In the twentieth century there has been more openness than in the past to the view that religious thinking ought not to be frozen around a particular historical model. Rather, it ought to be a creative, evolving process. Among the many contemporary varieties of Christianity some are more ready than others to take a serious interest in early writings about Jesus and his circle that are outside accepted scripture and to question whether a canon established seventeen or eighteen centuries ago, known only in edited form, ought to be regarded as uniquely authoritative today. In this atmosphere such texts as the Gospel of Thomas have found a more receptive audience than they would have found a century or even a generation earlier.
Lay Christians are unlikely to hear of the Gospel of Thomas from their priests or pastors. In many of the academies that educate the clergy, however, these texts now receive attention, and often even win respect.. The Gospel of Thomas in particular has had intensive study from scholars of Jewish and Christian biblical literature, history of religions, comparative religion, ancient languages, theology, and depth psychology. Much of the specialized study of this challenging piece of writing has been cautious and defensive. The defensiveness is readily understandable, for the picture of Jesus and his teaching that emerges is radically different from that long presented by mainstream Christianity. The least familiar parts -- those Sayings that have no parallels in the canonical gospels -- remain largely unexplored and unexplained.
Other factors besides the finds at Nag Hammadi have been at work in the recent surge of interest in Gnosticism and systems contemporary with it or similar to it. Important ancient documents from Manicheans and Mandeans have been rediscovered in the twentieth century. Gershom Scholem's researches and writings on Jewish Kabbala made accessible for the first time, to general readers as well as specialized scholars, a history and analysis of Jewish mysticism of a definitely gnostic sort, from its early years near the beginning of the Christian era until recent times. Scholem dug out Kabbalist writings from forgotten corners of libraries and carefully guarded private archives, documenting a long history of speculations about the hidden meanings of the Torah -- speculations that produced a mixture of subtle metaphysics and fantastic mythology.
After World War Two the mystical systems of Asia, previously the object of slight attention in the West outside circles of specialists, began to be much more thoroughly and widely studied. A large body of scholarly studies and informed popular writings on Taoism, Muslim Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism has resulted. And yet, perhaps because serious scholars must set fences to the fields they cultivate, there has been remarkably little traffic between those concerned with Asian systems and those concerned with the origins and nature of Gnosticism, Hellenistic philosophy, early Christianity, and late Judaism.
In the latter half of the twentieth century Westerners in substantial numbers turned to Asia to seek spiritual satisfaction and methods of meditation. Many of the young, especially, hungered for the "wisdom of the East" -- sometimes sampling its fare rather indiscriminately and uncritically, perhaps, and sometimes accepting from dubious chefs warmed-over scraps that a more finicky palate might reject, but nonetheless hungering. And many have found rewarding nourishment. "Eastern" religions are now very much a part of Western life.
Probably it would come as a surprise to most such modern questers to know that an ancient basis for that Eastern Wisdom once lay close at hand within the history of the monotheisms now dominant in their homelands, that early writings once revered in their own familiar religions could be read (and had been read) in a way that supported the goals they seek in the East. As we have seen, in the early Christian centuries the East was probably one of the sources of the Wisdom that found expression in the Gospel of Thomas and in Gnosticism generally. But Gnosticism is little known outside theological schools (where it is still usually regarded with hostility) and a small world of specialized scholars.
Depth psychologists, especially of the Jungian school, have found in Gnostic writings parallels to their own probings into the human psyche. The Gnostics' way of thinking in paradoxes and searching for the divine within the human psyche have also been their way. Evil is as real as good. The Valentinian text known as the Gospel of Philip puts the thought this way: "Light and darkness, life and death, right and left are brothers of one another, they are inseparable." (As one aphorist has said, "God is less than Good, and the Devil is more than Evil.")
Few secular writers and cultural critics outside the world of specialized religious scholars have explicitly explored gnostic themes. One such explorer, noted earlier, is the Yale professor of humanities and critic Harold Bloom. He has suggested that gnosis constitutes the distinctive strain of American thought and letters. In the Self-Reliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay by that title, he found the basis of an "American religion, a purified Gnosis."
Bloom has seen Emerson, followed by Walt Whitman, as an early articulator of this religious attitude, in his emphasis on a spirit or self alien to ordinary experience and learning, inexpressible but deeply felt, "realized in the highest moments." For the best part of everyone's mind, Emerson wrote in his Journal, is "that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing, unpossessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him."
