Crunchy Pope, Part Two: Against Gnostic Economics
In a sense, Locke treats the parent-child relationship as something accidental, a relationship of convenience between beings capable of free exercise of will. The child needs the parents because he is not yet capable of “the Freedom … of acting according to his own Will.” The parents provide nutrition and education during the period of preparation for independence, and the child’s duty to honor his parents is in exact proportion to the care taken for his education. The “bare act of begetting” carries with it no claim to gratitude.
The human body, like the rest of nature, begins as worthless material until it is labored upon by the will of the person whose body it becomes. It is by the action of our will that we develop all of our capacities beyond the merely nutritive. Education is the great labor by which the human species makes of itself something worthwhile, and whatever role the parents play in that education, it can accomplish nothing without the exercise of the child’s will. Hence my mind too attains its worth from the labor that I will to invest in it.
This is the sense in which Locke understands human beings as being their own individual property. All that they are that is of any value results from the labor they exercise upon themselves. Parents are, at best, the enablers of our self-creation, providing us with the material that is nearly worthless until improved by our own efforts.
In short, just as nature and the earth constitute the worthless world whose value lies in what humans can make of it, so too my body and mind are initially parts of that worthless world. It is when my will reshapes all this and turns it into some embodiment of itself that I lay claim to it. The world as given is essentially worthless, and the value things have results from our laboring to make the worthless material suitable to our wishes. It is the will that imparts value both by determining what will make something valuable and by causing that valuable something to be built up in it.
The older Gnostics turned away from the created world in revulsion; the newer Gnosticism turns against it in active opposition. By reducing the terms to world and will, modern Gnosticism more forthrightly declares that the world can only be good if our will declares it such.
On this view it is reasonable to understand our bodies as our own property. It is reasonable to understand the gestating child as the property of the mother as long as it remains part of her body and is far more the product of her labor than of its own. If we view human beings as abstract choosers, wholly equal as such, it is reasonable to view them as only accidentally related to other abstract choosers, such as parents, who are moved by whatever incentives nature has planted in them to help along our project of attaining independence. It is reasonable to understand life and the given world as in themselves negligible, as little to merit gratitude.
All this accords with Benedict’s description Gnosticism:
Human beings want to understand the discovered world only as material for their own creativity…. Gnosticism will not entrust itself to a world already created, but only to a world still to be created.
This means that Gnosticism will always be prepared to sacrifice what is, or “life as we encounter it,” to its vision of the unfettered life of the will, and to deny the reality of whatever places limits on our choices, such as the normative principles built into intergenerational relationships or into long-term sustenance of productive soil. Modern Gnosticism, under the guise of worldliness, is more thoroughly and intransigently world-negating than its ancestor.
As Benedict observes, this vision of the person confronting the world sets us in a new total antagonism to the created order:
Previously human beings could only transform particular things in nature; nature as such was not the object but rather the presupposition of their activity. Now, however, it itself has been delivered over to them in toto. Yet as a result they suddenly see themselves imperiled as never before.
Christianity, by contrast, recognizes the created order as a gift:
The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on “love.” … The doctrine of redemption is based on the doctrine of creation, of an irrevocable Yes to creation…. Only if the being of creation is good, only if trust in being is fundamentally justified, are humans at all redeemable.
If we do not recognize the created order as harboring a goodness that comes to us from outside and makes claims upon us, we can recognize nothing as good except what is said to be so by our own act of valuing. Only if we are not the source of all value can we embrace the possibility of redemption.
Thus faith in creation is not (as modern theology too often treats it) “devoid of anthropological importance.” The question of creation, and of whether the creation and the Creator deserve our love and gratitude, goes to the very heart of what it means to be human, of what it means to be a laboring being, of what constitutes wealth and prosperity and an economy consonant with human aspirations and the human good.