New Blog Series on Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?

"Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity." —Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?

Many provocative and wonderful—and some admittedly bizarre—texts never made it into the New Testament. Some that were excluded told wild stories about the young Jesus; in others, individual disciples of ill repute, like Mary Magdala and even Judas Iscariot, are depicted as the ones who truly understood Jesus' teachings. Still others took heavily philosophical or poetic turns that offer very different ideas of God, Jesus, and humanity's relationship to both. In popular pious terms, all these texts are considered "heretical," supportive of ideas that fall outside acceptable limits of belief.

Scholars have known for over a hundred years that they couldn't describe these texts as "heretical" in historical study. History is not theology. Historians must make some attempt to acknowledge and minimize bias and value judgments. For example, a historian doesn't ask, "Was Jesus the son of God?" Rather, a historian might ask, "Did followers of Jesus believe he was the son of God?" Or, to be more open-ended, "How did first- and second-century followers of Jesus interpret who he was?"

At risk of oversimplifying, we might consider gnosticism to be the politically correct term in biblical studies for heresy. Indeed, the word gnosticism has taken on a life of its own, and so these days it is possible to be "for" gnostic teachings, however defined. You can even belong to a modern gnostic community. 

Join us in reading Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

But was there ever an actual gnostic movement in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement? Did any group actually describe itself that way, for example? Where did this word even come from? King explains that there is no single ancient group that called itself "gnostic." This is a modern term that has basically supplanted "heretical" without altering form and function. It continues to hold up traditional/orthodox Christianity as normal and lump everything else outside the fold. One can be "for" or "against" it, but none of this alters the paradigm. Quite simply, this is too limiting for historical inquiry. We need a more useful paradigm.

As I read this book, I also happen to be reading Bart Ehrman's Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford, 2012). Something these two books share is an emphasis on the fact that there was no obvious consensus in the first and second centuries about what Christianity was, and the disputes about it were anything but mild. While there were conflicts with outside groups like non-Christian Jews and pagans, intramural arguments reigned the day. "The writings of ancient Christian polemicists fostered the search for a single origin based on their claim that heresy had one author, Satan, even as truth had one author, God," writes King (7). Ehrman elaborates: "Throughout antiquity it was standard polemical fare to charge one's opponents with the most nefarious of crimes against nature and humanity, in particular indiscriminate sex, infanticide, and cannibalism" (23). To be described as gnostic in this context was not complimentary. In works as early as the second-century writings of Irenaeus, gnosis came to stand "for false knowledge, in short, for heresy" (King, 7). Unfortunately, rather than breaking out of this Christian infighting, "scholars accepted in principle that all the manifold expressions of Gnosticism could be traced to a single origin, but they searched for the source in more historical places" (7).

Key to breaking free of this all-too-easy error, King argues, is understanding why we might want to define gnosticism. Definitions need context. What is the goal, however provisional?

So what do we wish to know from a study of Gnosticism? Christianity in all its variety? Why? To provide more options for contemporary theological reflection? To put normative Christianity on a firm historical foundation by showing the superiority of its particular structures and traditions? To legitimate changes to the definitional norms and practices of contemporary Christians (feminist, liberationist, evangelical)? To understand Gnostic phenomena as exempla of the religious experiences of humanity and thus for us? To plumb the depths of human intellectual folly? (19)

So why are you interested? What drives you to this subject? In my case, having grown up in Idaho, I am driven by my early experiences of "intramural" debates with my high school friends, who were members of the LDS (Mormon) church. I also used to attend the services of both the mainline Presbyterian church of my grandparents and the local Pentecostal church, usually on the same Sunday, so I became naturally curious about how two such radically different communities both called themselves Christian and yet refused to acknowledge that Mormons were Christian, too. How odd, I thought. The religious beliefs have left me, but the curiosity remains. Now I want to know about the earliest generations of people who followed Jesus, and their diverse answers to, "Why?"

And yes, I want to know because I want to offer alternatives to my friends and community, which remains just as conservative as it was when I was a child. Not even a month ago I attended two different church services, both of which preached miracles, the end of the world in a violent apocalypse, and Satan as a living entity, none of which I accept, even though the people who attend these services are people I dearly love. This is how I know the fight for a different future is by no means over. Whether they should or not, people are invested in the historical roots for their beliefs, so that's where I must look, too.

