Of all the criticisms Catholic commentators make regarding transgender persons, the most recurrent is the accusation of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was an ancient Christian heresy that took numerous forms, all of which denied the Incarnation and believed the material world to be inherently evil. This was in opposition to orthodox Christianity, which taught of the goodness of Creation as created by God and redeemed by Christ.
While it may seem a stretch to compare a motley bunch of gender non-conformers to an ancient esoteric cult, the comparison is surprisingly common. The most notable accusation comes from none other than Bishop Robert Barron, the famous Catholic media evangelist and now-Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles. In an article from his Word on Fire ministries web site, he comments on the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner. He says:
In justifying the transformation that he has undergone, Jenner consistently says something along these lines: “Deep down, I always knew that I was a woman, but I felt trapped in the body of a man. Therefore, I have the right to change my body to bring it in line with my true identity.” Notice how the mind or the will—the inner self—is casually identified as the “real me” whereas the body is presented as an antagonist which can and should be manipulated by the authentic self […] This schema is, to a tee, gnostic—and just as repugnant to Biblical religion as it was nineteen hundred years ago.
Now I like Robert Barron. I’m actually an old fan of his. His documentary series Catholicism reinvigorated my faith at a time it was in danger of wilting, and as a Catholic with a background in film and media, I recognize him as a premier voice in the New Evangelization.
However, once I make the necessary concessions to his logic – which is usually astute – I’m left with a faint odor of flippant equivocation wafting over the whole article. It’s a stench shared by all Transgender-is-the-new-Gnosticism accusations, and following the scent leads to numerous instances of rot and structural instability.
GNOSTICS HERE, GNOSTICS THERE, GNOSTICS EVERYWHERE!
Since the beginning of the 20th century it’s been trending among Catholic apologists to compare every twist and turn of post-enlightenment thought with some ancient strain of Christian heresy. My childhood companion G. K. Chesteron was particularly notorious for this; his remarkable imagination, while clairvoyant in some respects, found 3rd century Arians hiding behind every lamppost. I’d appreciate such historical appeals more if they were actually accurate, but alas the comparisons are sometimes ill-conceived even if well-intentioned.
As a result of this trend, the word “Gnostic” has become to Catholicism what “Communist” was to McCarthy-era Americans. It’s a deafening word that conjures all sorts of worst fears, and can be invoked at the slightest suspicion. It has a remarkable ability to override due process and put the accused in the uncomfortable position of being guilty until proven innocent. The original meaning of the word is practically lost behind its current pejorative force.
As such, I’d like to demand a little more rigour in our historical comparisons. As they say in The Giver: “Precision of language!”
The truth is Gnosticism (in all its various forms) was a particular historical phenomenon with a concrete set of beliefs. It was a spiritual movement, a comprehensive philosophy, a cohesive aesthetic. It’s easy enough to point to some particular Gnostic doctrine, find a rough correlate in contemporary philosophy, and loudly proclaim the whole business to be “quite Gnostic.” Such an equivocation is easy, but it’s hardly honest.
What actually was Gnosticism? Gnosticism was a spiritual and philosophical movement that sprung from Persian Zoroastrianism. Over the years it parasitically latched itself onto the trappings of various major religions, Christianity and Judaism among them. Gnostic movements usually had certain tenants in common: that the universe was caught in a battle between a good god and evil demiurge, and that while the good god was responsible for the spiritual world, the evil demiurge was the sole proprietor of physical reality. Thus, to draw nearer to god, Gnostic adherents had to transcend their fleshy limits and escape Earth. They did so through gnosis, or elite knowledge of arcane truths.
The most famous Gnostic Christians were the Manichaeans, the followers of Mani (the Iranian prophet, not the talking mammoth). They’re most notable for counting Saint Augustine among their ranks before he jumped ship to orthodox Christianity. His rejection of their beliefs formed the starting point of Augustinian theology.
