Friday, June 17, 2011

Introducing Gnosticism

The way I see it there are two kinds of Christians. Both of them fall well short of the Christ-likeness we're told is our goal. One doesn't get there because it's content without it. The other doesn't get there because it doesn't know how. 

The first group believes what the church teaches and doesn’t care that it never changes. People in this group avoid anything in conflict with their beliefs and will never consider anything new, since nothing new is needed. God said it. They believe it. That settles it.  Asking them to consider something different is like suggesting that 2 plus 2 might not be 4 after all. The bible serves to further assure them that they’re right and that new ideas are from the enemy. But the real enemy lies behind this false appearance of assuredness. Its name is Fear. Not a fear of what will happen if they disobey God, but a more hidden and subversive kind – a fear of an emptiness in their lives without their familiar belief system. Many in this group carry heavy burdens though life waiting for Jesus to miraculously set them free - even though Jesus himself said the truth would do that for them. But they already have the truth. What they're asking for is deliverance. Wait a minute. If they have the truth why would they still need deliverance? And if they don’t have the truth why then don’t they admit it to themselves? This frustrates me until I remember that God brings all of us to the truth in different times and in different ways. It is, in fact, the very purpose of our existence. 

The other kind of Christian isn’t content with mere church attendance and knows there's something more. This is the group I've always been in. In fact my wife and I now host a home group for this type of believer. But why are there so many of us? A few months ago I started this blog with that very question. We go from one church to another without finding what we want, only to give up and settle for something close to home. So what is it that we want? More love? More power? More of the mind of Christ? We talk about these things in church all the time but rarely see them materialize in our lives. Finally we come to the realization that what is needed is a more experiential relationship with the source of all these things – the same kind of relationship with God that Jesus had. C.S. Lewis said we wouldn’t have such a need if it couldn't be filled. Singing worship songs and hearing stories about God are nice, but they don’t really bring us the intimacy we want. It’s time to take a look at a different kind of Christianity – one that does.

Most of us picture the early church as a small, tightly knit group banded together against a hostile world, but it was not nearly as single-minded as we think. A Catholic ('universal') Church had been created which offered a system of beliefs and rituals for those who conformed to its tenets. But there were other groups which held very different beliefs about Jesus and his teachings. Unfortunately their writings were not allowed. In the 4th century, in an attempt to unify Christianity and keep it under the control of his growing empire, Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan which officially aligned the Catholic Church with Rome. This had the effect of ending any further diversity found among Jesus' followers. Four gospels were canonized and all others (there were many) lost or destroyed. Among those lost were the writings of a group of Christians known as the 'Gnostics' (from the Greek gnosis which means knowing). Fortunately for believers many of these writings were found in a cave on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in 1947. But by then the canonical Bible had achieved the high standing of “Word of God”, inerrant and infallible. It’s no wonder the church quietly ignored the discovery. I always wondered why, with so little information available about the life of the most important person in the history of the world (almost nothing outside of the bible) anything would be suppressed because the Church decided it wasn’t “inspired by God.” Then I read some of the lost gospels and found out why. It's too bad too. The Gnostics had exactly the kind of relationship to God that we're looking for.

Next: What they believed.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sister St. Lawrence

I’ve been told, and I’m willing to consider the truth of it, that I hold a grudge against the Church because of things I was taught to believe when I was young. If so, this incident played a big part.

One day in the fourth grade I was eating lunch on the playground with my friend Larry. I had just taken a bite out of my sandwich when I looked up and saw the dark figure of Sister St. Lawrence standing over me. In a harsh voice that everyone could hear she shouted at me, “What is that you’re eating?” I told her it was a ham and cheese sandwich that my mom had made. She was appalled. I can still see the way her mouth fell open. “Don’t you know this is Friday?” she said. “And you’re eating meat? Haven’t you been taught that that’s a Mortal Sin?” Her voice got even louder. “Don’t you know what an offense that is to your Heavenly Father“? I was mortified. I did know what an offense it was. I told her I was sorry. I forgot it was Friday and so did my mom. I immediately crushed the rest of the sandwich and stuffed it back into my lunch box. But Sister St. Lawrence wasn’t done. Back in class she spoke to me again, this time quietly, and very seriously. “I hope you didn’t forget the penalty for committing a mortal sin. If you die in your sleep tonight you will go straight to hell and be there for all of eternity.” I couldn’t have been more terrified. I knew Father O’Connor would be saying Confession in the morning. That night I had the worst sleep of my life - waking every few minutes to check the clock and thank God I was still alive.

I was first in line at the confessional to tell Father O’Connor about my sin. He prescribed five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys for my penance. I hurried through them and immediately felt better - like the weight of the world had been lifted off of me. I thanked God again and prayed with great sincerity that He would never again let me make that kind of mistake. He never did. But some years later I read that the Pope had changed the law. It was no longer a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday. It occurred to me that anyone who had done so - and then died while it was still a sin - hadn’t been as lucky as me. Or maybe they somehow got pardoned. The point is, I never saw Sister St. Lawrence again after the fourth grade and she never apologized for making me go through that. I’ve never spoken to the Pope either, so no one has ever admitted to me that the church had been wrong in its understanding of God and his requirements. I’m sure this has caused some anger and frustration that I’ve had to internalize all these years. If nothing else this blog may bring some kind of closure for me.

But there is a deeper issue. If the church could have been wrong about something it was so sure of then, isn’t it possible it could happen again? It did. In January of 2008, after being part of the teaching of the church for more than 700 years, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Limbo, the afterlife state reserved for the un-baptized innocent, did not exist. It’s important to note that it didn’t “no longer” exist. It never did exist. Apparently the Pope had finally come to that awareness. He is to be commended for receiving a new revelation and for accepting the fact that our understanding of God can change, but Sister St. Lawrence wasn’t around to explain it to me. 

I remember what the church taught about Martin Luther too. He was the worst heretic the world had ever known because he said it was impossible to pay for someone to get out of Purgatory. But I did that all the time as a child. The church taught that we could buy Plenary Indulgences for people who had died in their sin, and so enable them to go on to heaven. How we ever believed that is a mystery now. Fear of what might happen if we didn’t do it, probably. Anyway it turns out Luther wasn’t a heretic after all. He simply had a new revelation from the Spirit of God that went against the established tradition of the Church. (Jesus had one several years earlier). As such, Protestantism was a big part of the awakening of our planet. We still aren’t free from the fear-based religious beliefs that separate us, but it was a step in the right direction. The long process continues today with discoveries in Quantum Physics that show us our relationship to the “One-ness” of all life.   
I’m optimistic about the future, but I’ve been suspicious about Church ever since grammar school. What else does it teach that it could be wrong about? 

And I’d still like someone to apologize, maybe even get a refund for all those Indulgences I paid for.