It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible

sky-1122414_1920It’s mostly good that the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the Bible.

Several decades ago, the gnostic gospels seemed to be making a comeback after a couple of thousand years of loss and neglect.  Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979, and for the first time in a long time people outside the schools of theology began to talk about them.  Often favorably, as if the gnostic gospels contained a purer, less institutionalized form of Christianity. 

I bought into this in a vague way (most of what I thought about religion then was pretty vague), but recently I read The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a collection of forty-six texts that are generally referred to as gnostic, though not all are.  One is a selection from Plato’s Republic.  Most seem to date from the second and third centuries CE, but the Gospel of Thomas, the most well known gnostic gospel, may have been written around the same time as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  To make things complicated, the Gospel of Thomas contains both orthodox and gnostic elements.

After some more reading, I decided that on the whole I’m glad the gnostic gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament, or a new canon. 

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Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodor Adorno, and the Scandal of the Twentieth Century

 

B0000955Around the middle of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was the most prominent Protestant theologian in America.  He was on the cover of Time magazine (March 8, 1948).  More recently, Barack Obama called Niebuhr his favorite philosopher (Brooks). Niebuhr is author of the well-known serenity prayer. 

God give us the grace to accept things that cannot be changed.  Courage to change the things that should be changed.  And the Wisdom to distinguish one from the other. 

His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, says that this is the real version of the prayer, noting the difference between “should be changed” and “can be changed,” which is the version usually recited.  She thinks the usual version represents a dumbing down of the prayer, for in its original version it calls us to do the right thing, not what I can do, but what I should do (Lemert, pp. 195-196).

The world as gift and idolatry

The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present. (quoted in Crouter, p. 133)

If one sees the world as gift, then humans were created: to savor life surely, but also to be responsible stewards of the gift, not only of one’s own life, but also a world.  Everything is gift.  Humans are not just creators, but created.

From this perspective, idolatry becomes the gravest and most tempting sin, the worship of our own creations.  For Niebuhr, “communal idolatry” is the most common sin of our time, certainly the most damaging in scale and intensity.  For Niebuhr, sin, and with it idolatry, are an anxious attempt to hide our finitude, to make ourselves the center of life, and so take the place of God.  Each of us can imagine all manner of terrible things that might befall us.   And so humans seek by an act of will, what Niebuhr (1944, p. 139) calls the will-to-power, to overreach the limits of human creatureliness.  Since most people lack the ability to do this on their own, they join communities of self-justification and self-assertion. 

Niebuhr was never very interested in the details of Christian doctrine.  For Niebuhr, original sin had little to do with desire.  Original sin stems from a person’s fear at being alone and vulnerable in the world, leading him or her to worship the gods of the community, indeed the god that is the community.  Nationalism, money, success, fitting in—all this and more become our idols.  

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The loving Jesus is often angry. Why?

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I teach ancient Greek political philosophy for a living.  Plato and Aristotle are the main characters.  Along the way I point out that the classical Greek virtues, wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice, are only half the story of Western civilization.  The other half comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition: justice is necessary, but the Western tradition is also about love.  The Western tradition needs both Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (love) to be complete.  This is Christ’s great contribution. 

According to Harold Bloom in Jesus and Yahweh, “Yahweh’s love is Covenant-keeping, no more and no less.” (p. 164)  This does not seem a fair account of The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh).  It is not much of a stretch to read The Song of Solomon as an account of a love affair between God and His people.  What Jesus adds is the idea that God would allow himself to become man, suffer, and die in order to share in humanity’s suffering.

Yet, something about Christ’s love is frightening.  If Jesus is God, then it makes no sense to think of His love as comparable to human love.  I’ve never thought it made any sense to talk about taking Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  There is something terrifyingly stark and other about Jesus.  And there should be.  He is man, and not man.  Many Christians prefer the Gospel of Luke because in it Christ seems most “humane.”  But if one thinks about Christ seriously, that is a category mistake.  Christ is not humane because He is not human. One does not have to be a Docetist (representing the view that Jesus only appeared to be human) to believe that. 

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Why I pray

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Because I don’t believe in a God who intervenes in everyday life, I’m not sure why I pray to Him every night.  Yet I continue to pray, and there is still so much I don’t understand.  Why do we ask God’s blessings?  On those near and dear to us, as well as refugees and displaced persons far away whom I will never meet.  Yet I continue to ask Him.

About asking God’s blessings.  If there were an interventionist God, why would He be more likely to intervene if I asked Him?  He doesn’t take recommendations from me.  One answer is that what I am really asking is for God to feel present in another person’s life, as well as my own.  Not that he change their journey, or mine, but that He accompany us along the way.  But, the problem remains.  Why would God be more likely to accompany someone on his or her perilous journey just because I ask Him to?  Or if a thousand people ask Him to?

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