Beyond Belief


The following quotations are from Elaine Pagels book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House: N.Y., 2003).  Pagels is also author of The Gnostic Gospels and she is a professor of religion at Princeton University.  She has her Ph.D. from Harvard and is married and has children and has suffered the early loss of one of her children.  I give you her background in part because what she has to say will be viewed by many as very controversial, even dangerous.  However, Pagels is a serious scholar who is only trying to help us all appreciate the great history and diversity of spiritual knowledge.


“Christianity had survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations---even centuries---before Christians formulated what they believed into creeds” (p.  5).  It was not until “…the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine himself converted to the new faith---or at least decriminalized it---did Christian bishops, at the emperor’s command, convene in the city of Nicaea…to agree upon a common statement of beliefs---the so-called Nicene Creed, which defines the faith for many Christians to this day” (p. 6).  Before this event, ”from the beginning, what attracted outsiders who walked into a gathering of Christians…was the presence of a group joined by spiritual power into an extended family…In Rome, the sick who frequented the temples of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, expected to pay when they consulted his priests (whereas) the Christian ‘family’ contributed money voluntarily to a common fund to support orphans abandoned in the streets and garbage dumps.  Christian groups also brought food, medicines, and companionship to prisoners forced to work in mines, banished to prison islands, or held in jail” (pp. 6-7).


“Such generosity, which ordinarily could be expected only from one’s own family, attracted crowds of newcomers to Christian groups, despite the risks” (p. 8).


What made Christianity so attractive was the belief that God “actually loved the human race, and evoked love in return” (p. 9).


However, change, especially dramatic change like what Christians were proposing, tends to be resisted.  Instead of welcoming this new way of relating, Christians were vigorously and savagely persecuted.  Still the faith grew.  And, as it grew, numerous priests and bishops interpreted the teachings of Christ in a variety of ways.  Some saw such diversity as an asset.  However, in large part due to the persecution, certain early leaders of the church felt it would benefit the church if one standard set of beliefs was established.  Thus we ended up with the Nicene Creed and the limited set of books that are in the New Testament.  What Pagels has us do in her book is look at the history of how this happened and to examine some of the beliefs in the early writings of Christianity that were excluded by church leaders.


In the Gospel of Thomas:  “Jesus said: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’  The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves” (p. 32).


“Thomas teaches that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but potentially at least, in everyone.  Thomas’s gospel encourages the hearer not so much to believe in Jesus, as John requires, as to seek to know God through one’s own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God.  For Christians in later generations, the Gospel of John helped provide a foundation for a unified church, which Thomas, with its emphasis on each person’s search for God, did not”  (p. 34).


Early church leaders felt that, in order to survive, the church needed that unification, and the individuality of Thomas was rejected and his teachings suppressed and declared unacceptable.  “Although John’s formulations have virtually defined orthodox Christian doctrine for nearly two thousand years, they were not universally accepted in his own time” (p. 45).   What some early Christian leaders wanted us to do was to experience our faith, to dig into its mystery and mystically feel God and become one with God, to constantly evolve and change and grow.  Other leaders wanted us to take the teachings by faith and to hold to one way of viewing the world.  This struggle between two ways of relating spiritually to the teachings of Christ led to the Nicene Creed as those who wanted faith and a standardized interpretation of belief won out in this struggle.   But, it is terribly important to recognize that it was simply that---a struggle amongst humans as to what should be the accepted beliefs and what should not be accepted.  Therefore, just because certain gospels made it into the New Testament does in no way say that the other gospels cannot help us learn and evolve as human beings and as Christians.


Now what I have said is for many conservative Christians unacceptable.  But the reason that it is unacceptable is ONLY because they have been so taught by fallible humans struggling to establish a stable church structure from the days of the Nicene Creed down to this moment. 


As Pagels says about herself: “In my own case, the hardest---and the most exciting---thing about research into Christian beginnings has been to unlearn what I thought I knew, and to shed presuppositions I had taken for granted” (p. 181).  Her book challenges the reader to tackle this hard but exciting spiritual journey.  “Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches” (p. 184). 


Although Pagels does not go into it, I find this journey an extremely important one in terms of world harmony.  Because of the Nicene Creed, we have built a religion that says we have the truth and no one else does.  In this way we have helped to increase disharmony in the world and pitted various belief systems aggressively against one another.  I do not believe that this is what Christ wanted us to do.  I believe that this is a violation of his teaching of love and acceptance.  Therefore, I hope that one day we repudiate the Nicene Creed and begin to evolve as a faith in directions that encourage us to experience the mysteries of God and to be open to the teachings of other spiritual belief systems that can enrich our Christian faith.