Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House, $24.95.
In Beyond Belief, Elaine Pagels presents a touching, insightful series of chapters whose common thread proposes that Christianity has lost touch with its own truest insights.
Pagels, whose scholarly works on diverse versions of early Christianity have consistently attracted a broad popular audience, now addresses her readers directly with a readable collection of essays that rest on her outstanding scholarship in the field of Gnosticism and early Christianity. Instead of teaching her readers how to understand better the earliest centuries of the church, however, she here invites them to re-imagine a contemporary Christianity that more closely resembles the faith she sees in the ancient texts she has studied so thoroughly.
Pagels frames the work in the context of her own spiritual life. From the devastating grief of her young son's death to a moment of exaltation shared with her daughter at a Christmas Eve service, she has pondered her persistent attraction to and aversion from Christianity, and this book begins to explain those feelings.
As a tract aimed at evangelizing its readers into a sort of non-conforming faith, the book derives its strength from Pagels’s manifest commitment to the vision that she describes. Here unfold the passions for ancient sources that lurked latent in her more strictly academic books; here she makes explicit connections between her scholarship and her spirituality. Few readers will not be moved by Pagels’s accounts of how her evolving understanding of Christianity comforted and clarified for her the ways of God and humanity.
Moreover, she rebukes orthodox Christianity for its narrow insistence on doctrinal conformity. Time and again, she adduces the weak arguments and awful consequences of authoritarian theological leadership. Pagels does not soft-pedal the harsh language that church leaders directed against those with whom they disagreed, and she invites readers to identify more closely with the free thinkers whom she admires than with Athanasius, Irenaeus, and other bishops of the dominant tradition.
Finally, she advances theological arguments in favor of the traditions she favors. She sets the Gospel of John over against the Gospel of Thomas and suggests that John was written as a somewhat peevish rebuke to Thomas’s mystical spirituality. She argues that the orthodox churches committed themselves to a fourfold gospel canon and to the creedal definition of sound faith; thus they shut out the profound spiritual insights of the many texts that she has devoted her career to understanding, translating, and expounding. Pagels lobbies gently for Christians to devote their energies more generously to spiritual growth, so that they might welcome the resources that non-canonical texts (and non-Christian faiths) stand to offer. Pagels sketches a non-judgmental, deeply personal, open-hearted faith that stands, as her title suggests, beyond mere belief.
The chapters of the book follow one another only loosely, and the book would benefit from more clarity at many points. Although the book seems to be written for non-specialists, Pagels doesn’t devote much attention to the content of any of her preferred texts; the book’s subtitle mentions the Gospel of Thomas, but Pagels expounds the Gospel of Truth, the Acts of John, the Secret Gospel of John, and other texts as much as Thomas. Her argument that the canonical Gospel of John marginalizes Thomas sounds forced; if John wanted Thomas to appear heretical, John would hardly have shown Thomas identifying Jesus as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Pagels’s loose argumentation will attract readers already disposed to be sympathetic to her position more than it will win over either committed mainstream Christians or critical nonpartisans.
No one can gainsay the testimony of Pagels’s own experience; she writes with grace about her heart-breaking pain and about the consolations she finds in the texts that orthodox Christians rejected. At the same time, it’s not exactly clear how this functions as an argument. Many people, after all, have experienced consolation from reading many different texts. Presumably some further criterion of spiritual soundness rules out The Greatest Salesman in the World, while including the Gospel of Truth — but Pagels doesn’t articulate the basis on which one might make that judgment. Indeed, it would be difficult for her so to do without sounding judgmental in the same sort of way as the early bishops whom she chides. The necessity of discernment, however, lies at the heart of many spiritual traditions, and at precisely this point, Pagels leaves her readers to their own devices.
Pagels justifiably deplores the violent words and harsh actions with which early Christians distanced themselves from the various constituencies they deemed heretical. That granted, the questions concerning the ethos of dissenting groups involves some further complexities. Early Christians seem sharp-tongued in debate, but that property applies not only to ancient Christians, nor only to the orthodox. Church leaders of various persuasions were quick to stifle dissent, and when the Empire deployed its coercive power to settle ecclesiastical conflicts, both sides of the dispute customarily hustled to win imperial favor and thwart their enemies. Heretical groups spoke roughly about their orthodox adversaries, and took advantage of state power to oppress theological opponents. If we should apply contemporary Western standards of politeness and toleration to ancient theologians, we should apply them even-handedly.
That rhetorical equity could even extend to the ways we weigh contemporary church policies and theologies. Pagels decries the practice of requiring participants in religious congregations to assent to things they don’t believe, and proposes her more inclusive Christianity as though it were the only alternative to fundamentalism. In so doing, she conceals from view the many Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologians who have spent recent decades explaining a variety of ways that doctrines do not function as propositions to which believers must assent. A reader who wasn’t already acquainted with the last forty years of theological deliberation might think that Pagels’s position represents the only non-propositional approach to Christian faith.
Pagels’s book does present an appealing case for a spirituality that prescinds from assessing truth-claims other than its own reliance on a universal inner light, a theology that dovetails with the felt needs of many in contemporary Western culture. This spiritual path offers solace and affirmation, indeed; a seeker risks misplaced faith only when she or he neglects the authoritative guide that abides within her or him.
On the other hand, as much as the contemporary cultural moment favors comfort over criticism, everyone benefits when sharp minds lend themselves to the task of assessing the stakes in matters spiritual. If the dissenters in the early church were wiser than their orthodox rivals, Pagels could help readers by citing specific reasons for such a judgment and promulgating some criteria by which one might recognize sound (and mistaken) faith. Her approach to spirituality shows an admirable openness and fluidity, but it remains to be seen whether this recipe offers hungry souls a hearty, nourishing soup on which one might thrive, or simply a watery broth that slakes the thirst with neither nutrients nor flavoring.