Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Review of Elaine Pagels’ "Beyond Belief"

Jesus' question to his disciples echoes into our day and our culture: "But who do you say that I am?" Elaine Pagels is one scholar who has achieved success by responding with unusual and unorthodox answers. This Princeton University professor, a specialist in Gnosticism and Christian origins, has written "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," a book that remained for several weeks on bestseller lists when it first appeared in 2003. It’s not entirely mysterious that she has broken through the ivory tower ceiling of limited sales: this book has an engaging style and thoughtful content. Most importantly for this blog, I’m intrigued by the way contemporary scholarship on Jesus reaches the wider culture.

"Beyond Belief" presents a profoundly creative and thoughtful treatment of the growth and diversity of early Christianity. Despite its scholarly rigor and engagement, it reads easily and sets forth a reasonably simple thesis: In order to maintain unity among the various Christians responding to the stories circulating about Jesus, an “orthodox” treatment of his life was formed (namely, the canon), largely based on the Gospel of John as it then interpreted the three synoptic Gospels. The process thereby intentionally excluded other key texts such as, but not limited to, The Gospel of Thomas. (The full title of Pagels book might deceive here). These other texts emphasize one’s identification with God and not the orthodox identification of God with Jesus. In a word, the non-biblical texts validate other “insights or intimations of the divine” (183). Drawing from her personal experience in searching out faith, this validation of diversity is a very good idea.

Pagels decides to tell this story in a personal and lucid manner. She receives high praise for her scholarship and her sympathetic reading of history. Her command of non-canonical texts about Jesus is breathtaking as she glides effortlessly between them and manages to comment on significant themes throughout. Even when there are key antagonists to her vision for pluralism—notably Irenaeus—his creation of orthodoxy is bemoaned, but she generally does not demonize him. For example, she writes that, “although Irenaeus liked clear boundaries, he was not simply narrow-minded, and he was by no means intolerant of all difference” (133).

Perhaps the most brilliant chapter is the second, which, in some ways, represents a microcosm of the book. Pagels constructs a critical comparison between the so-called Gospel of Thomas and John’s. (Using the term “gospel” for non-canonical literature conflates varying kinds of texts. Thomas, for example, has no passion narrative, which is key to the standard treatments of Jesus’ life.) Pagels asserts convincingly that they are essentially brother texts—similar in relating Jesus’ teachings for those who receive Jesus, but radically different ways: either calling for either a trust in one’s own light (Thomas) or only in Jesus (John). Put another way—and not necessarily in Pagels’ terminology—John calls on a Savior, and Thomas follows a Wise Teacher. That two fraternal texts diverge it is not uncommon. Satire exists most vehemently between brother countries—the Germans reserve their biting humor for the Swiss, the Swiss for the Austrians, and so on. In terms of religious traditions, a parallel split exists in Buddhism between representing the Buddha as an enlightened teacher or on a savior on whose grace we must rely.

Pagels decides to keep the book relatively brief in describing a complex history. It is no surprise then that brevity leads to inflating the case. The imagery of the light within human beings (to which Pagels refers in the second chapter) is not restricted to non-canonical texts. It plays a role in the canonical Gospels in Matthew 5:14, where Jesus calls his disciples “the light of the world.” This saying within the fourfold Gospel, forms its own comment on John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.” But the counter evidence works the other way too. Like a good lawyer, she omits the curious text from John 10, where Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, “Does not the Scripture say, ‘you are gods’?” The orthodox Gospels, reputed to suppress such ideas, have their elements of diversity too.

Pagels garners all her scholarly power to make the case for a broader reception of Jesus, one that includes other “gospels.” These in turn contain interesting elements such as epinoia—creative or inventive consciousness, even imagination (164). The book works to make the contention that current Christianity would be better off with such elements. Elsewhere she has said, “I’m advocating, on some level, the inclusion of [religious texts] that were considered blasphemous. I suggest that there are ways of embracing a far wider spectrum of religious diversity within Christianity and quite beyond Christianity.” Her survey, however, is actually too narrow to support this conclusion. Put another way, one of the most telling criticism of this book is that Pagels works hard first to establish that diversity of the responses to Jesus, and then centers her book on one specific church leader, Irenaeus. It leaves an internal contradiction of logic—shortly after she argues that the story of Christianity is more complex than generally told, it quickly becomes unhelpfully simple.