The second most famous were the Cathars (aka. Albigensians), a medieval cult that the Church labeled a “Manichaean revival” (see, they were even making equivocations in the Middle Ages, but with more accuracy). The Cathars were the foe of St. Dominic, who founded the Dominicans in part to convert Cathar peasants back to Catholicism.
Both Manichaeans and Cathars regarded the material world as evil. By extension biological sex, sexuality, and procreation were evil as well. The Cathars went so far as to define the soul as naturally “sexless” and imprisoned by bodily sex.
If Caitlyn Jenner was a Cathar, we can only imagine how different things would be for her. One wonders why she would go through the trouble of a physical transition at all if her soul is sexless. In all probability a Gnostic understanding of gender identity issues would be this: both gender and sex are evil and illusory, and the goal of a trans person is not to integrate the soul and body, but to help the soul escape the body entirely and become an androgynous spirit-being.
Yes, the terminology “trapped in a man’s body” certainly evokes the Gnostic goal of “escape.” However, there’s more than one sense of the word “trapped,” and Caitlyn clearly means something other than a prison break. A blind person may feel “trapped” in blindness – this does not mean she wants to transcend her body to escape the bondage of the Demiurge; it really just means she experiences a conflict between her physical instantiation and her human potential. Her blindness can be understood in a medical sense as a disorder, in a spiritual sense as a cross, in a social sense as a stigma, or in a pastoral sense as a gift. Whatever sense we use, the underlying reality of bodily conflict remains. This conflict isn’t “Gnostic” any more than diabetes is “Pentecostal” or asexuality is “Basque.”
SOUNDBYTES DO NOT A PERSON MAKE
As I mentioned at the beginning, there are necessary concessions to make to the Rev. Barron’s logic. When we really get down to brass tacks, the way most transwomen speak about ourselves is hardly nuanced. The whole “woman trapped in a man’s body” narrative is easy and accessible, but there are obvious issues that arise if taken literally. At face value the whole thing does feel… well, Gnostic isn’t the right word, but it does feel like Cartesian dualism (which Barron also mentions). It is for this reason that I make the disclaimer on this site: I do not represent the transgender movement as a whole. Why? Because in its fight to extend basic accommodation to transgender individuals, the movement often simplifies complex notions into soundbytes. “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” is one such soundbyte.
Now I have no notion of whether Caitlyn Jenner herself takes that maxim literally, or if it’s just a convenient way to express herself. What I do know is that detractors are taking her very much at her word.
The truth is Jenner’s personal conception of her own reality only makes so much difference. This is a point Barron makes himself, but he forgets to apply it across the board. If Jenner conceptualizes being transgender as being imprisoned in her body, this does not make being transgender incompatible with Catholicism; it just makes her self-conception incompatible. In effect, Barron is only really addressing what Jenner has to say of herself, not what she in fact is.
Let me use an analogy. If Caitlyn Jenner described her experience of being transgender as “I am the incarnation of the goddess Athena and I must assume my true form,” besides questioning her sanity Barron might respond: “there is only One God, and His only Incarnation is Jesus.” Doing so only reprimands her theology; it has little to say about her actual experience that led to this self-concept.
Anything that a transgender person says about themselves is going to be within a particular cultural context. It shouldn’t surprise us if contemporary transgender people often understand themselves according to a Cartesian framework since such is the case for most contemporary people of any kind, transgender or not. Trans individuals do not have a monopoly on dualism, and it’s actually bizarre to consign an entire class of people to a particular philosophical trend.
WHEN REALITY GOES GNOSTIC-Y
Detractors seem to regard transgender people as products of modern culture, as if we started “happening” due to neo-liberal brainwashing. My high school chaplain is under the impression that LGBT people wouldn’t exist if the liberal media weren’t around to tell us we’re gay or trans.
