Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Beyond Pagels to Belief

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:
  1. 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.

  2. Creation, the flesh, the body, etc., are at best illusory, at worst evil. Salvation is attained by transcending the body/flesh.

  3. 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.
I note that every time we recite The Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Office and at Baptisms, and every time we recite The Nicene Creed in the rite for Holy Eucharist, we drive a stake into the heart of these core Gnostic convictions.

Other ideas Pagels does include (however subtly) in Beyond Belief are equally troubling:

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.
Pagels deserves credit for successfully popularizing an alternative to the Gospel proclaimed in the New Testament and by the Church through the ages. However, this alternative amounts to little more than a sanitized, safe, and subjective “Christianity” that fits comfortably with contemporary middle-to-upper-middle class, white, college-educated, suburban culture (the sort of stuff that, as one website puts it, “white people like”). Institutions stifle creativity and spirituality. God is within you, not “out there” somewhere. Truth is subjective. Act however you feel is okay. The important thing is to be true to yourself and to live and let live.

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.


Joe Rawls said...

Another great post, Bryan. I especially like your notion of stealth orthodoxy sneaking in via the liturgy.
People like Pagels, Spong, and (from a somewhat different point on the intellectual spectrum) Richard Dawkins seem oblivious to the fact that their own ideologies are actually faith-based belief systems, as much as are the worldviews of James Dobson or the Pope.
Mainline churches that spend most of their energy catering to neo-Gnostic seekers are really making sure that the deck chairs on the Titanic are nice and comfy.

Bryan Owen said...

I agree with you, Joe, about the faith-based character of the belief systems espoused by figures as diverse as the Pope, James Dobson, and Richard Dawkins. Indeed, I posted a piece relevant to this issue over a year ago entitled The Universality of Faith. At the time, I was in conversation with a somewhat stubborn atheist/scientist who dogmatically refused to even entertain the broader definition of faith I was using on the basis of H. Richard Niebuhr's work. I still think that's every bit as close-minded (perhaps even fideistic) as the dogmatic stubbornness of biblical fundamentalists.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Just commenting on the following, though I have bookmarked this and will take an interest in this discussion if it develops. My comment has nothing to do with Pagels, just the following.

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.


I think there is a major distinction to be made between how one views the creation and the way that G-d was/is understood in the OT. My own sense is that much of the OT, particularly the Pentateuch, is is a melange of concepts of the deity, in some cases an effort to rationalize human failings by, in effect, blaming G-d, in others a perception of the deity as a necessary authority for a morality that transcends human hypocrisy and self interest. The portions of the OT that evoke a god of war and attribute victory to this deity have no reference to what Jesus was about (other than to say you have heard it said, BUT) and are justifiably criticized. Amos' hatred and despising of feast days is an appropriate beginning point for a valid Christian iconoclasm. I write this because I wonder if the heresy you describe is not unfairly assuming that by being critical of the pugnacious deity who is often referenced in the OT, one is assuming this is the same deity who was/is the creator. I think the whole matter of creation is a vast mystery and that trying to claim a consistency between the creator and the smiter of enemies is as difficult as numerous other theological suppositions that are based on conjecture.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Stephen.

Orthodox Christianity understands the God described in both the Old and the New Testaments as one and the same God. This by no means rules out seeing a development in the understanding of this God in the Old Testament.

The heresy to which I am referring in the part of my posting you cite is called "Marcionism" (and it was either influential on Gnostic Christianity and/or Gnostic Christianity largely replicated it).

Here's the gist of Marcionism as I once put it in a sermon:

"'The Old Testament depicts a God of vengeance and justice whereas the New Testament reveals a God of mercy and love.'

"Ever hear anybody say something like that? It’s easy to see why they might. Especially when you read passages in the Old Testament in which God commands the destruction of entire peoples or punishes sin by inflicting death or disease. The contrast with Jesus can seem striking.

