Subscribe to Christianity Today
I can't be the only Christian reading Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels' celebration of Gnostic theology and texts, and thinking, "What's so heretical about this?" This best-selling book, and its accompanying train of reviews and author profiles, presents a familiar cast of characters. The Gnostics, developers of a variety of Christ-flavored spiritualities in the earliest centuries of the Christian era, are enthroned as noble seekers of enlightenment. The early Church, which rejected these theologies, is assigned its usual role of oppressor, afflicting believers with rigid Creeds. It's the old story of oppressive bad guys and rebellious good guys, and Americans never tire of it.
But a look at the supposedly scandalous material comes up short. The most-cited Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, mixes familiar sayings of Jesus with others of more mystical bent. These are sometimes cryptic but hardly outrageous. They're not far different from Christian poetry and mysticism through the ages. Where's the problem?
Well, not here. Early Christians rejected Gnosticism, all right. But what Pagels presents is not the part they rejected. What they rejected, Pagels does not present.
Let's look at the first part of that statement. Pagels in fact does Christianity a service by calling us afresh to the truth that God is within and permeates all creation. Every person can awaken to this and experience God directly.
This truth gets emphasized or neglected according to the pressures of the surrounding culture. For a long time, Christianity had to cope with Enlightenment rationalism, which held suspect all things supernatural. Followers of many religious traditions have benefited from recent years' new openness. But even in hostile environments, direct encounter with the divine can't be fully suppressed, because it is true. It keeps bursting out, in the form of Christian mysticism or as charismatic and evangelical movements. When a preacher says you can have a "personal relationship with Jesus" ...