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Seeking, Finding, Church, State, Freedom: Part I

The gnostic understands Christ’s message not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in the process of searching …

— Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

Trust those who seek the truth but doubt those who say they have found it.

— Andre Gide (and many others)

You cannot reason with a tiger when your hand is in its mouth.

— Winston Churchill, In Darkest Hour


Political freedom is (almost!) an oxymoron. All freedom is personal. A thoughtfully constituted government like the one these formerly united States started with can for a time slow down the forces of tyranny and stagnation, but can’t ensure anyone’s freedom in the long run.

Nor will it sincerely try. Who was it who observed, “Even the most innocuous government is criminal in its dreams?” Any organization that begins with the premise “We’ll demand what’s yours and hurt you if you don’t hand it over” (not to mention countenancing chattel slavery) has no claim to being a respecter of individual liberty.

But I’m stating the obvious.

Freedom itself is less obvious.


Freedom is a mystical concept. So is justice, freedom’s twin. They may not be quite as puzzlingly mystical as, say, the trinity, nirvana, or the deepest aspects of partical physics, but they’re mystical nevertheless.

Everybody “knows” what freedom is. Justice, too. But watch the eyes go starry when people talk about them. Listen to the variety of definitions of these two concepts that everyone “knows” all about.


It’s not the least surprising that church and state have, throughout history, been so inextricably bound that there was sometimes virtually no distinction between them. You worshiped the emperor; you sacrificed your children in both territorial wars and to ask the gods for rain. Priests propped up kings and kings were supreme rulers of both kingdoms and religions. Religious bureaucracies ruled empires. Wars for state power became holy causes and churchly disputes led to wars in which kings rode to battle. Church and state have been conjoined twins in cruelty, corruption, intolerance, and abuse of power as long as they’ve existed.

It’s amazing that we live in, and take for granted, this historically short era and rare place in which church is church and state is state and theoretically the twain shall never meet.

We’re enormously lucky, even if the system, like all systems, is imperfect. Since state corrupts church and church corrupts state (or each enables the other’s existing corruption), they’re each a smidge less dangerous when separated.

But even when history’s two most powerful institutions stand separate, nations still function like religions, even as religions are rarely permitted these days to behave like nations.

No, the following is not one long digression.

I’m re-reading Elaine Pagels’ famous 1979 work, The Gnostic Gospels. Her book takes as its starting point the trove of Christian writings banned by bishops in the fourth century, hidden in the Egyptian desert, and found in 1945 by Arab tribalists who had no idea what they’d uncovered.

It’s quite a dramatic story. I’m tempted to digress and tell it since I can no longer find a great version of it onlline. I’ll refrain (lucky you). But I just love this stuff. To me, hidden histories coming to light are like Indiana Jones and Robert Langdon of The DaVinci Code teaming up in a movie directed by the Wachowski siblings.

Ahem. Anyhow … that one big clay jar of papyrus has revealed a new view of early Christianity — when, for a time, Christians basically had their own functioning anarchy.

The term “gnostic gospels” has fallen out of favor — partly because the works represent such a wide range of thought (gnostics were, by definition, people who “knew” through personal insight, meaning no two shared identical ideas) and partly because their ancient enemies in religion — those ban-promoting bishops — also twisted the term “gnostics” to mean “know it alls.” So scholars don’t use the term so much anymore. But it’s still handy.


If you’ve read The Gnostic Gospels you know the book is less about the writings themselves than it is about early Christian history and how the mainstream, eventually catholic (“universal”), Christian church formed partially in opposition to gnosticism.

Oh, I’m trying so hard to avoid fascinating (to me, anyhow 😉 ) digressions. But history in brief …

There never was a “simple, pure” Christianity.

The messiah was supposed to overthrow Roman rule, sweep away Hellenistic impurity, and restore the grand kingdom and religious integrity of the Jews. He wasn’t supposed to die an ignominious criminal’s death less than a week after entering Jerusalem. Jesus’ abruptly truncated life left his followers reeling.

They had no unanimity of belief. The doctrines now proclaimed in Christian creeds (physical resurrection, born of a virgin, literal only begotten son of God, etc.) took centuries to develop. Meanwhile, dazed, terrified, and fragmented followers had to “roll their own” beliefs — starting with figuring out why the messiah died before barely beginning what many thought was his mission.

Some concluded that his death was his purpose, that he was a sacrifice. Others said nonsense; he came to teach and the death was an unforeseen tragedy, but let’s learn from it. Some saw the resurrection as a literal event. Others viewed it as obviously metaphoric and symbolic, designed to encourage us to believe that with spiritual enlightenment we could overcome the terror of death. Some regarded Jesus as solely human; others saw him as purely a purely divine spirit whose human aspect was a mere facade he put on to communicate with us. Some maintained that the kingdom of God was a place or an imminent event; others said, “Bloody stupidity; it’s a mindset and it’s already within you.” On and on. Some quoted the Hebrew scriptures in support of their positions; others scoffed.

The new texts that ultimately provided guidance wouldn’t exist for decades or even a century later. There was no organization, other than the loose fellowship of remaining apostles. The sketchy evidence available says they were embroiled in rivalries and disputes, not to mention in fear for their lives.

The departed Jesus was a blank slate on which believers could, and eventually did, write many things.

One true thing: The early fellowship of believers was remarkably egalitarian and anarchistic. Small communities shared among themselves. Women sometimes preached and healed and evangelized, as well as men. There were local leaders, but there was no overall hierarchy. Some congregations drew lots at their meetings to determine who would perform various priestly and other functions on any given day; women were eligible and no one was a full-time official.

But by the second century, hierarchy was emerging: bishops, priests, deacons — and everybody else, what we would call the laity.

Hierarchies need cap-A Authority to function. Authority requires certainty. Certainty means fixed dogma, fixed ritual, fixed forms of succession, fixed rules, fixed punishments, and — for the laity — total loyalty, submission, and obedience. The statement that “there is no salvation outside the church” emerged at this time.


The so-called gnostics were having none of it. Remember, their beliefs were as diverse as at any gathering of anarchists. But they saw the church as its people and its mystical depths, not its structure. They firmly believed that the light Jesus brought to the world wasn’t something that could be passed down to or through a small, insular group of human authorities. For them, baptism and church membership were only the beginning — the outer forms, so to speak. From those beginnings, the individual’s mission was personal enlightenment with Jesus as teacher, example, and guiding spirit Ultimtely they sought union with the divine, here on earth.

For example (and this is a simplistic contrast), both the canonical Gospel of John and the “heretical” and banned gnostic Gospel of Thomas consider Jesus to have been the eternal Logos. Both revere statements like John’s “I am the way, the truth, and the light.”

But in John that statement implies that the church, hierarchs, and certain narrowly prescribed beliefs formed and enforced by them are the only way to achieve salvation. In Thomas, the same statement means (quoting Pagels) “Jesus shows you the light that is within all men; shine or be in darkness.”

In gnostic gospels, Jesus is more likely to talk of illusion and enlightenment than sin and repentance. As suspiciously foreign as that sounds, it makes sense, as the Greek New Testament word translated into English as “sin,” hamartia, is an archer’s term meaning “to miss the mark,” later adapted to Greek drama to mean “tragic flaw.” It doesn’t have offense-against-God or hellfire connotations. Those were grafted onto it later.

You make an ignorant or careless mistake? The cure is more self-improvement, which takes more arduous spiritual practice, but which may result in enlightenment.

The idea was to revere, but never to worship your teacher or grovel as a slave before him. The goal was to learn from your teacher so well that you could (with love, respect, and honor) fulfill his lessons by equaling or even surpassing him in spiritual wisdom.

No wonder early church hierarchs hated the gnostics. It’s completely understandable why an organization demanding rigid belief and obedience would have to crush such spiritual anarchists.

