Excerpted from Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas with permission of Random House.
On a bright Sunday morning in February, shivering in a T-shirt and running shorts, I stepped into the vaulted stone vestibule of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York to catch my breath and warm up. Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress-the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation; and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.
That morning I had gone for an early morning run while my husband and two-and-a-half-year-old son were still sleeping. The previous night I had been sleepless with fear and worry. Two days before, a team of doctors at Babies Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, had performed a routine checkup on our son, Mark, a year and six months after his successful open-heart surgery. The physicians were shocked to find evidence of a rare lung disease. Disbelieving the results, they tested further for six hours before they finally called us in to say that Mark had pulmonary hypertension, an invariably fatal disease, they told us. How much time? I asked. "We don't know; a few months, a few years."
The following day, a team of doctors urged us to authorize a lung biopsy, a painful and invasive procedure. How could this help? It couldn't, they explained; but the procedure would let them see how far the disease had progressed. Mark was already exhausted by the previous day's ordeal. Holding him, I felt that if more masked strangers poked needles into him in an operating room, he might lose heart-literally-and die. We refused the biopsy, gathered Mark's blanket, clothes, and Peter Rabbit, and carried him home.
Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope; perhaps that is what made the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before.
I returned often to that church, not looking for faith but because, in the presence of that worship and the people gathered there-and in a smaller group that met on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement-my defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that church I gathered new energy, and resolved, over and over, to face whatever awaited us as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of us.
When people would say to me, "Your faith must be of great help to you," I would wonder, What do they mean? What is faith? Certainly not simple assent to the set of beliefs that worshipers in that church recited every week ("We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth...")-traditional statements that sounded strange to me, like barely intelligible signals from the surface, heard at the bottom of the sea. Such statements seemed to me then to have little to do with whatever transactions we were making with one another, with ourselves, and-so it was said-with invisible beings. I was acutely aware that we met there driven by need and desire; yet sometimes I dared hope that such communion has the potential to transform us.
I am a historian of religion, and so, as I visited that church, I wondered when and how being a Christian became virtually synonymous with accepting a certain set of beliefs. From historical reading, I knew that Christianity had survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations-even centuries-before Christians formulated what they believed into creeds. ...But only in the fourth century, after the Roman emperor Constantine himself converted to the new faith-or at least decriminalized it-did Christian bishops, at the emperor's command, convene in the city of Nicaea, on the Turkish coast, to agree upon a common statement of beliefs-the so-called Nicene Creed, which defines the faith for many Christians to this day.
Yet I know from my own encounters with people in that church, both upstairs and down, believers, agnostics, and seekers-as well as people who don't belong to any church-that what matters in religious experience involves much more than what we believe (or what we do not believe). What is Christianity, and what is religion, I wondered, and why do so many of us still find it compelling, whether or not we belong to a church, and despite difficulties we may have with particular beliefs or practices? What is it about Christian tradition that we love-and what is it that we cannot love?
...since the fourth century, most churches have required those who would join to profess a complex set of beliefs about God and Jesus--beliefs formulated by fourth-century bishops into the ancient Christian creeds. Some, of course, have no difficulty doing so. Many others, myself included, have had to reflect on what the creeds mean, as well as on what we believe (what does it mean to say that Jesus is the "only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father," or that "we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church?"). I can recognize how these creeds came to be part of tradition, and can appreciate how Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became convinced that making-and enforcing-such creeds helped to unify and standardize rival groups and leaders during the turmoil of the fourth century. Yet how do such demands for belief look today, in light of what we now know about the origins of the Christian movement?
For nearly three hundred years before these creeds were written, diverse Christian groups had welcomed newcomers in various ways. ...The astonishing discovery of the gnostic gospels-a cache of ancient secret gospels and other revelations attributed to Jesus and his disciples-has revealed a much wider range of Christian groups than we had ever know before. Although later denounced by certain leaders as "heretics," many of these Christians saw themselves as not so much believers
, people who "seek for God."
The Church of the Heavenly Rest helped me to realize much that I love about religious tradition, and Christianity in particular--including how powerfully these may affect us, and perhaps even transform us. At the same time, I was also exploring in my academic work the history of Christianity in the light of the Nag Hammadi discoveries, and this research helped clarify what I cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs--however these actually vary from church to church--coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.
Now that scholars have begun to place the sources discovered at Nag Hammadi, like newly discovered pieces of a complex puzzle, next to what we have long known from tradition, we find that these remarkable texts, only now becoming widely available, are transforming what we know as Christianity.