A guest post by commenter JMSmith:
In an interesting post, Foseti returns to the Puritan Question, and affirms that “one key tenet” of Neoreaction is that Progressivism is a “nontheistic Christian sect.” No doubt there is much to be gained by understanding Progressivism as a messianic movement, and much to be regretted in the fact that Progressive chiliasts were so long cosseted in the cradle of Christian culture, but Progressivism is not a nontheistic Christian sect. It is that old skin-changer Gnosticism, now divested of Christian symbols, acting under a new guise suited to the sensibilities of nontheistic men and women.
I suggest that the real Puritan Question is, what exactly is Puritanism? To frame the question in Aristotelian terms, we should ask, which attributes are essential to Puritanism, and which are accidental? And then, more specifically, we should ask, whether Christianity (however loosely defined) is one of these essential attributes, or whether it was only accidentally, contingently, and temporarily associated with this essentially alien spiritual tendency?
My answer is, obviously, that the association was accidental.
Puritanism is another name for Gnosticism, and Gnosticism is a skin-changer. As one writer put it, “there was . . . no gnostic canon of scripture, unless it was the ‘holy scriptures’ of other religions, like the Bible or Homer, which were employed and interpreted for the purpose of authorizing the Gnostics’ own teachings” (Brown, Heresies, 1984). Another writer agrees that a “peculiarity of the gnostic tradition . . . lies in the fact that it frequently draws its material from the most varied existing traditions, attaches itself to it, and at the same time sets it in a new frame by which this material takes on a new character and a completely new significance” (Rudolph, Gnosis, 1982).
Before I develop this argument, I have to admit that Christianity is, for various reasons, highly susceptible to gnostic infections. This is something the Church recognized and combatted from the very beginning, the antichrists of John’s Epistles being generally understood as Gnostics who were attempting to sell their esoteric doctrines wrapped in a Christian skin. We can recognize Gnosticism in Christianity any time we see a sect of “super-Christians” propounding some radical renovation of the faith with the promise that this will lead to a radical renewal of the faith, or indeed of the world. We can recognize Gnosticism outside of Christianity by the same test: a sect of enlightened “super-humans,” who have somehow transcended the mental and moral limitations that ensnare the rest of humanity, propounding some radical renovation of the social order, again with a promise that this will lead to a radical renewal of the world. (If that doesn’t describe Progressives, I don’t know what does.)
Wherever you may find it, Gnosticism/Puritanism has four essential characteristics.
Spiritual pride is the first essential characteristic of Gnosticism/Puritanism. This is because it begins as a belief that the world is a corrupt and disordered place that is sunk in peccancy and error, but that there exists in the midst of this dolorous waste a small sect of saints who have escaped the near universal ruin of ignorance and turpitude. The generic name for such saints who see themselves as stranded on the smoking rubble of the world is Gnostics or Illuminati, since they are men and women who claim that they are possessed of esoteric knowledge and extraordinary virtue. August Neander wrote that second-century Gnostics appropriated Christian symbols, but then changed them because they found the gospel too simple and accessible. The great defect of this simplicity and accessibility, so far as the Gnostics were concerned, was that it did not present a mystery that they could penetrate by speculation and symbolic interpretation, and thus there was no esoteric understanding of the faith reserved for, and indicative of, an inner circle of spiritual adepts (History of the Christian Religion, 1841). This is not to say that all Christians understood their faith equally well, only that the beliefs of the meanest Christian churl, insofar as these beliefs were orthodox, were the same as the beliefs of the very doctors of the Church. The mysteries of Christianity are mysteries for all Christians, not secret arcana reserved for a privileged few.
Gnosis also normally entails unusual moral sensitivity. This can be expressed in a fastidious repugnance for behavior that ordinary humans tolerate or ignore, or in rejection of conventional morality and indulgence in high-minded immorality. The whole point for the Gnostic is to set himself apart from the great herd of humanity by claiming to view the world from a higher, and very exclusive, spiritual vantage point. In his great analysis of the gnostic character of the early English Puritans, Richard Hooker wrote that they condemn the evils of the world “with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpness of reproof,” thereby leading others to believe that “such constant reprovers of sin . . . would never be so much offended with evil, unless themselves were singularly good” (Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, 1597).
Separatism is the second essential attribute of the Gnostic/Puritan movements. This follows from spiritual pride and the claim to be in possession of esoteric knowledge and extraordinary virtue, and it is expressed in conspicuous repudiation of the common customs, conventions and ways of the world. In practice this means the customs, conventions and ways of the Gnostic’s own time and place, and the adoption of an assertively countercultural attitude. Describing the Separatists and Puritans of Elizabethan England, Hooker wrote that they “affected to cross the ordinary custom in everything,” and that a Puritan would signify his election by “fashioning his own life contrary unto the customs and orders of this present world.”