While there’s certainly more visibility nowadays for sexual and gender minorities, our continuous historical presence is well-documented. Whether Hebrew eunuchs, Indian hijras, Balkan sworn virgins, Thai kathoeys, Romen galli, or Lakota winkte (to name the most well-known), most cultures have recognized the reality of sex-variant, gender-variant or gender-bending persons. The cross-cultural establishment of dedicated niches for such people attests to how many cultures regard transgender persons as a fact of nature – an inevitable human variation.
The expression of discontent made by many trans people – that our bodies feel wrong in some respect – is easy to dismiss if you assume we only feel so because of an incorrect conception of our bodies. The reality, of course, is that if we come to a dualistic understanding of our reality, it is only as a means of coming to terms with the factual conflict in our flesh. Having a difficult body is not the same thing as self-loathing.
There are many non-trans instances where, either due to limitations or a disability, a person’s reality feels Cartesian. Anyone who’s dying slowly of cancer knows what it’s like to feel “trapped in the body,” as does anyone who’s born with a major congenital defect. Anyone who belongs to a social minority with a visible stigma – like people of color in the United States – is probably familiar with that feeling of entrapment.
The point is that even if we believe the body and soul are inextricable, that does not negate the basic human experience of suffering which makes our body feel like a prison to the soul. Due to the fallen state of humanity, in one sense we can even maintain that our bodies became prisons.
It is strange to me that on any other issue of human suffering theologians are willing to engage complex questions of problematic embodiment, improper instantiation of form into matter, and other ivory tower ways of talking about suffering. When it comes to gender, however, a bizarre idealism holds sway. Any other part of human biology can go awry, get mixed up, skew from the norm, but gender alone is protected and immutable. Of course, the facts are plainly otherwise.
The fact is that biological sex – and the more nebulous concept of psychological/social gender – is not some ontologically pure transcendent reality; or if it is, it does not always reveal itself in nature as we might expect. The components of biological sex are varied and numerous: chromosomes, gonads, genital morphology, hormones, and secondary sexual characteristics are only the most obvious of them. On every level of human sexual development we see natural variations from the norm, from genetic females with penises to intersex persons with such a mix of sexed characteristics that any attempt to label them “male” or “female” would be completely arbitrary. There is the distinct possibility that transgenderism is one such intersex condition. Even if not proven definitively, the possibility is still compelling enough to make the comparison with Gnosticism even more ridiculous. Transgender persons are no more inherently Gnostic than persons with hazel eyes.
THIS IS MY BODY
The primary evidence against the transgender-is-Gnostic narrative is the actual experience of trans people. Here I speak from personal experience, although I have corroborated with others. If a physical transition were “Gnostic,” we might expect an outcome of disintegration between the mind and body, since the body cannot be so dominated by the mind without being reduced to an appendage.However, what we actually find is a greater integration.
Before transition I had a reality that could potentially be called “Gnostic”: I felt like a brain in a vat. It wasn’t a matter of belief, it was a matter of experience. Not only did I willingly distance myself from the body which caused me pain, but I felt a constant disconnect from the world around me as if I was suspended in a giant plastic hamster ball.
Now I’m a year into my physical transition, and the hormones alone have completely changed my experience of myself. My entire reality – body, mind, and soul – are vastly more integrated. I actually experience the world through my senses, and not always through the intermediary of my previously dissociated mind. It’s a difficult experience to describe: what it meant to feel disconnected from my body; but this decomposition was at one point my daily experience. It was only after I began my transition and experienced a more normative embodiment that in hindsight I could fully appreciate the abnormality of my former condition. As I’ve grown into my own skin, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for my physicality. My continued transition operates on the understanding that I have a duty of stewardship toward my bodily temple.
From my own lived experience I can only conclude that physical transition is efficacious, and its full efficacy only makes sense if we believe in the unity of the body and soul. The fact that my soul and body no longer clash like warring nations, that instead it’s now difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends… this is not a story of gnosis, it’s a story of incarnation. It’s a story of integration. It’s above all else a story of redemption.
Read the post-script: “Are Transgender People Gnostic? An Afterthought.”