Undercover: Don’t Knock the Gnostics (03/06/80)

At a time when the Catholic church is moving to the right over such apparently modern issues as the legitimacy of papal authority and an admission of women to the priesthood, Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 182 pp., $ 10) has an automatic appeal. Basing her study primarily on fifty-two recently discovered scrolls that derive from the second and even the first centuries, Pagels analyzes the writings of certain early Christians who denied the legitimacy of central ecclesiastical authority, questioned or denied the doctrines of Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, saw God as a manifestation of both male and female principles, and included women in the priesthood. Stamped out as heresy, Gnosticism has returned as a book to subvert the present and to provide an ancient weapon to Catholic theologians who are again asking the kinds of questions the Gnostics asked. As Pagels writes, the Gnostic texts are emerging as “a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition.” No wonder the pope is on the warpath.

All of which is more than interesting: Pagels’ analysis of the political implications of the Resurrection doctrine is a classic of adventurous criticism. She makes clear why the Orthodox church condemned Gnostic beliefs as heresy and removed the Gnostics from history; but she also plunges the reader into an intellectual labyrinth that leads to the present far more paradoxically than does the Gnostics’ avowal of seemingly modern political positions. One comes to this passage from the Gnostic Gospel of Philip:

God created humanity; [but now human beings] create God. That is the way it is in the world—human beings make gods,and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings!

Or this, from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, attributed to Jesus:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Or this, the “nightmare parable” from the Gospel of Truth:

[They lived] as if they were sunk in sleep and found themselves in disturbing dreams. Either (there is) a place to which they are fleeing, or, without strength, they come (from) having chased after others… or they have fallen from high places, or they take off into the air though they do not even have wings… (it is as) if people were murdering them… or they themselves are killing their neighbors… When those who are going through these things wake up, they see nothing… for they are nothing.

The first passage quoted above might be from a lost draft of The Future of an Illusion; the second could begin any good book on psychoanalysis; the third might be straight out of Jung, who thought Gnostic writings represented “the spontaneous, unconscious thoughts that any orthodoxy requires its adherents to repress.”pagels2Both the Gnostics’ politics (such as their acceptance of female priests) and that labyrinth of “modern” ideas in ancient texts derive from the same source: the Gnostic denial of the fundamental split between God and man, which, in the Orthodox view, is sin. Such a split necessitated the God-given, hierarchical authority of the early Orthodox church no less than it provided the basis of the orthodoxy itself. But the Gnostics traced the presence of evil and suffering on earth not to sin but to ignorance of the truth about existence: truth (or knowledge, or gnosis) that was by its nature available only to a few.

They believed that, through discipline and initiation, men and women would discover that “whoever achieves gnosis becomes ‘no longer a Christian, but a Christ.'” God (or knowledge, or the apprehension of unity) exists within each person, but not because God has, from some other place, entered each person. Rather, the deeper truth is that God exists outside the individual, and thus can seem to “come in” only because the individual has projected God outside of him or herself (“…human beings create God”) in order to give form to the inherent religious impulse, which is the impulse to make sense of the world, to accept it.

A reader can only wonder, with no little awe, how different history would have been had this vision carried the day. As Pagels makes clear, the Gnostics would never have taken over history, as Orthodox Christianity was able to do; they were elitists with little appeal to the masses and no authority principle capable of supporting power. But had the Gnostics defeated the Orthodox church in the battle over the meaning of the Christian legacy, our culture would not have been founded on principles of authority, long since translated into the secular world, as implacable as those of orthodox Christianity have proven to be. A reader can recognize much of the modern ethos in the Gnostic writings, had the Gnostics won, the reader would not recognize the world that, after two millenia, would have resulted from their victory, which would no longer be remembered.

The Gnostic Gospels has just won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. It was a good choice.


Rolling Stone, March 6, 1980


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