Friday, October 23, 2009

The Road Runner and the Gospel of Thomas -- Future of Faith

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, (Harper One, 2009)

Chapter 4: The Road Runner and the Gospel of Thomas:
What Happens When it Wasn’t Really That Way?

Chapter 4 is the first of several chapters that wrestle with the biblical texts and the early history of Christianity. Throughout these series of chapters we see Harvey Cox’s Baptist roots clearly present. There is both a strong anti-clericalism and an anti-creedalism floating throughout these discussions. Being that I hail from a non-creedal church that has an anti-clerical background, I see the points, though I must confess to not being able to go as far as he does. In chapter 4 the question raised is – what did first-century Christianity look like? His answer is – much more diverse than the New Testament witness might suggest. That’s where the Gospel of Thomas comes in, for he sees it as an early example of an alternative community. There is, he believes, in recently discovered materials such as the Nag Hammadi Library evidence of roads not taken or at least covered up by history. So, “Christianity now has a second chance” to get it right (p. 55).

The point of this book is that early on Christianity began a decline from a faith-based community, one that lifted up equality and justice, and deteriorated into a belief-centered religion that instead of opposing empire, began to emulate empire. The question of course is when this started and to what degree modern Christianity is infected by this distortion. In his mind, the early church as a loose network of communities, each self-governing and focused on lay leadership. Over time clergy came to rule and a rigid structure was imposed over the network. But it didn’t have to happen this way.

Although he looks back with fondness to this early church, he insists his is not an expression of primitivism or restorationism. He’s not looking to restore a lost golden age, but instead wants to look forward, but also wants to have a sense of rootedness, and its roots must be taken back to Jesus. He recognizes that “looking backward in order to move forward can be confusing and contradictory,” but Christianity is a historically rooted faith. There was, he reminds us, a time when Christianity was not in existence.

It is understandable, therefore, that Christians periodically revisit Jesus and the first few Christian generations to remind themselves what the original movement was about at its onset. Knowing about the past is vital not to return to it, but to learn from it, from both its mistakes and its successes (p. 57)

And, as we look back, we can see roads not taken and discern whether there were ways of traveling into the future, ways that might better serve us going forward.

One of the things that we must wrestle within this book is the picture that biblical scholars and historians have given us about the past. Are they defective or not? Cox seems to believe that they are. I’m not as skeptical as he is, however, so my thoughts might differ at points. He suggests that there are three elements to this distorted history that need to be addressed. First, there’s the idea of a single early Christianity. I think that we have discovered multiples of early Christian faith, so if anyone still believes that there’s just one early Christianity, then this idea needs challenging. The second point is the assumption that an “apostolic authority” took shape right away. Again, Cox is probably right. There appears even in the New Testament to be evidence of jockeying for influence, and the Twelve play a very small role in Acts and in the early letters. The third question relates to the role the Roman Empire played in the formation of early Christianity, and again the evidence shows a dramatic role that Rome played, for Jesus was executed as a political subversive, not for doctrinal reasons. So, at each point we’ve seen a revision in our understanding. The question then is when the changes happened and are they debilitating distortions or are the changes a natural evolution of the church?

Thus, we have a multifaceted faith focused on Jesus, but defined and lived in very different ways. There was a strong sense of unity, but it wasn’t institutional nor doctrinal. The idea of apostolic authority was a later invention that was rooted, again not doctrine, but in a quest for power. As for the Empire, we see in Revelation a clear response to the empire, a response that was clearly anti-imperial. The question that must be raised is the degree to which the early Christians saw themselves as anti-Roman. Of course this attitude didn’t last long, for by the third and fourth centuries the empire had gotten into the church.

Reacting as he is to institutionalized traditional Christianity, Cox wants to find resources elsewhere and he turns to Nag Hammadi, the Gospel of Thomas, and other early not canonical texts. Here I must insert my own questions about the breadth or importance of these documents – as well as their date. I’m not convinced that Thomas is first-century or that it predates the gospels. All we have is a Coptic version that is of late date and if not gnostic, has gnostic tendencies. He assumes more consensus on the value of these texts than perhaps he should. He speaks of the importance of conversations between biblical scholars and historians, but again there’s a lack of clarity about how this interaction has changed the dynamics of our views of the early church. Now, I agree that the idea of apostolic succession is a fable, the question is, why did it emerge – what were the conditions that led to it – was it simply a grab for power, or were there other dynamics involved?

Cox speaks of the emergence of a people’s history, by which he means a more social history perspective that looks not just at the elites (reads the theologians), but at the general folk who lived this faith. Diana Butler Bass’s The People’s History of Christianity (HarperOne, 2009) explores this same territory, with a bit more positive sensibilities. But Cox is right to lift up this new direction. And yet, we’re still left with early writings as our best resources for understanding the lay of the land.

Whatever our views of the non-canonical books and developments, the question is relevance for today, and Cox makes the point that the movement from anti-empire to embrace of empire has implications for the modern world. First, because there are similarities between the two eras – at least culturally and religiously. What is more important, American Christians live in a superpower with an imperial reach, and we must decide how we relate to this reality. Will we embrace the empire or not? The other issue has to do with the degree that empires shape institutions, including the church. Because empires tend toward hierarchical patterns, there is the temptation to replicate them in the church as well. This serves as a warning to be aware of what is happening, how culture is forming us.

The question that is raised at the end of the chapter concerns the degree to which we have developed a more reliable picture of the early church. There’s doubt that historical research has aided our understanding and changed our viewpoint. We’ve begun to understand why persecution occurred – that it had political, not just religious dimensions. There’s good reason to believe that over time Christianity embraced the empire – the question is when and why. Was a move toward a more “religious” Jesus a strategic one that enabled Christianity to survive? If so, at what cost was this decision made?


Anonymous said...

"Will we embrace the empire or not?"

My answer- will the empire embrace the people? Will the people ever use their own voice? The more things change...

David Mc

Michael Gonzalez said...

This is a bunch of nonsense. This is more about man's understanding rather than God's understanding. Frankly I am not surprised. What I see here is nothing more than a validation that sinful man tends to elevate himself over the creator. I could go on to educate but first there is not enough room here and secondly, very few will understand as I personally am not from here and I speak a different language that will only sound like gibberish to you.