To be sure, the story of early Christianity is even more complex than she is able—or decides—to describe. Where, for example, is the intense early concern with the Jewish law that spills through the pages of the Gospels and Paul’s letters? Why does she include Arianism in her story but leave out Donatism? On the other hand, a so-called high Christology does not simply emerge with John—or the broader Johannine literature. Consider Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—or almost any of his letters—which were written as early as mid ‘50s or ‘60s. It is a tough case to make that understanding of Jesus as God is limited to John as against other non-canonical texts about Jesus.

The main criticism comes from my work in systematic and spiritual theology. Pagels’ contention is false that an “image of God” theology leads to a deep appreciation for the God within. I grant that the Gospels have little of this explicit theology (though one could argue it emerges with any mention of God’s creation of humankind). Nevertheless, other New Testament documents utilize the imago Christi but emphasize that human beings are to trust in Christ’s power, not their own. This fact contradicts Pagels’ conflating an “image of God” theology with the conclusion that God resides within. Secondly, she cites non-canonical texts that themselves contain poor creation theology. Gnostic texts contradict exactly the creation of the imago dei since the flawed god who creates imprisons human souls in this material world. How else can we reflect the image of God, or the image of Christ, except by God’s creative act?

In the final section (pp. 181-185), we come to the motivation for this work. Scholars, of course, are taught never to let personal interest distort their research, and this may be a clue to the book’s popularity. Has Pagels violated the scholarly prohibition, Thou Shalt Not Self-Disclose? Yes. She wants freedom to believe—or not to believe—a variety of things about Jesus. As one involved in a religious community, I see a greater diversity in “orthodoxy” than she asserts. If anything, the twenty-first century (if not the nineteenth) has diminished concerns about “heresy” in theology generally and in the congregation specifically. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When, she closes the book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” (sapere aude). Not that the Enlightenment was entirely in error; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.

Despite these final criticisms, "Beyond Belief" offers a compelling picture of the diversity of early responses to Jesus. I for one am now lead back to my copy of The Complete Gospels and the texts of Irenaeus and Tertullian. I will even read the New Testament with new eyes, pondering how history was written and imagining—perhaps as Pagels does—alternative histories, musings on what else might have been… but not entirely disappointed by the way it turned out.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Norman Cousins on our "Sprinting, Squinting, Shoving Age"

As I reflected on the negative effects of technology (and on some responses to my last posting), this quote from Norman Cousins came to mind... and thus to blog:

"Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insist on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of the Meditative Man. It is a sprinting, squinting, shoving age. Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Theology of Samba

Time. Physicists after Einstein, tell us that time is relative to the great constant “c,” the velocity of light. We, however, still believe that clocks—in their relentless regularity—define time. Even my computer sets the digits of the hour and minute in the right corner of my screen. It reinforces this notion. My daughter buys a Barbie watch for $6, and it has a flawless digital readout of the hours, minutes, seconds, and month/day.

But that’s only one view. It’s what the ancient Greeks called "chronos," the march of hours and minutes and seconds. These crafty Greeks had another word for time, "kairos," the “opportunity” or “occasion.” That’s when time stands still. When the newlyweds,--settling into their comfortable honeymoon bed and breakfast—enjoy the ecstatic bliss of sexual union. When someone hears Handel’s “Messiah,” and the “Hallelujah” Chorus pierces her spirit. When a new acquaintance talks with you—over cappuccinos at your favorite cafĂ©—and you realize you love the same painters, books, and music. It’s when the sun sets over an impossibly blue Pacific Ocean and your toes sink into the luscious white softness of Carmel Beach sand while you spy dolphins playing in the waves. (It truly happens—I’ve been there.) You savor the moment and realize it’s distinctive. You grasp the fullness of time. As the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, framed it: “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” That’s kairos—when the undulating experience of life’s flow moves with depth and intensity.

