INTRODUCTION TO A DIFFERENT KIND OF FAITH
Gnostic Christians believed that questioning one's faith was always important for it to change and grow. More than accepting a system of beliefs, the meaning of "gnosis" was to "know" Christ, and faith was led by seeking a vital, positive relationship with him. Seeking "gnosis" led to wholeness in a person's relationship to God and the world. Christ's way was a spiritual journey, encouraging persons continually to seek God and all truth.
"Gnosis" did not mean secret knowledge as opponents charged; new gospels (without belittling or replacing biblical gospels) teach it meant "knowing" Christ and God as one knows a friend.
In contrast to this dynamic way of faith, the early "apostolic church," also known as the "proto - orthodox," declared its beliefs and doctrines should never be questioned. Those who asked questions about these beliefs were not true Christians and were "heretics." Three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Constantine, for political reasons, sided with those who said only their understanding of Jesus was correct. Faith became what one believed.
Now we can learn those slandered as Gnostics believed faith involved beliefs, but that all beliefs could be challenged, as faith was about our honest relationship and journey with the one they called the "living Jesus." Over the voices of those called Gnostics, Orthodox Christianity not only prevailed, but it has continued ever since to define Christianity, foremost as a belief system, dictated by doctrines. The Gnostic scriptures show that there was and is a more refreshing, spiritual, honest, open, loving, and exciting way to be a Christian.
Now the Hubble Telescope has proven there are over 125 billion galaxies in our universe. Of course, many are bound to the three story universe, even today, but the reality is that our thinking about the location of heaven and hell will be forced to a more spiritual meaning. This myth has been shattered, as also has been the case for the wild designs of the cosmos by the Gnostics (their mythology). They did not get it right, nor did we. Yet does this invalidate theirs or our faith?
As will be learned, the church defined "gnosis" as what one believed or the "knowledge of God." The Gnostics didn't deny this totally, but in their writings there is a much more dynamic meaning or dimension for the meaning of gnosis. As many words like "love" in the English language can have various meanings, so the word gnosis could have different meanings. Thus for the Gnostics, the most important dimension of the word was "knowing" -- as in a relationship. Thus faith was a "relationship" with the living Christ, and not just blindly accepting "on faith" what the church taught.
For many of us, with new knowledge, giving up that the creation was not exactly and literally as told in the two creation stories in Genesis, we are learning that faith is greater than several beliefs that the church tried to set in stone. And this is where the Gnostic way of faith can be of help in making our faith stronger and deeper than fighting to the end that our beliefs can never change. Of course, such stubbornness is today often a hallmark for faith (you believe as I do or you go to hell), but the Gnostics and certainly some of us might ask, "Is that really faith?"
The Gnostic way of faith is about "knowing" Jesus and God as in a relationship. This relationship is free, open, creative, and not the same for all. One does not have to be told what to believe and even how to act, yet there is a respect for knowledge and even differing opinions. You can and should use your brain as well as your emotion, as faith can grow and our beliefs, which we all have, can change. You have the ability to think for yourself and have the freedom to choose what is most loving as love is left open to interpretation in Jesus' Great Commandment. The Gnostic style believes seeking God is more important than finding God by a certain dogma or belief. Faith is more spiritual than accepting any closed system of beliefs.
This way of faith is found in these new gospels. The Gnostics did believe in Jesus, and it is important to know as a real person and yet also as a divine person. In a book called The Treatise of the Resurrection it asks, "How did the Lord proclaim things while he existed in the flesh and after he revealed himself as the Son of God?" The answer is that "he embraced them both, possessing the humanity and the divinity." Contrary to long tradition and what you have been told, these gospels are not about a mythical Jesus and a threat to Christianity. In a time, almost like anything before, many people are closing the door on the church often because they just can't believe some of the beliefs they no longer can accept as truth. The power of these gospels is that encourage that all truth, both religious and secular, be debated, and although we all have beliefs, the question is, "Do you have faith that is loving, honest, and real?" The bottom line is that these gospels should be studied, as quite refreshingly, they challenged us to consider a different way of faith.
