A Different Way To Be Christian

The Gnostics were seekers, open to new knowledge, not fixated on the past but trusted the "living Christ."

The Gnostic scriptures are so important because they reveal that many early Christians believed Christ's intent was different from what became "Christianity." Christ did not preach a set of beliefs. His intent was not to establish an all male lead Church that could dictate rules for faith and morality. His intent was not to establish Christianity as a political power to condemn others or to become a state religion. But that is exactly what happened. The Orthodox Church, established by Constantine, literally set forth and defined Christianity basically for their time and ours.
The Gnostics saw Christ's message more as a spiritual journey. And even though Christianity was established different from what they hoped, the discovery of their Gospels and writings have the power, not to totally change, but to elevate a different approach on how we are Christian.

Gnostic Christianity emphasized ones personal connection to Christ through what they called "gnosis." The experience of gnosis could range from what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road, to ones receiving enlightenment. Thankfully, the word "gnosis" wasn't given a precise meaning but obviously meant something more like insight or spiritual illumination rather than knowledge as just "fact" or "set of beliefs." Those now known as Gnostics (not named that until later in history) were not a church but more what we might call a theological perspective. They did have a few leaders, both male and female, and had various and diverse theologies. They did have some unusual beliefs. But that they didn't always agree with with each other did not present a crisis. (You will not agree with everything or believe all they said as well.)

Some leaders did write both Gospels and tracts that shared their Christian vision. Some of their Gospels contain the same sayings of the New Testament, but additional words and stories of Jesus stress the inward experience over belief. Some Gnostic writings went so far as to criticize items of belief like the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. They raised the importance and value of Mary Magdalene and women. Christ's intent was more spiritual than doctrinaire or ecclesiastical. Christianity was more about seeking Christ than "either you believe or you don't." But without a support system, not all believing alike, and having the Emperor Constantine against them, the Gnostic approach to Christianity was easily suppressed.

In contrast, to the Gnostics, the Orthodox (meaning 'right') believed their Church had the authority and wisdom to declare, even in written decree, what all Christians should believe. If Christians "believed" the same, Constantine said it would bring "harmony" to the church and Empire. Therefore the Bishops and Constantine, who financed the event, met in a village named Nicaea. The Nicene Creed became the official doctrine that was to define "Christianity." The vote was unanimous as Constantine exiled those who dissented! (Read Constantine's Sword.) Constantine ordered "heretics" and "schismatics" to surrender their church's properties to what was beginning to be called the catholic, or universal church (the Orthodox). Even though some have estimated nearly half of Christians were gnostic in their thinking, Orthodox Bishops (all male) and Constantine were able to tell the world exactly the correct interpretation of Christ and His intent. Constantine, a crafty and warring politician, was able to declare "officially" that those who agreed with him and his Bishops were the Christians. And, amazingly, understanding himself as the "vice regent of God", he and the Bishops were able to silence others like the Gnostics who saw the meaning and purpose of Christ differently.

Constantine's Council did help Christianity to be the state religion and one voice. Gaining state and ecclesiastical power, the patriarchal Orthodox Church was able to judge for Christ, for God, who was and wasn't a true Christian by what one "believed." Therefore the war cry against the poorly organized Gnostics, was "HERETICS."

I am a heretic! I hope there are other Christians who will say so as well. I am a recently retired Presbyterian minister, having two Masters Degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary, one for ordination, the second academic. Having served my last church for 29 years I honorably retired to pursue my passion for early Christianity and particularly Gnosticism. I am a gnostic Christian.
Please notice I use a small "g" rather than a capital "G," in my reference to gnostic Christian, as my purpose is not to preach Gnosticism, but to build a base of Christians, who think in a gnostic style. In her very thorough book, What is Gnosticism?, Karen King, of Harvard University, shares how hard it is to to define Gnosticism. Unfortunately, the Bishops and many in history depicted Gnosticism falsely, as believing another set of doctrines, as a secretive sect, and as not believing in the "real" world. From their writings, however, we know they had a style of faith that could have made Christianity more a spiritual journey, less judgmental and exclusive, and much more positive as one relates to the world and Christ. Instead of condemning nonbelievers in Jesus to hell, the gnostic viewed Christianity as a way to experience the light and love of God for the good of oneself and others.

