Monday, April 17, 2006

Gospel of Judas on National Geographic Channel

Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word "orthodox." In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law--all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church. He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung. All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admit that he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it. He says, with a conscious laugh, "I suppose I am very heretical," and looks round for applause. The word "heresy" not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word "orthodoxy" not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.
-- G. K. Chesterton, introduction to Heretics, 1905

I finally watched the tape of the NGS Gospel of Judas. It's a good show, the story of the codex's shadowy career being especially interesting.

Elaine Pagels, though she is the foremost popularizer of ancient gnosticism, lacks critical distance from her subject--objectivity, if you prefer. She likens the early church's opposition to gnosticism to American opposition to communism in the Forties and Fifties--a shallow and frivolous assertion on both counts. But she is one of several experts, and a picture of the ancient church and gnosticism emerges that I would have to say is fair enough. Anyone so intrigued can dig deeper, if they wish.

Here, for example, in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. The verdict:

Gnosticism died not by chance, but because it lacked vital power within itself; and no amount of theosophistic literature, flooding English and German markets, can give life to that which perished from intrinsic and essential defects. [...] A just verdict on the Gnostics is that of O. Gruppe (Ausführungen, p. 162): the circumstances of the period gave them a certain importance. But a living force they never were, either in general history or in the history of Christendom. Gnosticism deserves attention as showing what mention dispositions Christianity found in existence, what obstacles it had to overcome to maintain its own life; but "means of mental progress it never was".

It's not hard to see how a religion of achieving salvation by pondering one's own intrinsic wonderfulness would find a ready audience in modern-day America. (I think that's one reason there are so many Buddhists running around the Left Coast. (The most despicable person I've met in the past ten years is a Buddhist, but that's another post.)) But like the man said, there's no vitamins in it. Eventually, one needs spiritual food that will stick to your bones...

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