By Brian George
This is my first comment to Miguel Connor on the Reality Sandwich forum for his piece "'Gnostic' is an Open Question; An Interview with Elaine Pagels":
The study of Gnosticism, and a deep engagement with the Nag Hammadi texts, played an important role in my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. I have always been grateful to any writers who could provide me with insight into this period, and among them was Elaine Pagels, whose “Gnostic Gospels” I have read perhaps four or five times through the years. There had always been an aroma of Christian sentimentality to Pagels’ thought—kind of like the scent of Easter lilies—which was a bit distracting, perhaps, but not at all unpleasant. Sadly, if what you are describing is accurate, it would indicate that Pagels has gone in the direction of full blown Christian apologetics.
What I find truly amazing is the idea that “Gnosticism” is somehow too restrictive a category while “Christianity” is not. This passage is instructive: “Furthermore, within these accepted Gnostic categories, there exist so many contradictions in history, dogma and even praxis that it makes them all but cumbersome.” I believe that it was Irenaeus who said, “Each week, the Gnostics invent some new cosmology.” I had always assumed that this statement went to the very heart of Gnosticism, which never struck me as in any way a “movement,” but rather a very loosely woven network of schools—with no centralized authority and no fixed set of beliefs.
The idea that you can make the almost incomprehensibly broad category and/or world of “Gnosticism” less restrictive by funneling all of its contradictions into the tiny box of “Christianity” seems, on the face of things, absurd. The box of Christianity is already filled to the point of bursting with the fetishization of the personhood of Jesus.
The three excerpts below illustrate the problem that I have with what seems the current tendencies in Pagels’ thought. And I have to say that a phrase such as “can induce a deeper midwifing of the tenets of Jesus Christ” sends a shiver down my non-Christian spine. Must be my past life memories acting up again! The three excerpts are as follows:
“(Pagels) views these terms as needlessly problematic, at best, and ultimately intellectually constraining at worst. Pagels stressed this issue throughout much of our discussion for the basic reason the terms "Gnosticism" and "Gnostic" hijack an individual's ability to fully retrieve the bounty found in the formative stages of Christianity.”
“Pagels perhaps went further than other academics in stating that even accepting Gnostic subdivisions such as Valentinianism and Sethianism was potentially falling into the mental quicksand of leaning too much on expedient but generalizing labels. Doing this inevitably creates a myopic projection into the Nag Hammadi library itself, conceivably aborting the possibility of taking accurate snapshots of youthful Christianity.”
“Pagels believes the most sapient approach is to discard all conventional Gnostic groupings and place them under the Christianity rubric. Without these constraints, apocryphal and canonical texts, the Church Father writings, and historical evidence are beheld together in a more harmonious manner that can induce a deeper midwifing of the tenets of Jesus Christ.”
While I have no doubt that Pagels is still a conscientious scholar, it would be hard to look at the above quotations and not conclude that her method is one of “putting the cart before the horse.” World famous or not, five scholars can look at the same body of evidence in five wildly different ways. This is a given. But next we must ask, “To what extent is the scholar fully aware of her blocks and biases, and is she able to work with her limitations to penetrate more deeply into a text?” The key thing is, perhaps, to be able to take oneself by surprise.
In the same way that it was said that “All roads lead to Rome,” I cannot help but suspect that, in Pagels’ current mode of data collection and analysis, all roads must lead inevitably to the redemptive heart of Jesus.
It’s as though you were to research the development of the idea of social justice in the ideal commonwealth, starting from the Renaissance. You would first look into Francis Bacon, let’s say, and then John Locke, and then John Stuart Mill, and then Charles Fourier, and then Karl Marx, and then Mikhail Bakunin, and then Andre Breton, and then John Paul Sartre. And, after years of intense thought and investigation, you would then place them all into the all-inclusive category of “Republicanism”—because, after all, it’s really all about “Republicanism” anyway, isn’t it?
“But,” a disinterested observer might object, “Republicans aren’t utopians, and it is questionable as to whether any stated concern for social justice should be taken at face value.” So too, I would argue that the great majority of Christian sects—either now or then—have shown very little interest in the cultivation of vision states, or in the direct perception of vast cosmological structures.
Let me state my own position clearly: I do not want a Savior. I do not need one, and I have no idea of what I would do with one if he/ she were to suddenly appear. I do, however, have a use for the flashes of insight that are to be found in Gnostic texts.