The Nature of Evil and Mimetic Warfare Against Islam:  “Gnosticism” and “Traditionalism” as Weapons

Dr. Robert D. Crane

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The Nature of Evil and Mimetic Warfare Against Islam:  “Gnosticism” and “Traditionalism” as Weapons of Disinformation

br Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

Almost two thousand years ago, the entire known world, i.e., from India to Morocco, was convulsed with so-called Christian heresies. Allegedly the most vicious of them all was known in Rome and Constantinople as “gnosticism,” which taught that each individual person has access to God without going through mediation and redemption by Jesus Christ.

Many centuries later, in the 18th century after Christ a movement arose in England known eventually as philosophical “traditionalism” and in its political expression as Whigism. Its roots go back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William of Orange and his wife, Mary, crossed the narrow seas between France and England to eliminate the English King Charles II and his alleged efforts to reimpose Vatican rule. It blossomed throughout the 18th century as the “Scottish Enlightenment” and laid the philosophical foundation toward the end of the century for the American Revolution and the American Constitution. The Scottish Enlightenment was the opposite of the European Enightenment because it served to revive a dying tradition of enlightened religion in human affairs rather than to introduce “enlightened” rational thought as a means to destroy the role of all religion in public life.

These two movements in the history of Western thought, so-called gnosticism and so-called traditionalism, are again being revived variously to attack Islam and to revive awareness of its contribution to Western civilization. Oddly, the ancient form of demonization known as “gnosticism” is being revived by “Paleo-Conservatives,” also known as self-proclaimed “modern traditionalists,” in their efforts to combat both Islam and Neo-Conservatism as the two twenty-first-century threats to order, justice, and liberty.

This complex phenomenon was raised but not addressed in a colloquium on The Nature of Evil published in the April, 2005, edition of the online journal, The American Muslim. This colloquium, in turn, triggered some emotional discussion of probably the best presentation of Islamic traditionalism ever drafted. This presentation, drafted by Shaykh Rashid al Ghanouchi, head of the illegal Nahda party in Tunisia, and others who no longer wish to be identified, is known as the platform of the Halaqa al Asala wa Taqadun (Circle of Tradition and Progress). The complete text is available on pages 79-81 in the chapter entitled “Ecumenical Justice Versus the Pagan Empire,” in my monograph, The Grand Strategy of Justice, Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies, Policy Paper No. 5, April 2000, P.O. Box 303, Washington, Virginia 22747.

This statement referred to the two giants of traditionalist thought, Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, but included also Eric Voegelin and Gerhart Niemeyer as examples of traditionalist thinkers. This raised a highly controversial issue, because Voegelin is the most articulate modern thinker who condemns Gnosticism as the greatest threat to traditionalist thought. Whereas the traditionalist, Robert Strausz-Hupe, who is erroneously claimed by Daniel Pipes and other Neo-Cons as their original mentor, regarded Islam more than half a century ago as possibly America’s greatest ally against totalitarian systems, more recently key intellectuals are condemning Islam in the world today as the re-emergence of the deadly Gnostic pandemic.

In my follow-up emails to the colloquium on The Nature of Evil, I called attention to articles published in the Winter 2005 issue of Modern Age, which has been the intellectual mainstay of traditionalist thought in America ever since Russell Kirk founded it in 1957. Two articles attempt to turn gnosticism into a stalking horse as the opposite of traditionalism, when, in fact, gnosticism as I understand it is quite compatible with traditionalism and in many ways synonymous with it. These two are Michael Henry’s “Civil Theology in the Gnostic Age: Progress and Regress,” and R. V. Young’s “Harold Bloom: the Critic as Gnostic.”

