Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Elaine Pagels and the Secret Texts of Christianity.

The image accompanying this essay may be blocked or obstructed by N.J. hackers. The pattern of protected censorship and cybercrime -- apparently by N.J. Democrat attack machine flunkeys and mafia whores -- continues in 2009.

Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003), $13.00. (You may be able to get it at Strand Books for $10.00.)

In an interview discussing her most recent book entitled Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Vintage, 2003), Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton University was photographed in the company of her parrot named "Augustine." Professor Pagels indicated that she had a life-long interest in archeology as well as history.

I hoped to question Professor Pagels concerning her scholarly work and her views of early Christianity together with the growing global interest in kabbala and "gnosticism." Due to her busy schedule, however, Professor Pagels was unavailable for an interview, but she did arrange for a meeting between a representative of "Critical Vision" and Augustine, who is a scholar, a distinguished lecturer on the theology of evil and the history of parrots in the United States.

We arrive for the interview on a cool evening in early Autumn, at the Pagels's family residence in Princeton, New Jersey to find Augustine at the door in a silk bathrobe and an ascot, holding a tiny glass of brandy. He smiles and says: "I hope you don't mind, but I've started without you."

Augustine stands three-and-one-half inches in height, impressive for a parrot, and is a kindly and charming host. We sit in a large room, which is warm and welcoming, with fresh-cut flowers, a roaring fireplace, some antiques and impressionist watercolors on the walls. Augustine smokes a tiny pipe and there are vestiges of an Oxbridge accent in his speech, despite his many years in America. He is wearing slippers with a monogram and miniscule golden spectacles dangle at the end of his beak.

What is "Gnosis"?

The word Gnosis is usually italicized," Augustine explains, "but not other uses of 'gnostic' or 'Gnosticism,' " The word may be defined as: "A doctrine of various sects combining Christian and pagan elements, that came into prominence around the 2nd century. Central importance attaches to ‘gnosis’ [the word literally means 'knowing' and it has become 'controversial' recently, like most interesting things, or] revealed but secret knowledge of God and of His nature, enabling those who possess it to achieve salvation. ... The material world is associated ... with evil, but in some men [and women] there is a spiritual element that through knowledge and associated ritual may be rescued from it and attain a higher spiritual state."

Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 158.

"For my generation," Augustine is roughly my contemporary, "gnosticism has often come to symbolize or designate the religious impulse generally, that is, the energies of transcendence in the human psyche, together with the on-going quest for ultimate meaning in a place and time that seems to deflate and ridicule this aspiration in crippling ways."

Taking a puff from his pipe, Augustine sighed: "Among the principal sources for gnosticism are Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1989) and Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963)."

Professor Pagels’s latest book is more personal, powerful and accessible to non-historians, like me, than anything that she has written previously. At any rate, it is more powerful than any of her other writings of which I am aware. Those of us wary of organized religion, skeptical of church authority, jaded about the “fairy tale” qualities of our childhood religions (and disappointed by the failings of some of those who taught them to us, persons who are as imperfect as we are), find that Professor Pagels is an interesting guide to what religion may yet be for us.

I can never believe in a personal God, dispensing rewards and penalties at whim. Does she? Maybe not. I do believe in (and have experienced) love. Nonetheless, I recognize the importance of unfulfilled spiritual needs, or even hungers, in my own life. I suspect that Professor Pagels’s work is motivated, in part, by a recognition of similar yearnings and of some of the obstructions to those yearnings resulting not only from contemporary secularism, but also from the contradictions in what has come to be known as “official” Christianity. This recent transformation may be described as Dr. Pagels’s “Kierkegaardian turn.” Consider this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals:

"... And when God wishes to bind a human being to Him in earnest, He summons one of his most faithful servants, His trustiest messenger, Grief, and tells him: Hurry after him, do not budge from his side (... and no woman can cling more tenderly to what she loves than grief)."

The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard (P. Rhode, trans. & ed.: New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), p. 20.

