07 April 2006

The Gnostic Gospels and Liberal Christianity

The translation of an authentic copy of the Gospel of Judas, one of many Gnostic writings decried as heresies in the part of the early Christian church that became the Roman Catholic Church, won't mean much to the Christian right theologically.

It common place for members of the American Christian right to proclaim that the King James Bible is the only divinely inspired Biblical text, that all others are in error, and that the Bible should be viewed literally. They wholeheartedly agree with people like Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, France, who condemned the Gospel of Judas in his polemic "Against Heresies," in A.D. 180. This is a bit of a lark, as they Christian right generally condemns the Catholic tradition seeking instead to return to the "early Christian Church." Yet, that tradition profoundly shaped the text that eventually evolved into the King James Version of the Bible that the Christian right uses.

For folks like myself, non-Christians with a general interest in ancient history, the Gospel of Judas is interesting, but in the same way as a new Greek mosaic or a discovery of the Aztec recipe for berry beer. It can be fascinating, but doesn't change our worldview.

The people most likely to be influenced by the Gospel of Judas and similar discoveries are liberal and mainline Christians, who have for centuries acknowledged the human historical roots of the texts that they turn to for spiritual guidance, and people already on the brink of breaking away from the conservative branch of Christianity, for whom this might be the straw that breaks the camel's back of their belief in Biblical inerrancy.

As the New York Times, picked up by the Denver Post, which is linked above, describes the matter:

The Gospel of Judas is one of many texts discovered in the past 65 years, including gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Philip, believed to be written by Gnostics.

The Gnostics' beliefs were often viewed by bishops and early church leaders as unorthodox, and they were frequently denounced as heretics.

The discoveries of Gnostic texts have shaken up Biblical scholarship by revealing the diversity of beliefs and practices among early followers of Jesus.

As the findings have trickled down to churches and universities, they have produced a new generation of Christians who now regard the Bible not as the literal word of God but as a product of historical and political forces that determined which texts should be included in the canon and which edited out.

For that reason, the discoveries have proved deeply troubling for many believers.

The Times quote above isn't quite right. Serious, conscious, historical-literary criticism of the Bible dates to the early 19th century in mainline Protestantism, and scholars of ancient history have been away of the diversity of early Christian since the Renaissance, as many classic texts were again made available to Western scholars, often via Islamic and Byzantine scholars with whom Italian merchants traded. The "Second Great Awakening" that gave birth in the early 1800s to the distinctly American Christian movement that has become the Christian right was, to a significant extent, intellectually a reaction to the crisis created by the emerging historical-literary criticism.

While many of the important Gnostic writings were discovered before World War II, it wasn't until the 1960s that these discoveries have had a notable theological impact in American Christianity. Leonard Bernstein's "Mass", which premiered in 1971, saw a crisis of faith as the primary religious issue of that generation. This crisis of faith was driven, in part, by a recognition that the Bible and creeds that formed a foundation for mainline Christians were crafted by a process less pure than most lay people had realized before then.

But, the Times is correct in noting that this understanding is, in the current generation, trickling down to a much larger pool of people, as the people who internalized this understanding in the early 1960s and 1970s have shared their revelations with a much broader audience as they have moved into positions of instruction and authority in the church. Also, the extremism of the Christian right, which has grown dramatically in the past generation or so, in clinging to Biblical literalism to the point of absurdity, has caused the mainstream of Christianity and its liberal wings to react by embracing their distinction from them on this point.

And, while the discoveries have been deeply troubling for many believers, they have been liberating for others. I am unaware of any major schismatic movement within American Christianity to embrace a Gnostic theology as a whole. But, feminist movements within mainline and liberal Christianity have looked to the Gnostic gospels to refute patriarchal claims rooted in more traditional Christian texts about the role of men and women in the early Christian community, among other issues. The Gnostic gospels have largely been used to counterbalance the Epistles of Paul. Their proponents have used them to argue that Paul's views were not monolithic or as authoritative as they seem when they provide the primary window into early Christian practice. They form an important basis for a more inclusive religious worldview which is less strident in its defense of any specific view of what God commands as they acknowledge a diversity of opinions dating to the earliest days of the church.

Liberal and mainline Christianity, including Catholicism, is in a crisis right now. In both the United States and Latin America, these parts of the faith are losing ground to more evangelically oriented versions of the Christian faith on one hand, and the secularism on the other. Pope Benedict XVI sees the secularism which has swept Europe, and more invisibly swept that part of the American Catholic church without recent immigrant ties, as the single greatest challenge facing the Catholic Church. Cardinal Ratzinger, who recently became Pope Benedict XVI, called it "A dictatorship of relativism" shortly before the conclave that elevated him to Pope, and said a few weeks earlier that:

The real culture clash in today’s world is not between different religious cultures, but between those who seek a radical emancipation of man from God and the major religions.

