Are Unitarian Universalists Christian? Some are. Some aren’t. The question is as old as the religions themselves, going back to their forming and founding. The…
Deeper than any scriptural roots are the cosmic substances that make life possible. Our western religious roots reach deep via old scriptures, but other roots were cut off, defined out, declared heretical, just as our ways have been treated. Along side the New Testament books are the adjacent but banned Gnostic texts of that early Christian era. In them, we find our liberal religious ways align with the ways of Jesus and his early followers better than Christianity’s orthodox approach has, especially in terms of women, sexuality, belief, and dogmatism. We’ll look at some of these long-forgotten and recently-discovered texts. But deeper than any scriptures are the natural sources which form and inform us. Let us honor these too.
Much of our western thinking traces back to the Holy Land. It is as though history starts there and wends its way here. Other influences seem peripheral. A small population from a limited area during a short period of history shaped the essential religious and social concepts of our entire western civilization. A set of their ideas were declared ‘God’s Word’ as the orthodox canon we know as the New Testament. These few books have formed the context and authority of our religious exploration for eons.
Both the Unitarian and the Universalist essential theologies were based in this limited canon. The Unitarians saw Jesus as praying to God, not usurping Him. They found no scriptural support for the Trinity. The Universalists found no basis for the elaborate, inscrutable sadism of Hell in the scriptures. Instead, they saw Jesus modeling a loving, inclusive God, the sort we could incarnate too were we to be as true to ourselves as Jesus was to his. However, the orthodox (literally meaning “straight thinking”) Christians declared us heretical (meaning “to choose otherwise”), just as they had for many competing scriptures from that crucial era. For most Christians, Jesus was Christ, God, in a way we are not. They promote a supernatural scheme where he died to forgive our inevitable sins. Having faith in this is all we need to do to be right with God, they say.
For two thousand years the few orthodox books and ideas of the New Testament defined Christianity. Then, in 1945, at the Jabal al-Tarif caves, near the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, some fifty two texts written before, during, and after the New Testament gospels were discovered. These Gnostic texts show a far richer context of ideas than we had been shown. I am especially appreciative of the scholar Elaine Pagels for reporting the interrelationships of these texts and ideas with the early Christian movement. Her three books, “Adam, Eve, and the Serpent,” “The Gnostic Gospels,” and “The Origin of Satan,” detail the way Christianity became focused on an institutional form of a religion far different than that of the early adherents.
Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, when exiled Jews were just returning from Babylonia, they were not warmly welcomed by those who had stayed. The old practice of calling non-Jews (ha goyim) ‘agents of Satan’ began to be used between Jewish sects. Demonizing those who differ is an ancient religious practice. These returning staunch Jews blamed those more cosmopolitan upper class Jews who had accommodated Greek customs. The Pharisees, who despised the Hellenized Jews, would later be joined by the Essenes, desert ascetics who believed the sins of their fellow Jews had ruined the covenant with Abraham. They called for a new covenant based on living strictly, confessing sins, giving up sex, and sharing their money communally. The followers of a teacher named Jesus from the poor town of Nazareth may have been in this Essene community.
The Jewish historian Josephus recounts that shortly before the birth of Jesus the Romans crucified an astonishing two thousand Jews in Galilee for rebelling. Some thirty years after the execution of Jesus, in 66, a rebellion of rural Jews broke out again. Sixty thousand Roman soldiers re-took the city. Many hoped the last days of this evil occupation were near, and so the apocalyptic hope that the kingdom of God was at hand was held dear.
It wasn’t until about at this time, a generation or two after the death of Jesus, that what we call the New Testament was written. The prosecutorial zealot Paul hadn’t known Jesus, but interpreted his life and death in spiritual and cosmic theological terms having to do with sin and redemption. In about 70, the Apostle Peter’s younger co-worker, Mark, wrote a fairly plain account of the reports of Jesus, skewing it slightly to get Pontius Pilate off the hook and the Jewish scribes on it. Ten years later, the Jew Matthew and the Gentile Luke magnified Mark’s account to further exalt Christian Jews from the more usual sort. Ten years after that the Jew John of Alexandria further placed the Jesus event in the larger context of the Greek world. The early Jesus movement would later come to be called Christian. It gave up on the early symbol of the fish and adopted the cross. In a three hundred year period it moved from being a persecuted cult of obstinate martyrs to the official religion of the empire.
This much is familiar to us. What are not familiar to us are the writings of other adjacent groups. By the year 200 the canon of approved New Testament books was closed, locking out variations and competing ideas. The early bishops Irenaeus and Tertullian declared what writings and teachings were orthodox and which were heretical. In 367, Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, ordered all heretical books to be purged. In 381, Emperor Theodosis declared heresy to be a crime against the state. Increasingly, heretics were seen as not just different or out, but evil.