Professor Pagels examines the question of what is meant by faith or religion in the light of her own experience of tragedy, together with her analysis of the early Christian texts, touching precisely on this issue of whether the quest that I speak of and that is often, as I suggest, ridiculed in our institutions of higher learning today as an unfortunate relic of a more superstitious age, is truly fundamental or merely something to be overcome:

"What is Christianity, and what is religion, I wondered, and why do so many of us still find it compelling, whether or not we belong to a church, and despite difficulties we may have with particular beliefs or practices? What is it about Christian tradition that we love -- and what is it that we cannot love?"

Beyond Belief, at p. 6.

For Tolstoy, this question demanded an answer:

"The essence of any religion lies solely in the answer to the question: Why do I exist and what is my relationship to the infinite universe that surrounds me?"

A Confession and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1987), p. 134.

Tolstoy goes on to say:

"Religion is the relationship a person recognizes himself to have with the external world, or with its origin and first cause, and a rational person cannot fail to have some kind of relationship to it."
A Confession, p. 137.

In light of these comments by Tolstoy, consider Professor Pagels’s observation:

"[There is] much that I love about religious tradition, and Christianity in particular -- including how powerfully these may affect us, and perhaps even transform us. At the same time, [my study of the gnostic gospels] helped clarify what I cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs -- however these actually vary from church to church -- coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God."

Beyond Belief, p. 29.

This goes a long way toward explaining why gnostic Christianity is attractive to Americans -- because the focus is on experience rather than dogma, intuition and revelation along with the immediate and direct encounter with the divine within all of us is essential to this tradition. But it is not only the gnostic tradition which sought this "mystical union," but also the Alchemists, kabbalists and some Protestant sects have cultivated inner disciplines aimed at achieving a unity with God. And here is Kierkegaard again:

"... but how on earth does it occur to a person to subject himself to all this; why must he be a Christian when it is so hard? The answer to this might be, in the first place: Shut up! Christianity is the Absolute, a Must. But there could also be another answer: because the consciousness of sin within him will not leave him in peace, the pain of it fortifies him to bear everything else, if only he can find redemption."

And yet again:

"This means that the pain of sin [and of loss?] must be very deep in a human being; therefore it must be presented as it is, so difficult that it becomes truly obvious that Christianity is only related to the consciousness of sin [or of pain in general?]. Any attempt to become a Christian for any other reason is quite literally lunacy; and that is how it should be."

The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, pp. 149-150.

The relationship with the external world that we recognize may be one of overwhelming identification or “unity.” Some of us -- persons from all religious traditions or from no religious tradition, skeptics and religious believers alike -- have sensed or experienced very directly that we are connected to one another and to all that is. This “mystical” insight may be expressed entirely in the language of science and have no patina of the mythic or religious about it. As one who continues to think of himself as an agnostic and skeptic, for instance, I am reminded of the writings of the physicist David Bohm:

"This is the implicate or enfolded order. In the enfolded order, space and time are no longer the dominant factors determining the relationships of dependence or independence of different elements. Rather, an entirely different sort of basic connection of elements is possible, from which our ordinary notions of space and time, along with those of separately existent material particles, are abstracted as forms derived from the deeper order. These ordinary notions in fact appear in what is called the explicate or unfolded order, which is a special and distinguished form contained within the general totality of all the implicate orders."

Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge, 1980), p. xv.

The work of Professor Bohm anticipated and is seemingly confirmed by some of the latest findings of physicists exploring developments in the field of "emergent phenomena":

"Inevitably reductionism [and atomistic methods] have been overused. Not everything can be reduced to cosmic nuts and bolts. In the emerging sciences of the twenty-first century, many researchers are dusting off an old saying: 'The whole is more than the sum of its parts.' "

Keay Davidson, "You Are More Important Than a Quark: A Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Takes On the Reductionist Tendencies of Modern Science," The New York Times, Book Review, Sunday, June 19, 2005, at p. 19. [Review of Robert B. Laughin, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Top Down (New York: Basic Books, 2005).]

