Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU - Part 3

So in my last post I wrote about whether or not a God who is not omnipotent over the physical world, and simply cannot make suffering go away is a God worth worshiping at all. I also asked the question, if one doesn’t believe in the existence of supernatural entities in the first place, is there any point to stories, Gnostic or not, about them.
The truth is that many Unitarian-Universalists (UUs) believe in supernatural entities and God only in terms of metaphor (including me). What is the value of Gnosticism as a metaphor for us?
Stories and myths that we adopt and circulate have great power. No matter whether we believe in them literally or not, they help shape the way we see the world.
For many in the Christian tradition (including myself growing up and attending Sunday School) we were given a particular model of the world in which a God that was all-powerful in the physical world, all knowing and all loving presided over the world. Suffering and evil had to be explained and it usually was where I grew up by asserting that despite God’s power, knowledge, and love He is a God of Justice and humanity was sinful and the wages of sin were suffering and death.
A particularly horrifying example of the use of such a model is the current way some evangelicals are blaming the Novel Coronavirus on God’sanger about human behavior. The link is to an article that describes a distinction made by this particular evangelical between behaviors that cause God’s "wrath of abandonment", and other behaviors that cause “sowing and reaping wrath” but the bottom line is that suffering (whether in the form of abandonment or sowing and reaping) is somehow a just thing caused not by God but by bad human behavior.
Although most people find such beliefs disgusting (including even the current Trumpian White House according to the article) the idea that suffering in general around the world is due to the sinfulness of humankind is fairly standard modern Christian belief. To me this is disturbing. Whether we think of it this way or not, I think it is hard to get away from holding an unconscious belief, when this is your “cognitive frame,” that humans are deserving of suffering due to our “sinfulness.” Those of us who are fortunate enough to get breaks in life, or at least suffer less drastically than most people in the world, must be enjoying God’s favor due to either our humbleness in acknowledging and asking for forgiveness for our sinfulness, or due to being less sinful in some way. This is abhorrent to me.
But in the form of Gnostic mythology there is a completely different way of seeing our relationship with suffering.
In the Gnostic mythology, since the world’s imperfections are not the result of human sin but rather the ignorant (or evil if you prefer) creation of the Demiurge and rule of the Archons, there is no need for humans to search around for sinfulness in their fellows to explain suffering. It would not make much sense to blame humans for the coronavirus in a Gnostic worldview. Instead the coronavirus is here because the world is an imperfect creation of the Demiurge and it is our job to make it better through human activity – to compensate for the imperfections and mistakes the Demiurge has made. WE are charged with coming up with solutions because the "God above God" isn’t in charge of the physical world. Only we, as human beings, have the necessary knowledge (Gnosis) to fight back against the obstacles put in our way by the imperfect (or evil) creations of the Demiurge.
Again, for most of us UUs this is all metaphor. But what a different metaphor! Imagine a world in which we grow up with these stories and internalize not stories about our sins causing death and imperfection around us, but instead stories about how we must work hard to counter a world that is indifferent to our needs or even acting against them.
Actually you don’t have to completely imagine it, because we have a lot of secular stories that have just that motif. Think about all the “anti-hero” stories and legends for example. What about the Robin Hood stories for example? An outlaw who robs from the rich to give to the poor? Not much of a leap to a metaphor for the Gnostic (Robin) defying the Archons (the rich) for the benefit of his followers (the poor populace). And don’t get me started on movies such as “The Matrix” or “The Truman Show” that seem to be self-conscious Gnostic mythological stories.
As a Gnostic UU I like the idea of promoting these kinds of myths and secular stories to model a world view that has at its center the value of human beings finding their way to their best selves to overcome the obstacles put in their place by leaders and nature itself, rather than concentrating on Eden type stories that blame it all on sinful ancestors and passed down “original sin.” Internalizing this world view (or “pseudo-environment” or “cognitive framework” or whatever you want to call it) is my major spiritual goal as a Gnostic UU.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU Part 2