The essence of Gnosticism/Puritanism is, in other words, to be in open revolt against the world as presently constituted, and to announce this revolt by purging from one’s own life whatever happens to be emblematic of that world. Among the Puritans of Calvin’s Geneva, or of Hooker’s England, these emblems were “the most notorious badges of antichristian recognizance,” namely the ordinary offices, sacraments and symbols of Roman Catholicism. “In rites and ceremonies,” Hooker wrote, “their profession was hatred of all conformity with the Church of Rome,” and thus they labored to “purify” the church of bishops, stained glass, infant baptism, Christmas, godfathers and godmothers, and whatever else they could impugn as a papist corruption.
Among today’s Puritans, which is to say among today’s Progressives, we see the same impulse to separate, differentiate, and purge. The only difference is that in this case the ordinary customs they affect to cross, and the emblems they endeavor to purge, are the customs and emblems of traditional Christian society. Among contemporary Progressives, indeed, there is an effort to “purify” their lives of every taint and tincture of conventional (i.e., bourgeois and Christian) morality, which they have the cheek and effrontery to denounce as “Puritanism.” In a society that values chastity, unrestrained sexual indulgence is puritanical because “bourgeois hang-ups” over things like adultery are “notorious badges of antichristian recognizance,” and such badges must be purged.
The third essential attribute of the Gnostic/Puritan movement I can only think to call epistemological austerity. As we have seen, a Gnostic believes himself possessed of esoteric knowledge and extraordinary virtue, whereas he believes that the world is sunk in error and turpitude. He is an adept who has penetrated the mysteries and possessed the truth; the world is a whore freighted with “heaps of intolerable pollutions.” It is, therefore, impossible for him to compromise with the world, to learn from the world, or to accept correction from the world. What he requires, then, is a source of knowledge that is not, as part of the world, loaded with “heaps of intolerable pollutions.”
This is why, when the spirit of Gnosticism took the Christian form that we know as Puritanism, epistemological austerity was expressed in the doctrine of sola scriptura. Puritans seemed at times to believe that the special revelation of scripture was the only revelation, the only source of knowledge on all matters. This is extremely austere when compared to the traditional Christian view that scripture clarifies and completes the general revelation. Again, it is worthwhile to consider what Neander wrote about why Gnostics were frustrated with the Christian gospel and sought to “improve” it. Not only did it fail to present deep mysteries accessible only to an inner circle of adepts; it also failed to provide a complete cosmogony. The Gnostics wanted a comprehensive theory of the cosmos—a totalizing mythology—and this is something that the Christian gospel does not provide. Or rather, it is something the gospel did not provide until its symbolic secrets were unlocked by Gnostic interpretation.
If we turn to our modern Gnostics, which is to say to Progressives, we find the doctrine of sola scriptura revived as positivism, a species of epistemological austerity that maintains that that science is the sole and all-sufficient source of knowledge. We also find it in a belief that there is nothing that we can learn from tradition. This epistemological austerity is conspicuously absent in most of today’s Christians.
The last essential attribute of Gnostic/Puritan movements is that they are revolutionary. They aim to destroy the wicked world that is, and replace it with a New Order. This will be accomplished when they succeed in placing the disordered world under discipline, and in ordering it after the gnosis of their movement. It is not supposed that placing the world under discipline will be easy or that all will welcome the revolution, but the true Gnostic is confident of success. As Hooker put it when describing the Elizabethan Puritans, their gnosis being, so they thought, “the absolute commandment of almighty God,” they were assured that “it must be received, though the world receiving it, be turned upside down.” And because they imagined that they, like Israel of old, had been sent “to root out the idolatrous nations, and to plant instead of them, a people who feared God, so the same Lord’s good will and pleasure was now, that these new Israelites should . . . perform a work no less miraculous in casting out violently the wicked from the earth, and establishing the Kingdom of Christ with perfect liberty.”
Eric Voegelin famously described such attempts to establish the Kingdom of Christ by as “immanentization of the eschaton” (New Science of Politics, 1951). Pellicani describes it as the motive behind such attempts as “a revolutionary spirit that tends to transcend, to deny and to annihilate the existing order in view of a totally new order of things,” and that views “revolutionary violence as a tool of purification and regeneration” that will “overturn the overturned world, purge society, [and] restore human nature to its original state” (Revolutionary Apocalypse, 2003).
And Progressives? They call it spreading democracy, free markets and human rights.