Christianity and Colonialism (Gnosticism series)

In my last blog post about Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?, I used the metaphor of maps and boundary-making to point to the problem of always keeping in mind the purposes behind our “map” of early Christian history. This has proven to be a problem in the study of Christianity because it’s too tempting to take what early Christian writers claimed about themselves—and about their opponents—at face-value.

King goes on in chapters 3 and 4 to give examples of actual scholars who fell into this trap, complicated by the rise of Western colonialism. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars like Adolf von Harnack and the history of religions school tried to move beyond the church’s language of heresy without, however, endangering Christianity’s status as the highest form of religion. Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy. Of course this or that brand of Christianity might get touted above another, such as Protestantism versus Catholicism, but the status of Christianity itself was left untouched. Scholars assumed the superiority of Christianity just like wider society assumed the superiority of white Europeans.

Today we study that phenomenon under the term "colonialism." Arguably, we haven't yet moved beyond colonialism. It is evident in the ways race, class, and gender are treated differently in pop culture, our legal system, and other social institutions. Bell hooks, an American feminist and cultural critic, links colonialism to our tendency to recycle old ideas in new forms for the sake of power. In Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies, she gives a commonsense example of this phenomenon:

We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation. People forget that when they wanted white women to get into the workforce because of the world war, what did they start doing? They started having a lot of commercials, a lot of movies, a lot of things that were redoing the female image, saying, “Hey, you can work for the war, but you can still be feminine.” So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.

Sometimes people get upset in conversations about racism and other –isms because they don’t feel they should be held personally responsible for the actions of past generations. And that’s a fair complaint, to a point. What Hooks is talking about here is not the past as such, but our choices to reproduce past attitudes through new movies, books, and so on. If we reproduce sexist, racist, and other oppressive images without criticizing or challenging them, we keep them alive for the next generation.

Richard Reitzenstein

Richard Reitzenstein is credited (for better or for worse) by King with the invention of the "gnostic redeemer myth." Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Scholars deal with this problem, too. King is claiming that gnosticism happens to be a tool used—consciously or unconsciously—by scholars of early Christian history to keep alive the basic structures of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and heresy (“deviance”). The orthodoxy-heresy divide served the church’s goal of claiming authority for itself, but it does not in any way serve a scholar’s goal of a better understanding of history.

I found this quote especially illustrative:

Possibly the greatest mischief [of history of religions school] was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism. This stirring narrative … was constructed by taking bits and pieces from particular motifs from a variety of historical and literary contexts, and combining them into a single, coherent narrative. … In reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives ‘the Gnostic redeemer myth’ as scholars have ‘reconstructed’ (i.e., invented) it. (109, italics in original)

Last week I mentioned Daniel Boyarin’s suggestion that the metaphor of “family resemblance” is a useful alternative to other kinds of definitions. No one member of the family has all the family traits, but they all share some. However, now I see that the case of the history of religions school shows one weakness of that metaphor. Because there is no family prototype, out of which the rest of the family members are stamped, we’re all family if you draw a large enough circle. The lack of a prototype allowed scholars who liked the history of religions approach to cherry-pick whatever traits they felt like assigning to gnosticism, without anchoring them in place and time.

All along, King’s point has been that the entire structure of a “good” Christianity and “bad” gnosticism, or vice versa, is flawed. We know things were never so monolithic in practice. The end result is absolutely going to look like a family of some kind, but I can safely say this much: the Christian family is not going to divide easily into two groups.

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

This is the fourth 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.

11 replies
  1. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    King is probably not resonating with the average church goer, who, if heard the name “Pistis Sophia” might mistake it for a bladder infection and wouldn’t recognize a demiurge from a regular urge! “Gnostic” as particular literature of early Christianity is stereotype more than descriptor. Stereotypes are ways to organize and simplify, to group without paying attention to the particulars. I think it is safe to say that, by the middle of the fourth century most – if not all – of the works considered “gnostic” were also considered “heretical.” Gnostic, though, shouldn’t be a descriptive term for anyone writing about the literature, certainly not scholarly literature. Whether used as a synonym for “heretical,” a negative stereotype for some (but not for me) or as (to use the sensationalized subtitle of Bentley Layton’s “The Gnostic Scriptures”) “ancient wisdom for the new age,” a positive stereotype for some, depends on the vividness of the terms used, the cognitive sloth (using the word for ease) used, the concreteness (degree of detail), the audience and the context of the uses. The best (elementary) educational tool I’ve seen to discriminate between heretical and orthodox is “A New New Testament,” a project of Hal Taussig which included King and which has an essay “Giving Birth to A New New Testament and Retiring the Idea of Gnosticism,” indebted to her. It shatters canonical boundaries in a big way. The non-canonical books in most of my material suffer from obscure translations and poor or nonexistent explanatory notes.

