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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elaine Pagels and god

Just take a leisurely stroll into the local book franchise, whether Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or whatever you have down the street. Meander your way toward the religion section, and glance over the books. Chances are you will notice a growing segment of manuscripts there that are declaring an alternative ‘Christianity’ along with alternative gospels. One of the major players in this new wave of unconventionalism is Elaine Pagels. She has written a number of pieces over the years. So the reader wants to know what is at the heart of her writing. A good place to start is with her The Gnostic Gospels.

One of the striking items in Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels, is that she lays out the liberal agenda running in much western Christianity, and chooses to find her authority for it in reworked Gnostic texts. For example, she validates the denial of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as coming from Gnostic sources that, in her mind at least, are on equal footing with orthodox sources (Chapter 1).

One of Pagels’ main themes, which runs like an artery through her book, is her understanding of god and the gods:

“What differentiated them (Orthodox and Gnostics) was the level of their understanding. Uninitiated Christians (read: the Orthodox-MWP) mistakenly worshiped the creator, as if he were God; they believed in Christ as the one who would save them from sin, and who they believed had risen bodily from the dead: they accepted him by faith, but without understanding the mystery of his nature - or their own. But those who had gone on to receive gnosis (read: the enlightened elitists-MWP) had come to recognize Christ as the one sent from the Father of truth, whose coming revealed to them that their own nature was identical with his - and with God’s” (116).

The main sections where Pagels deals with god specifically is in Chapter 3, 6 and in the conclusion. In these three chapters she draws a picture for her readers of the S/he god (51), who is the primal Anthropos (122-3). And this primal Anthropos is really humanity which is god-over-all (144).

In Pagels’ description of how the Gnostics saw god as being masculine and feminine sounds very eastern. She herself agrees, ‘Proponents of these diverse views (the various Gnostic camps) agreed that the divine is to be understood in terms of a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites - a concept that may be akin to the eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity” (51). Not only is this supposed to be the case, but then the creator (who is a male and is not the supreme deity) is almost always scolded (in Gnostic texts) by the superior female power (58). Pagels next goes on to show that this understanding of god was worked out in an egalitarian structure within the Gnostic groups. Because the Gnostics were supposed to be in touch with the divine-feminine, they placed women on equal clerical-footing with men, “[…] some were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops” (60).

One final note with regard to Pagels’ understanding of god, has to do with her understanding of Christ and us. Her claim is that Christ is no more divine than we are, in essence. Our natures are identical so that when we achieve gnosis we find that we are really Christ’s twin: “But those who had gone on to receive gnosis had come to recognize Christ as the one sent from the Father of Truth, whose coming revealed to them that their own nature was identical with his - and with God’s” (116). This brings her to point out a little later, once we achieve gnosis, we no longer see ourselves as Christian, but as Christ (134).

To seal up her drive for the unconventional, Pagels feels as though Christianity is impoverished by having done away with its opponents: “To the impoverishment of Christian tradition, gnosticism, which offered alternatives to what became the main thrust of Christian orthodoxy, was forced outside” (149). And later, after trying to foist a fa├žade of objectivity, she boasts that Gnostic texts provide “a powerful alternative” (151) to orthodox Christianity. This desire for the alternative version has been one of her mantras throughout the whole book.

Looking over Pagles’ book, and her attempts to redefine god in a Gnostic (enlightened elitist) vision, she has lost three extremely important interrelated points in understanding god, humanity, history, and meaningfulness.

First, there is the otherness of God, the I-Thou distinctive. If, at the end of the day, god is Anthropos, then we can rewrite morality and telos (purpose), which means…whatever we (the enlightened) want it to mean, at any moment in history.

Next, Pagels has also cast off the transcendent-immanent tension. God is totalitar aliter (wholly other), and yet chooses to reveal to us something of Himself. This keeps the here and now from being swallowed up into the cosmic blender of non-consciousness. Her Gnostic paradigm absorbs the many into the one, which would seem to open the door to totalitarian social and political forces.

Finally, intertwined with the above two points, she has stripped Christ of any aspect of having been and continuing to be “God and man, in two distinct natures, and one person forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.21). Therefore, her god’s self-disclosure has no real flesh-and-blood face. Nor does Pagels’ god have a respect for the distinction of human sexuality, for it didn’t come as one sex or the other. Her god is a hermaphrodite, a cosmic blend of AC/DC currents. Her Christ ends up being simply a reflection of a post-60s America. The repercussions of all this are far reaching, and some of those ramifications are political. As John Leith notes in Creeds of the Churches, when referring to Arianism and the Imperial strategy: “Imperialism as a political strategy was more compatible with the notion that Jesus Christ is something less than the full and absolute Word of God” (29).

In a self-conscious move, Elaine Pagels has repainted the face of god away from Christian orthodoxy, to something that feels better to a 21st Century Age of Aquarius. A god who can not condemn, because there is no standard outside ourselves by which to judge good and evil. “[The gnostic] learns what he needs to know by himself in meditative silence. Consequently, he considers himself equal to everyone, maintaining his own independence of anyone else’s authority […]” (132). Sounds eerily modern and American!


Works Cited

Leith, John H., ed. Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present. Garden City: Anchor Books. 1963.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books. (1979) 1989.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism. Suwanee GA: Great Commission Publications. 1998.

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