Wisdom From Other Gospels

Elaine Pagels is a brilliant and widely-respected scholar, a professor of religion at Princeton University, generally regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of the so-called “secret gospels” found at Nag Hammadi some years ago. Pagels joined the university faculty during my ministry in Princeton. I remember how warmly she was taken into the hearts not only of the academic community but also of the people of the town when her seven year old son died of illness and when, unbelievably, a year later, her husband, Heinz Pagels, a theoretical physicist, was killed in a hiking accident.

It was partly out of these immense losses that she began her works on the origin of the idea of sin and of Satan leading to her works on Adam and Eve, the Gnostic Gospels and, most recently, “Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas.”

Pagels begins this wonderfully readable book by telling of her experience of stepping into a church in New York City one Sunday morning after a sleepless night of worry about her child. She writes,

Standing in the back of that church, I recognized… that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child, and here was a community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church, I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for [our child] and for the rest of us.

Reading that, I was struck by how much her words resonated with my own hope and vision for religious community – that, whatever else it is as an institution, it will be, above all, as she says, “a… community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”

I was struck, too, in this reading – as I was several times while at Princeton – that this is clearly a woman who is deeply moved and inspired by religious community quite apart from whatever that particular church’s beliefs and creeds might be. In fact, she writes that the traditional statements of Christian belief sounded strange to her having, as she puts it, “…little to do with whatever transactions we were making with one another, with ourselves…” “I was,” she says, “acutely aware that we met there driven by need and desire; yet sometimes I dared hope that such communion has the potential to transform us.”

I have dared the same hope.

Pagels writes that, as she visited that church, as an historian of religion, she began to wonder “how being a Christian became synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs.” While she clearly loved the experience of religious community, her scholarly work helped her clarify, she says, what she cannot love [in orthodox Christianity]: and that is, in her words, “the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs – however these vary from church to church – coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.”

And, of course, it was reaction against that demand for uniformity of belief that gave rise to our own non-traditional, liberal religious faith. Our founders in nineteenth century America, though they were themselves Christian ministers, could not love the demand of orthodoxy that all who cared to be “Christian” abide by a single set of beliefs. And they, too, could not love the orthodox conviction that the only way to know God was through unquestioning assent to an ancient catechism of creeds and beliefs.

Our Universalist forebears insisted that God’s love is universal, that it extends to every person, without exception. And our Unitarian founders proclaimed that reason and toleration must be the foundation of our religious study and seeking. Our forebears rejected the centuries-old creeds of the church and rejected also the requirement that the Bible be revered as the inerrant Word of God. Almost two centuries later, we included in our Seven Principles the statement, “We gather to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

How did this orthodoxy come about, this insistence even unto death that there is only one true faith, one true gospel, one true path to God? This is the question that Pagels responds to with such clarity in her book and I think it is a question and a response that is of significant interest to us of liberal faith. The story of the development of Christian orthodoxy Pagels tells is knowledge that is invaluable to us in understanding for ourselves our place in the religious pantheon and in our task of helping other to understand us. That story is framed in the broad and general recognition that Christian orthodoxy rests on two pillars: the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and the Creeds of the church, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Orthodox Christians believe that the Bible, as it has come down to us through the centuries, is the divinely-inspired, even “divinely-dictated” sole ground for belief, for knowledge of God, for salvation, and for knowledge of how to live. Orthodox Christians believe that the historical Creeds are the true interpretations of the Bible faith – summaries or “outlines” of the true biblical faith. But it was not ever thus. Pagels writes, “…the most exciting thing about research into Christian beginnings has been to unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted.”

While many of us may assume that Christianity has always been the same, that is not at all the case. For almost four hundred years Christians were divided broadly in their faith, in their allegiances, beliefs, and practices. There was certainly no unanimity of belief about the nature of the central figure of their faith, Jesus. If there was commonality among Christians, it was in the nature of their relation to each other – in the character of their community. As Pagels writes, “From the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians as I did on the February morning, was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family.”

The Christians were notable among other religions of the East for their generosity toward each other. Even their detractors said of them, “See how they love one another.” In the time of persecution, they were noted for their steadfastness, for their courage and defiance even in the face of death.

But, in matters of faith and belief, they differed with each other with the same steadfastness and, in time, even persecuted each other for their differences. We know this about early Christianity because scholars such as Elaine Pagels and many others have spent many years carefully studying the huge collection of “secret” gospels, letters, and treatises that miraculously survived through the decades.

In 1945, on a hillside near Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian farmer named Muhammad Ali unearthed that collection in a six foot earthen jar that had been buried there 1600 years before. I’ve read that some of the documents were used by Muhammad’s mother to start her cooking fire before they were rescued; but most were intact and they tell a remarkable story.

For our interests, they tell a story of a kind and quality of Christian faith significantly different from that which has come down to us. Some of those differences are so significant that I cannot help wondering if our religion would even exist – if it would have needed to exist – if that earlier quality of faith expressed in condemned texts had not been suppressed.

