Tag Archives: doctrine as metaphor

Making Paradigm Shift our Religion

One way to look at what was going on during the period of antiquity is to say that civilization was going through a major paradigm shift.  But this is the way we, with the benefit of terminology like “paradigm shift” at our disposal, are able to understand what was happening at the time, looking back at the historical and archaeological record in retrospect.  Those living through it and expressing it in their writings struggled to put into words the changes they were witnessing.

One obvious change is that notions of justice had changed over the centuries.  Much of the Law and the Prophets (what Christians call the Old Testament) conceptualize justice as a collective national concern.  When the prophets complained that the nation was failing to do “what is right in the eyes of the Lord,” they were concerned less with the conduct of individuals and more with the collective actions of the nation as a whole — but with perhaps some direct scrutiny directed at members of the ruling class.  With the identity of the nation tied in with that of the king, it was presented as just that the Lord should punish the entire nation for the misdeeds of the king or the upper class.

For example, one of the more puzzling passages (to modern readers) concerns the census ordered by King David.  The purpose of the census was likely to know how large of an army he could raise.  The passage begins with this: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah'” (1 Samuel 24:1).  Even over the objections of his military commander, David ordered the army to conduct a census of his kingdom.  In response, the Lord gives David a choice of three punishments:

[T]he word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?  (2 Samuel 24:11-13)

David chose the pestilence, and 70,000 people died in a plague.  The sin is pretty clearly attributed to David, but it is the nation who bore the retribution, and, if we are to believe this version of events, the whole thing was a set-up by the Lord.  (The version of this story in 1 Chronicles 21 attributes the original inspiration to Satan, not the Lord, but that doesn’t blunt much the criticism we might level at the unfairness of punishing thousands of innocent people for the sin of another.)

If this sounds overly harsh and unfair to modern readers, it must be said that it sounded that way to most of the readers of antiquity as well. They dedicated a lot of energy struggling to find a way to reconcile their own ideas of fairness, and their vision of God as a just and fair Lord, with the desire to maintain fidelity with their scripture as it had been written.

By the period we call antiquity, Jewish doctrine did not much resemble the ancient set of views which had produced the older scripture.  A lot had happened over the centuries.  Conquering empires had swept over the area, from Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and finally Thrace and then Rome, and each had left their cultural mark on the region.  The influence of Hellenistic and Roman culture was particularly profound, at least in the time of antiquity, because it was the most recent.  Views had changed so much that it was a struggle at that point to maintain the principle that ancient scripture was their primary source document.  For example, most Jews of the time lived outside of Judaea and did not even speak or read Hebrew.  Just living in the Diaspora, away from the Temple, forced a lot of concessions.  A lot of legends had been adopted as beliefs which had not been recorded in ancient scripture — how were those to be treated?

The most obvious way to bridge this gap was to write commentary about scripture.  This commentary was generally welcome, and came to have almost the same level of authority as scripture itself.  But it also produced new forms of tension because not everyone accepted the newer writings as authoritative — and also, as time passed, these newer writings became just as out of touch with the times as original scripture itself, forcing even more commentary to be written.

Some of the commentary explored a new approach to interpreting scripture in a less literal way, arguing that where a literal interpretation comes up short, a metaphorical one may do.  One notable innovator in this regard was Philo of Alexandria, who offered an attempt at drawing together Jewish doctrine with Hellenistic philosophy and Egyptian mysticism.  Another innovator was Hillel.

Others held views that had shifted so much they could no longer work with even these forms of reconciliation.  They objected to the parties in power, both in the temple and in the palace.  They objected to what they had been taught about right and wrong.  They objected to the social obligations placed on them by family and employers.  And when these objections became widely-held enough to reach a critical mass, they birthed new social movements.

Apocalypticism is a form of radical theology that expresses a powerful yearning for a new social order.  It is tempting to argue that it is more political than religious, but this would neither be fair nor accurate.  The problem is that when apocalyptic scripture is read by people of later generations, we too have shifted in our thinking and would (probably) not express political ideas in the same way, so it is all too easy for the political dimension to be overlooked or glossed over.