I ended my last post about how a Gnostic mythology solves the “Problem of Evil” with a few questions: If the solution is that the God “above God” – the God of Love – is not all powerful in the sense that it does not have power and dominion over the material universe – can that be a God worthy of worship? And if you’re UU (Unitarian-Universalist) who doesn’t believe in supernatural spiritual beings anyway, what good does any of this do? What is the point?
The first question, for me, has a pretty simple answer: yes.
Okay I guess more explanation is needed than that. But I ask myself, do you worship something or honor it because it is powerful? Why would anyone do that? I mean, in Marvel movie nerd terms (which I sort of consider myself) would anyone really think that worshiping Thanos was a good moral thing to do? Sure he was very powerful, but so what? I think that something is worthy of worship because it is good and admirable rather than because it is strong or powerful.
This question I’ll come back to next time, but let me get to the second question because I think it will make the answer to the first question make more sense.
So what about the UU who doesn’t believe in the existence of supernatural spirit beings? I pretty much include myself in that number. So what is the point to this mythology about Demiurges and Archons that rule the world and a God above the Demiurge that is the epitome of all that is good?
For most UUs these kind of stories and mythologies are metaphors. And you know what? Metaphors are important. They help shape the way we view the world. In fact there are cognitive psychologists who argue that metaphor is fundamental to the way our minds work and how we model the world. For example, one of the first things we experience as babies is a sense of up and down. We strive to stand up and when we lose our balance we fall down (which hurts and is bad). So for the rest of our lives if we are happy we are feeling “up” and if we are sad or depressed we are feeling “down.” Okay, another oversimplification, but you get the idea.
I think that mythological or philosophical stories we hear and internalize have a powerful effect on us all. No matter how much I don’t believe that there is a physical place known as the Garden of Eden, when references are made to a return to Eden I know and feel what that means. I can talk literally about repetitive tasks that are useless in the end, I feel it when I think about the myth of Sisyphus. Of course I know there was no such person, but it doesn’t matter to the power of the metaphor.
Metaphors help us (or at least me) shape our conceptions of the world. No one understands reality as a whole – we all have little pseudo-environments (Lippman’s old term) or cognitive frames (modern psychological term) that help us simplify the world so we can navigate our way through it both physically and morally. The more different stories we have, the more choices we have for how to shape our personal realities.
So what is the metaphor offered by Gnostic stories? The God above God represents (to me) an ultimate concern, or an ideal spiritual Love, an abstract undefinable experience. The Demiurge and the Archons represent the physical material world. I prefer the stories in which the Demiurge is ignorant rather than malicious. I choose that because it fits (in my mind) with the cognitive framework that makes up my world better. I don’t think hurricanes, tornados, or viruses are out to get us. They happen and if they make life difficult (or impossible) for us it is nothing personal. Such stories have the ability to frame our world for us in ways that make sense (to me) and are beneficial compared to the more orthodox stories I grew up with. I’ll write about how that works for me in the next installment.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Problem of Evil and the Gnostic UU Part 1

So last time I was writing about the problems that I confront when faced with the perspectives implied by Rick Perry’s strange belief that Donald Trump’s Presidency was ordained by God. Today I thought I would write about the relationship between that discussion and the Problem of Evil.
The Problem of Evil has a long history and I am not enough of a trained philosopher to be able to give any detailed analysis of it. However, it is often used to make an argument for atheism which I am familiar with from my atheist days in high school and college. It seemed convincing to me at the time. It goes something like this:
Given the assumption that God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) and omnibenevolent (all good) evil and suffering should not exist. If God knows all, God is aware of all the evil and suffering in the world. If He is all-powerful he can prevent or alleviate all evil and suffering. If He is all good He would choose to do so. Since evil and suffering clearly exist, such a God cannot exist.
Okay, that is quite a simplification, of course. There are a couple of websites that have relatively detailed but understandable discussions of the Problem. Two particularly good ones (I think) are at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The problem of evil takes a lot of forms. Bart Ehrman wrote a full length book that is at it’s core a discussion of it, written for lay readers, called “God’s Problem.
But it seems to me that the Problem of Evil (or God’s Problem) is directed to a very particular (albeit very popular) idea of God. It turns out that for many Gnostic visions of God, it just isn’t an issue.
How does that work? Okay, let’s do another oversimplification. My wife, April DeConick, has written about Gnostic Christian mythology in a lot of places, but one particularly good description for lay folk like me is found in her “The Thirteenth Apostle” book, Chapter 2. If you want to read a religion scholars description that is a great place to start, but here I will just present a shortened and simplified version for the purposes of this illustration.
In many Gnostic systems the universe (and this world in it) is created by a being called “the Demiurge” and is ruled over by spiritual beings called “Archons.” (The word “Archon” is just an ancient Greek term meaning “ruler.”) So everything around us is created by and ruled by the Demiurge and the Archons. The Demiurge is looked upon by many humans (since we and the universe are the Demiurge’s creations) as a God. In most of these systems, this Demiurge God is, however, just an emanation of a God above the Demiurge (the so-called “God above God”). It is that God that the Demiurge emanates from who is the “true” God of Love and Truth. Humans, while a part of the creation of the Demiurge, also contain a core spiritual part (sometimes referred to as a "seed") that is a part of the God of Love that is "above" the Demiurge.
In these Gnostic systems, the object of human spirituality is to see through the world of the Demiurge and for our spiritual part that is divine to find its way back to the God above the Demiurge. To do that the human (the gnostic) has to get past the Archons and the Demiurge. In Christian Gnostic systems it is Jesus who defeats the Archons and creates a path for his disciples to slip by and get back to the God they belong with.
But the point is that this world is still ruled by the Archons and the reason for bad things happening in it is that (contrary to Secretary Perry’s assertions) the God of Love is NOT in charge. The bad things happen because the Demiurge created the place (with malice in some cases, in ignorance in others) and the Archons (who can be a nasty or naughty bunch) rule it. This God above the Demiurge is “above” not in terms of power to do stuff in the material world (the world is the realm of the Demiurge and the Archons, and they reign supreme in it) but in the spiritual sense of being perfectly loving and just, which the Demiurge is not.
The God above the Demiurge has Truth and Knowledge to contrast with the ignorance or lies of the Demiurge. But it is the Demiurge who has the Power in the material realm. The God above the Demiurge is not all-powerful here. And that solves the problem of evil, because it was only a problem due to God being all-powerful and deciding to do nothing in knowledge of human suffering. In the Gnostic system, the God above the Demiurge is doing what it can but doesn’t have the power necessary to eliminate human suffering. Humans are charged with gaining the Knowledge and/or power to overcome the Archons and the Demiurge and escape to get back with the God of Love and save ourselves.
So the problem of evil and human suffering is solved, but at a cost. The first thing that a person might wonder is: If this God above the Demiurge is not all-powerful, why does it deserve our worship? And, second, what if you don’t believe in supernatural beings at all (like most UUs quite frankly don’t)? What is the point of all this then? I will delve into the answers to those questions in my own spiritual journey in the next few posts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rick Perry and God's Chosen?

