Alternative Christianities are only "alternative" because other, competing forms of Christianity rose to dominance. As a historian I often wonder what the world would have looked like if one of these now-vanished forms of Christianity had assumed the mantle of orthodoxy—or if Christianity had remained as pluralistic as it was when it began. Imagine for a moment that Gnostic Christianity had survived this early process of natural selection and that what we now call orthodox Christianity had become extinct.
You are a devout Gnostic Christian who has just moved to a new city. In the parish you moved away from, you had participated in a Gnostic spiritual group that eagerly devoted itself to Bible study, prayer and meditation, both solitary and communal; you also engaged in intense theological and spiritual debate. You and the members of your spiritual group expected far more out of church than what could be garnered from a Sunday morning worship service and coffee hour.
You believe in the superiority of the spiritual world; you distrust the material, created world. You believe that the Bible provides instructions for an ascent out of the material world and into God’s realm—and the Bible you study includes books that don’t appear in Catholic or Protestant Bibles today, such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and the Apocryphon of John. You log onto the Internet to find a similar church in this new city.
The Sethian Gnostics come up first. Their version of Christianity seems quite compatible with what you are used to. The whole community functions like your old Gnostic study group: Almost everyone meditates and most attend meditation services at the church; they pray ecstatically; and they have a really incredible intellectual life. They study the stars and find deep, hidden meanings in the most familiar of Bible passages. You never know what new twist they’ll give to the liturgy.
But when you look at other options, the Valentinians seem very promising too. They advertise, however, that the service for the coming Sunday is only for the most spiritual members of their community. As a non-initiate you would not be welcome. You make a mental note to see if they offer catechesis (instruction in the tenets of their spiritual system). Perhaps when you have some time you can audit one of their classes.
The Encratite Christians sound intriguing. Though not Gnostics, they have a lot in common with them. Encratite means “self-controlled” or “self-regulating,” and these Christians not only engage in punishing fasts and intense prayer but reject marriage and sex because they believe salvation is only available to the bodily pure. But your spouse might not be thrilled at the prospect of your joining this group so you scroll down to the fourth option.
This fantasy gives a sense of what the possibilities might have been if orthodox Christianity had not prevailed over all other kinds of Christianity. During the first centuries of Christianity Gnostic, Sethian, Valentinian, Marcionite, and Encratite churches thrived alongside of orthodox churches which claimed Peter, James, John, or some other Apostle as their founder. Christianity was not one religion but many, brimming with wildly divergent beliefs, extravagantly different styles of worship, and theologies that both challenged and delighted the mind.
Christianity is similarly diverse today—there are Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, and innumerable denominations along the way. Presbyterians and Episcopalians, Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Southern Baptists use different liturgies and offer radically different perspectives on some major theological issues—but few today question whether or not they are all really Christian. The early varieties of Christianity that will be discussed in this book were condemned as heresies; those who considered themselves orthodox sought to stamp them out. Eventually they succeeded—if their ideas couldn’t be extirpated altogether (Gnosticism returned with a vengeance at the beginning of the second millennium with the Cathar heresy, for example; the Reformation revived some of the earliest challenges to orthodox Christianity) all of these groups were exiled from the church and eventually disappeared.