 15-16.

[5] Harrison, A Better Story, 20-21.

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