When I was in my first semester of seminary, I got a C+ on my final term paper in church history. It was because I made flippant analogies between theological concepts of different eras of church history without a careful analysis of their historical context. NT Wright is a New Testament scholar whose career is defined by his quest for historical precision in understanding first-century theology. I have benefited tremendously from his scholarship, which is why I was disappointed in his lack of precision in a historical analogy he made in a recent letter to the editor of the London Times:
The confusion about gender identity is a modern, and now internet-fueled, 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, fleshy 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 ancient philosophy of Gnosticism was a mishmash of Christian scripture and neo-Platonism. Gnosticism is built on the duality between a corrupt material world of darkness and a divine spiritual world of light. For the Gnostic, the goal of spirituality is to escape the material world. Gnostics believed this escape was made possible by receiving the secret, esoteric wisdom they called Gnosis (which is just the Greek word for knowledge). The Gnostics would be puzzled by Wright’s attribution of their philosophy to transgender people. They would criticize transgender identity for the same reason that Wright criticizes it: because they believed that what our bodies tell us is a lie. For Gnosticism, the point is to escape our physicality, not make it definitive.
The transgender people I know love their bodies. What they refuse to do is to deny the goodness or the ultimate reality of the natural world by simply conforming to the oversimplification of human bodies into a gender binary. Their lived experience is not a “fashionable fantasy,” which is a cruel and cynical categorization. It’s simply an ultimate reality that neither NT Wright nor I understand. What makes it the antithesis of Gnosticism is that transgender materiality repudiates oversimplified categorization while the original Gnosticism was sublime spiritual knowledge that was definitively anti-materialistic.
What NT Wright protests is not actually transgender peoples’ denial of the goodness of their bodies, but the claim that their bodies are opaque mysteries that have not been grasped by our theological tradition. What if part of letting God be God and letting nature be nature is simply restraining ourselves from weighing in on realities we don’t understand? The ancient Gnostic teachers would say that Gnosis is the “real truth” underneath what people think they know about themselves. They taught that our physical sensations are all delusional. So when NT Wright can explain the “real truth” beneath “the confusion about gender identity” in 91 words, who is the Gnostic in the conversation?
By the way, if you want to learn from actual transgender Christians, here are some people you should follow: