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.