Thursday, 10 August 2017

Of Gnostics and Trans-Identity

N.T. Wright recently set off a minor dust-up in the blogosphere with the following letter to the Times:
Sir, The articles by Clare Foges (“Gender-fluid world is muddling young minds”, July 27) and Hugo Rifkind (“Social media is making gender meaningless”, Aug 1), and the letters about children wanting to be pandas (July 29), dogs or mermaids (Aug 1), show that 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 (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshly one”). 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.
The Rt Rev Prof Tom Wright
St Mary's College, St Andrews
Others have commented upon whether or not this is an appropriate use of "gnostic," or the extent to which the Rev. Prof. Wright might be misrepresenting ideas surrounding trans-identity. Those are legitimate questions, but not worth yet another blog post on the matter. What perhaps I can contribute is a distinctly Lonerganian response. Such a response is warranted because Wright in his work identifies his hermeneutics as a form of "critical realism." He more specifically identifies this critical realism as that promulgated by Ben Meyer, who in turn is very clear in identifying his critical realism with that of Bernard Lonergan. As such, insofar as Wright to some extent identifies with the Lonerganian tradition, it is reasonable to think about these comments from that tradition. And it just so happens that Lonergan was not silent on the matter of the gnostics.

For Lonergan, as I read him, the gnostic is not necessarily self-identical with the persons that ancient heresiologists described by that term, although certainly he would tend to envision them as some degree paradigmatic of the gnostic. Rather, the gnostic represents an inevitable moment in the dialectical development of human consciousness, where it has been apprehended that symbols (numbers included) can convey meanings, but the criteria by which to adjudicate the relationship between symbol and meaning have not yet been fully worked out. In other words, gnosticism represents a moment in the development of human consciousness wherein partial insights are routinely confused for complete insights. And if we are to accept that definition, then it is difficult to see how we can meaningfully describe trans-identity, whether articulated by transpersons or others, as gnostic. As such, regardless of what one makes of Lonergan's definition of "gnostic," it does seem reasonable to conclude that Wright's usage is not consistent with that found in Lonergan.

The above of course does not speak to whether what Wright says about gnostics or about trans-identity is true or not. Rather, it says that whether true or not, it is not grounded in Lonergan. I think this an important point to make, because while Wright has become virtually synonymous with "critical realism" in New Testament studies, it is worth noting that he frequently departs from the thought of Bernard Lonergan, from whom the critical realism to he claims some degree of adherence ultimately descends. The upshot then is that if one wants to understand Lonergan's critical realism, it is not sufficient to read Wright (or Meyer, or me), but one must rather read Lonergan.

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