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Today, there are many who understandably want to put these Gnostic heretics in the same boat as the early church -- to find salvation you had to believe their beliefs and myths. They want to define them particularly by their myths and portray them as a cult, and at best, maybe a church that just had different beliefs. Many still teach they were interested only in a secret gnosis (knowledge), which some describe as esoteric, exclusive, and thus secretive beliefs or pure mystical insights. With the discovery of these new gospels, there is a major change -- none are directly found!
Herein was the problem; to disagree with this church's beliefs made one a false Christian. Those who did so were on a path to hell and were given the name "heretics." Today, heretic is not a very powerful word, but early on and throughout history it became a swathing sword to silence any who would challenge the beliefs of this church. As with claiming all the apostles' beliefs as exactly theirs, this church was brilliant and the use of the term heretic was not a mistake. "Heretic" is a word that means "choice."
This church, almost unbelievably, insisted there was no need for choice! This included choosing to hear or read other gospels they disapproved. Hard to believe, but Bishop Irenaeus, a powerhouse in the church, wrote and declared that there could be no more or fewer than four gospels. Why? Because, he explains, "... there are four regions of the universe and four principal winds." Does that make sense? Apparently so at the time, but it is a strong reason why most of us never knew other early gospels ever existed. Obviously, Jesus had no say in the matter, but this church, a little over one hundred years after him, decided all other gospels contained no truth -- no truth at all. The Gnostics disagreed, and with the new discoveries, we now better know why.
This new story began in 1945, when early and different gospels were discovered in Egypt, near a small village called Nag Hammadi. Fifty two books were found in an ancient jar believed to have been buried over 1600 years ago. This was a different find than the Dead Sea Scrolls, as unlike that discovery, some of these books, surprisingly, were Christian gospels. They are now commonly known as the Gnostic Gospels. They were called "Gnostic" because some early Christians called Gnostics valued them. Importantly, intense scholarly research has affirmed they would have been read along with those in the Bible in early Christianity. What is also rather shocking is they give evidence that some of the other of Jesus' disciples than those in the Bible had gospels written or attributed to them as well. It is fairly unlikely that you ever heard in Sunday School that there might be gospels by Thomas and Philip, and even more shocking, by a woman, who from evidence in the Bible was clearly close to Jesus, Mary Magdalene. There is a reason.
Early in the development of Christianity, one form of the Christian church decided other gospels, other the four they favored, should be silenced and eventually gave the Festal Order in 367 C.E. that they be destroyed. Unbelievably, it was decided they shouldn't even be heard. One major factor was they reveal that even the earliest disciples and apostles had differences of beliefs among themselves. This was not acceptable to this church that believed Christianity should be one voice. These gospels make it clear that these other disciples express a great faith in Jesus, even as Lord and Savior, but they did not conform to the beliefs of a church that was becoming politically powerful in the second century in the Roman Empire. Their story is almost unbelievable but is well-documented.
This church, which first referred to itself as the "apostolic church," declared, as many after them, that there was only one true or
correct way for Christians to believe, and this was to accept by faith the beliefs and doctrines that their church taught. They claimed their right to exclusive truth by saying their beliefs were exactly those of Jesus and the apostles (thus their church's name). Then they implied they were those of all the apostles. Yet, in spite of this claim, now it is known that apostles in addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John also had gospels attributed to them. ("Attributed" is the word used by most scholars because it is believed their followers, not they themselves, were those who put their teachings in writing.) Yet more important beyond our feelings on this issue, this church taught all these "other" gospels were false and had no Christian truth in them. In effect, that slammed the door on them.
This is what is radical. It is now clear that an early form of Christianity put its rigid stamp on Jesus and did not let his open and loving messages flow beyond their interpretation and beliefs. Now with the discovery of these new gospels, the message isn't about becoming Gnostics. A strong message is that to have faith we all don't need to believe the same. The Gnostics tried to say so, but now their way of faith can allow us to renew our vision and relationship with the living Christ -- and do so in our own freedom and honesty. It allows us to move back beyond the rules of this dogmatic church and listen again to Jesus himself. It is fair that we hear him differently.