Christianity and Gnosticism were apocalyptic movements, and it is not possible to fully make sense of their teachings without considering their political underpinnings.  To go even further, I would argue that these doctrines do not even make much sense taken in the absence of their political underpinnings.

So to say, as many do, that Gnostics equated “the Jewish God” with the chief archon is an oversimplification that misses the goal.  Gnostic doctrine was an expression of a paradigm shift that occurred within the milieu of Hellenistic Judaism.  And the idea, basically, was this: that the God we worship is not the Lord described by the Law and the Prophets.  They expressed their objections within the cultural milieu that was their heritage.  Many of them combined this with the doctrine of antinomianism, the rejection of the Law as divine.

The Christians, for their part, developed a theory of “supersessionism” which taught that Jesus ushered in a new, superior covenant that replaced the old one.  The idea is an attempt to have it both ways — they wanted to maintain the authority of the Law and the Prophets while at the same time claiming that they no longer held.  So, they claimed that the requirements of the Law had all been “fulfilled,” thus making way for a new covenant.

What makes this a difficult topic is that later generations of Gnostics and Christians came to faith within a Christian cultural milieu instead of a Jewish one.  They were no longer dissenters within their own faith tradition, they were critics of a different tradition.  Because of this and the long history of anti-Semitic oppression and violence which followed, it is impossible now to discuss Christian or Gnostic theology without acknowledging that these doctrines have long outlived their usefulness.  And today, they are symptoms of the very problem that the Christians and Gnostics were seeking to solve: they reflect an outdated way of thinking, but we are stuck with them because of the level of authority with which we embue doctrine and scripture.

In a way, doctrine and scripture themselves are our demiurge.  They provide for us a simulacrum of an ideal for which we can strive, one just correct enough for us to start to understand what the ideal would look like, but which is itself merely a worldly artifact, brought into being by human hands and based on a reflection of spirit of which we have seen fleeting glances.

What to Do with Scripture When You’re Not a Literalist

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.

The Gospel of Truth, conclusion: An Instrument of Metanoia

There’s a tension hidden in the metaphors and imagery used in the Gospel of Truth, and it regards the meaning of the metaphor of “error.” Throughout the text, “hylic substance” — matter, in other words — is said to be from a swirling “fog of error” which grew so thick it could take on form. Presumably the people of Valentinus’ time were unaware of how clouds of matter in space slowly condense over time into stars and planets, but the idea is similar. The obvious implication of equating matter with error is that the material universe is an illusion, which is a doctrine classically associated with Gnosticism.

But there’s another way to interpret the Gospel of Truth’s narrative about error, and I lean towards this being the “real” underlying meaning: that error taking on substance is a metaphor for the process by which concepts can get in the way of understanding our experiences, especially mystical experiences which can defy description.

The term “hypostasis” has numerous meanings, but we can use it here to refer to a process that happens within discourse over the course of decades. It starts with one writer or speaker, struggling to come up with a way to describe a particularly profound experience or realization. He or she chooses a term, knowing that it comes up a bit short, but which can be made to accommodate the thought being communicated.  The problem is that religious experience often defies easily being matched with categories or notions or concepts that were designed to describe “things” in the real world and “events” which happen to those “things.” So the community agrees by convention to use, say, the word “wisdom” (sophia) to refer to one aspect of an ineffable experience.

The next generation comes along, and see this word sophia closely associated with something that affected the authors or speakers profoundly. They don’t have the benefit of the actual shared experience which triggered the start of this discourse, a particular circumstance that has now become a part of history. Their experience is of a community that has always used the word sophia to refer to a particular part of their experience. Add to this that the next generation may even have their own, separate sets of ineffable experiences that they choose to associate with this word. But the problem is clear: religious discourse is a giant game of ‘telephone’ played over centuries.

