Pagels’ Beyond Belief

Although Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief
is subtitled The Secret Gospel of Thomas,
surprisingly little of the book is devoted to an explication, or even discussion, of that work. Instead, Beyond Belief
focuses on Pagels’ attempt to make Christianity more relevant to her own life and in doing so provides a fascinating history of early Christianity, a historical perspective that could only be provided by a biblical scholar.

Pagels explains her early dissatisfaction with her evangelical church and how that dissatisfaction led to her pursuit of a deeper understanding of the Bible:

Before long, however, I learned what inclusion cost: the leaders of the church I attended directed their charges not to associate with outsiders, except to convert them. Then, after a close friend was killed in an automobile accident at the age of sixteen, my fellow evangelicals commiserated but declared that, since he was Jewish and not “born again,” he was eternally damned. Distressed and disagreeing with their interpretation and finding no room for discussion I realized that I was no longer at home in their world and left that church. When I entered college, I decided to learn Greek in order to read the New Testament in its original language, hoping to discover the source of its power.

Strangely enough, this incident parallels my own turning away from religion in college when a religious person close to me announced that it was sad that President Kennedy couldn’t go to heaven because “he wasn’t a Christian.” I didn’t bother to point out that Catholics were “Christians” and that the Bible that her Protestant church turned to every Sunday for spiritual guidance had been largely determined by the Catholic Church. Instead, I merely took another giant step away from formal religion.

Unlike me, though, Pagels continued to find comfort in the church:

The drama being played out there spoke to my condition,” as it has to that of millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while paradoxically nurturing hope. Four years later, when our son, then six years old, suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter, along with words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that had seemed impassable.

I must admit that at times I do miss the sense of community that my ex-wife found in her Baptist church, and I’m sure that if I had been able to subscribe to their beliefs I would have found considerable comfort in belonging to such a community.

Unlike Elaine Pagel, though, I have only the vaguest notion of the history of the Christian Church, particularly the early history. Perhaps if I had Pagel’s historical insights I would have sought out a church where I could pursue my own religious yearnings. Until relatively recently, I didn’t know that The Gospel of Thomas even existed. I certainly didn’t know that there had been a considerable debate between various early church factions over which Gospel offered the truest interpretation of Jesus’ message:

This research has helped clarify not only what John’s gospel is for but what it is against. John says explicitly that he writes “so that you may believe, and believing, may have life in [Jesus’] name.” What John opposed, as we shall see, includes what the Gospel of Thomas teaches that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone. Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God. For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not.

Starting here, Pagel summarizes the major debates that took place in the early Christian Church, showing the remarkable diversity that existed before the Nicene Council and explaining why John’s Gospel became the preeminent Gospel.

Pagels’ explanation of the doctrine that came to dominate most churches reminded my why I have spent much of my adult life looking for alternatives to Christianity even though I believe Jesus’ message of love for mankind is the most powerful message I have ever found in a religion. Like Pagel, I have never given up seeking spiritual enlightenment. In fact, much of my love for poetry stems from that search for in many ways, poetry has taken the place of religion, offering an alternative, and in some ways, superior form of spiritual exploration. Unlike Pagel, I did give up on Christianity:

When I found that I no longer believed everything I thought Christians were supposed to believe, I asked myself, Why not just leave Christianity and religion behind, as so many others have done? Yet I sometimes encountered, in churches and elsewhere in the presence of a venerable Buddhist monk, in the cantor’s singing at a bar mitzvah, and on mountain hikes something compelling, powerful, even terrifying that I could not ignore, and I had come to see that, besides belief, Christianity involves practice and paths toward transformation.

Although I have come closet to finding an acceptable alternative to Christianity in Zen Buddhism, I have never felt completely comfortable with it. Perhaps I was merely brainwashed in my childhood and have never been able to truly erase those mind tapes. But despite my intellectual attachment to Zen Buddhism and my own introversion, I am more drawn to the idea of commitment to others than I am to the kind of intellectual detachment Zen seems to demand. Pagels’ book has made me wonder if I shouldn’t investigate less traditional forms of Christianity in hopes of finding spiritual values that I can subscribe to:

What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions and the communities that sustain them — is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to “seek, and you shall find.”

Pagels’ belief that there is room in Christianity for those who are “seekers” makes me wonder if I shouldn’t look for a “First Church of Thomas” because I suspect that I would truly be comfortable in such a congregation.