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