Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Gneo-Gnostic Priest

Some months ago I had a conversation with a man of the cloth about the evolution of Christianity. Of particular interest was the slow erosion of church membership, and it really doesn't matter which church this was or who the priest was because all the churches are having the same problem. Efforts to appear more relevant convince the convinced, and still the loss of membership continues.

I told him my particular concerns: we live in a world where science explains things in detail. Not always perfectly, but with a self-correcting premise that if an explanation seems flawed, then a new one will be put together based on experience and observation, with an insistence on accuracy and a willingness to change.

It appears that religion has sought to have the certainty of science without respecting its basic premise. This sets up the "Santa Claus Syndrome." As children grow up and discover that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are creatures of a narrative world as opposed to creatures of a material world, they grow to disbelieve these characters without understanding the shift that has happened. They continue through their lives with a bemused tolerance of little children who still believe, learning not to shake the illusion, but convinced of its error.

The problem of churches is similar. Little children can be taught to repeat the basic Christian narrative, and they can be convinced that they need to hold on to that narrative long after they stop believing in Santa Claus. But without a clear understanding of the difference between the world of narrative and the world of matter, they end up in a world of confusion.

This sets up a doubt that follows them into maturity. And it's this doubt, I think, that is behind the erosion of church membership. As the new generations come to maturity, Jesus and God and Spirit become make-believe characters. The pretext of scientific validity convinces fewer and fewer people.

So I said to my friend, the man of cloth.

The problem of that conversation was complex. He must remain dedicated to the primary narrative of his faith--it's his job, after all. And he must serve the core constituencies of his faith, from the bishops down to the little children singing in the Sunday School choir. He is, more than anyone, aware that this erosion is real, and that it's not limited to his church or his denomination. He knows that the critical mass that it takes to support the financial side of running a church depends on a strong future membership and the loss of the younger generations will be devastating.

His answer lies not in making me happy. I represent a very small constituency within his arena. He can have no quick wise answer that satisfies me and still serves the larger constituency that he serves. He must serve that larger community. It's important that he do so.

But I saw it in his eyes. He sees the problem clearly.

He knows that he must address my concerns, because the constituency that I represent is fundamentally essential to the survival of the church in the future. We are educated and we understand (more or less) that there's a difference between the world of matter and the world of spirit. And, to be blunt about it, we have the money it takes to support such an organization. Without that, his mission will falter, and eventually, it will fail.

So how does the man (or woman) of cloth proceed? What is the necessary paradigm shift that has to be in place in order for the narrative of Christianity to become so compelling that it serves the little children as well as the great core of people for whom accuracy and relevance is essential?

I believe that an essential part of the answer lies in restoring the difficult and problematic texts of early Christianity to the canon. I particularly like to start with The Gospel of Mary because some of the core debates are laid out there. What is the nature of matter? Is it the soul or the spirit or the mind that sees the vision? How does the soul prevail against the powers that would deceive it? And who is Peter, that he would proclaim women to be "unworthy of life?"

It is one thing to believe that The Bible is the Word of God. It is another thing to realize that it's an edited collection of edited books, chosen by the heirs of Peter's legacy, men with an agenda that served political ends many centuries ago. That they sent out armies to destroy dissenting communities and their narratives needs to be part of the history that we learn. That their code was not shared universally (in spite of the universality proclaimed in the word catholic) needs to be examined. Who were these other communities? What did their narrative traditions teach them? Who were their primary teachers? And why were their messages so threatening that they had to be killed and their sacred texts destroyed?

We clearly cannot take this discussion to the children. In fact, it is beyond the reach of many adults. But if The [truly universal] Church is to survive and thrive in coming centuries, it must be relevant, and its teachings must survive beyond the age of accountability. The conflation between the world of matter and observation and the world of spirit must be deconstructed so that the spiritual journey does not disintegrate in the face of a contradictory scientific journey. The discussion of the messages of the canonical books must incorporate an understanding of allegory and anagogy, and the context must be expanded beyond the boundaries of translations of a fifth-century redaction of selected texts.

If the Word of God is indeed divinely inspired, does it not tell us something important that these ancient texts were preserved carefully in caves against the day that they could be recovered, restored, and read anew?


  1. We are all caught in a double-bind: those who were raised in an orthodox Christian tradition were taught a certain mythos, but the tenets of this mythos cannot withstand the tests for empirical knowledge we learned as part of our secular education. Reading ancient texts, cannonical or not, cannot resolve the dilemma in which we find ourselves. So how do we reconcile this dichotomy?

  2. to a student, fearful of World Literature I:

    As a teacher, I deal each semester with students who believe their faith is being challenged. So let me make a clear statement: this is a course in literature, and in particular, in the historical context of the major literatures of the Western World. Faith is a different issue altogether.

    Think of what Paul writes on faith: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11.1).

    What you hope for in the way of faith is not under challenge here. We are exploring things seen, not unseen. History and textuality and sociological contexts and, to some extent, psychology are realms of the known, and education is about mastering the body of known things. Your faith is something you build through your experience of the world, part of which is knowable through education, but part of which is not. My job is to make you aware of the complexity of textuality, not to tell you what you must believe as a matter of your hopes for the unseeable.

    I'm reading an interesting book by Michael Ruse called The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Ruse cites Jonathan Edwards, "the greatest religious genius of his age," as being a very old fashioned Calvinist who "saw the significance of a one-on-one encounter with God at the moment of conversion, without need or possibility of rational argument" (20). In one of his best known sermons, entitled "A divine and supernatural light, immediately imparted to the soul by the spirit of God, shown to be both scriptural and rational doctrine" (1734), he stresses the fact that "real contact with the deity consists of emotion and faith rather than reason." Here's an analogy from this sermon:

    "It is out of reason's province to perceive the beauty or loveliness of any thing: such a perception does not belong to that faculty. Reason's work is to perceive truth and not excellency. It is not ratiocination that gives men the perception of the beauty and amiableness of a countenance, though it may be many ways indirectly an advantage to it; yet it is no more reason that immediately perceives the sweetness of honey; it depends on the sense of the heart.--Reason may determine that a countenance is beautiful to others, it may determine that honey is sweet to others; but it will never give me a perception of its sweetness."

    So take the word of the great evangelical preacher and let faith be a thing of emotion, and not a thing of reason. And take the word of this professor of philosophy when he say his business is the reasonable exploration of literature, language, textuality, traditions of interpretation, and all other quantifiable aspects of the written word, leaving the nature of its sweetness for you to decide.