Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Gnostic Gospels

In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant by the name of Muhammad Ali al-Samman found a stone jar buried on a mountainside near the town of Nag Hammadi.  Inside were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books.

Over the next couple of years these books found their way, by various circuitous routes, into the collection of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities where in the decades that followed they were examined and translated by an international team of scholars.  The thirteen volumes brought together Coptic translations of over 50 second century Gnostic Christian texts, some completely unknown, some known only through quotes and references in other writings.

This is one of the most important finds in the study of the origins of Christianity, opening up an avenue of understanding that had been closed for more than 1,500 years.  Elaine Pagels joined the team of scholars working on these documents in the late 1960s and has become one of the leading experts in the field.  She has written a number of technical works on the subject, but The Gnostic Gospels, first published in 1979, is her attempt to interpret them for a wider audience.

A warning is in order: the title is misleading.  This is not, as I thought it would be, a summary and explanation of the gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi - gospels purported to be written by Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas and Philip.  Rather, it is a description and analysis of the debate between the gnostic writers and their orthodox critics about the nature of Christianity.

This book would not have been possible before the Nag Hammadi find.  Before then, most of what scholars knew about gnosticism was reconstructed from the writings of its critics.  Now we have the other side of the debate, and Pagels is able to put side by side the writings of the various gnostic teachers and those of defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin and Hippolytus.  For the first time, we can hear both sides of the debate.

Pagels focuses on five issues (listed here in a different order to the way Pagels presents them) - Jesus' passion and resurrection, the nature of God (particularly the question of gender), the authority of the priests and bishops, the question of the "true church" and the pathway to knowing God. On each of these crucial questions there were major differences between gnostic views (not all gnostics saw these issues the same way) and those which came to be considered orthodox.

The orthodox Christian view is that Jesus was really human as well as divine, that his passion involved real suffering and death, and that he then experienced physical resurrection.  For the gnostics it was impossible for a divine being to suffer and a physical resurrection would be pointless.  Hence, they saw the suffering as only applying to his "likeness" while his true self hovered above, laughing.  His "resurrection appearances" were appearances of this true spiritual self, not a resurrected physical person.

This may sound rather esoteric but it has practical consequences.  For the gnostics, the physical body was unimportant.  This led in two directions - in one, physical conduct was irrelevant and you could do what you liked.  In the other, true spirituality involved high levels of asceticism, particularly the denial of sexual activity.  Orthodox believers, on the other hand, saw our physical lives as important, valued appropriate sexuality and did not insist that their followers deny themselves legitimate pleasures.  A further implication, of crucial importance in the second century, was that while martyrdom was highly valued by orthodox believers it was downplayed and even seen as foolish by gnostics, who would rather compromise with authorities.

For orthodox Christians, there is only one God expressed in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This God is in general seen to be male although the Spirit is often seen as without gender.  Gnostics, by contrast, are famous for their complex cosmologies and held a variety of views about the nature of God.  In one of the most widespread, the God of Israel was co-creator with the superior female God Sophia (Wisdom) who may even have created him.  His desire to be seen as the only God is seen in this scheme as an aberration which led Sophia to withdraw in order to leave him to his delusion, before sending Jesus as a messenger or expression of herself to draw people back to her and away from this jealous, delusional god.  This view opens the way for a radical re-assessment of the Hebrew scriptures, seen not as "Christian" but as delusional texts inspired by a delusional deity.

One practical consequence of this is that just as Sophia was female, so women were seen by many gnostics (although certainly not all) as equal to men.  This is expressed in the elevated role played by Mary Magdelene in gnostic writings, and more immediately in the fact that many gnostic groups permitted women to take on priestly roles including celebrating communion, preaching and prophesying.  In contrast, by the second century the orthodox church was firmly patriarchal and many parts of it remain so even now.

Closely related to this is the question of authority in the church.  This was a pressing issue as the second century progressed and not only the apostles, but those who had been taught by them, passed away.  Who had the authority to lead and teach now?  For orthodox believers, this authority rested partly in the apostles' writings (in the process of becoming the canon of the New Testament) but more crucially in the apostolic succession, in those bishops who could trace their line of ordination back to the apostles, with the "apostolic churches" and particularly the church of Rome pre-eminent among them.

