What did Jesus say? After uploading my previous blog entry, I decided I was curious about that. People who say they’re following the teachings of Jesus usually have in mind the first four books of the New Testament. But there are other sources.
A trove of manuscripts was uncovered in Egypt, not too many years ago — parchment books dating back to the 4th century. Until they were found, we knew little about the Gnostics, other than from the diatribes the orthodox church fathers wrote denouncing what they felt were the gnostic heresies. These recovered documents included a number of stories about Jesus and his apostles that differ, sometimes sharply, from what was previously known.
A scholar named Elaine Pagels wrote a wonderful book called The Gnostic Gospels about these newly discovered documents, and about what we can learn from them. I had read the book 25 or 30 years ago, but didn’t remember much. This week I’m reading it again.
The most important point, I think, is that the early church fathers were solidifying a rigid hierarchical and authoritarian social structure (bishops at the top, then priests, then deacons, then the ordinary worshipers). The gnostics were much more egalitarian in outlook. The gnostics allowed women to serve as priests, something the Catholic Church is still having fits about, 1,600 years later.
The gnostics were creative. They were interested in discovering spiritual truths for themselves. The orthodox church, on the contrary, was bound and determined that there was only one source of truth — a bishop who had received the mandate passed down directly from one of the apostles.
If anything, this view of the historical situation solidifies my contempt for organized Christianity, quite apart from any specific questions of doctrine.
Another thing that I’m reminded of by reading about these early struggles over the meanings of various events (such as the crucifixion and the resurrection) is that none of the people involved had the least idea about the nature of the world they were living in. Science simply didn’t exist. They certainly knew that it was unilkely for someone who had been crucified and was dead to come back to life — but they had no reason at all to assume that it could never happen. People whom they were inclined to trust told them it had happened; therefore, it had happened.
Only during the past 200 years have we been in any position to deconstruct the entire foundation of religious doctrine, using the tools of science. You might think this would be a great relief to everybody, but no. People care about their religion, whatever it happens to be.
And that’s the third point: memes. A meme is an idea that survives or evaporates in what we might call a virtual ecosystem, the system of human brains and human culture. Memes that resonate well with human instinct tend to spread. They lock in with our deepest feelings and are difficult to eradicate. An idea that seems grotesque to us (say, the divinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) is unlikely to propagate through the meme-sphere.
Religion is deeply entrenched because its characteristics have been finely honed through thousands of years to resonate with humans’ instinctive perceptions and needs. Trying to debate the truth or falsity of religious doctrines is very nearly useless. Memes are stubborn. You might as well try to cure cancer with aspirin tablets as try to explain scientific truth to someone whose mind has been taken over by religious memes.
The Gnostic Gospels illustrates this process in a clear and convincing way because the only thing the early Christians could do was ask themselves which set of ideas resonated best with their unconscious and intuitive sense of what was good or right. They were in no position whatever to do any reality-testing — it was all free-floating memes.