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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The gospels of Thomas.

Need some good Thanksgiving reading? Pick up the December issue of Harper's, which features "Jesus without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas" as its cover story. Erik Reese starts off by looking at Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste version of the New Testament — a text without the virgin birth, any of the miracles, or the resurrection — and then turns to the long-lost Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text that was declared heretical in the late fourth century and then vanished until its rediscovery in Egypt in 1945. (The story of the text's rediscovery is very dramatic, involving murder, a "one-eyed bandit," feuding governments, and surreptitious photocopies — my favorite part.) But the best thing about Reese's article is its comparison of the "gospels of Thomas":

The intuitive mysticism of the Gospel of Thomas would have made Thomas Jefferson nervous. He was a rationalist, a child of the Enlightenment, a student of Locke and Newton. But twelve years after Jefferson's death, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard's Divinity School, a speech that mightily upset many in his audience. If we set "The Divinity School Address" beside Jefferson's gospel, we can begin to understand how the sayings collected by Thomas present us with an oddly but uniquely American gospel.

Emerson shared Jefferson's concern that "historical Christianity" had muddied the message of its founder. But whereas Jefferson worked to retrieve the ethical teachings of Jesus, Emerson was mining the Gospels for something far more elusive — "the mystery of the soul." Standing before the small group of graduates on a summer night in 1838, Emerson advised the young ministers to renounce preaching the "tropes" of the Gospels and instead point their parishoners back toward their own "divine nature." The problem with the established Church, Emerson charged, is that it teaches our smallness instead of our largeness. "In how many churches," he asked, "by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?" Emerson, with breathtaking sweep, was replacing American Puritanism with transcendentalism, replacing the Church's emphasis on sin with the individual's concern for his or her own soul. Jesus, [Emerson] said, was ravished by the soul's beauty — "he lived in it, and had his being there." He had climbed to the fountainhead, the fundamental intuition. "One man was true to what is in you and me," Emerson concluded. "He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World." Emerson did not, like Jefferson, deny Jesus' divinity; he simply said the same potential resides in every human heart. He was offering, without knowing it, the first American commentary on the Gospel of Thomas.

Reese also writes about the oppressive fundamentalism of his childhood and the "bitter recriminations and long, terrible silence between me and the rest of my family" that his loss of faith involved. And he says: "So when I first discovered the Gospel of Thomas about a decade ago, I was shocked to find a version of Christianity that I could accept and one that, moreover, could serve as a vital corrective to my grandfather's view that we live helplessly, sinfully, in a broken world." (I had a similarly transformative experience a little over ten years ago reading Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus.) I was struck at this year's General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations by the keen interest UUs showed toward Elaine Pagels's lecture about the Gospel of Thomas. Her book about Thomas, Beyond Belief, was a G.A. bestseller, and I don't think it's just because she's a compelling lecturer (as one Humanist explained it to me).

It's intriguing that Jefferson and Emerson represent, in Reese's telling, two alternatives to American Protestant orthodoxy because, of course, they also represent two versions of Unitarianism. Jefferson (who embraced English Unitarian theology in his later years) is the moral rationalist; Emerson (who started his career as a Unitarian minister) is the mantic intuitionist. Reese links them both to the Gospel of Thomas in an intriguing conceit: "In some uncanny trick of history and geography, the ancient Gospel of Thomas combines these two visions of Jesus to give us what I would call a truly American gospel." In its better moments, Unitarian Universalism proclaims this "truly American gospel."

("Jesus Without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas," Erik Reece, Harper's December 2005: 33-41.)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 23 November 2005 at 11:23 AM

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November 23, 2005 06:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Does that mean that Unitarian Universalism is a nationalist religion? Sorry, Philocrites, but I have to strongly disagree with this trend of identifying UUism with "the best of America". It does not respond to the sociological reality of your country and it makes a weak service to those of us who have a global outlook for our so-called "universal-ist" religion.

Kevin McCulloch:

November 23, 2005 07:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can't get with Jaume here. UUism is a good thing with a distinctly American pedigree. Seeing ourselves as among the best our history has to offer, while conceited, is compatible with a recognition that America has done, and continues to do, great evil.

We've already lost much of our power to speak to the religious middle on terms they understand by distancing ourselves so thoroughly from our historical ties to Christianity. Let's not also throw away our ability to speak to the political middle by abdicating our right to speak, with authority, of the best America can be.


November 23, 2005 10:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Does the fact that Emerson and Jefferson were both writing within an American context make their views not just American but also nationalist? I don't think so -- but it would be misleading not to acknowledge how distinctively American they are.

