Christian mavericks find affirmation in ancient heresies

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When the Rev. John Buehrens gives his Easter sermon this Sunday, he'll borrow a page from an unlikely source: the Gospel of Judas. The gnostic text, unveiled by scholars with fanfare last week, portrays Jesus Christ as an enigmatic guru who venerates Judas, teaching him secret accounts of creation and approving his imminent betrayal.

Many Christians might find that offensive, or, like Mr. Buehrens of Unitarian First Parish in Needham, Mass., silly. But as an emblem of Christianity's long tradition of dissenting voices, the text is for him an inspiration nonetheless.

"An awful lot of what passes for orthodoxy today is something Jesus would have despised," Buehrens says, noting Christian support for "imperialism and militarism." As a challenge to orthodoxy in its time, he says, the Judas story is "a reminder that no single interpretation of the Christ event can exhaust the spiritual implications."

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Across the country, observers say, the Gospel of Judas is striking a chord with progressive Christians. Not so much for its heretical theology, but as an ancient symbol of their modern mission to update what defines faithfulness. It's an approach that's winning approval from scholars, who say Christianity has always attracted diverse beliefs. But others worry that this revisionism misrepresents time-tested truths.

Modern theologians attracted to the Judas gospel are reminding today's dissenters that they follow a long, legitimate tradition. At last week's press conference, four academics used either "diverse" or "diversity" to describe what the text reveals about the beliefs and attitudes of the early church. If the church was so varied in its early days, they suggest, then contemporary Christians can perhaps accept the growing diversity of beliefs and lifestyles in their religious communities as well.

"The Christianity of the ancient world was even more diverse than it is today," says Bart Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former fundamentalist Christian turned self-described "happy agnostic" - someone who claims it cannot be known if God exists. "My hope is that when people see how diverse Christianity was in its origins, [they] will be a little bit more tolerant of diversity in Christianity today."

That may be easier said than done. One reason: many of early Christianity's most steadfast figures rejected gnostic teachings as heresy - that is, false representations of Jesus' life and of God's nature. (Gnostic doctrines assert rival divine beings and emphasize salvation through secret knowledge.) Although heresy is seldom a matter of public debate in the 21st century, the problem of embracing all beliefs that purport to be "Christian" persists.

To think that noncanonical texts legitimizes diversity today "is to ignore the fact that that diversity was not accepted [in the early church]," says Ronald Simkins, director of the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion & Society at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. "It's a naive use of history."

Adjustments to Easter service

At the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, the congregation has stripped Holy Week observances of traditional content that strikes members as offensive. On Palm Sunday last weekend, for instance, parishioners heard an adapted Passion narrative that removes biblical language seen as blaming Jews for Jesus' crucifixion. And the hundreds who observe Good Friday won't pray for those who haven't yet received "the Gospel of Christ" but for those untouched by "the grace of God" - a new gesture of respect for the Muslims who use the church for Friday worship.

The goal of these adjustments, says Cathedral Dean Jep Streit, is to reflect in practice who Jesus is and what he represents. And that message-refining process, he says, echoes the debate between orthodox believers and dissenters centuries ago.

"We have this give and take through the first two or three centuries [after Christ's birth], and it continues today, as it should," he says.

In Atlanta, the Rev. Chip Carson plans to proclaim Jesus' triumph over sin and death when he celebrates Easter at First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta, a church with predominantly gay membership. But he won't provide the traditional explanation, which says God required a sacrificial atonement for human sin, because he prefers a "love-based theology rather than a fear-based theology."

"Whoever is in power decides what's heresy," Carson says. "We don't tell people what to believe. We only encourage them to have closer contact with God."

Who defines what's Christian?

Yet the same standards hold from age to age, regardless of who's in charge, according to Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"You can have disagreements about doctrinal interpretations of particular issues - that's why we have Catholics, and we have Presbyterians, and we have Baptists, and we have Methodists.... But if you deny the resurrection [or other core teachings], well, according to historic Christianity, you are beyond the pale."

For some the debate isn't about theology; it's about freedom of conscience.

The Rev. Jayne Oasin, a social justice officer for the Episcopal Church, USA., says that "to consider there to be only one truth is to me a form of oppression."

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