Theism: Today’s Gnostical Turpitude

On June 4, 1859 two armies met at the town of Magenta. One, representing the French monarch Louis-Napoleon’s desire to challenge Austrian control of Lombardy, was composed partially out of French Legionnaires. The other side, composed out of a multicultural array reflective of the Hapsburg’s crown jewel, Austria-Hungary, was chiefly Croatians. Fun fact, the Croatians were soldiers who preferred executing prisoners and the wounded. Some historians accredit them with singlehandedly inspiring the Geneva Convention of 1864 or, at the very least, providing a visceral example for the convention’s supporters to point to.

As the 2nd Corps of legionnaires and zouaves stood poised the town, their commanding officer arrived (Patrice MacMahon) and, “as he trotted past the Legion, uttered the statement that today adorns the wall of almost every Legion bar: “Voici la Legion! L’affaire est dans le sac!”

“The Legion is here. It’s in the bag.” If only that always was true! Not unlike our Patrice MacMahon, later Duke of Magenta, many otherwise astute individuals are ready to declare victory presumptuously and inaccurately. Considerate thinkers, and those less so, assume that there is a division between the secular and the religious before the discussion has even taken place. Just as importantly, this tension has already been answered in favor of ‘science’ without ever questioning why there needs to be a tension in the first place. ‘Science is here. It’s in the bag.’ If only!

To paraphrase, those silly theists and ‘religionists’ can chat up their deities as much as they want—preferably out of sight and in a personal space. Personal is, of course, a euphemism for hiding. Preferably in doors and inside their bedrooms, perhaps even under the sheets (the last, or newest, home of social deviancy). As long as everyone realizes that once ‘science’ arrives and religious thinking “is in the bag” there will be no problems. If anyone questions that then we should simply expect another McVeigh or 9/11. There will always be a few crazies, but once everyone is properly informed religion dissipates. I call this entrenchment of certain, ingrained theological assumptions ‘scientism.’ I am not alone in this assumption but while there have been several active academics bringing to light this false dichotomy quite a few prosaic and perfectly improbable assumptions take place within the public sphere daily.

Part of this normative thinking I lay at the feet of Immanuel Kant. Our world is so radically steeped in the thoughts of Kant it is hard to properly formulate a trajectory of belief that is not related to the ‘Kantian Revolution.’ There are things that I can experience (like oranges) and things I cannot (the law). One is absolute, or nearly so, while the other is open to ‘judgment.’ Look no farther than art: God becomes a part of Impressionism. Oranges never do.

Too often, those who rock these assumptions are—like in Vladimir Nabakov’s Invitation to a Beheading—sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude.” A grievous crime made more so by its lack of definition. Those who try to mix the noumenological and the phenomenological are viewed as radicals—perhaps, even, dangerous ones. Even to those who do not grasp the finer philosophical and theological points there is a sense of impoliteness about trying to bridge the gap: those who did, then, are violates of an undefinable crime. In a sense, even the most ardent defenders of ‘rationality’ have become, as it were, transrational on the subject.

Take, for instance, Alvin Platinga, “One of the main lessons to be learned from the history of modern philosophy from Descartes through Hume is that there don’t seem to be good arguments for the existence of other minds or selves, or the past, or an external world and much else besides; nevertheless belief in other minds, the past and an external world is presumably not irrational or in any other way below epistemic par.” When a man or woman is assured of his immortal soul and the existence of the body—or, alternatively, the ‘self’ or the past or the fact that some physical objects cause others to do things—they have to only explain their belief in a God delivered immortal soul. That is the world we live in.

What interests me the most is that the noumenological is almost always a matter of unassailable subjectivity, tightly held. Ironically, its only absolute is that there is no absolutes. There seems to be a widespread consensus that reason is reasonable, the senses are sensible and casual relationships are identifiable. If you deny causal relations you’re viewed as a crackpot (unless you have a PhD in front of your name or your name starts with D and ends with Avid Hume). Same for the ‘sanctity’ of experiential data and rationality. Yet no matter how many PhD’s one has there is no way ‘I believe in a theistic entity’ sounds good. If the phrase, somehow, leaps out then one is guilty of gnostical turpitude. That is, holding a set of (admittedly) arbitrary assumptions that are (at the very least) as unassailable as our other philosophical assumptions.

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