In accordance with this new scientific view of the universe, persons and all that "is" (thank you, Mr. Clinton) may be part of a vast and multidimensional whole, which is directed at purposes, ends, or realizations which we only dimly apprehend or fail to understand entirely, serving as an explanation of what each minute particular does and is, as well as a reason for what it does and is. It follows that one must trust in the coherence of the whole and in the appropriateness of the pattern, which can never be seen in its entirety by any single individual, from only one perspective. Counselor West in the Matrix: Reloaded says: "Comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation."

There is much talk about "interpretation" these days. Well, this view of the universe and of our roles in it must be the ultimate faith in coherent interpretation. Just as persons worked for decades on the building of cathedrals that neither they nor their children would see completed, in the confidence that those cathedrals would rise and that they would be beautiful, in the fullness of time, so we must labor and suffer for reasons that we only dimly apprehend or fail to grasp entirely, yet trust to be meaningful somehow, from some ultimate perspective. I will continue to struggle against the evil of New Jersey's mafia corruption and disgusting criminality for as long as I live.

The ways people choose to communicate this basic intuition that we see “through a glass darkly,” but that there certainly is an infinity to be seen, is immaterial anyway. The languages deployed to convey or articulate the insight are secondary to the powerful and immediate knowledge itself of this “instantiation” of the universe in us and of ourselves in all that is. (See the film "In America" and the Henry James story "The Figure in the Carpet," or the Tom Stoppard play "Arcadia.")

Those who prefer a more traditional philosophical statement of these metaphysical issues are directed to F.H. Bradley's discussion of evil in his classic, Appearance and Reality (Oxford: 1897). In his examination of the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walter Pater writes that Coleridge:

" ... regards nature itself as the living energy of an intelligence of the same kind as, though vaster in scope, than the human."

Pater goes on to say:

"But the suspicion of a mind latent in nature, struggling for release, and intercourse with the intellect of man through true ideas, has never ceased to haunt a certain class of minds. ... wherever the speculative instinct has been united with a certain poetic inwardness of temperament, as in Bruno, Schelling, there that old Greek conception, like some seed floating in the air, has taken root and sprung up anew."

Harold Bloom, ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Signet, 1974), p. 149 (emphasis added).

Scientists tell us that all the matter that now exists in the universe was formed out of a substance compressed into a bulk roughly the size of your fist at the instant before the “Big Bang.” We are made of that highly compact “star-stuff.” As Webster saw “the skull beneath the flesh,” so we can sometimes see ourselves not only in the eyes of others but also in the farthest stars and galaxies, or in the tiniest components of the universe. We recognize a reflection of our likeness, in other words, in the powerful forces that make up the universe because we discover them first in ourselves. In looking through a telescope we see vast and unimaginably strange things, we also see sameness, likeness, self-portraits.

If it is true that in knowing the universe, we know ourselves; then it is equally true that in the mystical traditions -- both in Judaism and Christianity, but also in Islamic sufism -- knowledge of ourselves is also, eventually, knowledge of God.

The intuitions of poets, artists and philosophers come together with the discoveries of some of our greatest scientists in response to the encounter with the numinous, with the unimaginable vastness and smallness of the cosmos and the microcosmos. The final insight is inescapable: My concern for a neighbor or for the planet is also a concern for myself. See Ken Wilber, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Boston: Shambala, 2001), p. 3.

For those of us struggling to find some community and meaning in an increasingly secular and materialistic culture that is contemptuous of our natural spirituality and dismissive of all religion, we are led to ask: Can we get the "bonus" (community, meaning) without the "onus" of religious faith (dogmatism and intolerance)? I hope so.

Our visit with Augustine is drawing to a close and as he walks us to the door, he pauses to discuss some of the items in the home that he shares with Professor Pagels and her family. We discuss my difficulties with belief, and he reminds me of the words with which Professor Pagels takes her leave of readers:

"Most of us, sooner or later," she writes, "find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. 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.' "

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