Feature 02.01.2023 8 minutes

We’re No Angels


Digital Gnostics and the flight from embodied personhood.

In the last generation or two we have lived through a cultural revolution as radical and transformative as any in human history, marked by an earth-shattering “transvaluation of values” (as Nietzsche put it), and a willful denial of elementary facts long upheld by common sense and ordinary experience. To adopt the ugly locution of postmodern theorizing, the “sexual binary” is now under systematic assault. The most tradition-minded people speak of “gender” in a perfectly perfunctory way, as if the term is utterly uncontroversial. Who has not been invited to a “gender reveal”? Contemporary laws and legal documents are replete with references to gender. This subversive notion is now as commonplace as can be.

As Spencer Klavan demonstrates in this brilliant excerpt from his new book, How to Save the West, it is now obligatory in all elite circles to adopt the position pioneered by French existentialists and poststructuralists such as Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault, and radicalized by the American philosopher Judith Butler. Klavan perfectly encapsulates the blatantly nihilistic position affirmed by Judith Butler in her massively influential 1990 book, Gender Trouble: “Gender is a performance; binary sex is a social construct; our bodies are objects of hostile interpretations fabricated by the powerful.” We are light years from ordinary experience and the eminent good sense so eloquently articulated at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27).

Until the last decades of the 20th century, the rich and evocative wisdom of Genesis was shared by almost all ordinary people, by the full range of believers and by most secularists and unbelievers, too. It was challenged in more recent times only by a small band of “existentialist” and “postmodern” intellectuals who followed Nietzsche (and in some cases radicalized him) in affirming that “God is dead,” that the idea of a normative human nature was a fiction, and that the traditional family, both bourgeois and Judeo-Christian, was a cesspool of oppression and patriarchal domination.

The wisdom of Genesis, like the best classical and Christian wisdom, is humanizing and elevating. In contrast, the gospel of Beauvoir, Foucault, and Butler emphatically denies the natural bonds—and the mutual obligations—that allow human beings to live decent and happy lives and for political communities to sustain ordered liberty “under God” (as one used to say without embarrassment). Yet the pseudo-sophisticated blather of what the late Roger Scruton pointedly called “the Parisian nonsense machine” is now taught at every level of education, from kindergarten to graduate school. It deeply informs the “gender ideology” whose influence is now entrenched in education, journalism, medicine, politics, and even many churches who have shamelessly eschewed Genesis for the fashionable categories and slogans of Beauvoir and Butler.

What good can come from a willful, concerted cultural and political project to subvert the millennia-old wisdom of the West and of all other high, self-respecting civilizations? Can jargon-ridden ideology, contemptuous of all inherited truths and the experience of our forebears, not to mention common sense, really give rise to liberation, emancipation, and the triumph of the “authentic” self as the regnant ideologues claim? The answer, which Klavan lays out reasonably, humanely, and with abundant evidence presented in lucid prose, is of course a resounding “No.”

Klavan shows exactly what is at stake in the contemporary denial of embodied personhood: gender theory has given rise to an epidemic of sexual dysphoria, prompting the young to flee the “prisons” that they increasingly consider their bodies to be. I do not speak hyperbolically. As Klavan points out, our recent “shocking uptick in gender dysphoria” is not primarily the result of gender dysphoric people feeling freer to share their feelings. It is first and foremost the product of an ideological campaign that has taught the young that their physical sex is wholly detachable from imposed “gender roles.” When one can meaningly speak of “rapid-onset dysphoria,” in the words of Brown University health researcher Lisa Littman, we are dealing with mimēsis (the Greek word for “imitation”) gone mad. The manic flight from flesh is spurred by disdain for the dignity of embodied personhood.

Against Angelism

In the traditional formulation, the soul is the “form” of the body, as Aristotle and St. Thomas persuasively argued. On this eminently commonsensical view, body and soul form a unity that gives dignity to both component parts. For Christians, the whole human person is at once body and soul, and that “embodiment” persists even in life after death. Against both materialism and the desperate Gnostic desire for an escape from the “prison” of embodiment, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and 16 describes the resurrected body as an “imperishable…spiritual body” which escapes “dust” but not embodiment as such. We are glorified with God but as embodied persons and not as some vague astral or angelic presence. There is also much human wisdom inherent in these deep, poetic, and evocative theological truths. As one used to say in youthful catechism classes, the temple of God is a precious and holy thing.

Spencer Klavan is absolutely on mark when he suggests that gender ideology, as taught in schools, heralded in the media, and with its massive online presence of seduction and reeducation, creates discomfort with bodies “where there was previously none.” That is the nub of the matter. Young men and women (mainly women according to the data) come to hate themselves, because they are taught to see their bodies, or rather their embodied personhood, as a burden, a curse, a cruel imposition.

Klavan convincingly suggests that the more extreme versions of feminism have much to do with the rise of female bodily repudiation. Today, traditional “female pursuits” are nearly uniformly identified with the “weak, contemptible, and dull.”  Homemaking and motherhood are freely “mocked.” But in the most luminous passages in his essay, Klavan recovers the image of womanhood as bearing “witness to the possibility that body and soul can in fact be reconciled” through childbirth. In childbirth “human flesh becomes the medium of the divine,” and physical pain, though crushing, is far surpassed. We must recover the notion of the “eternal feminine” and the understanding of the “luminous” capacity of women “to act as physical conduits for the life-giving power of God.” Against a dehumanizing ideology that denies God’s creation and the very idea of a natural order of things, Klavan reminds us of rich and uplifting human possibilities inherent in embodied personhood with all its joys, pains, obligations, and opportunities for love, mutual accountability, and the passing on of life and wisdom to new generations. This is old wisdom, and as relevant as ever.

From this height, we descend to the ideological surreality that is the increasingly fashionable doctrine of “transhumanism.” Not content with the order of things bequeathed by God and Nature, these technocratic utopians dream of leaving our humanity behind. No more genitals, no more physical pain, no more gender “roles,” no spatial embodiment of personhood, just posthuman “minds” downloaded on software and computer systems. The suicidal allure of posthumanism escapes me, as I think it must escape all spiritually balanced persons.

While the neuroscientists tell us, implausibly and without compelling evidence, that our minds are nothing but our brains, the transhumanists imagine minds are wholly conceivable without a body or a brain. Klavan rightly asks what happens to human purposes in such a nightmare scenario. Both transgenderism and transhumanism have contempt for the human as human; they are two sides of the same coin to leave embodied personhood in the dust. Klavan says it very well: to “dissolve the boundaries of your body” is to “dissolve the boundaries of yourself.” It is also to war with God’s creation and to attempt to negate the very order of things. We must pity the dysphoric and do what we can to help them. But transgenderism and transhumanism are so delusional in their premises, so contemptuous of the true sources of happiness and freedom, that they can only make us “sick and miserable.” At the same time, they fatally undermine the “public space,” the “common thing,” the shared premises that make for self-government and ordered liberty.

It is commonplace in conservative and religious intellectual circles to see modernity as an intellectual project that denies the reality and needs of the soul and that aims to “rehabilitate the flesh” in Henri de Saint-Simon’s famous words. Modern materialism is indeed reductive and denies the reality of the soul in any meaningful or fulsome sense. But as Pierre Manent reminds us in a chapter of his 2004 book A World Beyond Politics? entitled “Sexual Division and the Body,” liberty in the late modern world is Sartrian liberty, a liberty that takes human nature as an enemy and that woefully exaggerates the ability of human beings to begin life again at any given moment. It is authenticity without shared bonds or moral obligations—liberty without limits. Sartre, like his partner and lover Beauvoir, denied all limits, whether natural, political, moral, or biological. The full range of gender theorists, postmodernists, and transhumanists share with the French existentialists an “angelism” that rejects both the human body and the soul that informs it. As Manent puts it, in this misplaced understanding of our humanity, “The will is obviously free to confer or withdraw” the validity of bonds, “precisely at will.”  “We lead our lives, would like to lead our lives, as angels that by chance have a body, and that we would be free to leave it aside and take it up at will.” This angelism is coextensive with “the triumph of the Will” in its most delusory form. But men are not angels, and there is no “Second Reality’ (the phrase is Eric Voegelin’s) to displace the first. We can thank the beneficence of Providence and the natural order of things for that.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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Nativity scene, stained glass, Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem, Israel

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