Apparently Bloom sees the emphasis on individual searches for self-knowledge as the distinctive element of Gnosticism that is now to be found in what he calls the American Religion. But emphases found in much of contemporary religion as now practiced in America -- on the unique authority of the traditional bible as it was for centuries accepted, on the supposed historical authenticity of the life and sayings of Jesus found therein, and on the judgmental God of the Old Testament -- are poles apart from Gnosticism.
Apart from the special case of Keralan St. Thomas Christians, the churches revering Thomas -- as their founder, as spiritual twin or special confidant of Jesus, as mystagogue, or as Asian ecclesiastical rival to Peter -- have virtually disappeared. And so has Christian Gnosticism, as a more or less coherent movement found in the early centuries of the Christian era. But as a set of ideas about the goal of personal reunion with what Paul Tillich called the "ground of being" -- Being Itself, Ultimate Being, God beyond the God of monotheisms, Brahman, Suchness, That Which Is, the Great Whatever -- gnosis has continued through the centuries even in the West.
Tillich seldom referred to Gnosticism except as an historical movement. But his personal profession of faith when he was about fifty years old might sound familiar to a Valentinian. His religion, he said, was Lutheran, but included "a consciousness of the 'corruption' of existence, a repudiation of every kind of social Utopia . . , an awareness of the irrational and demonic nature of existence, an appreciation of the mystical element in religion, and a rejection of Puritanical legalism in private and corporal life." Noting the distrust of mysticism in Judaism and much of Christianity, Tillich commented that nevertheless "there is no living religion in which the principle of mysticism, the immediate presence of the divine and the way of union with it, is not thought and practiced."
Gnosticism in general has been called by its critics world-denying, escapist, elitist, and syncretistic (a mixture of myths and ideas from many sources -- as, indeed, mainstream Christianity is); and the Gospel of Thomas has been called "ahistorical, atemporal, amaterial."
Ancient Gnostics presumably would have heard such comments with equanimity and a sigh of pity for the unenlightened, who failed to see the deeper meanings behind the scriptures that the mainstream took so literally. Theirs, Gnostics thought, was a universal message not tied to the life and time of a particular individual; the charismatic sage whom the orthodox made the basis of their faith was either a man inspirited far beyond most, or a pure spirit who took on the appearance of a man.
Indeed their message was *amaterial*: living briefly in this world, while mindful from time to time of eternity and infinity behind and ahead, the human animal is all too prone to concentrate on living for the moment, embracing the "material" life, pursuing the "visibles."
Little in contemporary Western culture offers much encouragement to "know thyself" in the sense that the Thomas writings apparently intended. Therapies and "consciousness-raising" techniques abound, but they usually aim at the earthly and earthy form of "self" -- self-repair, self-fulfillment, self-betterment, better adjustment to a world of other selves, better sex, better careers, better sleep. The dominant religions project a continuation of a unique, individual identity. In such a setting, the merger of individual soul or spirit into a universal oneness is not a goal with popular appeal. Gnostics would say that we cling to cheerful ignorance and turn our eyes fearfully from truth.
Gnosticism, however, has affected mainstream Christianity far more than most laymen are aware. Valentinians were among the first Christian theologians. Gnostic choices of doctrine and writings were among the factors that led other early Christians to formulate their own, more compatible with prevailing notions of stable family life. The authors of the last-written canonical gospel as it has come to us -- that attributed to John -- clearly knew Gnosticism well, while refuting it; perhaps one of them had been an adherent early in life. Paul wrote much that was admired by Gnostics; some thought he had been one of their own.
From time to time mainstream churches have shared with gnostics a low evaluation of this world, and within their confines have sometimes warily allowed for personal quests for salvation. If Gnostics focused too much on the spirit as against the transient earthly person, orthodoxy would have had to agree that it was a matter of emphasis. As Kurt Rudolph says, "one can almost say that Gnosis followed the Church like a shadow." The Church could never overcome it, he says, because its influence had gone too deep: "By reason of their common history they remain two--hostile--sisters."
The rediscovery of Thomas and the revival of interest in Gnosticism in the twentieth century have coincided with new attempts by scientists in many disciplines to understand the nature of human consciousness -- the mark of our species -- and with fresh speculations about what lies beyond the blurred edges of their fields. Many interpreters of traditional religions have reached for insights beyond those found in their traditional scriptures. "Thomas" would be comfortable, it seems, in the company of both groups -- people who have thought in terms of systems, but systems significantly open-ended, where a major interest lies in what can be glimpsed through the gaps in the structures, that which hovers tantalizingly in gleams and suggestions.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.