For example, one of the major sets of scrolls discovered at Nag Hammadi constitutes what has come to be known as “The Gospel of Thomas.” Thomas you may remember as the disciple known as “doubting Thomas” because he was skeptical that Jesus had returned after his crucifixion. In one place in the Gospel of Thomas it is written, “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.'” Pagels writes, “The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me self-evidently true.”

For the leaders of the Christian communities in the first two centuries, therein lay the problem. There were at that time two major strains of faith. One strain, embedded in the Gospel of John, proclaimed that one can only experience God through the divine Jesus.

The other strain expressed in that Gospel of Thomas maintained that, since we are all made in the image of God we all have the divine light in us and each, therefore can come to find God in our own way. The so-called “Thomas Christians” were described caustically by the “Church Father,” Tertullian, in this way, “Whenever they hit upon something new, they immediately call their audacity a spiritual gift – no unity, only diversity! And so we see clearly that most of them disagree with one another, since they are willing to say of certain points, ‘This is not so,’ and ‘I take this to mean something different,’ and ‘I do not accept that.’ ” The third century Tertullian might have been complaining about us Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century!

One might have hoped that these two views could have co-existed and grown to be somehow complementary. But it was not to be; instead, they came to be rival views that divided the Christian communities. That rivalry, that diversity of religious viewpoint, could not long continue for essentially two reasons: first, the Christian communities from the very beginning were under threat from the authorities and other religious leaders. The leading Christian bishops Irenaeous and Athanasius were convinced that only by unifying the Christian message and establishing authority in matters of doctrine could Christians survive in a hostile, uncomprehending world.

Second, the bishops held that it was necessary to establish what among all the diverse views and beliefs was truth, divinely revealed, and not merely the independent ideas and fantasies of self-proclaimed prophets and visionaries. It was time to separate the wheat from the chaff – and the bishops had no doubt that they knew which was which.

You know that there are four Gospels in the New Testament ascribed to (but by no means written by) Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Gospels Mathew, Mark, and Luke are similar (therefore called the “synoptic Gospels”). They focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospel of John, however, is significantly different. It is more philosophical, more theological – and it is the primary source of the doctrine that salvation lies only in accepting that Jesus is Lord, that is, that Jesus is God. Some scholars, like Pagels, believe that the Gospel of John was written specifically to counter those beliefs and those writings such as the Gospel of Thomas that tended to foster diversity and toleration in belief. The very first words of the Gospel of John are, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, And the Word was God.” “The Word,” in that statement, refers to Jesus. So there is to be no question, according to that Gospel, written to counter any teachings and writings – Jesus was God.

This, of course, is the view that prevailed and only those documents, Gospels, and letters that supported this view were acceptable. They were to be the only “true” scriptures, accepted into the “canon” what we know as the Bible. “Canon” was a carpentry term – what we call today a “plumb line,” a weight at the end of a string to assure that a structure is “true” or “straight.”

Finally, in the 4th century, 367, Bishop Athanasius issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that the monks, copiers and keepers of Gospels and other texts, destroy all writings except those established as canon. All were to be destroyed except those that have come down to us as the New Testament. But someone, or the monks of some monastery, gathered up all the condemned writings, including the Gospel of Thomas, took them out of the monastery libraries, sealed them in a large, clay jar, and buried them on a hillside near Nag Hammadi. There Muhammad Ali discovered them, 1600 years later.

Obviously, the intentions of the bishops of the third century to establish one true faith and one true scripture by establishing creeds grounded in one inviolable collection of texts were not thwarted by this discovery. Orthodox, traditional, and fundamentalist Christians, those committed to the fundamentals of those creeds and texts, simply keep their faith with the bishops, literally, and declare that everything in those discoveries is heresy, the work of fools, madmen, or devils. And faithful scholars, such as scholar-priest Raymond Brown, declare that what the bishops proclaimed as rubbish was rubbish then and is still rubbish.

But we who gather to promote a responsible search for truth and meaning have now at hand (thanks to scholars such as Elaine Page) sample evidence that our forebears were by no means of one mind in matters of faith and belief. We know that whole communities of faith shared our commitment to the belief that every individual has that inner light by which to seek truth, find meaning, and know God.

And we know that what mattered most in the religious life of those damned as heretic and outcast was ultimately not this dogma or that creed but “a community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”

In the midst of her book, writing about faith, community, and the various beliefs that have filled our religious history, Elaine Pagels writes of her experience at the Christmas Eve Service last year in her church. I’d like to share that passage with you in closing. (I read that passage at the close of the sermon as I delivered it, but am not at liberty to add that much text here. I do, however, commend it to you. You will find it in “Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas,” by Elaine Pagels, in pages 144-145.)

…the most exciting thing abut research into Christian beginnings has been to unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted.