Can You Believe It?
The Gospel according to Elaine Pagels.
Aug 4, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 45 • By GARY A. ANDERSON
ELAINE PAGELS opens "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," her newest book on early Christianity, with a moving account about a rare but fatal illness that afflicted her young son Mark. One morning, just days after hearing the bad news, she ducked into the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City to get out of the rain. As it happened, services were in progress, and Pagels was moved by the soaring harmonies of the choir and clear resonant voice of the priest. "Here is a family," she concluded, "that knows how to face death."
"What is faith?" Pagels pondered. "Certainly not simple assent to the set of beliefs that worshipers in that church recited every week ('We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, . . .')." These often-repeated clauses seem to Pagels "like barely intelligible signals from the surface, heard at the bottom of the sea." And here is where her scholarly quest begins. Moved by the dulcet tones of the liturgy but repelled by the forbidding idiom of the creed, Pagels poses her question: How did Christianity become synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs?
The problem began with the act of assembling the New Testament itself. According to Pagels the earliest group of Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels), shared with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas a more restrained sense of the identity of Jesus. He was not God but simply a great man. This ancient and happy state of affairs was muddled once the Gospel of John was added to the canonical collection and Thomas squeezed out. The result: Jesus, shockingly, is identified as God.
THE AUDACIOUS MOVE of John to call Jesus "God" leads inevitably to a graver error, the restriction of the path of salvation to the way of Christ. Again, the Gospel of Thomas provides us with a more humane alternative: God was not restricted to a single group's hold on the truth. Truth is to be found by looking within oneself.
Early Christian thinkers were threatened by the audacious pluralism of the Gnostic camp and, armed with the Synoptics plus John, they moved to close it down by transforming Christianity into "a single, authorized set of beliefs." As a result, all subsequent religious experience was forced to conform to the straitjacket of orthodoxy.
It is difficult to know how to respond to this remarkable assessment. If the reader gains the impression that Pagels has somewhat dangerously collapsed the historical gap between the first and the twenty-first centuries by making Gnosticism appear like a form of New Age religiosity, the impression would not be wrong. She recounts that once while having tea at a Zen center in San Francisco she treated the local roshi to an account of the Gospel of Thomas. This man exclaimed: "Had I known the Gospel of Thomas, I wouldn't have had to become a Buddhist!" For Pagels, Gnosticism is not a set of beliefs but a path of inner enlightenment. Jesus, like a good Zen master, answers his disciples with a koan whose purpose is to show the believer that "the capacity to discover the truth is within you." Eschewing the need to create a "unified church," the community that formed around the Gospel of Thomas put its emphasis on each person's search for God.
To my ear, this doesn't sound much like ancient Gnosticism, which was actually a highly elitist and esoteric movement. But even more of a problem is Pagels's characterization of the creeds of the Church. Lewis Carroll's line that the White Queen was capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast seems to be Pagels's notion of what is involved in reciting the creed. No doubt this is because she interprets the creed through her own inability to believe it. The book lacks any attempt to engage what the Christian theological tradition has said about the nature of the truth claims enshrined within the creed. One wishes that Pagels had followed the practice of Thomas Aquinas: Before refuting the position of your opponent you ought to represent his position in the strongest possible fashion. (Indeed a book that would have proved an excellent partner is Frances Young's brilliant study of the origin of the rule of faith and its continuing utility, "Virtuoso Theology.")