              In November of last year, ex-Governor of Texas, and current Energy Secretary, Rick Perry said that Trump was chosen by God to be President and do great things during an interview with FOX News.

              My initial reaction (and the reaction of several people I know) was similar to George W. Bush’s reaction to Trump’s inauguration speech: “Well, that was some weirdsh*t.”  Perry went on to say that Obama, too, did not get to be President without being ordained by God (presumably in that case, not to do “great things”?) and that “God’s used imperfect people all through history. King David wasn't perfect. Saul wasn't perfect. Solomon wasn't perfect." But crazy or not, Perry’s philosophy about this is not so out of the mainstream.

This idea of God making “use” of imperfect people is hard to get one’s mind wrapped around. What does this mean? In “choosing” Trump to be President to “do great things” for America I assume that Perry does NOT believe that God is making Trump do stuff (that Trump is merely an autonomous robot that God commands to do His wishes). I also don’t think that Perry thought that God manipulated the actions of voters to allow Trump to win the election.

So what DID he mean? I suspect that Perry is speaking the language of a large number of believers (including friends of mine) who believe that God is “in charge” of everything and that nothing occurs without being a part of His plan.

I often hear this said in the context of something sad or difficult having happened to someone. Perhaps the person gets laid off from their employment and they say something like: “well, it is all just part of God’s plan. I’m sure He has a better job for me around the corner! I have faith that it is all in His hands!”

It is clearly being used to comfort the person and I can’t say it doesn’t work. And if it makes someone feel better about the future that is fine. But it doesn’t work for all of us. I can’t say this works for me. Why not? Because I can’t help thinking that if God is in charge of everything and all is part of His plan, then the Holocaust and the great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 have to be part of that plan as well. And if that is so, of what comfort can it be that it is part of God’s plan? If I lose my job and I say, well it is all in God’s hands, but everything that happens is part of God’s plan, then the next thing he might do is strike me down with a fatal flesh eating bacteria, send a car with a drunk driver my way to kill me, or give me colon cancer. It might be all God’s plan, but hardly comforting!

The adage that God doesn’t send you anything more than you can handle is clearly incorrect. Lots of people get sent situations that leave them dead or helpless. So how is this comforting?

The next step could be to say that God has a good plan for his believers or virtuous people in general. But that is problematic too, given the examples above. Human evil resulted in millions of deaths during the Holocaust (man innocent and virtuous people, obviously), and nature killed thousands in the Galveston Hurricane disaster of 1900 many of whom were children and normal virtuous adults.

I used the Holocaust and the Hurricane of 1900 specifically because one was so clearly a result of human choices (evil ones by the Nazis) and the other was equally clearly an act of “nature” (and still the most murderous natural disaster in United States history).

So between natural disasters and evil human beings causing so much suffering in the world, the God that is in control of everything and whose plan is being unfolded in human history just doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean, however, that atheism is the only option left. I tend not to believe in supernatural intervention into human history, but that, too, does not mean that atheism is all that is left.

My way of getting past the Rick Perry problem is Unitarian Universalist Gnosticism. But before I talk about how that operates for me, I will discuss (in the next blog post) how it all relates for me to the philosophical “Problem of Evil” and why UU Gnosticism (for me anyway) solves that too!