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.”