The best American impulses have been universalist (in political rather than theological terms). While I'm aware that unitarian and universalist theology both have deep expressions outside any American context, the point of the Harper's article and of my response to it is that a particular form of spirituality has special resonance in the United States -- and that this kind of spirituality has also had an ecclesiastical expression in American Unitarianism. If it's also finding a church home elsewhere, even better!


November 24, 2005 05:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Emerson was very obviously a nationalist, as shown in his vindication of a uniquely American thought that should get its intellectual independence from Britain or continental Europe. The same could be said about Walt Whitman, for example, who celebrated the building of the American society. I find nothing wrong with that: you can be a nationalist, and project those feelings of appreciation for your own land to encompass the whole world. You may love your country and still feel a part of a wider community of being. This is what all great thinkers and poets did, and I would include Emerson and Whitman in that category.

But what I say is something else. Too often American Unitarians, and now UUs, seem to believe in some mystical "essence of America" that would identify specific moral standards with some metaphysical spirit of the nation, and then they complain when the American government fails to be faithful to that supposed moral essence.

Well, what I say is that nations do not have any "essence" or "spirit": they are political and cultural constructs, and they are what their people are.

Most Americans (including many UUs) hardly know or care about anything but their own country (and possibly Israel, but not much else). If some (very few) Americans (again, many of them UUs, but also people from other religions or with no religion) have a universalistic feeling, it is not because they have connected with some "American Spirit", but because of their belonging to the wider community of humankind, and they are aware that nations are just idols built to manipulate our feelings and to demand our personal loyalty for other, sometimes very obscure, purposes.

Haeretico Comburendo:

November 24, 2005 12:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

I find it rather fantastic that a woman would promote the Gospel of Thomas, which ends with the surprise revelation that women will not go to Heaven. Perhaps she's not much of a feminist?

114. Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life."

Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven."

h sofia:

November 24, 2005 12:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think I agree with Jaume here, and I always get a discomforting little charge in my belly when I hear about the "American ideals." It's hard for me to reconcile our optimistic American values of independence and self-determination when our national ancestors only believed in these things for themselves, at the detriment to many, many others.

I haven't quite figured out how to hold up these values without seeing their ramifications in the corner of my eye. I was thinking about this the other day on the bus ... I think many people of color in the US struggle with this contradiction in the bottom-most part of our guts.


November 24, 2005 09:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Everyone seems to be talking about Reece's book, for another take try "Thomas, Jefferson, and Stewardship" at The Daily Blague. Particularly I want to thank you for the link to Emerson's Divinity School Address it is a gem.

R J Keefe:

November 25, 2005 05:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

I take "American," in Reece's context, to refer to the visionary experiment that Jefferson helped to start and that Emerson furthered. I am not certain that the experiment survived the Civil War, but some of its ideals still motivate some of us. The best of us are more hopeful about the possibility of human transformation than the best people elsewhere, and we continue to attract hopeful people to our shores. I don't think that I'd call this sense of "American" a nationalist notion.


November 26, 2005 11:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

You go away for a couple of days and look what happens...

Separately, TJ and The Gospel of Thomas are two of my favorite things to study. I wrote my undergrad thesis on TJ and actually learned Coptic so as to read the Gospel of Thomas in the original. But taken together they don't seem to work for me.

I remember once submitting a paper I wrote for a class to an academic journal. The paper was on, I believe, Joseph Priestley and some 20th century theologian. I received a response saying that the two juxtaposed was forced and that it read like a paper written for a class.

This is how this feels to me. It is anachronistic to place TJ's Bible in conversation with a Gnostic text.

That is my first reaction anyways. I will go back and re-read and maybe say more later.

Oh, and by the way HC, I was at a Pagels lecture where she was asked about #114. She gave an excellent response and I will try to remember what she said.


January 4, 2006 03:38 PM | Permalink for this comment


I make no claim to be a scholar of the Gospel of Thomas by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know that some researchers believe that 114 was tacked on at a much later date. It seems odd for this to be the last logion, especially with 113 ending with the line: The Kingdom of the Father / is spread out over the whole earth, / and people do not see it. This seems like a more appropriate end to the the Gospel to the researchers.

Another theory in regards to 114 is the idea of the androgyne in gnostic theology. Remember, this is a Jesus that is often not very straightforward. Some of these logion seem like zen koans, while others are more along the lines of the parables of the canonical gospels. So, to my understanding, the androgyne, the psychological/spiritual combo of the feminine and masculine, is the way to enlightenment. Jesus is often going on about the two becoming one in the Gospel of Thomas.

I think that reading the rest of the Gospel of Thomas and looking into both Philip and Mary Magdalene's Gospels would give you the feeling that this line is not to be taken as being against women.

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