For the gnostics, these bishops were pretenders devoid of real wisdom, and the true leaders of the church were those who had received "gnosis" or knowledge/insight direct from the Spirit of God.  This meant that they did not recognise, or did not take seriously, the rigid hierarchy that was developing in the church at that time.  For example, one gnostic group is reported as drawing lots among its members each Sunday for who would take various roles in worship.

Of course along with this comes the final issue - how can you know God?  For the orthodox, knowing God was a straightforward matter of knowing some key propositions of the kind which were later incorporated into the Creeds.  These were open to all and comprehensible by people of all classes and levels of education.  A simple affirmation was all that was required to become a church member.

The gnostics, on the other hand, valued a much deeper personal knowledge which was not necessarily accessible to all.  Gnosticism was a religion of initiates, much like the mystery religions of the ancient Roman world.  Some of its teachings were seen as "secret", revealed only after the person had passed through the steps of initiation.  At the same time, they valued self-knowledge as a path to knowing God, and direct ecstatic experience as a source of enlightenment.  Their teachers invented their own myths and analogies, their own fictitious apostolic dialogues, their own ways of expressing the truth of a God who they saw as ultimately incomprehensible.  They valued and rewarded this kind of creativity and imagination.  For them the simplicity of orthodoxy was a sign of ignorance - God cold not be known so easily.

Pagels clearly has some admiration for the gnostics and provides a very sympathetic account of their views.  She is also very clear that the conflict was not just about esoteric matters of theology, it was about who was to be master of the church.  She appears to have little sympathy with the book-burners of the fourth and fifth centuries who effectively erased the traces of gnosticism from the newly Christianised Roman empire.  Some have criticised her for being too sympathetic, suggesting for instance that many gnostic teachers were much more negative towards femininity than she makes out.

However, she is no gnostic apologist.  She identifies at least three areas in which orthodoxy was clearly superior.  It provided a strong, clear organisational structure which bound the church together and kept it united, whereas gnosticism was diverse, diffuse and highly vulnerable.  The second is that the complexities of gnosticism required leisure and education  and so could only really appeal to the upper classes, while orthodoxy was open to all.  The third is that the simplicity of the orthodox creeds and formulations placed few hurdles in the way of adherents, while the complex and immersive nature of gnosticism restricted its number of followers.  Although the power of empire finally wiped out gnosticism, it had to eventually accept and even endorse orthodoxy after three centuries of persecution failed to make a dent on it.

Pagels writes as if gnosticism is a historical curiosity, wiped from the church by the triumph of orthodoxy.  However, I find myself wondering if it was that simple.  Certainly their complex cosmologies are now mere curiosities.  However, both asceticism and the valuing of direct experience survived in the monastic movement and the mystical or contemplative strand of Christian piety.  The modern-day Pentecostal movement seems to reprise much of the gnostic valuing of direct revelation and ecstatic experience.  Even their love of invention and myth-creation seems to have lived on in the art of hagiography and lives again in the likes of Lewis and Tolkein.

None of these developments can be formally attributed to the gnostic movement or to its anathemised authors.  However, I get the feeling that like many other church movements down through the ages, the gnostics have contributed much more to the Christian worldview than their opponents would like to think, and that their subterranean influence continues to benefit us today.  The church has always been a diverse body and we continue to learn from each other even as we fight.  May it always be so!

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Blue Trees

I was in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and went for a walk through Pyrmont on the shore of Sydney Harbour - a very swanky location indeed, but fortunately most of the actual harbourside is public parkland.

I noticed something strange, though.  A lot of the trees had been painted blue.  At least, their trunks and lower branches were painted blue up to the leaf line, where the blue merged into the natural brown of the wood and green of the leaves.  The effect was quite striking and a little disturbing, like they were ghost trees, or space aliens.


The sign told me that this was the work of an artist called Konstantin Dimopoulos, global citizen and current Melbourne resident, and is "an environmental art installation that draws attention to global deforestation by turning living, breathing trees bright blue, demanding we notice them before the planet's old forests are gone for good."  It adds that Dimopoulos has installed similar works around the world.

Now I find the artwork itself mildly interesting - in does make you look.  But I certainly didn't think "oh no, deforestation!" when I saw them.  After all, I wasn't in a forest, I was in an urban park in the centre of Australia's largest concrete jungle.  Nor did these appear to be forest trees, nor particularly old - some of them were mere saplings.

In fact, what drew my attention to deforestation was the sign telling me why the trees were painted blue.  Perhaps the Sydney City Council could have saved some money by just putting up a sign, but that would be weird.  Although perhaps not as weird as blue trees.