The Gnostics believed in the four biblical gospels, but they believed other gospels should at least be read. "No," said the church as they contained false doctrines, and believing those would lead to the lost of one's salvation. A beauty of these Christians was that they recognized that the message and gift of Christ was more than ironclad beliefs -- even theirs -- which obviously often differed with the church. Faith was not limited to what one believed. Faith was our knowing (gnosis) Christ, and this knowing superseded what one believed. Ironically, this was how the church gave them this name, the Gnostics.
From configurations derived from the Bible, the church long taught the design of the universe was three stories (heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below). Even in the writings of this early church, the remnants of this design are evident. Yet in 1923, Edmund Hubble began to dissolve this myth when he discovered there might be another galaxy besides ours "out there."
Under "Gnostics Christians" above are four sections on this different but suppressed kind of faith
Of course, they had beliefs, and so you more often than not find information that is eager to explain "What the Gnostics Believed." This information isn't all bad, but it almost always is based on their myths. Yet, because they believed Christianity was more than a set system of beliefs, they represent a different kind of faith. For sure, they argued with the church, but there is no evidence that they claimed "immovable truth" as did the church. Christ's message then wasn't about battling over unchangeable beliefs about him, but always seeking with our minds, bodies, and spirits, our personal relationship with God through him. In this sense, they believed in Jesus, but were more seekers of all truth without having to give up their faith when new truth and knowledge changed the meaning of "truth."
SEEKERS MORE THAN BELIEVERS
Well, when read now, it appears one reason this early church might not have appreciated them was because they did not totally support several "necessary" beliefs of this church such as a "virgin birth," "a bodily resurrection," and "only males" should be priest. These beliefs should not ever be questioned as it was a sin to do so. Yes, a sin!
What is being learned from these gospels and the Gnostics is rather astonishing. The new story isn't about believing what they believed, especially their myths, as their faith was not bound by their myths. Faith was a relationship with Christ that was dynamic and not static. As many of us experience, as we grow in knowledge, our beliefs and religious perspectives change in our lifetimes, often making our faith more honest and real. Thus what is interesting is that these Gnostics were Christians who believed in Christ but in their way of faith, they were more seekers of all truth and God than believers in authoritarian answers.
This may sound like Gnostics were against the church. Actually, they wanted to be a part of it, but as one scholar said, "the church kicked them out." Yet now some churches may want to revisit these heretics. For these Gnostic Gospels bring the surprising news that these so-called false Christians may have something positive to contribute to Christianity, and particularly, how we embrace faith. With this emphasis on relationships, their faith in Christ was dynamic, more spiritual, personal, and powerful. How powerful? If the Gnostic way of faith had prevailed, there would be a different face on Christianity today. So what is the Gnostic way of faith?
There is a new and different story about those called Gnostics and about other early newly found gospels!
Shocking is the news that most scholars believe there were gospels that existed early in Christianity along with those in the Bible.Those called Gnostic Gospels are giving strong evidence for this reality. Unexpectedly, they are more Christian than expected. Yet most believe they supplement, not supplant the biblical gospels. They do now bring new insights into why they were condemned and silenced by the early church. Called a threat to Christianity and its truth, the greater truth becomes that they can add honesty to our faith, deepening our spiritual relationship with one the Gnostics called, quite beautifully, the living Christ.
Opening your mind to new information, you will come to understand why Elaine Pagels, the author of The Gnostic Gospels, teaches that "these gospels can transform what we know as Christianity." Surprisingly, as not expected, this transformation is about letting Christianity becoming more spiritual, personal, dynamic rather than static, loving rather judgmental, open to new knowledge, allowing differences of beliefs, and refreshing our faith in Christ, often called Lord and Savior in these writings.
What are found are myths. Yes, they do have myths in them that reflect the culture of their day. This is a problem. First, many say this is all they believed, and overlook their deep belief and faith in Jesus. Secondly, many write these early Christians off because their myths were false. Thus it is easy to jump to the conclusion that because their myths are no longer valid that their faith was invalid. The critical thing to know is that although their myths have little value today (yet some of us find them interesting), the Gnostics were not bound by them as immovable and unchangeable truths. There is analogy today.