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by David Snoke
Many people who think about world views are aware of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism and its influence on modern Western culture. The main element of this philosophy that usually draws attention is the artificial separation of the mind and body (see, for example, Nancy Pearcey's excellent book, Total Truth.) This can lead to both an overvaluing of intellect and also wallowing in bodily pleasure, as the body is seen as irrelevant.
But there is another aspect of Gnosticism that has attracted less attention. This aspect gives the name of the philosophy itself, the "gnosis." It is the idea of secret knowledge that makes sense of the world, the "real truth" that others don't know. A great part of the appeal of Gnosticism is being one of the "cognoscenti", those who know something others don't. C.S. Lewis talked of this as the appeal of the "inner ring", or as we would say in the US, the "inner circle." The spirit of Gnosticism is to feel above your neighbor because you know something important that he doesn't.
As I have pondered where we are as a culture, I've realized that far deeper than any ideology of the left or the right, the spirit of the age of the US is this aspect of Gnosticism. On the left, the typical path is to go to school and encounter a teacher you view as having elite or inside knowledge. This teacher impresses you that there is a real, secret story of the US, ignored by the rubes who tout patriotism and love of country. One becomes "woke" (at least, that is the word most recently used), which means, "aware," that is, "in on the secret knowledge."
On the right, it is much the same story but with a different inner circle. The typical path is to go on the internet and find a website or podcaster who you view as having elite or inside knowledge. This teacher impresses you that there is a real, secret story of the US, ignored by the rubes who run the elite educational institutions of our country. One becomes "based" or "red pilled," which means, "aware," that is, "in on the secret knowledge."
But I see this at much lower levels, as well. A person reads an article about the dangers of some element of modern society, whether damage to the environment, dangers of consumer products, health practices that are actually meant to enrich those who sell them, or just the "real history" of some ancient empire. We eagerly try to recruit others to our secret knowledge, and pity those who haven't yet seen the light of how we are being deceived by Big Pharma or Corporate America or Big Oil or whatever.
For Christians, it may be finding a theological framework and group; I've seen the same approach from people who adopt Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, global missions-mindedness, Jewish awareness, special spiritual gifts, and more. Of course, belief systems matter and all of these viewpoints have important implications for how we live our lives, how we do church, and how we see God. But in many cases, I see an additional layer of Gnosticism, a sense of pity for those who don't get the whole picture.
One might argue that pride in knowing something others don't is intrinsic to human nature. But It doesn't have to be this way. There have been many cultures in which people were happy to follow the words of the apostle Paul, "to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you" (1 Thessalonians 4:11), to say "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it" (Psalm 139:6), and pray "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
It may seem strange that I am saying this, since I have often pushed learning philosophy and theology as good activities for every person, not just a few experts. Paul said, "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2). But the proper spirit of learning is not to lord it over the rubes who don't have your secret knowledge, or to think that your new knowledge is the key the the whole world, or that you must write off as enemies those who are persuaded by your new perspective. Learn, make decisions on what things are true and false, correct error when you can, but also be humble toward those who disagree and realize that all of our knowledge is partial. As the Preacher said so long ago, "I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11).
David is a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He received his bachelors degree in physics from Cornell University and his PhD in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for The Aerospace Corporation and was a visiting scientist and Fellow at the Max Planck Institute. His experimental and theoretical research has focused on fundamental quantum mechanical processes in semiconductor optics, i.e. phase transitions of electrons and holes. Two main thrusts have been Bose-Einstein condensation of excitons and polaritons. He has also had minor efforts in numerical biology, and has published on the topic of the interaction of science and theology.