Queerness: America’s Post-Christian Gnosticism
Here’s a superb First Things piece by Darel Paul in which he explains why queerness conquered American culture. It’s a terrific piece of cultural analysis. Excerpts:
Queerness has conquered America because it is the distilled essence of the country’s post-1960s therapeutic culture. The therapeutic originates with Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. From its beginning, the goal of psychoanalysis has been the salvation of the suffering self. Therapeutic practices of introspection seek to reveal the unacknowledged sources of psychic suffering. Sexual desire plays an especially prominent role in therapeutic narratives. For Freud, sexual drive was the engine of the personality. He believed both men and women are bisexual in nature and direct their sexual drives toward diverse objects. In this way, the therapeutic not only obscures gender differences and grants wide berth to atypical sexual expressions, it also blurs the distinction between normality and pathology, making every self a neurotic one on an eternal quest for “mental health.”
Queerness owes its privileged status to its relationship to the therapeutic. It epitomizes three central therapeutic values: individuality, authenticity, and liberation. Individual rights, of course, have long been the beating heart of the American creed. Yet the therapeutic turns traditional American individualism into individuality, wedding the former to a romantic sensibility of the self as a unique and creative spirit whose reason for existence is its own expression. None have summarized such individuality better than America’s philosopher-king, former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who in 1992 famously defended “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Although Kennedy wrote these words in defense of the right to abortion, he quoted them when ending the last of America’s sodomy laws in 2003 and echoed them as he constitutionalized same-sex marriage in 2015 as an expression of the right “to define and express [one’s] identity.”
Like individuality, authenticity has exceptionally strong cultural connections to queerness. Sexual orientation, sexual identity, and gender identity are invisible qualities of the self traditionally subject to strong social control. Therefore, the experience of psychic trauma associated with suppressing the authentic self “in the closet” is particularly attached to queer persons. So, too, is “coming out,” a pure act of public self-revelation in the name of authenticity. This combination makes queerness a powerful symbol of therapeutic values.
In the piece, Prof. Paul discusses how the word “Love” has come to mean “the social recognition of authentic selves,” at least when discussed in relation to the LGBT rights movement. In this sense, “love” has been drained of all its self-giving, sacrificial meaning, and has been reduced to the dimension of giving the queer person what he or she wants. “Love” is this Gillette razor ad in which a father shows “love” for his female-to-male transgender son, by helping her to learn how to shave. When I was in Poland researching my next book, an historian of the communist era told me that the regime back then hollowed out the usual meaning of words, as a way of controlling thoughts. To be a “patriot,” for example, was to be willing to inform the secret police about your friends and family. The historian told me that the postcommunist generation has no awareness of how this kind of thing works, and therefore has no natural immunity to it. Anyway, if homosexuality and transgenderism had nothing to do with it at all, using “love” to refer to “the social recognition of authentic selves” would still signal a massive social shift.
Along those lines, it is interesting to think of how the word “Pride” has been transformed by the LGBT movement from a traditional vice into a virtue in our culture — but of course only when it refers to sexual aberration. I know where it comes from: in the old days, the dominant culture made gays feel shame for their desires; they flipped “shame” around. I get that. Still, there is a reason why Pride is a deadly sin. It is at the root of the primordial sin: asserting that one is one’s own God, not God. The Ur-sin of Lucifer is Pride. Reading Prof. Paul’s analysis this morning brought to mind this passage from Live Not By Lies,about pre-revolutionary Russian culture:
Regarding transgressive sexuality as a social good was not an innovation of the Sexual Revolution. Like the contemporary West, late imperial Russia was also awash in what historian James Billington called “a preoccupation with sex that is quite without parallel in earlier Russian culture.” Among the social and intellectual elite, sexual adventurism, celebrations of perversion, and all manner of sensuality was common. And not just among the elites: the laboring masses, alone in the city, with no church to bind their consciences with guilt, or village gossips to shame them, found comfort in sex.
The end of official censorship after the 1905 uprising opened the floodgates to erotic literature, which found renewal in sexual passion. “The sensualism of the age was in a very intimate sense demonic,” Billington writes, detailing how the figure of Satan became a Romantic hero for artists and musicians. They admired the diabolic willingness to stop at nothing to satisfy one’s desires, and to exercise one’s will.
So that worked out well for the Russians, didn’t it?
I’m sorry that you all have to wait till November to read what is one of the very best analyses of the therapeutic culture from a small-o orthodox Christian perspective that I’ve ever read: Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise And Triumph Of The Modern Self. The publisher asked me to consider writing the foreword. When I read the manuscript, I was genuinely excited, because this is exactly the kind of deep analysis, put in the language of everyday people, that Christians have desperately needed. Of course I said yes to writing the foreword.
What you learn from the Trueman book is the ways in which we have radically destabilized our culture through the pursuit of a certain idea of authenticity and selfhood. Queerness is not an aberration of this Grand March to self-liberation, but rather its fulfillment. It is the triumph of gnosticism: the idea that matter is a prison that willful spirit is meant to overcome. At this late stage of our civilization’s self-destruction, I feel that the most important task of us Christians is to keep this gnosticism out of the church. Given how the therapeutic ethos has conquered popular American Christianity, this is going to be a fierce battle.
Transgenderism is fullest expression of contemporary pop gnosticism. It is no coincidence that the Wachowskis, the sibling team behind The Matrix, the most gnostic film ever, both ended up as transgendered females. (See this short 2015 Sonny Bunch essay on the siblings’ obsession with the mutability of man, and their recurrent villainization of metaphysical order. This more recent Vox essay, written by a male-to-female transgender, goes much deeper into the trans philosophy at the heart of the Wachowskis’ work; the author says that The Matrix is “a story that is now widely read as an allegory about how immensely powerful it can be to discover one’s true self by getting online.”)
We, as a culture, have come to believe that boundaries exist to be transgressed, and that the hero is the one who transgresses boundaries in pursuit of the authentic self. This is the central myth of our contemporary culture. It is told, and re-told, in movies, music, news media, advertising, and academia. What’s interesting is that not all boundaries are there to be transgressed — only those having to do with sex and identity. But I have digressed too much already in this post.
The point is this: to queer a social order and a culture, as has happened, requires replacing one set of metaphysical assumptions with another — and that inevitably manifests as a changed morality. Queerness didn’t cause this; it is more the fulfillment of a metaphysic that has long been implicit in the post-Christian West, and that took a therapeutic form in the early 20th century. (Nietzsche saw more clearly than the therapeutics, but that’s another story.) Hannah Arendt, in The Origins Of Totalitarianism, said that transgressiveness was in vogue in pre-totalitarian Germany and Russia, and that elites were happy to destroy the boundaries upon which their social orders had been built:
The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.
What is past is prologue. You just watch.