These early Christians were strict. Some wouldn’t touch money and expected giving up of all money to the church. Paul was the next thing to a monastic. He had believers give up on sex all together as an ideal. Later writers using his name softened that somewhat to allow sex in marriage, but then only for procreation purposes. The anti-sex, anti-women, pro-salvation, pro-belief stance so familiar to us today has its roots in these early believers writing two generations after Jesus.
But the Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi a mere 60 years ago, while corroborating some New Testament accounts, show totally other approaches as well. They reveal an early Jesus movement that was at once more humane and more mystical. They remind us our liberal kind-hearted and very human ways are closer to Jesus’ way than we were told.
The Gospel of Philip is the most interesting to me. He describes how Jesus used to often kiss Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The other disciples got jealous of her, but Jesus made no apologies, either to them or for being with a woman. Perhaps the prostitute saved by Jesus, she stays with him throughout the story and is one of the few women to rescue Jesus from his tomb. What did she know about how Jesus lived and died? Mary Magdalene is the gem shining in the shadows cast by the New Testament.
The furor over the movie “The DiVinci Code” arises because of the plausible possibility that Jesus and Mary were lovers, and that he left with her to father children and die later. (One story has them migrating to France, another to India; both include offspring.) Would that be such a bad thing? The Dialogue of the Savior claims Mary was the most revered of the three disciples chosen by Jesus to receive secret knowledge (above Thomas and Matthew). It describes her as “…a woman who knew the All.” (GG, 64)
Peter (the “Rock,” on whom the Catholic tradition claims a lineage of authority up to the current pope) resented that Jesus was close to a woman, teaching her secret knowledge. The author of The Gospel of Mary, Levi, confronts him: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered… But the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed, to reject her? Surely the Lord knew her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.” (GG, 64)
In Faith Wisdom Peter resents Mary for displacing his authority and urges Jesus to rebuke her, but is himself rebuked. Later, she admits to Jesus, “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.” Jesus assures her whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, though this is not honored in priestly and papal succession. (GG, 65)
Although the cult of Isis reigned in nearby Egypt, and women regularly spoke and took priestly roles in the Gnostic churches, the Jewish and orthodox Christian stances kept women at bay in religious services. Clement of Alexandria, the lone quasi-liberal among the early bishops, said men and women share in perfection, and he remembers Paul’s saying in Christ there is neither male nor female. More typical was treating women with disdain. Instead of celebrating both sexes as being equally created in the image of God as in Genesis One, the orthodox pattern was to claim the logic of Genesis Two: Eve was created from Adam and for his fulfillment.
Clement’s educated and wealthy cosmopolitan congregation in Alexandria wasn’t like the majority of poorer and less-educated Christians. They preferred Tertullian:
It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the Eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function – least of all, in priestly office.
The line of authority in the church excluded women, instead basing itself on males like Peter. Women and sexuality were alien to early Christianity; only recently has that ages-old prejudice and mistake begun to be remedied.
So also were we misled regarding the importance of rituals, the demand for belief and faith, the authority of the church, and the norm of dogmatism.
The Gnostics tended to identify self with the spiritual essence of the person, whereas the Christians always held to the physical form. Much like Hindus or Buddhists who developed their inner connection by renunciation and discipline, they sought spiritual practices and techniques that would awaken their connection to God. Christians were assured they didn’t need such austere practices. Just taking the rituals of Baptism and Eucharist would suffice, even when it didn’t seem to be working.
The author of the Apocalypse of Peter complained some Christians, “who do not understand mystery speak of things … will boast that the mystery of the truth belongs to them alone.” Indeed, the orthodox did exactly that. Bishop Ignatius proclaimed, “…to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the church, but from God himself,” and, “outside of this church there is no salvation.”
The Gnostics believed, much as Emerson would two thousand years later, that faith is a living experience. Neither Baptism, nor profession of a creed, nor even martyrdom made one a successful Christian. The Gospel of Philip said many people, “go down into the water [baptism] and come up without having received anything,” yet still claim to be Christian. The Gnostics didn’t believe in ritualized salvation. Instead, they emphasized qualities of awakening and community, praising those who “neither attempt to dominate others nor do they subject themselves to the bishops and deacons. Faith in the authority of the bishops and the ritual power of the sacraments showed a naïve form of magical thinking, the Gnostics believed (GG, 102-106).
The spiritual elitism of the Gnostics, the tendency to let women speak and officiate in church, the reluctance to accept the authority of the bishops, and the practice of meeting in sub-groups to explore spiritual awakening – all irked the orthodox bishops. Even discussing things did. Tertullian complained some Gnostics resisted instruction and instead thought for themselves. He demanded belief be all, arguing, “With our faith we desire no further belief.” (GG, 108-118)
Indeed, he ruled it out. He declared it is the questions themselves that create heretics, and so, in a tactical maneuver Karl Rove may have studied and would admire, he taught his church to not even discuss them:
… do not discuss with them, [for] the effect on the spectators will be to make them uncertain which side is right . . . the person in doubt . . . will be confused by the fact that he sees you making no progress, while the other side is on an equal basis with you in discussion . . . and he will go away even more uncertain about which side to find heretical.” (OS, 165)
To guard against this and impose uniformity on the early Christian community, the bishop Irenaeus wrote a five volume treatise, Against Heresies, which defined the Gnostic views out of Christianity and led to an exclusive claim on the authority of the orthodox bishops, priests, and deacons. Too bad, for some of these teachings would have prevented the rise and rule of punitive dogmatism that would become the way of the church for the next two millennia. This punitive dogmatism is on the rise again in our culture and in others. It could lead us all to utter ruin.
