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Secular Gnosticism and The New York Times Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 02 September 2011

Just this past week, Bill Keller of the New York Times opined about the religious beliefs of several Republican presidential candidates, suggesting clusters of questions that he would like to ask each of them. Keller’s column has been justly criticized and ridiculed by many writers, including the folks at Get Religion. Not only because of the factual errors that pepper Keller’s epistle, but the crude and uncharitable ways in which he communicates and seems to understand the beliefs of the candidates.  

Lurking behind his clumsy queries is an intellectual posture I call “secular gnosticism.” It assumes a position of cultural privilege on what counts as knowledge and justified belief, though it is rarely doubted and thus rarely defended. For that reason, its believers do not subject their position, its presuppositions, and its sources of authority to the sort of rigorous interrogation they suggest the beliefs, presuppositions, and sources of authority of religious believers should undergo.  

The word “gnostic” comes from the Greek word γνῶσις, which is translated “knowledge.” The Gnostics of the Early Christian Era were considered heretics because they eschewed ecclesiastical authority while claiming esoteric or intuitive knowledge of the divine as a means to escape material reality for the salvation of their souls. That is, the external world and the institutions in it such as the Church were seen as obstacles to the soul’s ascendance to God.  

For this reason, the Gnostics were, in a sense and ironically, invincibly ignorant. No amount of contrary evidence, philosophical argument, or Biblical exegesis can convince someone who has private, direct, incorrigible, and impenetrable acquaintance with The Truth. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Gnostics were ‘people who knew,’ and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.”  

Today’s Gnostics are secular, but just as determined to make sure that their intellectual powers remain neatly sequestered from engaging contrary points of view in a serious fashion. This is why when they opine on matters religious their works seem to many of us as products of automatic writing channeled through uncurious literary zombies who aimlessly roam the Internet to traffic in shallow bigotries.  

Take, for example, a question Keller poses to Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann in a follow-up blog post: “You have recommended as meaningful in your life works by leading advocates of Dominionism, including Nancy Pearcey, whose book Total Truth warns Christians to be suspicious of ideas that come from non-Christians. Do you agree with that warning?”

First, Pearcey is not a Dominionist, a term that refers to a very tiny group of Reformed Protestant writers (who are more accurately called “Theonomists”) who advocate the institution of Old Testament law in American jurisprudence.  

Second, Pearcey’s Total Truth is not a brief for theonomy or “being suspicious of ideas that come from non-Christians,” as Keller clumsily puts it. How do I know this? I have not only read the book, but I published a review of it seven years ago in First Things. Although I think she gets some things wrong, such as her take on St. Thomas Aquinas’ view of nature and grace, my overall opinion of the book is that it is a needed corrective to those who insist that theology has no cognitive content. (I would also part ways with her on Intelligent Design, which I critically assess in an article I published two years ago in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy). 

What Pearcey suggests to her readers is that the Christian should treat his beliefs seriously, and not as if they were merely matters of taste that we should keep out of public view, as Keller thinks we should (which, ironically, puts him in the position of being suspicious of ideas that come from Christians, just as one would expect from a secular gnostic).  

How did a New York Times editor make such simple mistakes? He didn’t do any research. He didn’t read the writer he wrote about. And for that reason, he didn’t try to understand what clearly would have seemed culturally peculiar to him if he had actually taken the time to read Pearcey’s book and show some intellectual curiosity about it.  

Instead of elevating his inquiry and pursuing the research agenda of the average college sophomore – Googling – he relied on sources such as The New Yorkerand The Daily Beast – whose reputations had already been dispatched by scores of writers by the time Keller had published his follow-up questions online. (See, for example, here and here).  

Although the author of the New Yorker piece had read some of Pearcey’s work, it is evident that he didn’t understand it. The Daily Beast author does not mention Pearcey, even though Keller claims that all his questions are based on the reports of both sources. A more careful writer – one concerned with not painting with too broad a brush – would have taken the time to source each question individually.  

This is not to say that asking a candidate questions about his faith and the relationship to his political views should be off limits. Rather, what I am suggesting is that it should be approached with serious preparation and journalistic curiosity. Both virtues are conspicuously absent from Keller’s reflections – and from many who share the secular gnostic faith.

 Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books including Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Yezhov, September 02, 2011
Do not read the New York Times. Boycott it. You give them purchase by even criticising them.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Other Joe, September 02, 2011
Secular Gnostics is a brilliant term. It gets better with each level of meaning inspected. Secular Gnostics claim to have ethic-like feelings (based on what?) but dig deep enough and it becomes obvious they don't really like creation (the multiverse that just happened by chance)and believe that it requires improvement. They just happen to have the arcane knowledge to make the needed adjustments from which knowledge they derive their superiority. One can’t imagine a Secular Gnostic being surprised by joy. They seem to suspect it - especially in others. Thus others must be controlled, although they prefer the term "regulated".
written by Donald Mashoney, September 02, 2011
Mr. Keller is unabashedly anti-Catholic. Case in point is his reviews of "Absolute Monarchs" in which he added to the author's list of untruths about Catholicism.
written by Mariusz Wesolowski, September 02, 2011
Keller is not a Gnostic, he is an arrogant ignoramus and a secularist bigot. The term "Gnosticism" historically implies possessing a secret but religious knowledge, what Saint Irenaeus aptly named "the so-called gnosis". For this reason, I find the term "secular Gnostic" rather oxymoronic.
written by EssEmSF, September 03, 2011
As a student of and sympathizer with the religious Gnostics, I suggest that they have at least one advantage over the contemporary bien-pensants. Since they held the world to be the irredeemably defective produce of an underling deity, the ignorant and power-hungry Demiurge, they wasted no time in projects of world-improvement. The people you cleverly call secular Gnostics share the Gnostic sense of specialness and intuitive knowledge of the Real, but clearly want to re-shape the world in their image, controlling how we act and think and feel. In a very non-Gnostic way, their real role model is the Demiurge. I'd take an old-fashioned Valentinian any day!
written by Brad Hayton, September 15, 2011
Our culture has been "dumming down" for decades, and the media are merely a symbol of that process. They tend to be uneducated, lack interest in history and theology, and are distinctly "post-modern," which in their case means "every opinion is as good as another." They are Plato's new "sophists," i.e. all there is is rhetoric and there is no truth or even reality. They believe that they can create reality by their words.

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