Tuesday, August 21, 2007

beyond belief

I just finished reading this book by Elaine Pagels. She is a renowned scholar on the "gnostic" gospels, the ones that didn't make the cut into the New Testament, but she wrote this book for a general audience. You don't have to know a lot about scholarly work in this field in order to understand the book, which is nice. I appreciate it when scholars write that way--it helps to have introductory works that one can read to get into the field, and it also helps for those who don't want to get into the field deeply but just want to learn a little about it. I hope that if I ever write anything I'll keep that in mind...

Anyway, the book was very interesting. She spends quite a bit of time comparing the themes of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John, as well as the Secret Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary and a few other lesser known gospels. She suggests that the Gospel of Thomas and other ones that didn't make it into the New Testament mostly focus on Jesus' humanity--maybe he was the Christ, the Messiah, the one who was expected, but they don't assign divinity to him. The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John have many similar themes and phrases, but John emphasizes Jesus' Godhood while Thomas emphasizes Jesus' humanity. (Thomas also has much in common with the other three gospels, and in fact some scholars believe Thomas is the elusive "Q" document, which Matthew and Luke purportedly pulled from to get their material which is the same but outside Mark. This could be true, although there are also many similarities with Mark and Thomas.) In John, the disciple Thomas is shown (famously) as one who doubts, and who doesn't quite get who Jesus is and what he's doing most of the time. The author of John is probably saying something about the gospel connected to Thomas. In Thomas, of course, the disciple Thomas is given secret information none of the other disciples hear (which is similar to Mary's status in the Gospel of Mary, etc.). Thomas is a collection of sayings and does not have a story line. There are parts of Thomas that seem to show Jesus as something other than what any other person could be, while there are other parts that show him saying his disciples could be the same as him.

Pagels' point is that John's theology won out in the end. She suggests that if the other New Testament gospels are read without John, it is not obvious that Jesus is divine, although it is obvious he is the Messiah, the Son of Man, etc. We read them with the knowledge of John and with the Nicene Creed and all of church history in mind, so we see Jesus as divine, but she suggests that was not a given at first among the many branches of Christians in the first couple hundred years after Jesus. But John's theology prevailed eventually.

Was John right? Was Jesus the Son of God in a way that none of the rest of us can be? Or was Jesus just another person, a person who happened to be really close to God?

Although there is much reason for cynicism in the whole canonization process because of all the jockeying for power that happened among the bishops who lived in Constantine's time and beyond, I still believe that the things that were canonized became part of our "Holy Scriptures" for a reason. I think there's something important about Jesus, that although we're all able to be children of God, Jesus was the only child of God in the sense that he WAS (and is) God. We all may have "that of God" within us, something that connects with God, the image of God in us, but we are not all God.

So I agree with Pagels that it was not altogether clear to everyone who called themselves Christians in the first few hundred years CE that Jesus was "God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God" (as the Nicene Creed puts it), but I think God worked even through crooked bishops and politicized theologizing. That gives me hope, actually, because that means that God can also work through me, even though I too have the tendency to mess up a lot!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Last week was one of our yearly meeting's high school camps. I got to attend as a worship facilitator, and my husband came and took care of our son. It was a great week of hanging out on the coast, getting to focus on helping high schoolers connect with God, and reconnecting with youth and adults I care about deeply.

Surfside is unique in that there is no evening speaker. (Maybe in unprogrammed Friends circles that's not so unique...?) The worship facilitators listen to God about what the whole worship time should look like, and then try to lead it that way, trying to get out of the way so God can work. This was my second year leading worship at Surfside. It's a lot of work--planning half an hour in the mornings and an hour and a half in the evenings every day--but it's good work, and it's fun and inspiring to see God working as we plan and as we lead. It's one of the places where I appreciate "programmed Friends" the most, because we do intentionally listen to God as we plan, allowing God to guide what we decide to do, and paying attention to God in the moment as we lead, being willing to change plans when necessary. It's harder to do that in programmed worship services each week, somehow, but for Surfside it seems to work.

This year the theme for Surfside was "Pursuing the Passion." The focus was on the fact that God's pursuing us, wanting to be in relationship with us, and we're pursuing God. God works in and through the passions we already have, and gives us new passions that help others. Here's what the week looked like:

Monday night: God pursuing people throughout history, looking at the historical community of the Hebrew Testament, connecting that community and that story to our lives today.
Tuesday night: God's pursuit led to God choosing to take on human form in the person of Jesus. We have the option of turning around and facing God's pursuit (repentance means to turn around).
Wednesday night: Jesus' passion--our word passion comes from the Greek word meaning "suffering," and when we follow God our passion will lead us into suffering. We read the story of Jesus' death and ended there for the night.
Thursday night: Not only do we experience Jesus' crucifixion but also his resurrection and new life. Our God-given passions will include frequent death and resurrection components. Our passions aren't just for ourselves, but to alleviate the suffering of others, to understand their suffering as Jesus understands ours.
Friday night: Sending out into the world, offering God what we have even though it's not enough, letting God do the rest.

We tried to do something experiential each night, something where everyone got to either do something physical as a symbol of what they'd learned, or use their imagination to interact with God.

In the mornings we had a counselor share about something they're passionate about and connected it with the story in Luke 10 about someone asking Jesus what the greatest commandment is. The man answered correctly: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Then Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, asking who it was that was the true neighbor to the injured man. So we had counselors share about something they're passionate about, how it connects with their entire self (heart, soul, mind, strength), and how it shows love to their neighbors.

We also had a staff person share an answer to a question generated by some of the youth. We talked about how part of pursuing God passionately is asking good questions and thinking well about our faith. Even though we can't adequately answer all questions in life, it's good to think about them and to seek a better understanding of God, intellectually, emotionally and intuitively.

It was a privilege and a joy to be able to be part of this camp.

At the same time, one of the things I noticed about myself is that I spend so much time doing stuff like this that I hardly ever have time to go do anything outside my own community. I wonder if that's OK--is that my role? Am I a discipler rather than one who goes out? Or am I just hiding within the community, doing things that are safe and fun, although they take a lot of work and "suffering" in the form of lack of sleep and such? Is it enough to create a worship experience where youth can connect with God in ways they can understand, or is there more I should be doing that would reach out to those who, for example, can't afford to go to camp? I know what I'm doing is good, but are there even better ways I could be spending my time?

That's what came to mind for me personally while at camp.