Just as the snake in the Garden of Eden assured Eve that eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would not hurt when it obviously did, so did the Christian dogmatists divide God’s whole good creation and our ability to freely encounter it into an alienating set of goods and evils sternly and punitively imposed. And, just as the myth warns, by eating of their fruit, we are caught in sin, the alienation of shame, blame, and pain, cast out of the garden that was ours all along. We are thus taught by the church to be alienated from our bodies, from each other, from our God, and our garden.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was really a parable of what happens when one takes the divisive approach to good and evil. The Gospel of Philip offered an alternative to the split which formed the essence of the dogmatic mind. Philip wanted to toss out the lists of good things and bad things and instead see good and evil, light and dark, even life and death as interdependent terms, each implying the other, much as the eastern concept of yin and yang does. Like a wise yogi, he taught, “Do not fear the flesh, nor love it. If you fear it, it will gain mastery over you; if you love it, it will devour and paralyze you.” One lives in the garden hearing, “Eat this, or do not eat that, just as you wish.” (OS, 171-173) One is in the world, neither barred from choice, nor blamed for it, nor lost because of it. Intelligence, sensuality, and choice are human opportunities for actualization and fulfillment, not shameful offences we should be guilty about.
The Gospel of Thomas said a lot simply: “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate.” (OS, 171) This inner knowledge is utterly free and ultimately important. Philip acknowledged the root of evil within, and he admitted its power, but taught that power is uprooted when it is recognized. We should not divide us from ourselves and then project our shadows on each other. Not recognizing or taking responsibility for one’s own evil leads to angry tirades, murders, and even aggressive wars. The Gospel of Truth claimed, “… you are the understanding which is drawn forth.” Those who mature will care not to cause distress to others. The mature Gnostic remains continually aware of his or her potential for doing evil, but eschews it, tempering freedom always with love. Philip said when one is so whole he or she is, “holy, down to the very body . . . this person is no longer a Christian, but a Christ.” (OS, 176)
How different our western history would have been if we were each as true to our self as Jesus was to his. Instead of the self-denigrating humility that the church praised, we might have developed the sort of humility that historian of religion Huston Smith favors: being one’s self fully in a way that allows others to be themselves fully. This seems the essence of our human possibilities. This would be democracy more fully realized.
Regrettably, declaring those with differing beliefs “devils” and killing them for it plagued the church for many centuries. Dogmatism grew to hideous proportions. Exclusion, torture, and execution prevented theological and scientific heretics from being heard. Women were excluded, sex shamed, science repressed, earthlife exploited, and people kept illiterate, gullible, and bossed. Schemes of redemption for some sins, elusion of ethics regarding other sins, and forgiveness in either case became the norm. Faith became the primary religious activity, not living ethically or kindly. Obedience and belief were more important than respectful argumentation and rationality. Conformity trumped any vibrant engagement of ideas.
So, while these restrictions of our body and mind came to be coterminous with Christianity, our liberal, heretical Unitarian and Universalist beginnings root themselves in the same Christian scriptures and show up in some of the recently discovered Gnostic scriptures. Ours is a tradition of heresy in that we dare ever to think for ourselves, tell the truths that we know, and choose what ways we deem right. When religious dogmatism doesn’t rule, we rise to the possibilities of natural science, humanistic democracies, freedom, and universalized holy-hood.
The glories of nature and human nature are not contained by any scripture or controlled by any orthodoxy. Deeper than these scriptural roots is our faith in the essential and inherent goodness of human beings born of a natural order alive with divine opportunity, just as it is clearly stated in Genesis One, the original and forgotten creation story. All of natural life is considered good by God. All the cosmos, earth, plant life, animal life, and human life, men and women – is good. How incredibly arrogant and offensive it is for any religion to divide it and how incredibly gullible and irresponsible it is for free, smart humans to believe and obey them.
In history as we know it, it wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the founding of revolutionary humanistic governments in the United States and France that we collectively began to live up to being the citizen earthlings we were all along. We have inherent, inalienable rights that the Creation birthed, the Creator called “good,” Jesus modeled, and we incarnate by bringing the All of intelligence, sensuality, and holiness into our uniquely embodied wholeness. Our roots are deeper than the original Christian story or the Gnostic ways. We reach downward to the very creative cosmos of which, and for which, we are made. Let all our roots bring that goodness up.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Umpqua Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
C May 28, 2006