A few years ago a parishioner asked me to read Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003). She was concerned by the book’s attack on the Gospel according to John and orthodox Christianity, and she gave me the high compliment of asking for my take on the book. Although it’s been a while since I read it, I took careful notes and wrote out some thoughts which I have slightly revised below. I post this because I continue to be concerned that Episcopalians take this stuff seriously. Greg Jones, my colleague at “The Anglican Centrist,” puts it well: “We can do better [than read folks like Pagels] – and still fulfill our [desire for] an open-minded, inclusive, progressive and tolerant intellectual community.”
Part of the problem with Pagels’ Beyond Belief is that she offers a selective retrieval of Gnostic Christianity. She omits at least the following core Gnostic convictions:
- The world was created, not by the true God, but by a demiurge (the purportedly jealous, judging "god" of the Old Testament). The Church condemned this as a heresy, and for good reason: it not only rejects the goodness of creation, but also leads to rejecting the Jewish influence on Jesus and the Church, and/or it encourages a kind of anti-Semitism.
- Creation, the flesh, the body, etc., are at best illusory, at worst evil. Salvation is attained by transcending the body/flesh.
- Jesus didn’t really suffer in the crucifixion, and/or he left his body on the cross and “the real Jesus” appeared to the disciples while the nails were being driven into the body. In other words, Jesus only appeared to be a flesh and blood human being, and he only appeared to suffer on the cross. The Church rightly rejected this teaching (called “docetism”) as heresy.
Other ideas Pagels does include (however subtly) in Beyond Belief are equally troubling:
- The world is divided between the simple-minded (creedal Christians or “believers”) and the spiritually elite (“seekers” who alone attain salvation by transcending dogma for direct knowledge of god within). Practically speaking, this means that the private and the subjective are more important and better guides to truth than the public and the communal. The dichotomy of "believers" vs. "seekers" strikes me as so incredibly simplistic that it seems, well … beyond belief!
- Pagels posits a kind of works-righteousness by saying that salvation is attained through gnosis (the right knowledge). There's little room for a theology of grace here.
- Pagels posits a kind of predestination on the basis of intelligence. Only “the elect” with the right spiritual and mental capacities can acquire and understand the true gnosis. This paints a pretty grim picture for infants, the mentally retarded or disabled, and for those who aren’t intellectually gifted.
- Theology and practice are incompatible. Put another way, you can have corporate practices without the corresponding doctrine. I find this ludicrous. Liturgy (corporate practice in the Church, or common prayer), always presupposes and enacts theology that can be formulated as doctrine. At its best, the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer enact the faith of the Church as articulated in scripture and the historic creeds. Liturgy (the work or practice of the people) goes hand in glove with theology (the faith of the Church). But Pagels is so strongly anti-doctrine and anti-creed that she drives an untenable wedge between theology (doctrine) and practice (liturgy).
- Orthodox Christianity is not inspired by the love of God and revealed truth, but rather by a ruthless desire to maintain power and control. A similarly reductionistic approach can be found in the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. So Pagels’ agenda is as new and “postmodern” as mid to late-nineteenth Century hermeneutics of suspicion.
- Orthodox Christianity reduces faith to “mere” belief and downplays action. I can’t help but wonder how anyone who has read the synoptic gospels and the epistles (including, especially, the letter of James) could possibly make such an erroneous assertion.
As Christians living in an increasingly post-Christian culture, we need to understand why alternatives like the one offered by Pagels resonate for so many people. What needs does it address that, for whatever reason (whether real or perceived), the Church is failing to meet? How can we do a better of job of communicating the faith of the Church and why it matters?
One of the strengths of the Anglican tradition in this regard is our liturgy. We are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but our focus is pragmatic rather than dogmatic – on common prayer first, the substantive content of doctrine second. (Granted, this can become a weakness if we forget, downplay, or reject the importance of doctrine!) As a patristic maxim puts it, “Praying shapes believing.” If I were asked to summarize the Anglican Prayer Book tradition in one sentence, that would be it.
I think this is one area where so-called “seekers” – those who so highly value “experience” (something which folks like Pagels hone in on to great advantage) – can connect with The Episcopal Church. The practice of our faith through common prayer is the primary focus. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for the finer points of doctrine, and lots of room for experiential exploration. (Again, this can become a problem if the finer points of doctrine are neglected or brushed off as unimportant.) So it’s possible that “seekers” can be converted to orthodox Christianity, not necessarily by argument, but by a personal connection with faithful Episcopalians and by regular, ongoing participation in the common prayer of our liturgy. In the process, orthodox doctrine slips in through the backdoor of liturgical practice (a historical and corporate rather than a merely immediate and subjective mode of experience) in the right way and at the right time. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. When it does, it’s powerful stuff!
Even though she has attended worship in The Episcopal Church, Pagels doesn’t seem aware of this alternative approach to orthodoxy in her writings. Instead, her diatribes are so fixated on (oftentimes stereotypical) portraits of rigid Roman Catholicism and Bible-thumping Protestantism that there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. As reformed catholics who inhabit a middle-ground between these extremes, we Episcopalians don’t easily fit the model Pagels works with.
At its best, Anglicanism can learn from and meet the challenge posed by figures like Pagels by using what it already has: its inner resources that emphasize doing the faith of the Church (especially liturgy) as a doorway to believing the faith of the Church.