In his playful and thoughtful novel, Einstein’s Dreams, the MIT physicist, Alan Lightman, imagines a variety of perceptions of time. He describes—in a similar mode to this distinction between kairos and chronos—a universe with “body time” and “clock time.” Lightman writes, "In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along."

At other times, I’ve described the world of kairos as “the theology of samba.” It’s the samba’s feel and sound that offer a musical analogy to the fullness of time. I had the opportunity to ask the world-class bassist, Abraham Laboriel about this mesmerizing rhythm. He beautifully illustrated the nature of a samba: “It has to sound like an egg rolling.” A samba is not a perfectly round ball with even rotations, or a John Philip Sousa march, which moves in mechanical order. It feels oblong, where it takes just a little more effort to get over the ends. The feel is tensive. Electronic drum machines have tried to mimic most music feels, but it has never achieved the egg-like samba because a samba needs a human touch. It needs a beating heart. When we become mechanized by the technologies around us—used by them and not using them—we lose the samba.

I sometimes summarize the search for a deep spiritual life as grooving with God’s rhythm in our rigid, chronos-oriented mechanistic world. How do we get into this groove? We first learn to be silent, to mute out the homogenizing rhythms of technology that conflict with God’s. Then we are free to immerse ourselves in a world filled with the pulls and sounds of other beats never losing our sense of God’s samba.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

No to Technology’s Reach

A critical step to finding a spiritually centered life: Realize that you want to be distracted and harried by technology. Then you will recognize that you by yourself have the power to change and remove many of these distractions. Then you will learn to say No to technology’s reach. Then you will learn an important Yes to the spiritual life.

Americans are probably more addicted to entertainment than previous generations. First of all, we have more gadgets than our grandparents—iPods, wifi, satellite TV, Blackberrys (although their existence is currently in question).

And yet I’m surprised by the similarities about the human condition through various times. Consider the insights of the scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who lived over four centuries ago when modern science—and its promise of technological salvation—began to sell its wares. In a succinct insight, Pascal wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.”

We seek distractions, and especially if we’re rich and famous. Pascal observed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success: "That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert CEO, rock star], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

In order to stay “diverted,” today we rush after technology. And all these technological advances are fascinating, aren’t they? Increasingly, they’re also cute. Pick a movie, any movie—the 1987 “Wall Street” for example—and grok that behemoth mobile phone on the ear of Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). While “Greed is good” Gecko walks on the beach, he controls the destiny of companies and gets a workout. Who needs a barbell when you got that thing for your biceps? Compare that device with the parody in 2001 “Zoolander” of the micro-size cell phone, which looks about the size and heft of a matchbook. Technology in its cuteness and ease insidiously wheedles into our lives.

I know it’s not entirely easy to put techno-gadgets aside. I mean, I love them. I don’t think they’re Satans with transistors. As I type this into my laptop, music downloaded from iTunes plays on the hard drive, Apple Airport wires me into the internet, my cell phone rests in my briefcase, and several email accounts are retrieving messages. We live in a technological world.

And I particularly adore all the options for communication today. I still marvel at email and the wonder of sending the same document with efficient simultaneity to a committee in preparation for a meeting, and of checking in briefly with friends across massive distances without stamps, envelopes, and annoying time delay. Office voicemail eliminates the problem of calling someone at 10 pm (which frankly is when I often have time to return calls). And I have a particular weakness for cell phones. I mean, my wife, Laura, could reach me on my cell even when Rollerblading home through Central Park.
And yet, to be honest, there’s a downside: these alternatives often complicate instead of simplify our lives. The ease of communicating becomes a curse.

So, why do we clutch our techno-gadgets, often imprisoned by them, but not letting anyone take them from us? We sound like Gollum clutching “my precioussss.”

As Pascal point out, it’s really about boredom. I want to be entertained. It’s probably also about fear. I’m afraid that deep down I’m missing something when I’m not plugging into the iPod or letting the music from my computer fill the air. I tremble at the thought of missing the up-to the minute Dow report or of having someone send an email that doesn’t get a 30-minute-or-less response. Will they think I’m inefficient?

So I’ve learned a simple truth: Say No. Unplug from time to time and listen. Learn to restrict technology’s reach. Try it. You’ll be surprised by what it does for your soul.