    Note: “Average church goer,” originally “pew sitter,” is also a stereotype based on my experiences with Christians, as well as a Pew Research survey that quizzed folks with basic religious literacy questions, finding Christians less knowledgeable than atheists.

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    Different is, well, just different. Within the experience of different abide the seeds of fear and suspicion. The seeds of fear and suspicion fuel the urge of judgment. Judgment thrives as the bottomless pit of violence. Violence purges the world of difference and exalts sameness. Sameness is, well, just sameness. Within the experience of sameness abide the seeds of fear and suspicion. The seeds of fear and suspicion fuel the urge of judgment. Judgment thrives as the bottomless pit of violence. Violence purges the world of sameness and exalts difference. Scholarship which is devoid of love encourages the seeds of fear and suspicion. Who wants that on their conscience?

  3. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Stereotyping is an expedient way to describe; prejudice is how one judges. When one looks at Christianity one is looking at many subcultures within a culture. People look at those outside their culture with fear and suspicion. They have a basic dislike of differences in others because these threaten their social identity. They sometimes see them as threatening the culture. We stereotype and group to describe and if the descriptions are at odds with the way we order the world, prejudices are formed. Within the Christian culture, the variety of various sects speaks to the fragility of the Christian culture. Growing up in a small town, a “mixed marriage” was between a Methodist and a Baptist. And, it was bad but not hopeless! There were a few Presbyterians on the other side of the town. There was no Catholic church, merely a distrust and enmity toward Catholics, where ever they were hiding, whoever they were! Marriage would have been condemned. But for minor differences, the way these groups saw, perceived and believed was basically the same. (They accepted each other far more readily than they would a Jew, Muslim or Hindu.) The kerygma – Jesus, only “begotten” son of God, died for the sins of humanity, rose from the dead, saved all who believed so they could go to heaven, and was coming back at a later date – was the same for the Christian culture; primarily the rituals, the sacraments were different. This is one way to explain the dichotomy between “heresy” and “orthodoxy” within the blanket Christian culture.

    Today, the kerygma that forms the foundation myth, the moorings of Christianity as practiced by most since fairly close to the beginning, has been challenged, rather abruptly and without much respect to the way the majority sees, perceives, believes. I’m not sure, though, with Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides, Mani and many others, this wasn’t the case in the first three centuries of Christianity and that it didn’t continue, in various areas (which were isolated in comparison with today) throughout the history of the culture. What wasn’t absorbed was discarded. Today, though, science has entered to provide a new cosmology, a new medicine. “Heresy” is only an important term for those stuck with the old kerygma. It’s not “ritual” or “sacrament,” but the whole faith. That, with hubris, causes stereotyping and prejudice on both sides.

  4. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra has called our attention to the dynamics of honesty and humility in the process of scholarly investigations and conclusions. In the latest 4thR, Robert Price(“Kettle Logic”} suggests the need for an approach (by those advocates of ‘book based religion’) to truth that reminds me of the honesty/humility dynamic. For one thing he emphasizes the substantial ambiguity in the interpretation of any and all written passages.

    • Cassandra says:

      “the dynamics of honesty and humility in the process of scholarly investigations and conclusions…”

      This is probably a natural rhythm in scholarship (something like Kuhn’s theory of the revolution of scientific thought), except that I’m sure the role of religion in people’s lives further complicates it. I used to tell my university students when I was teaching Western religions courses that they always had to be able to tie their interpretations back to the text. Sometimes I’m reading the theories of scholars King covers and wondering, “Where is the anchoring to the text here? They should have known better!”

      Sometimes, though, it sounds like the problem was really practical: they couldn’t read the original language(s), so they relied on other scholars’ work. We all do that. We’re even doing it now. That I suppose is where the humility comes in!

  5. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I think there is another force at play, too, Gene. (I’ll post the complete essay, “Stereotypes and Prejudice,” describing cultural factors that come into play in the “heresy” versus “orthodoxy” dichotomy on Ὁδος when I finish it.) This force in play is the attitude of the teacher. Is it a “deficiency orientation” or a “difference orientation?” This is something that comes into play in education when the teacher works with children, especially second language learners from a different culture. If the speaker or the writer of volumes of historical Jesus studies approaches the “audience” with the view that they are lacking, that they are “deficient,” there won’t be much learning. Each side has lessons the other can learn, and differences tell us as much about ourselves at the other.

