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.

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