Unlike Catholicism, liberal protestant Christianity doesn't have the inclination or the tools to enforce the orthodoxy necessary to banish an emerging historical understanding of Christianity's historical roots from theological consideration, even if this may engendered. They must change and find a way to embrace these developments or die as a religious movement.

Most mainline Christian denominations have had a deer in the headlights response. The have been paralyzed and internally torn in the face of new challenges. They National Council of Churches, their formal coalition, has seemed persistently impotent in recent years, despite the fact that, on paper they represent more people than the political 800 pound gorilla, the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), and have a more deeply connected membership.

The United Church of Christ, perhaps the only truly Christian denomination to have taken the crisis facing it by the horns and formulated a response, has firmly decided to cross the line from being a mainline denomination to being a liberal one, and has set out to buy mass market advertising to evangelize by selling the Church as inclusive, and by implication attack other denominations for the lack of inclusivity. Liberal Christianity's fate large lies in the hands of the UCC, and those who choose to imitate its efforts, either within existing denominations, or as new movements.

Liberal Christians have been aware of this for a long time, but the movement is just starting to make headway, perhaps as a consequence of the way the blogosphere has allowed dispersed but likeminded individuals to coordinate their efforts. While liberal Christians have been grumbling about the need to take action for decades, until those people were able to echo among themselves on the Internet, no one (with rare exceptions) seems to have the courage to believe that anyone would follow if they tried to act. Sites like Street Prophets (a spin off of political blog heavy weight Daily Kos), has started to informally organize the community of liberal Christian grumblers.

For them, the Gospel of Judas is a major ingredient added to an already simmering intellectual stew. It would suggest a movement in the direction of a religious approach that is not only inclusive in the people to whom it wishes to spread the Christian message, but also in the sources to which its leaders turn in presenting that message. The mere fact that writers have conflicting accounts in Gospel and Christian texts written many decades after the fact doesn't necessarily imply that Jesus is not in divinely connected (although the nature of that connection becomes more ambiguous). Indeed, every new document that emerges strengthens what they do have in common, the notion that some major religious event close to the time assigned it by historical tradition, perhaps a historical Jesus, did have broad impact in the few hundred years that proceeded Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the Roman Empire's state religion in the 300s. What a liberal Christian movement loses in theological certainty, it gains in the ability of its followers to keep the faith in the face of emerging historical discoveries.

Often, major theological movements are associated with a convention, or a journal, or a new Bible translation. One could imagine a new liberal Christian movement drawing vigor from a new edition of the Bible that includes not just the canonical books of the Protestant Bible, supplemented perhaps by the Catholic apocryphal texts, but also the Gnostic Gospels, the secular historical texts relevant to the question of the existence of a historical Jesus and the experience of the early Christian church, a format that shows the discrepancies of source and interpretation present in the source texts that gave rise to modern translations -- rather than resolving the issues, historical religious documents (such as liturgies, creeds and the rules of religious orders) and perhaps even lengthy annotations placing those documents in context.

Whether it will be enough to fuel it on its way to reaching a boil and creating a mass movement, and what that mass movement will look like, is something we will have to wait to determine.

1 comment:

MetaData said...

I recently read "Beyond Belief, the Secret Gospel Of Thomas" by Elaine Pagels. Took two readings, because understanding the historical "story" also requires paying pretty close attention to the religious debate. Both politics and religion eventually led to the heretical declaration of Thomas' gospel and the other gnostic texts.

First, as a recovering Catholic, it is totally fascinating to compare corroborating and contradictory details of the various Christ stories. Some similarities, certain variations, and sometimes radically different conclusions.

Thomas, reputedly the apostle who traveled to the East (i.e. India), has a version of Christianity allowing that individual believers can reach enlightenment through internal meditation. It is easy to imagine the problem this provided to Christian theologies more attached to authority or hierarchy. In the 300s, under Constantine, the Nicaean councel specifically decided which texts were heretical. Constantine implemented and enforced the Christian consolodation utilizing economic and military measures. Of course, 1000 years later Protestantism re-introduced the idea that you didn't need a hierarchy between the individual and God.

Beyond the theology, Pagels' book is a particularly interesting history of the radical christian believers of the first two centuries A.D. A philosophy of activism and promise to the poorest sectors, Christians were nutty and dedicated characters who spread across the Roman empire. This philosophy eventually became so strong that Constantine had to help the more well-established preachers bring things into a more establishment-friendly structure.

Incidently, many early Christians interpreted the prophecy of the "End of Days" as the years and decades following Christ's death.