There is a distinctly ‘American Religion’ that transcends creeds and denominational labels, crossing the conservative and liberal divide. It is an American version of the Gnostic heresy, as demonstrated by many noted sociologists of religion, and especially Harold Bloom’s The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (Simon & Schuster, 1992). Olympic gold-medalist Bruce Jenner’s highly publicized rebirth as Caitlyn Jenner is a striking example of this Gnostic heresy.
It should go without saying that gender identity is a complex reality. Fundamentalists tend to reduce sin (a condition that has us all in its grip) to sins (particular choices we make). Pelagianism identified in historical Christianity as heresy says that we’re born neutral and choose whether we’ll be good or bad. Orthodox Christianity is hardly surprised at the pervasiveness of sin as a condition. Even before we can choose it, sin is our master from birth. We’re all bent but in different ways. We are born with a predisposition for certain sins.
Ancient Gnosticism ransacked the biblical story for characters, symbols, and vocabulary while turning its basic plotline on its head. Nature is the creation of the evil god who seeks to keep us under his thumb, in bondage to his law. Christ (to be distinguished from the human Jesus) is the cosmic Redeemer-spirit who leads us through educative enlightenment back to the divine One.
Of course, this is the opposite of the biblical drama of a good creation, fallen into sin by willful human disobedience and redeemed in all of its materiality by the Son assuming our humanity, bearing our curse, and being raised for our justification. The new birth in Gnosticism is the release of the inner divine self from nature; the new birth in the Bible is the release of nature from the guilt and bondage of sin.
The law is good, but we are ‘sold as slaves to sin’ (Rom. 7:14). The problem isn’t nature and the laws with which God endowed it. Rather, the problem is that none of us fulfills it: ‘As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We all should feel this deep in our bones, but we’re often too self-flattering to accept the truth.
In Jenner’s highly publicized tortuous path to self-realization, we see this universal bondage in all of its concrete tragedy. It is a story of birth and rebirth, the core narrative of American spirituality. Combined with a Pelagian denial of our moral inability and the need for God’s gracious rescue in Christ, this spirituality encourages perpetual rebirth, makeovers, and rebranding of our natures. It’s a lot of work, of course. No one knows that better than Caitlyn Jenner.
Yet, instead of being reminded how we share with Jenner in this condition of sin and death, we are too easily given to two false choices: we celebrate Jenner’s courageous declaration of independence from God, his creation, and law; or we deflect fault to the ‘other,’ who serves as a scapegoat for our own hidden corruption and crimes. Both are ways of avoiding both the law that leaves none of us standing upright before God and the gospel that justifies the ungodly and rescues us from the bondage of our will to sin and death. No amount of ‘rebranding’ will give us peace with God, with each other, or with ourselves.