Secular Gnosticism and The New York Times

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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).