Apparently the hierarchs spent a lot of time reacting to the gnostics, too. Some scholars conclude that the biblical Gospel of John was actually written as a kind of orthodox (“right-thinking”) answer to pre-existing portions of the gnostics’ Gospel of Thomas. We may never know.

Until the Nag Hammadi discoveries, only a few gnostic works had ever surfaced after the fourth-century bans. We mostly knew about the gnostics from the fulminations of their enemies, like the crusading bishop Irenaeus and the famous Christian writer Tertullian.

Which was the “real” Christianity? Was there ever a “real” Christianity? Who knows? If Jesus actually did teach that the “way … and the light” was interior enlightenment under his guidance, then “real” Christianity would have been something like a cross between Buddhism and Jungian psychology (it’s no wonder the Jung Foundation quickly snapped up one of the precious Nag Hammadi codices). Beliefs would have been as individual as the people holding them. We’ll never know, because what we got and spent the next millennia with was the politically victorious hierarchical church and its dogmas, for good or ill — or maybe some of both.

It’s also possible that Christianity might never have survived had it been in the hands of the “to each his own” gnostics. Perhaps, whatever the “real” truth was or is, Christianity needed those driven, focused, visionary, intolerant, power-weilding bishops and those literal doctrines and simple rituals handed down from above to unite believers and hold the young church against the forces that opposed it.

Still, that much more mystical, interior, and self-driven Christianity does bear an awesome resemblance to something we’re familiar with.

More on Thursday.


  1. Claire
    Claire June 4, 2019 12:35 pm

    Which I’ve read — in autographed copy direct from the author. Damn good read, too!

  2. Bear
    Bear June 4, 2019 1:58 pm

    I have copies 12 and 22.

  3. larryarnold
    larryarnold June 4, 2019 4:36 pm

    Over in the next town there’s a guy holding hour-long seminars on how the Founding Fathers really, really, really set up a Christian government, which has since been secularized. So now we need to return to the Founding Fathers’ (Christian) vision. He quotes a boatload of early documents, mostly from the 1600s when England was trying to set up New England here.

    Somehow he never gets around to including the Declaration and Constitution among his sources.

    IMHO the reason the U.S. has “separation of church and state” is that, instead of a “Christian majority,” we have a collection of Christian minorities. Picture the Catholics and Baptists cooperating to form a political party. Heck, picture all the different brands of Baptists getting along long enough to run a session of Congress. Even my Methodist church has issues we get into theological food-fights over.

    It’s also possible that Christianity might never have survived had it been in the hands of the “to each his own” gnostics.

    So they would have been like today’s Libertarian Party? 😉

  4. jed
    jed June 4, 2019 8:19 pm

    Oh, sigh. Too many things to read … but I think I’ll add Pagels to my list. I think that Buddhists consider Jesus to have been a type of Boddhisatva, well, to the extent they accept his historical existence, though I doubt they worry much over the question. Well, there’s a real divergence.

    One argument I’ve heard is that the spread and tenacity of Christianity is proof of its truth. I think a similar argument could be made for Islam and Buddhism, except that Christians would say no, that’s different. As you state, another argument is that the various powers; kings, emperors, bishops, popes, etc. found that a synergy between the Church and State was beneficial for controlling populations.

    In re. Larry’s comment, I recommend reading Natelson’s “The Original Constitution”.

    And, I’ve been meaning to read more of Vin’s stuff too. Again, sigh.

    Also, there’s some rumbling in my head about reconciling New Testament and Old Testament, meanings of words, esp. “sin”, and differing expectations for the Messiah. Too much to go into, and I don’t remember enough of it now.

  5. Claire
    Claire June 5, 2019 10:37 am

    Oh, thank you for that link, jimmy lynn koch! I’ve been to in the past but forgot all about it in the white heat of writing this blog entry. It’s an invaluable site.