This is the first post in a blog series on Karen L. King's book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Christianity’s Struggle for Self-Definition (EHJ series)

"The historical Jesus was a person like us who struggled in life to realize, through his own personality and situation in the world, the Christ of himself."

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 214

We can be really short-sighted, historically speaking. We struggle to keep more than one human generation's beliefs and ideas in our heads at once. It seems obvious these days that when somebody says, "I'm Christian," he or she probably means they believe Jesus died for their sins and rose again on the third day, but of course in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement, that was not a given. "Christianity has always engaged in a struggle of self-definition," Galston explains in the final chapter of Embracing the Human Jesus (203). There is no monopoly on the name, and Christian has held multiple meanings across time.

That's actually the subject of the next blog series, so let me tell you a little about that before I come back to this important final chapter of David Galston's book.

Join us in reading Karen King's What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

What are we reading next?
Next week I'll be starting a new blog series on Karen King's book What Is Gnosticism? Karen King is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, best known these days for her role in studying the Jesus Wife Fragment. In What Is Gnosticism? she specifically addresses the fact that "Christians of the first centuries were deeply engaged in controversies over such basic issues as the meaning of Jesus' teaching, the significance of his death, the roles of women, sexuality, visions of the ideal community, and so on" (vii). This book forms the basis for the next Christianity Seminar at the Westar Fall Meeting in San Diego, so I hope you'll join me in reading the book in preparation for that event, whether you're planning to participate in the conversation here on the blog, on our Facebook page, or in person.

Can a historical Jesus community be Christian?
It's tempting to reach for one of two extreme responses to the historical Jesus. Like me, maybe when you learn about Christian history in all its convoluted and uncertain terms, you find yourself preferring an atheistic or humanist outlook. Or, like others, you may find yourself courting neo-orthodox Christianity, a fancy word for Christianity that applies the Christ-myth more metaphorically, even prophetically, often in the service of social justice issues. In a variation of this second position, still others prefer a more mystical outlook, one that interprets Jesus as the key to a more universal spiritual pattern that manifests across all religions (although David Galston didn't mention them, I couldn't help but think of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as possible examples).

When it comes down to it, though, all these positions have something in common. They tend to prefer the Christ to Jesus. The historical Jesus is dismissed in favor of the clear, straightforward Christ who can either be rejected or embraced—but not engaged.

So as I read this, what I was left asking myself was the question, "Do I really want to engage the historical Jesus?" I feel almost blank in response to that. What do I know about the historical Jesus? It's hard to engage with someone you've been taught to ignore and elide into the Christ over and over again through weekly rituals. Yet throughout this book Galston has introduced a Jesus who is clever and compassionate, a man whose stories especially reveal him to be a careful observer of human relationships. He left a mark on the people who knew him. For that reason Galston has suggested the banquet should replace its closely-related cousin, communion, as the center of religious life.

Also, and this seemed to be problematic to many of you who commented on the past couple chapters, Galston is suggesting we see the Jesus movement as a school and Jesus as a teacher. A school may simply not be an adequate replacement for the mystery that religious practice often offers.

We're left, then, with a lot of questions about what shape ultimately an historical Jesus community would take, whether it can still be relevant, and especially whether it can speak as powerfully for Christianity as orthodox forms have in the past. We're living in the era in which that will likely be decided. Maybe the reason education—biblical literacy and religious literacy more generally—has to play such a big role in our generation is that it has failed to do so in the past for the everyday person, regardless of what was going on in the academy. "A major roadblock to taking the historical Jesus to church is precisely that he comes with some assembly required and no miracles, no mystery, and no authority provided," Galston explains. Then, once we've delved into the stuff we've been missing, "sometimes the humanistic wisdom of the historical Jesus is not mysterious enough to be attractive" (199).

Coming back to the quote with which we began, what I find most compelling in this final chapter is the call to give Christian a new definition, and to do so without fear. It's okay to see the Christ nature not as something absolute or essential, but rather as something to be practiced and experienced—as long as we do it inside the accountability provided by a community. We do it by imitating the historical Jesus' parable-world. We change the world by living it differently, and we do so together.

This is the concluding post in a blog series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 8 here. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

The Three-Tiered Cosmos and Other Lost Causes (EHJ series)

"The historical Jesus community does not worship; it gathers."

