culture, politics, commentary, criticism

Thursday, March 18, 2004
The real contribution of Elaine Pagels. Here is a not-particularly insightful review of Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels, courtesy of
Richard Holloway, in the Guardian:
Pagels uses her analysis of John and Thomas to discuss the struggle that went on in early Christianity between those who believed that Jesus taught that the divine light was present in all people; and those who, like the author of John, claimed that Jesus had taught that humanity inhabited a profound spiritual darkness that only he could illuminate. There was no salvation except through him. Significantly, it is to Thomas in the Gospel of John that Jesus says: "No man cometh unto the Father, but by me." The author of John won the contest, of course, and the rest is history. Except that scholars like Pagels are beginning to regret that the victory was so overwhelming and one-sided. She admires the mystical generalities of the gnostics and is temperamentally allergic to the violent certainties of the winning side in Catholic Christianity.

The fact is that humans, if they want one at all, generally craft the kind of religion that suits them. If you want a modern version of this ancient conflict you could compare the fluffy affirmations of New Age spirituality with the flinty negations of Vatican Catholicism. Some people like a spirituality that soothes and affirms their humanity, while others like a faith that has a bit of the lash to it. It usually comes down to a choice between a swamp and a hard place.
This dart misses not only the bullseye but the whole target. Gnosticism is not a fluffy form of hedonistic affirmation, as Holloway disparagingly characterizes it.

Through her cumulative work Pagels has pointed out that gnostics sought an unmediated experience of divinity, while Vatican Catholicism, St. Augustine, and the Gospel of John all demand intermediaries who must necessarily act as a bridge, or gatekeeper, or more likely a tollbooth between the believer and God.

The thrust of her insight is not the soft vs. hard dichotomy but the direct vs. politicized visions of religion. If "divine light [were] present in all people," we wouldn't need go-betweens to tint Jesus's teachings with their biases and prejudices for political gain, a sight we see daily here in the United States.

Without religious leadership, believers would be free to worship God and live virtuous lives. Period. With the onus of religious leadership, however, believers become caught up in and responsible for agendas that have nothing to do with worship or spirituality but are instead the self-directed political goals of those in power: sending missionaries to Iraq, denying birth control to impoverished Africans, or paying vast sums in legal settlements to compensate for the pedophilia of the clergy.

The leadership of the early church existed to serve itself, not Jesus. The church's forefathers had the same morally disappointing quality of political selfishness in common with today's church leaders. Challenges to Christianity's human leaders are the embodiment of heresy because they undermine not the divine universe of matter or spirit, but the power of the people who declare what scripture means and what dogma is. Faith-based inquisitions can be overt or subtle, but they are all aggressions enforcing a human hierarchy that is at its foundation not religious but political.

The biblical canon is a power structure. Gospels that challenge hierarchy are dangerous to political power. Thomas's vision was anti-hierarchical, and that is precisely why his Gospel was squelched.

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