Thursday, May 04, 2006

How many gnostics can dance on the head of a pin?

This piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about some scholars who think that "Gnosticism" might be an unhelpful category as far as those early Christians (called heretics by the orthodox "winners") goes.
One provocative notion she sets forth is that to view Gnosticism solely in terms of its opposition to normative Christianity — heresy versus orthodoxy, public confession versus private teaching — impedes an understanding that it was the similarities between the Gnostics and their orthodox opponents, and not the differences, that fueled intense conflict in the early church.

Early in What is Gnosticism?, Ms. King observes that anti-Gnostic polemicists "took their rivals so seriously and denounced them so emphatically precisely because their views were in many respects so similar to the polemicists' own."

In an interview, Ms. King expands on her theory. "When you map out the similarities rather than the differences between the two sides — or what Irenaeus says are the differences — the territory of similarity is huge," she says. "Both work with this notion of humanity created in the image and likeness of God — and the need for a restoration of that. They both see Christ as the revealer figure, with the body as the place where the struggle takes place. They both have views at the end where humanity is divided into three groups depending on how you do."

Ms. Pagels agrees that "if we drop the invented terms, what we have is many different types of early Christianity. When I used the title The Gnostic Gospels, I assumed that they were all Gnostic. Now I would say that these are other Christianities. ... It's difficult for all of us who were raised the way we were to get rid of the assumptions. The act of shedding assumptions is only done one by one, and with great difficulty."
Uhm ... ya ... sure. You know, Muslims and Christians share all of these basic things as well --- a belief in one God, a belief in heaven and hell, a belief in a sacred book. So, they're all variations on the same theme (in fact, some early Christians did conceive of Islam as a heretical version of Christianity, sure) ... or is the point really that we don't want to "privilege" "mainstream" Christianity? We really don't want to do that. And getting away from that is a painful process of self-denial and sacrifice, it seems
Ms. Pagels agrees that "if we drop the invented terms, what we have is many different types of early Christianity. When I used the title The Gnostic Gospels, I assumed that they were all Gnostic. Now I would say that these are other Christianities. ... It's difficult for all of us who were raised the way we were to get rid of the assumptions. The act of shedding assumptions is only done one by one, and with great difficulty."
I don't get this. Yes, they thought of themselves as Christians. The orthodox thought they were heretics. They thought the orthodox were heretics. Why insist that they were "all Christians" in a way that would imply that "these were all legitimate?" or rather, "these all should be legitimate?" Isn't that really the thrust here? Legitimacy of ideas that were condemned by the "mainstream Church?" As historians, the idea of contemporary legitimacy shouldn't really matter, should it? So we have:
Mr. Williams says that Ms. King's work in particular is a step toward "breaking away from the way in which these old categories end up privileging the mainstream model of Christianity.
There it is, in so many words. Interesting to see that Bart Ehrmann doesn't think the category of Gnosticism shold be abandoned. He's a leader of the "diverse early Christianities" scholars. [Which, btw, is quite probably historically correct. It's the implications that people draw from these historical data that are ... well ... problematic.]

Still, an interesting article on these abstruse debates in academia. What is most irritating is the box at the end:
So you have read The Da Vinci Code and heard about the Gospel of Judas. Where do you go from there? Not surprisingly, there are plenty of works written by scholars about how the Nag Hammadi texts and other ancient Coptic writings have altered our understanding of early Christianity.
[There follows a nice catechism of works on the Gnostic Gospels and early Christianity]. Do what? Now that you've read the Da Vinci Code you can go read up on scholarship that develops the ideas that it contains? Or read the scholarship that it is based on? Isn't that what is implied here? Is there no acknowledgement at all that the DVC is pure bunkum when it comes to history? Utter nonsense? Or really, since it "altered our understanding of early Christianity" (which is what these scholarly works do) they're in the same category? Give me a friggin' break!

1 comment:

Ben Brumfield said...

You might also be interested in the related question and answer session with Karen King on the CHE site.