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 171

My college Hebrew professor once woke me up to the dramatic differences between ancient and modern world-views by drawing us a picture of the cosmos as the writer of Genesis understood it. On a dusty green chalkboard he drew a line to represent the ground, then added a half-circle above it to represent the firmament—the vault or arch of the sky. Underneath, he drew a few pillars to hold up the earth, with the space in between representing the world of the dead. Finessing a bit, he added a few windows into the semi-circle, which the gods could open to smell the delicious scent of burning meat on an altar and sprinkle down life-giving water onto the earth in return for the gift. According to the Babylonian epic of creation, the Enuma Elish, which is much older than the Hebrew Bible and on which arguably writers of the Hebrew Bible shamelessly riffed, the firmament was built of the corpse of Tiamat, goddess of creation, who takes the form of water:

Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
(end of 4th tablet)

You might be interested to learn that human beings in the Enuma Elish were created from the blood of a traitor god Kingu, and destined to be servants of the gods at least in part because of this heritage. The Hebrew God YHWH also assumes the servitude of mankind, but—more optimistically, it seems to me—makes us not of blood but of the dust of the earth. In this sense, the Hebrew worldview had more in common with the Egyptians, who for example in one ancient spell described the relationship between god and humans in the following manner:

It is in the body of the great self-evolving god that I have evolved,
For he created me in his heart,
Made me in his effectiveness,
And exhaled me from his nose.
(Coffin Text Spell 75, in Hollis, "Egyptian Literature": 129)

Each of these stories of who we are, where we come from, and how we relate to ultimate reality in turn shape our values. It is to such varying understandings of god, the cosmos, and human meaning—in a word, theology—that David Galston turns in chapter 8 of Embracing the Human Jesus, which we have been reading for the past several weeks on this blog. Galston's whole project has been to ask what would happen if we tried to build a community based on the historical, human Jesus. In this chapter, David asks if we bracket and set aside the idea of a divine being clothed in human flesh, and let Jesus just be human, how would it change our theology?

Courtesy of the British Museum. Clay tablet; map of the world; shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River"

We don't live in a world that is quite as small as the one envisioned by ancient Mesopotamian peoples. To put it in Galston's words, "Sometimes ancient problems, even when explained with modern sensibility, remain ancient problems" (181). We can't make the ancient view of the heavens fit ours. There just isn't a divine corpse up there holding back the waters of chaos. We've gone up and looked around; we know! What's up there is a dark, cold space punctuated by light. We can still feel awe when we regard it, sense beauty in its formation, and desire to know it. What we can't do necessarily is worship it as divine.

Galston is arguing that, in the same way, "a word like sin may not be just outdated, it might be a fundamentally flawed way to think about life" along with notions of Jesus as a divine savior and divine intervention in human affairs (181–82). Another notion that goes to the wayside it prayer, in the traditional senses of supplication and thanksgiving. Although many generations of theologians have found ways to make these notions palatable to modern people, it's still basically the remains of a bygone era. What makes more sense now is to replace the language of God with the language of life, as philosopher Don Cupitt has argued. Although individual people may hold onto these notions for psychological reasons such as the comfort it brings, or out of nostalgia for family and cultural values, Galston urges us to resist this temptation especially in the public sphere, and most especially in church:

All of these expressions deflate the community experience by directing the collective will away from history and from authentic language about life. ... An imperative of the historical Jesus community must surely be that the language of the community needs to be directed to history, raised from within the solidarity of people, and hold inspiration to act now. (184)

What I found most meaningful in this chapter was the unswerving commitment to this life, and the warning not to escape it by redirecting our attention to an external, possibly nonexistent reality. Even if it does exist, Galston points out, we still have to live life here, now. Importantly, the conviction is for public life. We don't worship; we work. I stumbled here on the realization that we often informally define religion itself as involving an attitude of worship. Buddhism, Taoism and other world-views are frequently described as "philosophy" instead of "religion" on this premise. If there's no worship going on, is it still religion? The next chapter of Galston tackles that question. For now, we are charged not to hope but to act, as in the example of the Good Samaritan: "It is not about a world where someday there will be no enemies; it is, rather, the practice of compassion that shatters the present world of enmity" (185).

From this perspective, the reigning question of life becomes, what actions are you taking that go beyond hope and actually challenge and change a present reality?

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 7 here. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

The Sound of an Appalling Love (EHJ series)

“When Jesus is given back his humanity, so, too, is the whole of the Christian tradition and those of the past who defined it for their time.”

