While thinking about the issue of Gnosticism and the problem of evil, I suddenly had what was (to me at least) a very powerful “ah ha” moment. Of course, once written down and shared, it will probably seem mundane or even stupidly obvious. But at the time it was like a bolt of lightening from heaven.
The insight was this: Whatever the literal truth or falsehood – Gnosticism is actually a very perceptive metaphor on the problem of pain and evil. It hit me as I was reading something in a Gnostic text and realized it was very similar to something both Robert Pirsig and Ken Wilber had said. Both these writers point out a particular hierarchy of being – one I think we would all agree with. You can divide it up in more than one way – but it goes something like this:
The Hierarchy of Being
The foundational structures of the cosmos are physical – in the sense of being governed by chemistry and physics. Then there are biological structures built from the physical. Then there are social structures built from the biological. Then there are the mental structures of ideas that are built from social dialogue. You can add a layer of spiritual structures, but since that will be an item of dispute, let’s just lump it in with mental for the moment. Each of these structures is built on the preceding ones. Biological systems use physical systems. Social systems use biological systems (people) and physical systems (technologies). Mental systems use social systems (communal dialogue), biological systems (our brains) and physical systems (the neurochemistry of the brain).
Now for a critical observation – each of these levels have entirely different – even contradictory – purposes, laws and goals. For example, entropy (The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to devolve into a state of inert uniformity and disorder) is a fundamental principle of the physical cosmos. But biology is in a state of war with entropy. Biology is a system for increasing the order and energy in the small local pocket of it’s own system. Biology has its own laws and goals – which center on the survival of the individual organism and its reproduction at the expense of all else. But at the social level, these biological goals – unchecked, become evils. Societies may choose to sacrifice their own individual members for the good of the society – if they threaten the social stability, for example. Then from these societies and their interactions, systems of ideas arise. And what a society may see as “good” for its survival and prosperity (slavery for example) the arising system of ideas may see as evil. In the West, we have a developed a system of ideas which demands that we tolerate (for the sake of the IDEA of liberty) the existence of certain things which may pose a danger to the social order – reformers or crackpots as the case may be.
The point is, at each point in the hierarchy of being, the “good” and “evil” of the lower rungs on the ladder may be (and often ARE) very contrary to the “good” and “evil” of the higher rungs. Let’s take a bad genetic illness like Harlequin Baby Syndrome. From our point of view in the social and particularly mental spheres of being, this seems quite obviously evil. It is hideous and causes great physical and emotional suffering. On the other hand, from the point of view of biology, it’s not bad at all. Genetic variability is what drives the whole process. If we didn’t have a thousand mutations or genetic combinations that resulted in death and pain, we wouldn’t have the one that turned proved to be useful in some particular way. Suffering and death are simply failed experiments that weed out unfit genetic combinations.
The higher levels cannot normally disregard the rules and laws of the lower levels. They simply find ways to work around them or compromise with them to achieve their purposes.
Let’s return to the Gnostic metaphor, then. The Gnostics saw the god of creation, the demiurge or “half-maker” as a somewhat ignorant figure, full of arrogance, petty jealousy and capriciousness. From the ideas above, we could say that the demiurge represents the physical/biological systems, as seen from the point of view of the mental/spiritual systems. It’s interesting that as gnosticism developed from its earlier roots, the demiurge was increasingly seen as not just immature and ignorant, but positively EVIL, along with the material world he organized. Orthodox Christianity has been more reluctant to condemn the material world, but still tries to insist that God governs the whole cosmos in accordance with the higher (mental/spiritual) notions of “good”. The idea that “good” changes from one level to the next would probably rub the wrong way and be seen as making morality “situational”.
A Symbolic Example
This idea of good and evil changing from one level to the next has an interesting illustration in world symbology – specifically the symbol of the snake. Ken Wilber points out that serpents can be seen as symbols of good OR evil in many different religions – including Christianity. For example, the serpent represents Satan in the garden on the one hand, but when Moses raises up a serpent on a pole to heal the Israelites, it is taken to be a symbol of Jesus.
In Hindu/Buddhist symbolism, the snake represents Kundalini energy – the basic life/god force of the cosmos, which works it’s way up the energy centers or “chakras” of the human body as it spiritually progresses. It’s starts at the base of the spine, at a center representing the physical systems, and works it’s way up to above the crown of the head, representing the highest spiritual centers. Wilber points out that when the snake symbol is used as representing “evil” it is seen at the lower levels of the body (the typhonic gods, for example, or the goat-god baphomet), and at the higher levels of the body, it represents “good” (Buddah and other deities are seen with cobras shading the crown of their heads). It is not that the physical levels are “bad” – they are only seen as bad when we fixate on or descend to the lower physical/biological or social levels as the expense of the mental/spiritual levels.
The categories I have been using, by the way, need not be divided so broadly. Within each level of being, there may be many sub-levels. For example, there are many types and classifications of social and mental systems. A new and higher social or mental system may find its notions of “good” and “evil” quite different from an earlier one.
How do we view the problem of evil from this hierarchical perspective? What looks to us humans as “unnecessary suffering” from our perspective is usually the “good” of a lower order interposing itself in our own “good”. Theoretically, of course, it could always be the good of a higher order interposing itself in our own “good”. For example, our programs of selective breeding produce species that, while they serve our purposes nicely – are actually LESS fit for survival. If biology had an independent mind and could speak, it might accuse us of corrupting things. Which brings up another point. A lower level is utterly incapable of reacting according to the “good” of a higher level. If there are levels of being above our own – we might be quite unequipped to understand “good” and “evil” with respect to them – until we reach that level ourselves. In fact, if the system I have mapped out here has any predictive value, it would probably say that at the next level, the “goods” and “evils” of our MENTAL or philosophical/religious systems are quite incidental to a much greater spiritual good. The angels or higher beings may be as unconcerned about the truths of our philosophies and dogmas as we are unconcerned with “corrupting” natural selection by breeding prize milk cows.
If we look at God as being present at every level of this hierarchy, working within it – we are simply faced with the fact that there are different ideals of “good” at different levels of being.
“Evil” is simply the interplay of different levels of “good”.