"It sure did to Marcion. The son of a bishop and a shipowner, Marcion lived in the 2nd Century. He taught that the God of the OT is a God of wrath and the author of evil. The OT God, he said, cares only about Jews and is prepared to destroy all other people.

"But in the NT Marcion found a different God, a kind God who takes pity on the Gentiles, sending His only Son to free us from the evil clutches of the OT God. Marcion was so convinced of the incompatibility of Jewish and Christian scriptures that he rejected the entire OT and excised those NT writings which he thought favored the Jews, including the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and the letter to the Hebrews.

"Marcion gained a number of followers, but the Church took a stand against him. He was excommunicated and condemned as a heretic in 144 A.D. But in spite of his condemnation, the spirit of Marcion lives on. We detect it anytime we’re tempted to pit the NT against the OT, and anytime we hear someone claim that the Jews aren’t really God’s beloved people. As though the Bible, in spite of the diversity of its writings, is not a unified whole, bearing witness to one God, but really the story of two rival Gods.

"That’s Marcion’s heresy."

And the Church was absolutely right to condemn it.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Marcionism (responding)

My original effort was an attempt to avoid the brush that gives us Marcionism. There is a spectrum in the Old Testament from G-d as helper, healer, companion, guide, friend to the vengeful deity who takes sides. The orthodox declaration that describes this heresy does not acknowledge this spectrum and therefore opens the door to the very problem of the contemporary church. At a time when we, and include Bonhoeffer in this, should be moving toward an understanding of Jesus as the avatar of an unfolding and evolutionary morality that moves toward nonviolence, our shoes are stuck to the gummed pavement of our past. Make sense? I would settle for a nonviolence hermeneutic or an acknowledgement of creedal messianism as the underlying isue facing the churches.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarifying comments, Stephen. I agree with you that Marcionism does not acknowledge the spectrum you note in the OT. I think that orthodoxy can and does.

Perhaps where we begin to part company is when you write: "At a time when we, and include Bonhoeffer in this, should be moving toward an understanding of Jesus as the avatar of an unfolding and evolutionary morality that moves toward nonviolence, our shoes are stuck to the gummed pavement of our past."

I'm not sure what you mean by "an unfolding and evolutionary morality," but some on the far Left use that kind of language as justification for jettisoning the dogmatic and moral core of the Christian faith for something more "palatable" to the kind of social location I describe in my original posting - a privileged social location that finds the kind of theology lite served up by Pagels, et. al. particularly suitable because (IMHO) it fails to hold persons accountable to any authority higher than themselves.

I don't accept that the problem facing the Church today is that we've got "our shoes ... stuck to the gummed pavement of our past." Quite the contrary, I think that many of our problems is that we don't know our past, we don't learn from it, and we (good heirs of the Enlightenment that we are) refuse to acknowledge its authority over our individual subjective preferences.

An excellent place to correct this kind of negative bias against the tradition is Luke Timothy Johnson's wonderful book on the Nicene Creed entitled, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. The case Johnson makes for creedal Christianity lives up to the promise that we can "pursue both internal transformation through prayer and the transformation of society through prophetic engagement" while embracing the historic faith of the Church. I commend the book to you.

Chris+ said...

I read the several years ago. All the points you raise trouble me, as well. I seem to remember a major piece of Pagels' argument having to to with the Gospel of John making Jesus the sole repository of divinity. She seems to see this in an exclusionary way. While Jesus is a unique expression of divinity, he is an embodied invitation for participation in the life of God. John's Gospel seems to make this very clear. John 3:16; 6:51-56; 15:1-5. I remember Pagels' contrast was so stark that I wondered if she had ever read the Gospel of John.

Bryan Owen said...

I'm with you, Chris. I, too, wonder if Pagels has really read John. Her characterization of John and the Church Fathers strike me as at best misreadings and/or caricatures that often rely on biased generalizations rather than holistic readings.