Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’” Mt. 21
What is God like? And how will we respond? Give me your hand and we will see. In December 1945, halfway up the Egyptian portion of the Nile River, a farmer named Muhammad ‘Alī al-Sammān made an extraordinary archaeological discovery. Thirty years later he told his story. Not long before he and his brothers avenged their father’s murder, they were digging for soil to fertilize their crops when they found a three foot high red, earthenware jar. Wondering if it contained an evil spirit, at first they hesitated to break it open. Then he had the idea that it might contain gold, so he smashed it with his axe and discovered thirteen papyrus books bound in leather.
At home he dropped the books on a pile of straw by the oven. His mother used much of the papyrus along with the straw to kindle fire. A few weeks later, after killing their father’s enemy ‘Alī worried that the police might search the house, so he left the books with a local priest and they were lost. For years experts tried to collect the manuscripts.
In the end they discovered fifty-two texts at Nag Hammadi. Carbon dating of the papyrus used in the bindings places these Coptic translations sometime between the years 350-400 CE. Some scholars, including my New Testament professor Helmut Koester, believe that these are translations of Greek manuscripts that may be even older than the gospels of the New Testament.
One of the first European scholars to discover the texts was startled to read the following line, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin Judas Thomas, wrote down.” This is the opening of the first complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas ever discovered. We had fragments of it in Greek but suddenly we had the whole thing along with pages of other sources we had never dreamed of.
My favorite quotes from the Gospel of Thomas describes the kingdom of God as a “state of self-discovery.” That ancient papyrus says, “Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father.” It says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
For years all we knew about the Gnostic Christians in the first centuries after Jesus’ death came from the orthodox Christians who called them heretics. Now finally, to some degree, we can hear them speak for themselves. I first encountered these ideas at the age of twenty-one when I read Elaine Pagels’ book The Gnostic Gospels. I am attracted to their thought primarily because Jesus has changed my life and I long to learn more about what people in the first centuries thought of him. I am also sympathetic to the Gnostics’ respect for wisdom. We are often trapped in stories that make us miserable. Great thinkers can lift us into a truth that frees us.
The Greek word gnosis means a kind of knowing by experience that differs from rational or scientific knowing. It also describes an ancient faith, a family of religious convictions that shaped what we believe today. As we enter Holy Week rather than trying to tell the whole story of Jesus’ passion, I want to talk about this spiritual path.
We cannot be a Gnostic in the way that third century people could. But studying these ideas give us a way of talking about our tradition’s value and how we experience God in our own lives. On this Palm Sunday I am going to talk about three central gnostic ideas. But first I need to say a little more about what Gnostics believed.
Gnostic groups differed from each other but mostly they believed in a kind of dualism between the spiritual which they regarded as good and the evil material world. They held that the spiritual human soul is part of the Divine and is imprisoned in physical existence. They believed that the soul could be saved by coming to realize its greatness, its origin in a superior spiritual world. For Gnostics an inferior god or demiurge (sometimes called the god of the Old Testament) made the material world. In their upside down interpretation of the Genesis creation story, the snake was the hero. Many Gnostic Christians (the Docetists) believed that it only seemed as if Jesus suffered, or was mortal.
1. The first idea that I would like to criticize is the Gnostic belief that there are secret teachings for the elite that are not available to everyone else. The Gnostic believed that, in the words of an ancient manuscript, he was, “one out of a thousand, or two out of ten thousand.” This contrasts with Christians who believe that everything we need to know about God and Jesus is public. There is no hierarchy of secret knowledge, or spiritual wisdom. We can all read the Bible and with help, draw our own conclusions.
Christians go further than this. In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This may be one of the most difficult ideas for us to assimilate. It is the basis for our democracy. We are all equal before God, and before the law. As humans we naturally form groups and are drawn into conflict based on our identity. For instance, it is very difficult to avoid the culture war tension between liberals and conservatives.
The philosopher Agnes Callard spoke about this recently at Harvard. She pointed out that the science journal Nature endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. It’s editors wanted to speak out for science and objective truth. She pointed out that in a world where everything becomes ideological this had the unintended outcome of making some people distrust science as political.
Callard said that people on the left use the same tactics as those on the right. “We bully people without knowing it. Not bullying people is harder than it appears.” Her answer is to take a Socratic approach. We should ask people to explain their position rather than trying to beat them in an argument. She says that Socrates is, “not trying to win. He’s trying to find out.”
2. A second Gnostic belief is that we should focus on overcoming illusion through introspection rather than worrying about sin or morality. The important thing for the Gnostic is a relation with our true self not with our our neighbors. In the second century Irenaeus (130-202 CE) rejected the idea that knowledge is enough to save us. He insisted that participating and growing in Christ is a “practical, daily form of salvation.”
In the third century Clement of Alexandria (150-215) writes that God became human so that humans can become God. Every day we improve. He writes about choosing to live joyously so that, “all our life is a festival; being persuaded that God is everywhere present on all sides we praise him as we till the ground, we sing hymns as we sail the sea, we feel God’s inspiration in all that we do.”
3. Finally, Gnostics taught that the material world is evil. In contrast, Christians believe that God created the world and that it is good. We have a responsibility for nature. We see God through the material world. It gives us opportunities to care for each other.
Over the next seven days we will experience God in the world. We will follow Jesus through the exultant crowds, witness his poignant goodbye at his last meal with friends. We will see his betrayal, abandonment death and finally his triumphant resurrection and reunion with his loved ones.
My friend Matt Boulton says that we cannot take all of this in at once. These events require time and space for us to adequately feel and understand them. Last night I received an email from one of our readers who feels overwhelmed by the passion narrative. My friend writes, “the most powerful moment that stands out for me is Jesus’ response to Judas’ kiss.” Jesus says, “Friend do what you are here to do” with no blame or shame, just a sense of love and grief.
This idea that God is present to us in the material world gives us the hope that we can change some things for the better. In an interview the poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014) said that believing in God gave her courage. “I dared to do anything that was a good thing. I dared to do things distant from what seemed to be in my future. When I was asked to do something good, I often said, yes, I’ll try, yes, I’ll do my best. And part of that is believing, if God loves me, if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees, then what is it I can’t do?”
What is God like? And how will we respond? There is no secret religious knowledge or a spiritual elite. Introspection will not bring us as close to God as care for those around us will. The material world matters and the presence of Jesus in this world then and now is a message of hope and salvation. All our life is a festival, so bring forth what is within you as you walk with Jesus.
I would like to close with these lines from the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). “God speaks to each of us as he makes us / then walks with us silently out of the night.//These are the words we dimly hear. // You, sent out beyond your recall, / go to the limits of your longing / embody me. //Flare up like flame / and make big shadows I can move in. // Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final. / Don’t let yourself lose me. // Nearby is the country they call life. / You will know it by its seriousness. // Give me your hand.”
 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House, 1979) xiff.
 “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” The Gospel of Thomas, translated by Thomas O. Lambdin. https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/Gospel%20of%20Thomas%20Lambdin.pdf
 And later, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and female one… then you will enter [the Kingdom].” Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House, 1979) 152, 154-5.
 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (NY: Random House, 1979) xvii.
 Ibid., 176.
 Clea Simon, “In an era of bitter division, what would Socrates do?” The Harvard Gazette, 27 March 2023. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2023/03/in-era-of-bitter-division-what-would-socrates-do/
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 33.
 Ibid., 38.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (NY: Riverhead, 2005) 119.