  6. Claire
    Claire June 5, 2019 10:39 am

    “IMHO the reason the U.S. has “separation of church and state” is that, instead of a “Christian majority,” we have a collection of Christian minorities.”

    Heh. Excellent point (in an excellent comment), larryarnold.

    “So they would have been like today’s Libertarian Party?”

    LOL! No, they might have been losers like the LP, but IMHO for opposite reasons — too pure to join any self-serving organization.

  7. Claire
    Claire June 5, 2019 10:41 am

    “I have copies 12 and 22.:

    #15 for me. And I pulled it out and began re-reading it this morning, thanks to your reminder. It’s definitely a good read.

    BTW, you did a beautiful, evocative job on the cover.

  8. Claire
    Claire June 5, 2019 10:48 am

    “One argument I’ve heard is that the spread and tenacity of Christianity is proof of its truth. I think a similar argument could be made for Islam and Buddhism, except that Christians would say no, that’s different.”

    I’ve also had people claim that the sheer age of the biblical scriptures is proof of their veracity, which begs the question, “How old does a piece of writing have to be before it becomes true?” Are the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Babylonian Enuma Elish true? (Both pre-date and apparently influenced the Hebrew scriptures.)

    The answer to that is probably, “But nobody believes in the BotD or the Enuma Elish today.” But of course, people do believe in them, though in a different form. The bible’s 10 Commandments appear to have been derived from the BoD, and the creation myth in Genesis from the EE, so those older works are still firmly embedded in the Judeo-Christian belief system.

    In one of her other books, Pagels quotes a 20th-century Catholic theologian as not only calling the gnostic books total nonsense (which of course they may be), but claiming that “a process like science” acted to ensure that only the “true” books became canonical.

    A process like science? Banning, burning, threatening, and decreeing by executive fiat? Yegads!

  9. jed
    jed June 5, 2019 6:16 pm

    The ageist argument is probably based on some reasoning that it was god’s will that the Canon be preserved.

    Now, the Enûma Eliš, I might want to look at. Fish-men? How Lovecraftian! Possibly, (paging Larry Correia) one could end up with a decent income as a writer, mining ancient manuscripts for story ideas. I would like for Beowulf to be true, but I suppose it isn’t old enough yet. Neither are the writings of Copernicus and Gallileo.

    I was taught the fiction that divine guidance was used at the Council of Nicea to choose which books formed the Canon. At that time, I suppose that religion was considered to be science.

  10. larryarnold
    larryarnold June 5, 2019 10:48 pm

    for opposite reasons — too pure to join any self-serving organization.

    “Opposite?” I know lots of libertarians, myself included, who are too “pure” to join the LP.

  11. Claire
    Claire June 6, 2019 9:09 am

    “‘Opposite?’ I know lots of libertarians, myself included, who are too “pure” to join the LP.”

    I put that badly. I’m also too “pure” for the wretched LP, and I suspect most people here are the same.

    Still … yeah, the LP is ineffective by being ridiculously compromising and corrupt. But there are other ways for freedomistas to be ineffective.

  12. The Real Kurt
    The Real Kurt June 7, 2019 10:41 pm

    I’m going off on a rant here. Forgive me?

    Jesus was one of many known mystery religion prophets in the area at the time, mostly offshoots of Zorastrianism – they were a pestilence to the Romans, and the only reason Jesus is remarkable is that Saul of Tarsus came along a century later and suffered his conversion.

    Saul, later Paul, was no model of libertarian thought, and though it isn’t truly fair to judge him by standards, still the resonance of his thought rang down through the centuries, and the damage it caused to liberty needs to be recognized and countered.

    Worse, there’s actually little evidence from the time to support the existence of Jesus, and decent reason to doubt he existed.

    Latterly, and following the path of Paul, the Council of Nicea ensured the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church, which wasn’t broken until Luther (and then only partially). Don’t get me started on Calvin.

    Frankly, Christianity is based on mirages and hallucinations – but then all religions are, and that includes the secular ones, involving worship of the State.

    The Real Kurt

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