September 26, 2003

Radical Orthodoxy Round Table

Just a formal pointer, here, to the upcoming round-table discussion on Radical Orthodoxy and its significance for the life of the church. Discussion will start in a short while, and in the meantime convener Margaret Adam has been transcribing her notes from the recent conference on RadOx and the Reformed Tradition, and linking to round-table participant, Prof. Joel Garver’s blog. There is ample room for participants still in this discussion, so send a message to one of the project directors or to Margaret, and we can enroll you.

Posted by AKMA at 10:39 AM | Seminars | TrackBack

September 24, 2003

External Links

Here are some sites whose contents may be of interest to friends of the Disseminary:

First of all, the Wabash Center’s own guide to resources for teaching and learning about theology and religion online.

We deeply appreciate the libraries of books and articles at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and at religion-online.

The Early Christian On-Line Encyclopedia provides a treasury of articles, definitions, timelines, and art.

The online journal Killing the Buddha covers the religion beat with a distinctive, irreverent, but persistently interested and interesting voice.

Mark Goodacre’s New Testament Gateway provides the premier selection of NT-related links (and he keeps a blog, too).

The Early Christian Writings site boasts that it includes &ldqu;;all of Early Christianity,” and it’s very nearly right.

The Noncanonical Homepage covers much of the same terrain; the two sites back one another up nicely.

Project Canterbury includes a rich library of texts pertinent to the history of Anglo-Catholic theology.

TheOoze is subtitled “Conversation for the Journey,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe their site. Articles, reviews, and conversation about being church in these and coming times.

Posted by AKMA at 09:38 PM | About the Disseminary | TrackBack

September 17, 2003

How Can I Help?

Let’s say — purely hypothetically — that you have read about the Disseminary, understand our excitement about it, recognize it as a major force for Good in the fields of theological learning and online learning (both!), and appreciate our labor in generating and sustaining this site. So you ask yourself, “What can I do to help the Disseminary?”

Well, we have some suggestions:

  • You could buy some Disseminary gear at our online store. We make a dollar or two on each sale.

  • You could offer to participate in one of our seminars, or bestir yourself to comment on others’ participation. You could send responses to the reviews that we post — which we will then moderate and append to those reviews.

  • You could contact us relative to the possibility of submitting a manuscript or other educational resource for publication, or of leading a seminar, or of writing a review.

  • You could write a check to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (2122 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, Illinois, 60201) with the memo area clearly marked, “For the Disseminary.” Seabury will route all such donations directly to the Disseminary’s operating funds, without even skimming off a percentage for handling. That’s so nice of them, you might even want to send them a separate check (feel free to mark that, “For Endowed Chair in either Theology or New Testament”).

  • You could say, “Your dreams have come true: find a warehouse to set up shop, and realize your wildest fantasies” (so, we have relatively tame fantasy lives).

Or you could write us a fan letter, light a candle for us, say a little prayer for us, feed a hungry neighbor, shelter a homeless sojourner. We appreciate it all.

Posted by AKMA at 08:35 PM | About the Disseminary | TrackBack

The Ethics of Interpreting the Bible

We’re formally inaugurating the first Disseminary seminar, which Trevor and AKMA will co-lead. In “The Ethics of Interpreting the Bible,” we’ll explore how the human pursuit of understanding encounters resistance and encouragement from the interpretive circumstances, and what sorts of ethical mandates derive from the complex interactions of these.

Must we always interpret according to what the Scriptural text’s author would have wanted us to understand from his writing?

Can we tolerate conflict between our consciences and the Scriptures that inform them?

If we admit any critical discernment in our approach to the Bible, how are we to distinguish our interpretations from casual picking-and-choosing? And if we deny any such discernment in the name of “the plain sense,” how do we avoid projecting onto divine authority our own predilections?

The seminar starts here.

Posted by AKMA at 08:19 PM | Seminars | TrackBack

September 12, 2003

Bargain Days to End Soon

We’ve got an arrangement in place to cover contributions toward funding the Disseminary, now, so that we can accept money from Cafe Press for merchandise bought there with Disseminary identification. Once all the pieces are in place, we’ll raise the prices on tchochkes by a dollar or two. So if you were sitting on the fence, waiting for a motivation to plunk down your money toward a good cause, wait a day or two to buy a cap or t-shirt. If, on the other hand, you want to save that money for yourself (and we certainly sympathize), buy now, before we ratchet up the prices.

Posted by AKMA at 11:26 AM | Announcements | TrackBack

September 10, 2003

Pardon our dust

Dorothea here. I will be making some changes to the Disseminary website today and tomorrow. A few pages may disappear or look odd temporarily, but I hope to keep the disruption minimal.

What I am doing is bringing the site’s static content into Movable Type, so that it will be easier for everyone to maintain.

Off I go, then. I will update this post when I’m finished, so nobody has to wonder.

Update (9 pm CDT): Unless AKMA or Trevor has any tweaks to suggest, I think I’m done. Learned a trick or two while I was at it, which is always nice.

Posted by dorothea at 01:44 PM | Announcements | TrackBack

September 08, 2003

Review of Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief

(as submitted — will edit to reflect published version)

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 the 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.

[Send responses to either of the project directors, who may suggest an edited version of the response (in the interest of length and style.]

Posted by AKMA at 01:53 PM | Reviews | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 02, 2003

This Is the Story

Trevor and I are swinging open the doors to the Disseminary, but slowly. Rather than try to draw attention to the project on a large scale before there’s much to see, we’re getting some of the constituent projects going. Then we’ll ask for a general PR foofaraw, so that newcomers will see us beginning to fill the larders (rather than looking at where we hope someday to put the produce).

The first two projects we’re setting in motion are group blogs, one a more formal seminar on The Ethics of Interpreting the Bible, which Trevor and I will lead, and one a freer round table on the theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy, which Margaret will facilitate. After these two (perhaps concurrently, depending on the timing), Prof. Wesley Avram of Yale Divinity School will lead a seminar on Spirituality and Technology, and Dr. Tania Oldenhage of the Evangelisches Tagungs- und Studienzentrum (the Protestant Academy of Boldern) will lead a seminar on the parables of Jesus.

Trevor and I are inviting applications for the seminar on ethics, the Bible, and hermeneutics. We anticipate leading a six- or seven-week discussion, drawing on articles that are almost entirely available online. The seminar would then continue for a while, depending on the participants’ interest, reading materials suggested by the course of the conversation up to that point. As with all Disseminary projects, the discussion will be held at a publicly accessible site, and we’ll permit open comments from the peanut gallery. We don’ have a fancy application form just yet — we’ working on one — but if you’d like to participate in our seminar, please drop one of us an email message (I’m at akma {at}, he’s at bechtel {at}

We already have three participants for the RadOx round table (Margaret, Joel Garver, and Matt Gunter) and we’re looking for another nine or ten participants. Contact Margaret (margaretbadam {at} or me (akma {at} if you’ interested in reading through this bracing theological alternative in postmodern thought!

Posted by AKMA at 02:57 PM | Announcements | TrackBack