I can't be the only Christian reading "Beyond Belief," Elaine Pagels' celebration of Gnostic theology and texts, and thinking, "What's so heretical about this?"

This best-selling book, and its accompanying train of reviews and author profiles, presents a familiar cast of characters. The Gnostics, developers of a variety of Christ-flavored spiritualities in the earliest centuries of the Christian era, are enthroned as noble seekers of enlightenment. The early Church, which rejected these theologies, is assigned its usual role of oppressor, afflicting believers with rigid creeds. It's the old familiar story of oppressive bad guys and rebellious good guys, and Americans never tire of it.

But a look at the supposedly scandalous material comes up short. The most-cited Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, mixes familiar sayings of Jesus with others of more mystical bent. These are sometimes cryptic, but hardly outrageous. They're not far different from Christian poetry and mysticism through the ages. Where's the problem?

Well, not here. Early Christians rejected Gnosticism, all right. But what Pagels presents is not the part they rejected. What they rejected, Pagels does not present.

Let's look at the first part of that statement. Pagels in fact does Christianity a service by calling us afresh to the truth that God is within and permeates all creation. Every person can awaken to this and experience God directly.

This truth gets emphasized or neglected according to the pressures of the surrounding culture; most recently, Christianity had to cope with Enlightenment rationalism, which held suspect all things supernatural. Followers of many religious traditions have benefited from recent years' new openness.

But even in hostile environments, direct encounter with the divine can't be fully suppressed, because it is true. It keeps bursting out, in the form of Christian mysticism or as charismatic and evangelical movements. When a preacher says you can have a "personal relationship with Jesus" or have "Jesus in your heart," that's what he's talking about. It's a direct, personal, and probably electrifying encounter with the interior presence of God.

You don't have to be a full-time contemplative to experience this; lightning can strike anywhere, any time. When it first hit me, I was a non-Christian tourist strolling around an Irish church. Teens praying after a Christian rock concert, a Hispanic Catholic woman on silent retreat, a Greek Orthodox man with an icon by his computer--anyone can experience this dynamic presence of God, because God is within everything he creates. There's no way to force this experience, but it never hurts to be open, to ask.

So "the Kingdom of God is within you" is hardly a heretical statement. Today's NeoGnostics would find a crowd around them, from 17th century Spanish nuns to polyester-clad Pentecostals, saying, "That sounds like what I'm talking about."

Now let's take a look at the second half of the previous statement. "That sounds like what I'm talking about" is a qualified endorsement--a gesture of openness till we hear more. There is such a thing as self-deception, and confusion can bloom in unfamiliar spiritual realms. Though such experiences are indisputably beyond words, after we have them we try to talk about them. We want to share them with others, and we want to check whether we simply flipped out.

Say that it's like going to Paris. Everyone takes a photo of the Eiffel Tower. When we get home, we compare them; some snapshots are fuzzy and some from funny angles, but we can recognize them as depicting the same thing. The snaps don't capture the reality; nothing can; but they're OK as records.

The Creeds are photos everyone agreed on. They are minimal and crisply focused, not fancied-up. They are not a substitute for personal experience, but a useful guide for comparison, for discernment. If someone's snap shows King Kong climbing up the Tower, we can say, "Hey, you're off base there. Something's messing with your head." If Kong is wearing a lei and a paper party hat we might say, "Aw, now you're just making stuff up."

That's what early Christians said to the Gnostics. The problem wasn't the insistence that we can directly experience God. It was that the Gnostics' schemes of how to do this were so wacky.

Preposterous stories about creation, angels, demons, and spiritual hierarchies multiplied like mushrooms. (Even some erstwhile Christians, like Origen and Clement of Alexandria, dabbled in these fields.) The version attributed to Valentinus, the best-known Gnostic, is typical. Valentinus supposedly taught a hierarchy of spiritual beings called "aeons." One of the lowest aeons, Sophia, fell and gave birth to the Demiurge, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. This evil Demiurge created the visible world, which was a bad thing, because now we pure spirits are all tangled up in fleshy bodies. Christ was an aeon who took possession of the body of the human Jesus, and came to free us from the prison of materiality.

"Us" didn't mean everybody. Not all people have a divine spark within, just intellectuals; "gnosis," by definition, concerns what you know. Some few who are able to grasp these insights could be initiated into deeper mysteries. Ordinary Christians, who lacked sufficient brainpower, could only attain the Demiurge's middle realm. Everyone else was doomed. Under Gnosticism, there was no hope of salvation for most of the human race.

Now you can begin to see what the early Christians found heretical. There were other important bones of contention: Gnosticism rejected the body and saw it as a prison for the soul; Christianity insisted that God infuses all creation and that even the human body can be a vessel of holiness, a "temple of the Holy Spirit." Some forms of Gnosticism rejected the Hebrew scriptures and portrayed the God of the Jews as an evil spirit; Christianity looked on Judaism as a mother. Gnosticism was elitist; Christianity was egalitarian, preferring "neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free."

Finally, Gnosticism was just too complicated. Christianity maintained the simple invitation of the One who said, "Let the little children come unto me." Full-blown science-fiction Gnosticism died under its own weight.

Pagels does not endorse this aspect of Gnosticism. But the Gnostics would not endorse her version either. They did not think of these elaborate schemes as mythopoeic (which is how NeoGnostics describe them), but as factual. Your salvation depended on getting it right, and Gnostics argued with each other much as theologians do today. Some claimed that the body was so evil you had to give up sex; others said the body was so illusory that it didn't matter what you did with it. A well-meaning modernist who murmured "You're both right" would be reviled for not grasping what's at stake.

NeoGnostics share our culture's penchant for pick-and-choose religion, and in this case that's better than inhaling the original whole. But every pick-and-choose religion has this limitation: the follower can never grow any larger than his own preconceptions. He has established himself a priori as the ultimate authority, and his thoughts will never be larger than his hat size.

Two heads, or a billion, are better than one. This is the reason for community. We might think there are two ways of determining truth, either top-down authority, or every-man-for-himself. But there is an alternative: consensus. We see it from the start of Christian history, in the discussions of Acts 15; we see it in St. Vincent of Lerins' handy rule that we trust "what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." A modest core of Creeds and scriptures tells us all we require, while a generous circle of liturgies, devotional writings, and commentaries cast more light.

"Light" is the key word for the NeoGnostics. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I feel strong empathy with their yearning for this encounter. But I'm puzzled that they still seem to be expecting that this experience will be mainly intellectual. "Light" for them means insight.

Christians would say to them, as we did to the original Gnostics, that there is something better. It will permeate your whole self, not just your mind; it embraces all of creation, celebrates good food and marital communion, and cares enough about this material world to build hospitals and work to free slaves. The thing you are seeking is not an idea but a Person, a Person who is mysteriously your Creator, and thus already present, waiting, at your deepest levels.

The NeoGnostic writings seem to me evocative but theoretical, a little distant, like they don't quite know yet what they are looking for. I will be glad to see how these light-seekers evolve. Where there is an open heart there is always good hope, because as Jesus promised, "He who seeks, finds."

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