In my last post I argued that the evidence is strong that the Gnostics promoted a non-literal interpretation of scripture. They were not alone in this; in fact many theologians throughout history have eschewed strict literalism to one degree or another. For example, Paul’s argument that God’s covenant with Abraham extended now to all of humanity in Romans 4 relied on a metaphorical rather than a literal interpretation of the scripture describing that covenant in Genesis 17.
But what should we do about scripture if we are not going to treat it as being true in only the most literal sense?
That this question is to any degree provocative says a lot about how our culture has gotten caught in a bit of a trap in the way it thinks about religion. One who professes to believe in the literal truth of scripture is counted as “more religious” than someone who doesn’t, however deep their commitment to cultivating a relationship with the divine presence. Contrary to this dominant narrative, believing in the literal truth of scripture is not the only way to have a relationship with it, or to be “serious” about one’s religious practice.
I encountered this idea for the first time as an adult. No one had ever said it to me before then, and it didn’t occur to me on its own. I attended private religious schools for the first seven years of my schooling, and during that time the one way I was shown to be religious was to believe the literal truth of doctrine. That didn’t last long without continual reinforcement from the adults around me. By the time I was 13 I was already developing objections to contradictions and logical flaws and other obvious problems. As a young adult I explored what I could of other religious traditions, because still to that point I thought the only thing I could do with the doctrine I had been taught as a child was to either accept it fully or to reject it fully.
But then, the path of the skeptic never really appealed either, because I’ve had a string of numinous experiences throughout my life. Perhaps they were just artifacts of my brain, but I’ve never been able to convince myself of that.
It wasn’t until after I was 30 that I began to learn of another way. It’s not an easier way, because it offers few solid answers. But I knew from my prior experience that the promise of “certainty” is a shell game when it requires you to dodge from your own mind when you encounter doubts.
Each piece of scripture was written by one or more writers on behalf of a community brought together by a particular experience. Sometimes they were making a record of an oral tradition; sometimes the piece started out as a written work. Either way, they wrote and maintained it because of some benefit they got from doing so — it articulated their thoughts and bolstered their community. In some cases, the piece was written because the author or authors had a political agenda or a polemic purpose. In all of these cases, the intended purpose behind the writing of the text is an excellent place to start.
We don’t have to believe the work true in only it’s literal sense to appreciate or be inspired by the goal towards which they were working. We can often find resonance with our own experiences therein.
In many cases a text lays out a principle or idea which has since been superseded in some way: an explanation for natural phenomena for which we have since developed a sound scientific explanation, or a principle of ancient justice that would simply not meet the standards of fairness or equality that we have since cultivated in our own society. In cases like this, we can appreciate that the authors were striving to make the world a better place, sometimes at considerable risk to their own health or lives.
If this makes scripture sound deficient compared to something we might produce today, there is yet another degree of benefit we can get from it. These texts were important to the people who founded our culture, and gave instruction and inspiration to many generations of their descendants. To fully understand the roots of our culture, we cannot neglect or ignore scripture. As I wrote before, we do still need a cultural vocabulary to begin to articulate some aspects of religious experience — even if what we do next is to flip that conceptual vocabulary on its head in some way.
The threads that tie a religious community together are shared rituals and prayers — words and events and images that provide familiarity and foster shared identity. To a great extent, these rituals and prayers and common practices and concepts have their underpinnings in the stories preserved in scripture.
The Gnostic body of scripture is a particular treasure in this regard, because of the great wealth of ideas, prayers, and rituals preserved within. A wide variety of modern mystical, artistic, and psychological practices are rooted in cultural threads which come to us along a trajectory evidenced in some form in the Gnostic scripture. Our understanding of these currents is enhanced by examining the ways in which they were recorded therein.