Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Beyond Belief

In addition to 'Tis, I've been reading through Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels. Essentially, Pagels wishes to explore the church's varying movements during the first few centuries of its life. While she mentions Marcion, the 'mystery religions,' and a few other early variations of Christian thought, she wishes to focus on two: Irenaeus and his use of the Gospel of John, and the community that used the Gospel of Thomas. She skips around a lot, pulling from the four canonical Gospels as well as a handful of the Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. She seems to wind to and fro, in and out, describing similarities and differences among beliefs. It gets a little confusing and at more than one point I asked, 'Why'd you pull that into the discussion when you were talking about this whole other thing over here...?' Not the most engaging work I've picked up.

That being said, here's one thesis I think I've been able to glean from this book: Irenaeus, in his quest to achieve unity in doctrine, helped define such a doctrine and then did his best to purge his communities of those who disagreed.

Read that last sentence again. In order to achieve unity...Irenaeus wanted to kick a bunch of people out.

Is that unity, or uniformity? Sounds like the latter to me. Granted, Pagels is set on presenting 'the untold story,' if you will. She chiefly wants to present the thoughts of Irenaeus' opponents. The 'orthodox' view, after all, is the one that prevailed, so one can read about that in the history books, written by the winners.

What sort of differences? The one she discusses the most has to do with God's relationship with humanity. The Gospel of John (or at least Irenaeus' interpretation of John) proposes achieving proper knowledge of God through Jesus. Indeed, this is the only way. Jesus, the divine Light of the World, is God identifying with humanity. The view presented through the Thomas community is that through Jesus, we might discover God's Light in ourselves.

Imagine that. A debate that has been raging for 2000 years instead of just in the last 150 with despised rise of historical criticism and despicable classical liberalism (and later liberationism).

Imagine that. A debate that started not with the 'right' view and then a bunch of challenges from different 'wrong' groups, but rather with a bunch of equal groups trying to make sense of the stories and experiences they've heard or had.

Now imagine this: a unity achieved through recognition of similarities of belief and/or purpose and discussion of differences rather than a forced exodus of heretics whose only crime is that they disagree with you.

A few weeks ago I decided that a good question for all of us to ask ourselves in the midst of our theological squabbles is this: 'But how does it serve God and others?'

Wanna argue TULIP? Fine. How does it help you serve?

Wanna put up an apologetic about the Bible's inerrancy? Be my guest. How does it help you serve?

Wanna post a list of Biblical contradictions? Great. How does it help you serve?

Or is there any serving going on?

What's the point of better understanding or professing a faith that doesn't challenge or inspire you to do anything? Is it just all about spotting the guy who's thinking wrong? Maybe some small sense of satisfaction that you have helped strike down one who is in error (in truth and love, of course)?

If our primary calling was to spend hours arguing and sending the weaker debater home, the church would be strong in faith statements and bookshelves that would make a lawyer jealous and short on relevance.

Of course, maybe that's why so many are laughing at us already.