My own writings on gnosticism have evolved over the decades, ever since I wrote a dissertation at Northwestern University in 1955-1956, entitled, The Political Origins of Heresy in the First Six Christian Centuries. My writings thirty and more years ago ascribed the secular utopias of Communism, Nazism, and Apocalyptic Zionism to a gnostic concept of human perfectability and to the resultant rationale for creating perfection through social engineering on earth. Further study, however, suggested to me that this negative view of Gonosticism is a direct descendent of the third-century and fourth-century efforts of Christian orthodox theologians to demonize those who denied the divinity of Christ. The charge was that these people believed salvation can come from direct knowledge of God and submission to God rather than only from joining the vicarious atonement of Jesus for one’s sins. The related charge was that such heretics deny original sin and therefore are vulnerable to utopian dreams of perfecting the material world through their own intellect rather than perfecting themselves through the grace of God.

The first charge about the direct relationship between the human person and the transcendent God is no doubt true, but the second charge of triumphalist utopianism does not accord with my understanding of gnosticism. Gnosticism in history accords with what we now call Sufism, and Sufis would be the last to reject transcendence in favor of immanence and to seek the City of God on earth.

Young writes that, “Gnosticism is a religious conspiracy theory ...  based on a radical dualism ... that offers salvation on the basis of occult knowledge.” He quotes Han Jonas’ critique of gnosticism: “[In Gnosticism] the deity is absolutely Transmundane, its nature alien to that of the universe, which it neither created nor governs and to which it is the complete antithesis; to the divine realm of light, self-contained and remote, the cosmos is opposed as the realm of darkness. The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do not know the true God and obstruct knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they rule.” This charge may be true concerning extremist elements in both Muslim Sufism and in the more generic phenomenon of Gnosticism, but it is totally off base in describing their classical expressions.

The evil nature of using the Gnostic analogy to demonize Islam is most strikingly brought out, as I have discussed it in many of my articles, in the assertion by Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the leading Neo-Conservative religious publication, First Things, that Muslims can have no personal relationship with God, that therefore they can have no understanding of human rights, and that accordingly they can not even understand what democracy is all about.  This is a standard think-tank trick of taking the core of one’s opponents beliefs, turning them on their head, and then accusing one’s opponent of exactly the opposite of what the opponent actually believes.  Such forms of deliberately reversing truth and falsehood are known as diabolism or as the Work of the Anti-Christ (the Messiah al Dajjal).. 

The Gnostic disease that has caused evil in the modern world, according to anti-Islamic traditionalists (which should be recognized as an oxymoron), consists in rejecting St. Augustine’s emphasis on personal sin separating the person from God and repentance through the help of divine grace. Instead, says Young, “The Gnostics’ teaching places the origin of evil, of pain and suffering, in the conditions of the material creation; salvation involves overcoming ignorance and escaping these external conditions by finding divinity within.”

Young castigates Gnosticism further as follows: “The Gnostic finds the beginning of the path to salvation in the realization that the world is a great imposture, a prison of pain and frustration. His escape lies in recovering the intrinsic good within himself, the principle of
illumination that he shares with other enlightened spirits. ... What makes it possible for the self and God to commune so freely is that the self already is of God.”  Perhaps Young is confusing panentheism with pantheism, i.e., the belief that the transcendent God is in the immanent universe with the belief that the universe is God and that nothing is transcendent.

He continues, “The ancient Gnostics, Sigmund Freud, and Harold Bloom all share a loathing of the Christian vision of reality, which sees mankind’s willful disobedience and fallen nature as the principal source of his misery and of the evil in a world created good. ... The alternative is the Gnostic and Freudian view, ... [whereby] our hope lies not in acknowledging and submitting to the moral reality of our situation, but in overcoming or even transforming it.” He then goes on to his paradigm-forming conclusion about the evils of the modern world:  “Marxism is a good example of the similarity between Gnosticism and many
modern ideologies.”

The impact on political thought of Gnosticism recreated as a bugbear of conservatism, is discussed in the second article, “Civil Theology in the Gnostic Age,” by Michael Henry, who teaches philosophy at St. John’s University in New York (not the St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe) and is series editor of the Library of Conservative Thought of Transaction Publishers. He defines Gnosticism as “a somewhat deformed version of Christianity that seeks immanent salvation through human action in a redivinized world in which humanity is the locus of the divine.”

