Theology: Playing Make Believe with Religious Things
I guess it's time to throw down the gauntlet on the whole Theology issue. After biting the tongue for some time to listen to folks who seem to value such things, and after having what seems fairly common sense questioned about the potential utility of theology, I've been asked to demonstrate why theology isn't a good tool for Gnostics to engage in (except perhaps in private between consenting adults). Although the following was very rushed, I think it covers the basics.
The reverse of this question has a lot more merit: why should Gnostics even try to use theology? Is there any actual reason? We can assume that it is the thing to do because this is religion, and theology and religion are found together. (I'm hoping that fallacy is obvious.) We can assert that we need to talk the language of people who use theology. Yet this comes up against the issue of talking about computers in Nahuatl—why do it when you can't say what is important to the conversation in that language? When is just perpetuates their misunderstanding and creates more of your own?
Let's cover old territory for a moment. Theology (from theos 'god' + logos 'word, speech, reason') once upon a time simply meant reasoning or discoursing about the gods or religious matters. It is still sometimes used in that sense, and that is what I have previously called the trivial definition and said that it should be a non-issue because reasoning about religious matters should be ubiquitous. In the intervening centuries, however, Theology has come to mean something in particular. Let's just call it: playing make believe with religious things.
Playing make believe? Yes, that's what I said. Theology (which I will use in the non-trivial sense) starts out with many assumptions and is essentially literalism-lite.
Literalism takes what the sacred stories describe as being actual literal documentary film-like history of events. To take one example: Noah physically built a big boat. The world was actually under water. There really were 2 of every kind of animal on that boat for forty days, since the evolution of new species couldn't have happened. All of these things are taken as established historical fact that a film crew could have documented if they had cameras, and weren't under water. Why? Because it is in the story. Given these basic assumptions one can reason about these things without any serious difficulties.
Literalism has all kinds of problems which I'm not going to go into for a Gnostic audience. Let's just say accepting these assumptions for someone who doesn't accept the assumption that everything in some stories is historically factual, isn't going to happen. While the defense of that kind of silliness may not fit one's notion of Theology, they can be quite well reasoned. We would just look at them as being well reasoned make believe. Given this make believe situation from a story and so on, and so forth as characteristics of this make believe game, one can arrive at a reasonable means of explanation.
While more mainstream theology isn't involved in such things, agreeing with the assessment of Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: let's not go there it's too silly; the game is played in the same way with different assumptions. Instead of the literal assumptions, there are others, yet it is still playing make believe.
Another characteristic of playing make believe is that although it is primarily a reflection of the person doing it, to them it can seem objective. It has been projected into an abstract idea realm. Like Plato's only yours, and not so idealized. Like the example above, someone can spend a great deal of time rationally examining and overcoming objections to the Noah story being literal, and think that they are describing something objective because they are talking about things.
The issue with any sort of make believe is that whether there are rules of reason involved or not, it is still make believe. Someone can think that they are talking about something real when they speak of Incarnational Trinitarianism, or an Emanational Cosmogeny—and that is precisely the problem. These things are abstract constellations of the glass beads on the game board of make believe. Things so far removed from anything any of us actually have experienced as to make the idea of experiencing them absurd.
When we play make believe in a rational way using the elements and characters from Gnostic stories. We are being literalists, just at a slightly less embarrassing level. There are many ways to look at these things, and putting on a literalist-lite cap to look at them is certainly a standard one. If you don't take what you do too seriously, mistake your ideas for what is really “out there somewhere,” then it is another useful tool. We can speak of Sophia as a character in Gnostic mythology, as an abstract notion of “Wisdom,” or as a part of our experience. If any but the last gets stuck in our understanding as being “it” we have missed the path to Gnosis, and followed the path to cloud coo-coo land. It is so easy to fool ourselves, to not notice the “hairs breadth of difference” that splits considerations involving the real from simply playing make believe.
People have been playing the Theology game for centuries, there has never been the level of understanding involved that it isn't about real things. The distinction is simply whether you believe or not. And so it may be described as playing make believe with the objects of belief. If you don't see a problem here for Gnostics, I'll spell it out. Gnosticism isn't about beliefs. Even if we all believe something, why assume that it is the case at all, let alone the case in the way in which we believe it? That assumption jump is just too much—if you take it for yourself and are aware of the assumptions you may gain some understanding, if you try to take it in some objective way, say as a group, you say bye bye to Gnosis.
Playing the same old religion games with different pieces isn't Gnosticism. Substituting belief in the salvific power of Gnosis for belief in the salvific power of belief in Christ, isn't liberation, it's redecorating. Throwing Sophia into the mix as a character to go with the Logos character, makes nothing Gnostic. And no matter how refined we are about it, playing theological make believe with things associated with Gnosticism isn't Gnosticism, it is still make believe.
If you say, “but there really is this or that, it's not make believe,” you are not seeing what is in front of your face, but rather are seeing from the perspective of the land of make believe. Experiences are not abstract, they cannot be removed from the subject experiencing them. Sophia is a character, an idea, and an experience. Guess which two of the three you cannot play abstract games with the experience, and so you must be playing make believe.
If you say, “but the ancient Gnostics saw it in a literal fashion,” you are again making enormous assumptions, placing limitations on the perspectives of others for our own convenience. Buying into the literalism of heresiologists isn't exactly a large stride forward for our understanding of Gnosticism.
If theology is playing make believe is it worthless? Of course not. In a tradition where creativity and looking at things from multiple perspectives are the order of the day, it can be very useful—for an individual to use to look at things from different perspectives. Where we go into literalism and make assumptions that take us into cloud coo-coo land is when we mistake any of this for anything but playing make believe.