  6. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    The gods are quickly dying. Some have looked at this, wanting to salvage the life teachings of the protagonist of the gospels, Jesus. They want to educate others of their views of a human Jesus. When one approaches someone of a vastly different view of religion (or anything one has firm beliefs about), there are generally two ways this happens. It has been shown in education, when teachers are instructing students of a different culture, there are two attitudes toward the students. It is the same way with religion, politics, education, abortion, and so forth. One enters into the discussion either seeing the other person as “deficient” or “different.” If one attempts to educate from the viewpoint that the other person is somehow lacking, aside from probably being wrong they immediately alienate the “learner.” This is called ‘deficiency orientation.’ With children it often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If stereotypes are negative, the teacher views the teacher in negative ways because of lower expectations, treatment of the students and so forth. With adults in a more level arena with each other, it can lead to even more polarizing attitudes. The negative stereotypes formed about fundamentalists and evangelicals (and we probably need to define these so we can check our stereotypes, to some extent from the beginning) lead the so-called Progressive Christian, the liberal Christian, atheist and the obnoxious to approach one with a deficiency orientation. Similarly, if the Fundamentalist views the “other” as a godless product of a world that has forsaken God, a deficiency orientation, there won’t be much positive conversation. This is not only in conversation but in books and articles. Each sees the other as a threat to something or other and in need of “rehabilitating” or lambasting.

    Effective teachers, especially those who work with special needs students, realize that the only way to be effective is by realizing that all learners have strengths, that no two students necessarily learn at the same rate nor the same way, and that the student is quite capable of learning. There are cultural, socio-economic or other factors that obscure abilities that might not be as important in the dominant culture. This is called “difference orientation.” Instead of seeing the student as deficient and, by definition inferior, one works to associate the strengths one brings from his or her culture to the dominant one. Applying this to adults of a different set of values for the same texts of the Bible might garner better results than the idea that these people are just “missing” something or worse, that their views make them the enemy, the “heretic.” Accepting their values as valid but different might be a way toward dialogue.

  7. Gene Stecher says:

    I hadn’t realized that the reaction against centuries of Christian “arrogance” had invaded the arena of top notch popular fiction. But in Steve Berry’s treasure hunting thriller, The Templar Legacy (2006), we have the search for what the Knights Templar had held in secret for a thousand years, namely the ossuary with the bones of Jesus, son of Joseph, and Simon Peter’s confession of resurrection (non-literal) faith. The literal bones, of course, are supposed to be an obvious denial of the church’s conception of resurrection.

    The book in part ends with Peter’s confession which the author later offers is based on concepts found in Spong’s “Resurrection, Myth or Reality.” Part of the confession reads, “We thought it safe to return to Jerusalem and take part in the Feast of the Tabernacle…All doubt left me, grief vanished, confusion became clarity. The man Jesus was not dead. He was alive. Resurrected within me was the risen Lord. I felt his presence as clearly as when he once stood beside me. ..Loving as he loved…doing as he did…living as he lived is the way to salvation…the man Jesus had given one final lesson to us all. In ending life we find life. Loving is to be loved…When I told James and John of my vision they saw too…we dug from the earth the remains of the man Jesus. We took him with us and laid him in a cave. We returned a year later and gathered his bones, and I placed this account with them.”

  8. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Cassandra, you wrote, “Some even went so far as to claim Christianity had taken over and improved upon the ideas of other religions on its path to ascendancy.” We find, however, that this was one of the hallmarks of second/third century Christianity before it “ascended.” In “to the Magnesians” Ignatius says, “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and practice Judaism. For Christianity did not base its faith on Judaism, but Judaism on Christianity…” (10.3). Then, one of the “main ideas” of the Epistle of Barnabas is that “the Jews” got the Bible all wrong because they were misled by an evil angel! I think that the perception of superiority is part of the culture of any religion. And, that gave me yet another aspect of the essay that this blog spawned. Shux, thought I was finished!

    • Cassandra says:

      “We find, however, that this was one of the hallmarks of second/third century Christianity before it “ascended.””

      Yes, absolutely. King has been reiterating throughout that one of the reasons this issue just won’t go away is because scholars keep picking up and using wholesale the claims made by polemicists about one another. We’re not going to escape this in chapter 5 either (I’m working on the next blog for that one now). From the way chapter 5 concluded, it sounds like chapter 6 & 7 on Nag Hammadi are finally going to get us past this issue of “theological creep” in historical discussions (dare I hope?).

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  1. […] Last week we left off our reading of Karen King’s book What Is Gnosticism? with the problem of historians ignoring and distorting data for the sake of protecting the exalted status of whatever they believed to be true Christianity. They let theological concerns get in the way of historical ones. The most damaging idea introduced by this generation of scholars was the gnostic redeemer myth. […]

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