What's really interesting about this is not the trees, or even the rather cliched message about deforestation, but the business model.  I don't imagine for a moment that Dimopoulos gets rich painting trees blue, but he clearly has a nice little earner on his hands.  He has painted trees blue in the name of deforestation outside St Paul's Cathedral in London, and at various locations in the US and Canada.  His own website shows photos of a dozen such installations, often associated with big city art festivals.  He also does other public art projects, many of which also feature vertical sticks painted in vivid primary colours.

Any good business relies on two things - repeatability and good marketing.  You want to be able to sell your product more than once, and you need to be able to make people want it.  Dimopoulos has both.

I don't mean to denigrate the skill of painting trees blue - of course I could do it, but it takes much more skill than I have to make it last and not kill the tree with toxic chemicals in the process.  Dimopoulos would have had to put a fair bit of research and practice into finding the right materials and techniques.  It's possible some trees died along the way.

However, once he has done this, doing it again is a piece of cake.  He can take his paintbrush and blue mixture anywhere in the world and repeat the process as many times as people will pay him.  Perhaps the painting itself gets a bit boring sometimes, but hey, he's in Vancouver, or Seattle, or London, at a fantastic art festival, and getting paid to boot!

Why do people pay him to keep doing this fun but apparently pointless activity?  Because he has sold them a great story - it's all about deforestation.  Whose heartstrings are not twanged by that connection?

Konstantin Dimopoulos is far from the only artist to operate such a business model.  One of the most successful is called "Cow Parade", a global corporate entity which organises the placement of groups of vividly painted, life-sized fibreglass cows in communities all over the world.  The CowParade Holdings Corporation boasts that cows have been placed in 79 cities since 1999, that over 5,000 cows have been created in that time by over 10,000 artists and that over $20m (or $30m, depending on which bit of the website you read) has been raised for charity by auctioning the cows at the end of each event.  It's the ultimate outsourcing operation - local artists compete for the privilege of painting the cows, local governments pay for the privilege of having them on their streets, the auction at the end takes care of storage and disposal.  CowParade Holdings makes its living selling the idea.


Interestingly, my home city of Brisbane is not on their list of 79 locations, and I can't find any pictures anywhere on the internet of such an event ever taking place here.  Yet I distinctly remember it.  I was working in Brisbane City Council at the time, some year in the early 2000s, and shared a floor with the arts officers who made it happen.  Cows identical to those in the photo appeared at various points around the city and then disappeared into private collections at the gala charity auction.

Perhaps I just dreamed the whole thing, but I don't think so.  The thing is that at the time there was a fierce legal dispute going on about ownership of the concept.  Two rival artists (or corporations) claimed the intellectual property.  If I remember rightly, Council's arts manager advised the Mayor not to go ahead for fear of being caught in the middle, but the Mayor basically said "stuff them" and the cows duly appeared.  I can only assume that Brisbane backed the wrong horse, or cow, and our event had to be erased as part of the legal settlement.  I wonder what happened to the cows.

Art may make us feel good, and add beauty and depths of meaning to our lives.  It can also prick our consciences, even if it needs the aid of a boring sign to do so.  But beneath the surface, the same economic forces drive it as drive coal mining, or the manufacture of plastic toys.  I don't begrudge the artists that.  Everyone has to make a living.  But if someone presents you with a shiny, colourful vehicle for saving the planet, or helping the poor, or whatever, don't forget to look under the bonnet.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Double Disillusion

So, it appears that after six months as Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has finally done something clever.  He has presented the minor parties in the Senate with an impossible dilemma: vote in favour of a pernicious union-bashing piece of legislation, or be sent to a double-dissolution election on July 2 in which the most likely outcome is that most of them will be wiped out of the Senate courtesy of new voting rules designed for this very purpose.  For good measure, he will be hoping that the prospect of what is essentially a three-month election campaign will silence his increasingly vocal enemies in the right wing of his own party.


So at least a partial win for Turnbull whichever way it goes, but a sad and difficult time for us voters. We are facing the biggest double disillusion election in my almost forty years on the electoral roll.  

Back in 2007 when we were disillusioned with the long-running Howard Coalition government we could turn to Labor under that beacon of hope and change, Kevin Rudd.  Then in 2013, after three painful years watching the senior figures of the Labor Party put their own ambitions ahead of good governance, we could vent our disillusion by electing an apparently united and reassuringly moderate-sounding Coalition under Tony Abbott.

It didn't take long for that to fall apart.  The first Abbott Government budget gave the lie to the pretensions to moderation, doing a whole list of things Abbott promised not to do like cutting pensions, health, education, overseas aid and ABC funding.  Within two years it was clear that the Liberal Party was as divided and dysfunctional as the Labor Party, and with the same result - it dumped its leader part way through its first term.

Australians hate divided political parties, and they hate extreme partisanship.  The Liberals have given us both.  The removal of Abbott, the ongoing campaign of the party's Right to bring him back, and the increasingly obvious tension between Turnbull and Morrison are clear evidence of a divided party.  The cuts to essential services and pensions while protecting tax breaks for the rich - and advocating more of them - smack of lack of interest in ordinary Australians.  Meanwhile the increasing disquiet over asylum seeker policy, now spread beyond typical lefty groups to mainstream institutions like churches, schools and hospitals, makes the government seem cruel and inhumane.

All of this would suggest a Labor election win, and the polls seem to be moving in that direction.  However we haven't forgotten that only three years ago they were also hopelessly divided, and we know that Bill Shorten was a key figure in both changes of leadership, supporting Gillard and then shifting back to Rudd and taking his Victorian Right colleagues with him each time.  We've never warmed to him, and tend not to believe what he says.  So now Labor have policies and the Coalition have thought bubbles but we don't have any confidence that either of them will follow through if they get elected.  Plus, the fact that both parties have the same asylum seeker policy means no-one can take them seriously if they talk about justice or compassion.

All of which means we will drag ourselves to the polls come July 2 (assuming that is what happens) without much enthusiasm for either side, and force our hands to put numbers in squares.

Normally this would be good news for independents and minor parties who are the normal recipients of our disillusioned votes.  However the government, with the backing of the Greens, has just forced through a change in Senate voting rules which basically makes preferences optional.  This means that the intricate web of preference swaps which delivered us Senators from the Palmer United Party. the Liberal Democrats, Family First and of course the Motoring Enthusiast Party are likely to be a lot less effective.  Pundits are expecting them to be wiped out.  Turnbull certainly hopes so.

I suppose in a way it makes tactical sense for the government.  After all, if you're really bad at negotiating the obvious answer is to make sure you never have to negotiate with anyone.  Or perhaps you could improve your negotiating skills, because you may find you need them anyway.

For a start, both parties obviously need to learn better ways of negotiating agreement between their own factions.  We're now approaching a decade of chronic instability in both parties.  There doesn't seem to be any sign yet that they have learnt from the experience.

Then there is the fact that there are a lot more ways to have a hung parliament than intricate preference deals between micro-parties in the Senate.

For instance, a close House of Representatives election could leave neither party with a majority and a handful of independents holding the balance of power.  Tony Windsor is polling well in New England, disillusion with the major parties is at an all-time high in North Queensland, Nick Xenophon is trying to spread his wings in South Australia, and the Greens are targeting more inner city seats.  Turnbull, Shorten and their respective advisers would be wise to think ahead about what deals they will make, rather than foolishly ruling out making any in the leadup to the election.

Another possibility is that the big winner from the new Senate voting rules could be the Greens, left with a bigger share than ever of the disillusion vote.  That seems to be what they are hoping.  Why else would they risk an unholy alliance with the Coalition to rush the changes through, knowing there was likely to be an election hard on their heels?  Perhaps this is Turnbull's secret plan to act on his long-cherished dream of bringing in an emissions trading scheme, which no doubt the Greens would once again demand as the price of their support.  And of course, Tony Abbott will still be in parliament.  The more things change....

Then again, those clever minor parties could come up with their own ways of navigating the new Senate rules.  After all, no-one saw Ricky Muir coming.  Maybe this election will be too soon for them to solve the problem, but you can imagine more formal alliances, party amalgamations or joint tickets bringing together a "fourth force" in Australian politics - an independent, grassroots, broadly conservative political movement that attracts disaffected Coalition voters in the same way the Greens have come to rival Labor.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me there is a real chance that hung parliaments and large cross-benches could become a permanent feature of Australian politics.  Labor and the Coalition may hate it, but it might not be such a bad thing really.  After all, it turned out there was a lot more to Ricky Muir than a drunken video involving kangaroo poo.