The further in time a religious community is from the initial experience which led them to gather together the particular set of ideas they use to describe what happened to them, the more profoundly the original meaning is lost. In that absence, a new meaning starts to form around the word sophia, and a “goddess,” Sophia, is born. By this time all you have at the center of your religious community is a set of ideas — the pneuma, the spiritual breath that permeated the original experience, is absent.

At the same time, though, the solution is not to sweep away the edifice. That edifice is necessary because it does provide a vocabulary which we might then use to describe our experiences with the divine. Without the edifice it is not possible to reconstruct the steps which led to the initial experience in the first place. We need a shared or cultural atlas of the mind in order to put these experiences into perspective.

The Gnostic program, then, was not to sweep everything off the table, but to make you aware, as much as possible, that religious doctrine is a set of tools. And not just religious doctrine, but philosophy or discourse in general. The key when using it to describe ones experiences of the divine presence is to make them work for you — not to let them control your expectations or box in your mind. And of the errors one can make, where the Gnostics were concerned, one of the deepest is to believe in the literal truth of religious doctrine.

For evidence, consider in itself the reality of the Nag Hammadi library: 13 codices of mostly Gnostic writing from various schools, times, and places. There are at least a dozen different versions of the creation myth among these texts alone. These texts give different names for the aions, different names for the archons. They differ on just about every point of morality or doctrine. They are not the collective product of a community that believed deeply in the literal truth of what they had written. But these texts must have served some purpose, or they would not have been maintained.

Perhaps each text in the library was the product of a different school who believed in the literal truth of its own scripture. Maybe: but this leads to the question of who would have gathered all these various contradictory texts into volumes together?

Perhaps the collector was an opponent of heresy who had collected them in order to refute them. Maybe: but what opponent of heresy would have stolen off into the desert to hide these texts in order to protect them from discovery by the literal-minded Church who intended to destroy them? (Besides, as James Robinson pointed out in the introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, the scribal margin notes belie the idea that they were collected by an opponent.)

The very existence of the Nag Hammadi library is astounding in this regard. But it is not just the juxtaposition of contradictory scriptures in one library that leads us to the conclusion above: it is the conduct of the Gnostics themselves in their own congregations, as reported by their opponents. Elaine Pagels cited Tertullian’s indignance at the way the Gnostics conducted their ceremonies as an example of the church’s outrage — expressing dismay that they took turns in the role of priest or bishop, while denying that the bishops appointed by the church had any special authority.

It is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally — even pagans, if any happen to come… They share the kiss of peace with all who come, for they do not care how differently they treat topics…. (Tertullian, quoted in The Gnostic Gospels, p. 42)

We can begin to form an idea of what wisdom was spoken among the initiates in the Valentinian gatherings. Recall in Matthew 13 that when Jesus was alone with the disciples, he gave them an explanation for the meaning of the parable of the sower along with a justification for speaking in parables in the first place: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'”

The parables in the gospels, and even the many numerous parables in the Gospel of Truth – and there are many – are considered by the Valentinians to be “rehearsal” for the teaching that Christian doctrine itself is a parable.

We begin to understand now the role of the Gospel of Truth. Valentinus sought to develop the spiritual themes he found common to Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism as it existed before him, and Christianity, gathering them in a format that would be easily understandable to Christians, but also easily digestible in the light of the revelation that the entire doctrine is a parable. The experience can not be communicated directly; it has to occur as a transformation in the way you view something you have been contemplating. So the Gospel of Truth presents the Christian doctrine in familiar terms, but in a form designed to make it easier to make the leap from believing in it to understanding it as a grand metaphor. The pivot is one’s relationship with the Father.

When someone calls your name, it brings about a sudden change in your conscious state. Valentinus used this as a metaphor for the experience of metanoia:

If one has knowledge, he is from above. If he is called, he hears, he replies, and he turns toward him who called him and he ascends to him and he knows what he is called. Since he has knowledge, he does the will of him who called him. He desires to please him and he finds rest. He receives a certain name. He who thus is going to have knowledge knows whence he came and whither he is going. He knows it as a person who, having become intoxicated, has turned from his drunkenness and having come to himself, has restored what is his own.