Gnostic Anthropology and Identity Politics
Within the general framework of contemporary identity politics – a term that I use here to refer to a synthesis between one’s personal attributes, or the intersections between said attributes, and one’s political preferences – an ancient theological debate may be resurfacing under different conceptual umbrellas.
Recent scholarship has advanced an “intersectional” understanding of how race and gender interact to perpetuate discriminatory structures. Yet where the philosophy of such a movement is concerned, the two schemas developing on axes of race and gender are potentially irreconcilable. Though often treated together as subtypes of an undifferentiated “leftism,” these strains fundamentally differ on the issue of philosophical anthropology.
Within the field of African American studies, an important recent contribution has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me. Coates – a longtime writer for The Atlantic – has discussed American racial dynamics for many years, and in this work develops his thoughts more fully. Coates’s writing is characterized by a consistent awareness of embodiedness – namely, the ways in which the physical bodies of African Americans consistently have suffered, and continue to suffer, diverse indignities. In Coates’s framing, race is clearly not a social construct to be elided; it is something bound into the fabric of human biology, driving chasms between persons and stymying human flourishing. His personal identity – and the identity of others whose perceived race does not conform to that of the privileged caste (which, Coates holds, are white Americans) – is inextricably connected to empirically observable biology. I will term this view the integrationist (or counter-Gnostic) perspective.
This understanding of personal identity as inevitably connected to human biology clashes with the anthropological understanding exposited in the broad corpus of gender studies literature. For many scholars in this field, personal identity exists on a plane wholly decoupled from the properties of one’s biological tissue. Gender is fluid and malleable, and biology is anything but destiny. I will term this view the gnostic perspective.
During the time of the early church, controversies rapidly emerged alongside the rise of Gnostic theology. The Gnostics taught that matter was inconsequential or evil, and that the project of human existence was to liberate the soul from crude matter so that it might ascend to heaven. Traditional Christian theology, conversely, taught that the body and soul, while distinct, were both integral aspects of the human person: matter, as something created and sustained by God, was not intrinsically evil, but originally created good. Accordingly, the human person was not just a “soul in a meat-sack” but a holistic image-bearer of God. Ergo, Christ, in taking on human form, did not merely appear as an illusory divine specter, but rather as a man with a cognizable human nature.
The language of the debate over Gnosticism has since changed, but its essential qualities remain the same. In the contemporary gnostic framing, a sense of experienced personal identity serves as a proxy for traditional theological-philosophical conceptions of the human soul. That identity – that soul – exists in a world of physical matter, which may either be oppositional to the nonmaterial human property or intertwined with it.
Coates offers an integrationist approach: for him, what it means to be African American today is indivisible from the realities of physical existence and the physical properties of one’s body. Gender studies theorists argue the opposite: identity exists in a discrete meta-paradigm within which biology is irrelevant. In so doing, Coates aligns himself with the Gnostics’ critics, while the gender theorists echo Gnostic arguments under new banners.
In light of this, it is perhaps ironic that some critics have described these types of controversies as heralding a “brave new world.” The names and concepts may be superficially different, but at bottom, these debates have surprisingly ancient roots.