Like many parts of the Bible, the Gnostic books are challenging reading. The best introduction would be The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels, a Professor at Princeton University. She has written several outstanding books that the layperson can understand. Instead of "right belief" as she teaches in her wonderful new best selling (2003) book, Beyond Belief, these Gnostic scriptures "preach" God is found primarily within oneself, not in the externals like doctrines, creeds, bishops, priests, and church proclamations. The Gospel of Thomas suggests the intent of Jesus was not a church per se, but a spiritual relationship open to all. The Gospel of Mary (ascribed to Mary Magdalene) shows total openness to women. (Read The Da Vinci Code!!) Not denying the validity of the New Testament writings, the authentic Gnostic scriptures lift up a different way to be Christian. It is more about relationship, than beliefs.

Traditional Christianity in time will be challenged to change some of its dictates with the discovery of the 52 Gnostics writings. The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson, first published in 1977, but not widely accessible to the general public until 1990, includes all the Gnostic scriptures in English. These books found in Egypt in 1945, two years before the discovery of the The Dead Sea Scrolls, are far more important for Christianity. More than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were writings of the Jewish sect, the Essenes, the Gnostic Scriptures raise important challenges to traditional Christian belief. Three of these challenges relate to the Orthodox teachings on theology, the Bible and the Church.

Theologically, for example, can you honestly say you totally believe every article of the Apostles' Creed? This document, or tool for authority, was not written by the 12 Apostles nor was essential to the Gnostics. They were not obsessed with believing in hell, the virgin birth or bodily resurrection. Most Gnostics did not believe such. The Orthodox, much like today's Fundamentalist, said you believe these doctrines or go to hell! The 52 Gnostic texts (actually 46 as some are duplicates) certainly vary in detail. Yet, they support those who question theological articles in both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, who question that God's divinity was limited only to Christ, and those who ask whether "right belief" is the simple ticket to heaven. According to the Orthodox, theological "truths" and "creeds" as established by the Bishops, should not be questioned.

Regarding the Bible, the Orthodox, having assumed their new power, were able to determine basically which books and writings were to be known as the New Testament Canon. Because the "other" Gospels did not comply with their theology, the Gnostic Gospels were excluded. Certainly, all the manuscripts found at Nag Hammadi had some different perspectives, and thus they were determined not worthy of "holy" inclusion. That they were ordered destroyed is shocking and almost unbelievable. But such an action shows how unfairly Christianity, as we know it, was established. Only the chosen books of the Canon held the "truth." But that is not all!

The authority of the Church, questioned by the Gnostics was the real threat! Indeed, because the Orthodox could see Gnostic material that presented a Jesus whose mission was more than establishing one true Church, their writings needed to be destroyed! Also, it was clear that the Gnostics definitely believed women were worthy to be clergy. That did not sit well with the Orthodox theologians who would argue Jesus chose all males as his disciples. But the Gnostic Gospels uplift the discipleship of Mary Magdalene, not the prostitute of history nor being such in the Bible, but as the closest and most trusted apostle and disciple of Jesus. However, the real problem with the Gnostics is that they did not give absolute trust to the "learned clergy" and the "truths" of the Church and accept blindly what they said.! So to protect their truth and their church, the Orthodox began a long tradition of condemning many, who raised questions of their authoritarian beliefs, as "Heretics."

Those who questioned "truths" were like Galileo--certainly-- a Heretic!

Yet, doesn't history teach us that it is often that what is true--not that which is "truth"--has been established by many so called "heretics." And the irony is that often these heretics have brought about better understanding both for the world and religion. (Another web site called Hereticschristians will be coming in the future.) With all the new science of today, many traditional beliefs, like the location of heaven and hell, the earth being the center of the universe and the "human" as God's final creation, are being tested as to what is real and true. Because the Gnostics did not see Christian doctrine as set truth and unchangeable, their style of faith is freeing and relevant today for those who want to remain Christian, being both honest to God and the world.
For them, there would not be a major conflict between science and religion. Galileo, for example, would not have been condemned because his science didn't agree with the Bible. They were not Biblical literalist like today's Fundamentalist. The Gnostics saw God's Spirit flowing in the Bible, and not set in stone in order to affirm the prejudices, culture and power of those in authority. Those of us who believe Christ's intent was more than establishing a set of rules for faith and morality, but rather, a dynamic way to connect with God, have powerful new resources. Beyond the standard judgmental style of Christianity, the gnostic approach opens a different way to be and remain Christian in today's complex world. Those who stand for the gnostic way to be a Christian have the new opportunity to declare to the world that Christ's message is far more positive, understanding, open and loving than has often been its tradition.

A gnostic style of Christianity needs to take fire again. My dream is not to establish a Gnostic Church. We have enough churches. My dream is to develop a Network or association at the grassroots level of those persons who want or have a gnostic style of Christianity. This style does not require one leave or detest any church or denomination. Yet across denominational lines, there is a need for those within and without the church, to declare that ones faith is free and different than traditional Christianity.