Henry then develops his well-based traditionalist critique of Neo-Conservatives, whose mission to perfect the world represents a “re-irruption” of Gnosticism in the concept of “enlightened liberty [consisting in] an emphasis on personal gratification and the isolation of individual desires rather than the community of shared participation in transcendence. Americans came to see themselves as the saviors of the world through their achievement of the most rational order that maximizes individual freedom and earthly happiness ... guaranteeing earthly happiness through democracy.”

He then writes, quite soundly in reference to Neo-Conservatism but quite erroneously in reference to Gnosticism, that, “As Voegelin has pointed out, positivism is another variety of Gnosticism through its reduction of reality to the immanent. ... If the public philosophy means that liberty is the possession of rights determined by the citizens’ preferences, then order is merely the absence of chaos but has no positive content or meaning. ... Having no substantial truth in itself [democracy] worships freedom, which means that it appeals to relativism and the related skepticism - which is quite the opposite of Voegelin’s characterization of the nature of man as ‘openness to transcendence’.”

Since the term “Gnosticism” is central to the apologetics of American traditionalist savants, we, as traditionalists from the Islamic tradition, should address what we have in common with the Christian traditionalists. This does not include the demonization of Gnosticism, which suggests that we need to use other terms that have less historical baggage.

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should change the bathtub. Whether we call the paradigm liberalism, conservatism, or neo this or paleo that, is not as important as the content of the terms we are using. I abandoned my self-description as conservative a long time ago, because most people who like this term are simply reactionary. Facetiously, I call my self a prolicon, as in lepracon, meaning progressive, liberal, conservative. But actually I am none of those.

Why abandon the term traditionalism merely because it has been hijacked by people who do not understand it and have perverted it into a neo-traditionalism, the way the neo-conservatives have perverted their origins? I have no problem with “classical liberalism,” but only if we understand that classical liberalism is similar to what I call classical traditionalism, which is quite the opposite of modern libertarianism and its opposite, neo-traditionalism.

Libertarianism refuses to recognize any transcendent framework for either human responsibilities or human rights. Classical liberalism, on the other hand, can recognize freedom as both the purpose and product of transcendent justice. The highest goal, however, as propounded throughout the Qur’an, is truth and justice.

The weakness of the so-called traditionalism of Voegelin is that he seems to reject anything similar in any religion other than Christianity, but at the same time rejects Christianity as anything more than an imperfect expression of his own ideas. His followers attack the triumphalism of the Neo-Cons but seem to replace it with their own brand.

Perhaps we need a better word to describe what classical Islam and classical Christianity share. Frithjof Schuon uses the term philosophia perennis, and this has been translated as universal traditionalism because it is the substance of what is traditional, perennial, or enduring in all religions. My suggestion is that we rescue the term traditionalism from those who would hijack it, rather than surrendering to the hijackers.

  At a less philosophical level and even more profoundly the battle of the intellectual titans is really about the role of justice in the Plan of Allah.  Justice divorced from the “Agenda of Allah” is self-referential and can amount to totalitarian self-worship.  Worship of Allah divorced from justice is un-Islamic because it results in the same thing.  This, of course, is why the third element of the Shi’i creed is so important, namely, nubuwiya, which serves to provide the wisdom necessary to maintain a mutually reinforcing balance between the first two elements. 

  All of this, unfortunately, has been totally missing from most Sunni thought for many centuries, which may be why the world of Sunni Islam has been so devastated by Western solypsism.  Recovery and renewal are possible only by intra-faith cooperation among Muslims, which should be the basis of inter-faith cooperation with those of other religions who are being hijacked by their own forms of ultra- or neo-conservatism and ultra- or neo-liberalism.

  We are engaged in mimetic warfare, which is the use of mimes in the form of words or symbols, to capture the sub-conscious of others without them knowing that they have been hijacked. The first rule of warfare is to know your enemy. The second is to know his strategy. Only then can we know better the nature good and evil.