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.