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 161

I could not help but think, as I read chapter 7 of Embracing the Human Jesus, of Louise Erdrich’s delightful novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, which tells the story of a woman disguised as a priest to the Ojibwe people. At times painful, at times comical, it is a story of lost people reaching out to one another, and in the end Agnes DeWitt truly becomes Father Damien Modeste; in her dual identity she manages to embrace and live out her role as a sustainer and guide for her people. Yet throughout the novel the Pope represents a lovely but distant Christian God, who offers nothing to sustain Agnes/Modeste through the trials of reservation life, including several battles with the devil, who appears to Agnes in the form of an aggressive black dog. Agnes/Modeste addresses the Pope in letters variously as his Holiness, Rock of the True Church, and the Fountain of Hope, until at last, devoid of reply and in her final hour, she writes:

Pope!
Perhaps we are no more than spores on the breath of God, perhaps our life is just one exhalation. One breath. If God pauses just a moment to ruminate before taking in a new breath, we see. In that calm cessation, we see. All I’ve ever wanted to do is see.
Don’t bother with a reply.
Modeste
(344)

The solution to Damien’s despair, a theme that returns repeatedly throughout the book, is to remain fully present, to embrace life: “After returning from despair, Father Damien loved not only the people but also the very thingness of the world. He became very fond of his stove—a squat little black Reliance with fat curved legs. The stove reminded Agnes of a cheerful old woman who had given her bread as a child…” (215). Elsewhere Father Damien declares, "What is this life but the sound of an appalling love?" In the dissolution of the identities of Agnes and Father Damien, the holy and the earthly become one. Compassion is what binds her to this dense, messy place, not to escape it but to embrace it.

In Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston is likewise advocating for a profound transformation of Christian liturgy that celebrates where we are rather than pines for a separate, somehow better, heaven. Liturgy is the pattern of rituals for a given religious community. The liturgy of a traditional Christian church service typically opens with confession, then moves on to reading from the Bible, then thanksgiving and receiving of the Eucharist bread and wine, and finally concludes with the blessing and commission to “go out and preach the good news.” What Galston recommends in its place is a new liturgy based on the historical Jesus. We gather, we learn from one another, we share a meal and we continue our journeys with good tidings for one another. It’s important that this be a ritual that is celebrated in a historical Jesus community; rituals give power and significance to an act. It imitates what we already do at a family meal, but on a larger scale, suggesting community can be seen as extended family. “Compassion marks the end of religious battles between the mighty gods of human creation who set their truths against one another,” writes Galston. “Compassion is the turn to complementarity, which is the understanding that human beings create truths and live them only in relation to others.”

It wasn’t until I read this chapter that I really understood what David meant in his opening chapter about relativism, that we have to allow for the incompleteness of our knowledge. We can’t escape it. We live within history. We live and understand ourselves in relation to others, and even define the universe in relation to ourselves (what is time, for instance?). “Truth is the activity of living; it is what defines the relation between myself and another” (167). I've experienced this as a reality in my own life. To quote another of my favorites, Judith Butler’s essay “Beside Oneself” speaks movingly of what grief reveals about how inseparable the “self” is from others. She writes:

I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I think … one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. ... I don't think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can't say, 'Oh, I'll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I'll apply myself to the task, and I'll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.' I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. ... Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? (Undoing Gender: 18)

A ritual of community, openness to others, and compassion for others is rooted in being-with rather than trying to hold apart and purify one soul, which, in the end, is not possible. Grief reveals this in a profound way, as my very ground of being is swept out from under me, forcing me to acknowledge that I am a mishmash of connections all concentrated into one point of light.

The brilliance of the Louise Erdrich’s novel lies not in the success of Agnes’ disguise but rather in how completely she belongs to her community. It is no coincidence that every member of the community acknowledges at different moments that Father Damien is Agnes, and yet the movement of the story never depends on “unveiling” her dual/ambiguous identity. There is no ultimate confession, although she attempts to confess various things in various ways—words that, tellingly, never quite reach their intended destinations.

In the end, there proves to be no burden to relieve. There is no sin, no end to history, just a quiet pulsing of one life into the world that leaves the faintest of marks. Nevertheless, it does leave a mark, and so we all bring the world closer to whatever vision carries us onward.

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.