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  • 04: Beyond Belief: A “Pagan” Read of Early Church History
  • 04: Beyond Belief: A “Pagan” Read of Early Church History

    Influential Bible scholars pour a lot of their intelelectual gifts into tearing up the roots of biblical Christianity. This is not new, but in our culture, the effect of “critical” biblical studies is multiplied. A general suspicion of “organized religion” finds confirmation from “the experts.”

    Such an expert is Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, recognized scholar, and author of the award–winning Gnostic Gospels (1979). This book convinced many that the early Gnostic heretics, who introduced pagan spirituality into the Church, represented a genuine Christian alternative, suppressed by a cold, calculating Church institution. In Beyond Belief (New York: Random House, 2003), Pagels expands this message.

    She uses the Postmodern “hermeneutics of suspicion” to interpret early Church History. From this perspective, there are no general truths, only people or groups exercising power over others, hence her interpretive principle that “the winners write history.” Beyond Belief is a “suspicious” look at the development of Christian doctrine in the first four centuries of Church History, arguing that behind every clash of doctrine is a struggle for power. Pagels argues at length that the Gospel of John, written around AD 90–100, is an orthodox tract, written by a power–hungry sect whose intention was to undermine the success of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. John wins and becomes part of the Christian canon. Thomas is banished as poisonous heresy. (For her thesis to stand, Pagels, without ever arguing the case historically, must date Thomas prior to AD 70, much earlier than scholarship has ever allowed.)

    Beyond Belief creates the sense that Pagels is the objective observer doing a great favor to inquiring minds by peeling away the blind prejudices of the past. However, as Jesus said about the poor, prejudices are always with us, and Pagels has her fair share of them. She admits to a few:

    • she was once an “evangelical Christian,” a stage she grew out of
    • she had a delightful tea at the Zen Center in San Francisco with the Roshi, Richard Baker, and Brother David Steindl–Rast, suggesting her openness to the new spirituality of religious syncretism which these men represent;
    • after suffering bereavement, she found a spiritual home in the inclusivist Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York, led by a “woman priest” where she was able to reject the notion that being a Christian was “synonymous with accepting a set of beliefs” such as the Apostles’ Creed;
    • she is interested in blending Christianity and Buddhism.

    These indications, as well as clear statements throughout the book, give a limpid picture of Pagels’ convictions. Pagels believes that religions are essentially the same, that theological conflicts and creeds are about power (not truth), and that the answer to human problems is to bring together all the religious traditions.

    What is “beyond belief” is that someone as intelligent as Pagels cannot see or will not admit that there is a fundamental divide in religious approaches to God and the world. Paul, whose writings Pagels knows well, identifies the antithesis in Romans 1:25. He writes of two opposing religious systems, one “the truth,” and the other “the lie”; one that worships the Creator and the other that worships the creation. How interesting that the Gnostics themselves, whom Pagels sees as “complementary,” rejected God the Creator and finally cast him into hell!

    Though Pagels writes correctly of the doctrinal confusion in the early Church, she argues that theological differences are of little importance, and that Christianity cannot be defined by doctrinal boundaries. By transforming the doctrinal struggles of the early Church into a confusing dish of theological goulash, she claims to bring clarity by showing that the great confessions of the Church are in fact proof that the winners (in this case, male ecclesiastical power–brokers) write history.

    I have my own suspicions. In Pagels’ objective “history” many known facts do not fit. Apart from the problem of dates, she also fails to convince us that the early believers were, in any real sense, “power brokers.” Athanasius in defending the two natures of Christ, believed himself to be alone against the world. The Christian martyrs, who died excruciating deaths for the truth of the Gospel, were hardly “winners” (in Pagels’ definition). So my suspicion grows. Beyond Belief has a serious religious agenda: to trivialize orthodoxy’s exclusive claims, to popularize heresy and to promote the rising tide of pagan religious syncretism.

    Beyond Belief is destined to be a winner, not only in sales but also in influence on the contemporary culture wars. It belongs to a new, winning team that sees religious truth as pagan oneness. But if writing history is only about power, are we obliged to give serious attention to Pagels’ covert power play for a syncretistic, paganized form of Christianity? On Pagels’ own terms, her book, like the Gospel of John (as she sees it), is a prejudiced tract of religious propaganda for the success of a new kind of ecclesiastical power.