Christianity Hot & Cold

Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has weighed in with his review of Elaine Pagels’ newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelations. In a previous post, I excerpted a lecture in which Pagels discusses the book and its themes. Gopnik’s review is a nice companion.

In keeping with a persistent Pagels theme, she laments the fact that steely-cold (Nicene) Christianity won out over mystical-warm (Gnostic) Christianity. While sympathetic, