Is transgenderism a Christian heresy?
The transgender movement is a conundrum. Full commitment requires voluntary mutilation and sterility. The mental and physical pain, especially for young people, is appalling.
The number of people who transition is minuscule, but they command immense respect. Buildings are changed to accommodate them. Schoolchildren are taught to revere them. Laws are changed to protect them. The entertainment industry places them on a pedestal.
What is the secret of its grip on the public imagination?
There are many theories. Transgenderism could be the fag end of the superannuated 20th century ideologies of Marxism and feminism. It could be the culmination of the sexual revolution. One angle which deserves to be examined is that the transgender movement is an heretical Christian sect.
This is not as implausible as it might seem.
Marxism, for instance, is a kind of evil twin to Christianity. Although Karl Marx was implacably hostile to the opium of the people, he was steeped in Judaeo-Christian culture. The most powerful appeal of his philosophy was that it offered Enlightenment materialists a reason for hope. His vision of the just society was a materialist transmutation of Christian eschatology. Instead of the beatific vision, heaven was the utopia of a communist society. The virtuous sheep and the evil goats of Christianity become the virtuous proletariat and the evil bourgeois and capitalists of Marxism. Marxism offered not just an economic plan but a path to personal salvation.
Like Marxism, the transgender movement repudiates God. But unlike the collectivist vision of Marxism, the transgender movement emerged in a liberal capitalist society and is thoroughly individualistic. It demands characteristically Christian virtues – kindness, respect, and most notably joy. Trans writers constantly highlight what they call “gender euphoria”, the ecstatic happiness of living in one’s authentic gender identity. “Trans joy” is key to understanding the power of its appeal.
“It’s literally life saving,” one non-binary person told researchers. “I wish I could describe it to those of you who haven’t had it before, but existing in a space, in a moment where your body and gender align [and] feel right with each other when so often that is not the case is ELECTRIC. It’s what keeps trans folks alive, those moments of feeling fully and euphorically ourselves.”
A family resemblance to “conversion” experiences (the religious kind of conversion) in Pentecostal churches is inescapable.
A number of writers have described the transgender movement, in fact, as a revival of an ancient Christian heresy called Gnosticism. One of the most influential modern Protestant Biblical scholars, N.T. Wright, wrote an exasperated letter to The Times, of London, in which he said:
“… the confusion about gender identity is a modern, and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance … This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.”
Trans writers denounced this as a kind of “theological slander”, but the resemblances are unmistakable.
Gnosticism is not a fixed creed, but an amorphous set of tendencies; it has no scriptures, no institutional structure. But again and again, over some 2000 years, parasitic on Christianity, its characteristic ideas seep into the culture. Three of them are relevant to the transgender movement. First, as N.T. Wright says, that the truth lies beneath what is visible to the eye. Second, that matter is to be despised and spirit is to be exalted. Third, that sexuality is dangerous and fertility is objectionable.
For weighty theological reasons the early Christian church regarded Gnosticism as more dangerous than persecution by the Roman empire. Since Christ was both Man and God, he had forever confirmed the goodness of the material world. Gnostic dualism effectively denied Christ’s divinity.
In effect, Gnosticism was a rival religion which offered access to secret knowledge; its adherents abjured the institutional Church. And they often despised sex and fertility.
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The most famous of a multitude of Gnostic sects was the Cathars, who flourished between the 12th and 14th centuries in southern France. Their ideas appear to have originated in eastern Europe or even Persia. Their practices were a bizarre parody of Catholicism, infused with Hindu notions of reincarnation. The most notorious of their doctrines was that reproduction was evil.
Ordinary Cathars, the credentes, married and had children. A few of them, the Elect, or Perfecti, lived lives of extraordinary asceticism and were revered by the credentes. The Perfecti were mediaeval vegans; they would refuse cheese, eggs, meat, or milk because these were by-products of sexual intercourse. (They could eat fish as they were produced, so they believed, by spontaneous generation.) The Perfecti did not have sexual relations as procreation would enslave an angel’s soul in a human body.
The Cathars were suppressed after a bloody war waged by local barons with the support of the Catholic Church, but the underlying ideas never died.
The most extreme of sects with Gnostic ideas in later centuries was the Skoptsy, a Russian movement which may have had as many as a million adherents late in the 19th century. Or only 6,000 – English-language histories differ on this. The point is that they really existed and that they have an eerie resemblance to the trans movement.
The Skoptsy appear fleetingly in some of Dostoyevsky’s novels. Because many of them were kulaks, rich peasants, the sect may have vanished along with the rest of the kulaks in the collectivization phase of the Soviet Union.
The Skoptsy practiced what they called the "fiery baptism" – castration for men and the cutting off of breasts for women. Black and white photographs of bare-chested, scarred women foreshadow the TikTok videos of transmen displaying their surgical scars for their followers.
Trans scholars are aware of the similarity. But an article in the Transgender Studies Quarterly denies that the Skoptsy were forerunners of the transgender movement: “Their memoirs and other testimonies do not reveal any sense of feeling ‘trapped in the wrong body’—rather they felt trapped for having a body—for being not divine but of the flesh.”
True, but perhaps transgenderism is a materialist reworking of the euphoria of escaping from the “trap” of sexuality. The Skoptsy believed that before the Fall, in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were not gendered; a sexed body was a punishment for eating the apple. Salvation lay in restoring this Edenic state, even at the cost of extreme mutilation. Similarly, according to trans ideology, salvation – trans joy or gender euphoria – is found by living in accordance with one’s true gender, even if it requires mastectomies, castration, and lifelong infertility.
If we frame the trans experience as gnostic version of Christianity, it begins to make sense. Like Christianity, it offers the joy of salvation. It has dogmas; it offers mutual support in a church-like community. Like the ancient Gnostics, it despises the body; it ignores the evidence of the senses; and it believes only spiritual intuitions which reveal the secret truths of gender. Like the Cathars, gender Perfecti accept sterility and childlessness as part of their beliefs. And like the Skoptsy, they are willing to endure the torment of mutilation to escape from their sexuality.
Is it too fanciful to suggest that trans-adjacent doctors, nurses, psychologists, lawyers, academics, and journalists are the credentes who support the Perfecti in their gender journey to salvific joy?
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credit: Bigstock
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