Tag Archives: heresy

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Grasping for Meaning

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How often we’re told—and writers on biblical topics are especially guilty of this—the meaning of a story. Despite what materialists say, we are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to know why. When we read a story we want to know what it means. I occasionally dabble in the pool of fiction. Many times I read the emerging story and wonder what it means. Sometimes the meaning changes over time. Sometimes it means many things at once. Recently I read someone explicating the meaning of the story of Noah. The meaning? No, a meaning. That little article makes all the difference. Definite or indefinite, we need constantly to remind ourselves that stories bear meanings. Plural. They mean nothing otherwise.

Those of us who spend a lot of time with sacred texts see that it suggests something specific to us. Those who manage to gain followers start their own religions. The problem comes when one meaning is fixed to a text. I often saw this growing up as a Fundamentalist. I also saw it frequently at Nashotah House. This verse means this. Nothing other. Any interpretation outside this particular one is heresy. Heresy is, of course, punishable by death. Lest you think this is just the idle musing of an underemployed biblical scholar I must remind you that wars have been fought over such things. People have died. All for someone’s mistaking an indefinite article for a definite. There are those who say certain canons of the Mass must not exclude the definite article or otherwise all you’re getting is a very cheap and meager lunch out of the deal. For this you put on your best clothes?

We read stories for entertainment, but if they mean nothing they are quickly forgotten. Dreamtime stories, as David Abram reminds us, may lack plot but they have place. They take us to a place where we aren’t physically present. Or if we are physically present, we need to be taken there in mind as well as body. They give life meaning. Ironically, as a culture, fewer and fewer people find meaning in their work. Living for the weekend, they find their sense of fulfillment by what they do when not on the clock. And some of that time has traditionally been demanded by those who offer worship experiences. After all, weekends were their idea in the first place. There may be some meaning in that. If there is it is only one meaning among many. And even while attending, it is best to keep an eye or ear open for something other than the meaning which the ordained may insist is the only true one.

Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

Where’s Waldo?

I first learned about Waldensians in a class on the Middle Ages. In the centuries before the Reformation took place, some Christians in Europe resented the wealth and ostentation of the Catholic Church—the only show in town. In response the Waldensians preached a radical simplicity, including poverty. The established church, enamored of plutocracy and power, didn’t appreciate this challenge. To the average peasant, I suspect, the sincerity of the Waldensians was a bit more obvious than those who represented an institution enamored of its stature. When Catholicism learned about Waldensians and their imitation of Jesus’ lifestyle they did what came naturally. They killed them. Accusing those who insisted on helping the poor and needy of heresy gave the justification to the church’s decision to eliminate them.

What occasioned the most surprise, as I was recently reading about them again, was the discovery that the Waldensians still exist. The church has often been thorough in its elimination of those who cross it (note the antics of Rick Santorum), but somehow some Waldensians managed to live on through the persecutions of the trials of heresy. Yet the church still likes to bluster and condemn many to Hell, even if just metaphorically. I must admit that such posturing worries me. It is not in vain that the church has frequently insinuated itself into politics. Anyone who has been awake in America since the 1980’s can’t have helped but to have noticed.

Ironically, the three major monotheistic traditions began as counter-cultural movements. Once the religions gained political power the oppression of others began, thus starting the cycle all over again. The Waldensians are an excellent paradigm of what occurs when a religious body attains too much power. Heresy is so dangerous because it highlights hypocrisy. Claiming divine sanction for human weakness is a charade easily understood by those who take the time to watch closely. The revisionist history of America that we hear presidential hopefuls espousing are warning signs. The church may not have reached all the Waldensians in the Dark Ages, but it still keeps on trying. Fortunately the followers of Peter Waldo are sometimes hard to find.