Elitism is a frequent complaint against both Gnostics and integral theorists. On Pop Occulture, Tim Boucher compares Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity on the topic of elitism (thanks to Integral Practice for the link). Boucher explains that he frequently hears complaints from mainstream Christians that Gnosticism is elitist. This is so, they say, because Gnosticism teaches that secret knowledge is required for access the highest levels of salvation. Not everybody has that knowledge, therefore Gnosticism is derided as inegalitarian. Boucher says not so fast. Of course there’s a basic truth to this criticism, he says: “[T]here are certain experiences of God which are only accessible to certain people…. According to this gnostic method of thinking, everybody starts out at the same place and has the same options before them. The difference comes in according to the choices and level of effort that people put into realizing their potential.”
It’s orthodox Christianity that’s really inegalitarian, because orthodox beliefs damn all those who have not accepted Jesus to hell. Only a religion of Universalism—holding that everyone is saved, no matter what—is truly egalitarian.
Boucher only concedes that the “barrier to entry” may be lower in orthodox Christianity than in Gnosticism, though he seems doubtful of even that much.
Elitism is a tricky charge to answer. All excellence is elitist. All knowledge is elitist. Even the knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 is elitist if you’re a child who hasn’t learned your numbers yet. It’s all a matter of perspective. Ken Wilber’s frequently cited response to integral critics is a good beginning. Yes, integral is elitist, but it’s an elitism to which all are called. Boucher’s response to orthodox Christian critics is also a good beginning. Yes, Gnosticism is elitst, but so are all religions. So, one might suppose, let’s just count how easy it is to get into heaven and whosever religion has the lowest barrier to entry wins. Wilber responds to the elitism charge by bringing forth the egalitarianism in his philosophy, whereas Boucher responds to the elitism charge by bringing forth the elitism in the philosophy of his opponents.
In general, my response to integral critics is to say that both responses may be appropriate. Life contains both equality and inequality; an adequate philosophy must be able to accommodate both aspects. Because all belief systems have egalitarian and unequal aspects, it’s possible to level charges of elitism against all religions and philosophies. Even a religion that preached Universalism is basically attempting to establish new hierarchy of flatness: everyone is equal in God’s eyes, and therefore excellence, virtue, knowledge, and beauty are meaningless. Rather than attack and defend integral theory or any other belief system against charges of elitism, I would try to focus my energy on discussing what the appropriate balance should be between egalitarianism and inegalitarianism. Does Gnosticism have an acceptable balance? Or is the balance in orthodox Christianity more wise? Is it acceptable that integral theory appeals most strongly to the most educated members of society? Should this be a source of concern?
Both Gnosticism and integral theory frequently face a common charge of elitism, but otherwise there is much that separates the two. One is an esoteric religious philosophy based on a pre-modern religion; the other is a postmodern philosophical theory based on a cross-cultural comparison and analysis of processes of development across many disciplines and domains of knowledge. With integral there is not some philosophy “outside” yourself, but a map of potentials that are already possessed and can, perhaps, be more fully expressed. It’s worth stressing this point, because integral philosophy is not a sub-set of Gnostic belief, and vice versa. However, it would certainly be fair to talk about more or less integral forms of Gnosticism, and for integrally informed interreligious dialogue to address Gnosticism as one of the “conveyor belts” of consciousness that can allow adherents to more fully express their true nature.