A few years ago, N.T. Wright made headlines for comparing transgender ideology with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. Some interpreted him to be making the argument that the people involved, i.e. trans-identifying people, were heretical sinners. Rather, his point was that transgender ideology has similar principles to Gnosticism. Of course, if he had identified the people involved as sinners, that shouldn’t be a great surprise to those who are even slightly familiar with the basics of Christian teaching: trans-identifying people are no more and no less sinners than all the rest of us.
But the discrepancy means it’s worth looking at what Gnosticism actually was. First of all, it was not a unified or codified philosophy like an organized religion. The main idea that seemed to bind Gnostics together was that the material world was created mistakenly and through evil intent by a demigod of sorts, a being who is willfully ignorant of the good and true God. The only way to triumph over this evil world is through obtaining secret knowledge, i.e., gnosis. The ramifications of this for Christian thought are several, although we will limit ourselves here to a couple key ways in which Gnosticism parallels the ideology of transgenderism.
First, if the physical world was made by an evil god, then all materiality is also warped. This is different than saying the world is fallen or that humans are impacted by original sin, because it means that nothing material was created with good motives or for a good purpose; instead, we were made accidentally and through hubris. The implication of this is that the physical becomes viewed with distaste and disregard and is severed from its connection to the immaterial and spiritual.
Denying the importance and goodness of the physical in this way lends itself to the Gnostic heresy that Jesus did not physically resurrect. Without the bodily resurrection of Christ, there are all kinds of terrible fallouts (see 1 Corinthians 15:14-19). One of them, of course, is that unless Jesus was resurrected, we sinners can have absolutely no hope of resurrection either. But Jesus was resurrected, which means we live in the hope that our bodies, too, will someday be glorified.
This is particularly important for those in the transgender camp who may feel despair over their physical bodies. Like all things in the fallen (but not accidental) world, our bodies do not always behave as we wish, in a myriad of ways. But we do not have to live in despair nor fall prey to lies derived from Gnosticism suggesting that this is all there is for the body. This lie says there’s no redemption, but only management. Historically, the management perspective might have justified a spectrum of things, from flagellation to gluttony. For people identifying as trans, management might mean cross-dressing, taking puberty blockers and hormones, or having sex-reassignment surgery. Gnosticism taught that the material world was more or less a mistake, “a product of error and ignorance,” and if that is true, then why shouldn’t we manipulate that world, including our own bodies, to try to make them what we think best? And if we don’t like some material item, why not mutilate or dispose of it, if it was a mistake in the first place?
Another possible manifestation of Gnosticism is disorientation, which comes from severing the relationship between body and soul. In a way, it’s like an astronaut being untethered from his spaceship, or a human drifting from earth in the absence of gravity’s pull. In outer space, which way is up? For the Gnostics, divorcing the physical from the spiritual could only come about by a clever turn of semantics. They justified their denial of the resurrection by arguing that Jesus could not have resurrected because he never had a body in the first place. Like the famous hologram of Tupac, Jesus only seemed to have a body. The early Church called this heresy Docetism. This is a very slippery argument, and yet it finds resonance in transgenderism too, where “seem” and “feel” are used to describe the incompatible relationship between a person’s body and mind. The disorientation or dysphoria comes from metaphysical synecdoche, in other words, making parts of the human (feelings) more important than the whole. The “secret knowledge” involved here is less knowledge than interpretation of feeling. The feeling of incompatibility between body and spirit may certainly exist, but the integrity of a human is in all its parts, united.
It could be easy for anyone to fall for the watered-down version of this Gnostic idea, that the spiritual parts of us are more “valuable” than the physical. But the Bible teaches that our bodies will resurrect along with our souls (1 Cor. 15:35-44; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:16), and that God’s design for humans gives honor to all our various parts (Romans 12:4-5). In his seminal book The Spiritual Man, Watchman Nee describes the three parts of created humans and gives as an example 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul desires sanctification and preservation of the believer’s body, soul, and spirit “wholly.” In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis drew on the Platonic idea of the tripartite human spirit as having reason, spirit, and appetite. Although there is disagreement about what the three parts of humans are (is it heart, or spirit?), whether soul and spirit are the same thing, etc., what believers can agree on is that when God called his creation good, he meant all of it.
The term “hermaphrodite” has origins that may lend something to our understanding of Gnostic materiality. This outdated term used to describe people with disorders of sexual development (DSDs) , and it came to us from Greek mythology. As the story goes, the gods Hermes and Aphrodite had a beautiful son whom they named after themselves: Hermaphroditus. One day a nymph named Salmacis, whom Hermaphroditus had refused to have sex with, assaulted him. While kissing and grappling with him, she prayed to the gods that the two of them would be joined. They answered her prayer in a way she had not intended: by physically combining the two of them into one human with both male and female body parts. The anguish of this situation was so unbearable that the last thing we hear from Hermaphroditus is his prayer that the gods would make others like him. If this is the way gods design humans, frivolously, recklessly, and for their own entertainment, then why would we trust anything they have done?
At the base of Gnosticism is this belief, whether implied or explicit: that the god who made the world was ignorant and/or immoral. This may be the greatest source of agony for those who believe they were born in the wrong body, because at heart I think few of us really believe we have the strength or ability to make our broken world good—and yet many feel there is no one else who can or will do it. This feeling, of spiritual helplessness, does align with our impotent bodies, and in this agreement we can acknowledge our state of sin. None of us, trans-identifying or not, can transcend our brokenness through management or manipulation. The good news is that the Gnostic demigod is not our God. Our tripartite formation, of course, reflects the Trinity, and is a sign of the beautiful and good purpose with which we were made. Our God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love…I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” He has created us for good purpose, and can and will redeem those who turn to him. Even for those who feel trapped or betrayed by their body, or who have attempted to manage their body in Gnostic ways, there is a place in his Church.
Sarah Horgan is an Idaho native transplanted to Texas by her horticulturalist husband. She has an M.A. in English from Washington State University and has been published in Public Discourse and Verily.