Professor Elaine Pagels was given an honorary “Doctor of Laws” by Harvard University this June. Her qualifications are elegantly stated as: Bold expositor of the Gnostic Gospels, reading ancient scriptures anew, a scholar transcending tradition’s constraints to bring forth books of revelation.
Behind the flowery language of academic flattery is Pagels’ life-long promotion of heresy. Early in her life she identified with biblical Christianity, later left Evangelicalism and in her academic work moved to a radical rejection of Christian orthodoxy. As an “objective historian,” Elaine Pagels, “above the fray,” attempted to rehabilitate the Gnostic “Christians,” who resurfaced in history when many of their ancient texts were discovered in 1945. Pagels portrayed them as forgotten heroes of an old class war between the politically-motivated orthodox, patriarchal bishops and their hapless spiritual victims. She presents Gnosticism as “a wider valid expression of Christianity,” and the Gnostic gospels as “complementary” to the canonical ones and just as ancient. Our Doctor of Laws does not raise the key question: Can we mix oil and water—or biblical revelation and paganism, or Twoism or Oneism?
The most renowned and most quoted experts on Gnosticism, two German scholars, Hans Jonas and Kurt Rudolph (no tender Evangelicals), reject the notion that Gnosticism is a form of Christianity. For Jonas, Gnosticism is an ancient form of modern existentialism. For Rudolph, it is an independent world religion, “a parasite prosper[ing] on the soil of a host religion [Christianity],” which, in its essence, was “monistic,” that is Oneist. This modern, scholarly view accords perfectly with that of the Church Father, Hippolytus (AD 170–236) who saw firsthand how the so-called “Christian” Gnostics of his day sought “the wisdom of the pagans” by attending the ceremonies of the Isis-worshiping mystery cults in order to understand, as they said, “the universal mystery.” The Egyptian Goddess Isis, goddess of the underworld and divine essence of all things natural, leaves no place for a Creator, but instead reveals the “universal mystery.” Gnostic beliefs are a poisonous pagan soup.
So Pagels’ approach is not as full, fair and tolerant as it implicitly claims. She works under the guise of a “neutral” historian, though she is openly and deliberately explicit in her reaction against the fundamental notions of orthodoxy. She decries belief in a canonical Bible, a patriarchal God, a hierarchical, gender-distinguishing Church, an accusatory Law and a final judgment. Instead, she holds to another particular understanding of religious truth which she has relentlessly pursued throughout her professional life. She is dedicated to blending Christianity and Buddhism. Pagels has collaborated with the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, a discipline devoted to the study and promotion of esoteric, paranormal spirituality and healing. These religious experiences, as well as clear statements in her books, present a limpid picture of her theological prejudices. She believes that religions are essentially the same, that theological conflicts are about power, not truth, and that the answer to all human problems lies in bringing the religious traditions together.
Here is a translation of the coded language in the description of her merits. “Bold expositor of the Gnostic Gospels” means that she has abandoned belief in the Synoptic Gospels as trustworthy revelation from the God who created the world. “Reading Scriptures anew” means that she has raised the Gnostic Gospels to the level of divine inspiration, while denigrating the revelatory power of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. She has “transcended traditional constraints” means that she has abandoned orthodox Christianity in order to promote the same “universal mystery” that attracted the ancient Gnostics, and which Pagels now finds in Buddhism. In both Buddhist and Gnosticism we look inward to seek the divine. Her books of revelation show her to be on a spiritual quest rather than on a search for objective history. She seeks to reveal that Buddhism and Eastern mysticism are valid forms of the original teachings of Jesus. This is the new revelation of religious inter-spirituality. Little wonder, in our day of interfaith and all-is-one spirituality, that such an “achievement” would be rewarded by a Doctor of Laws from Harvard—because, even if the scholarly reconstruction has been a notable failure, the oxymoronic notion of “Christian Buddhism” doubtless has a bright and promising future.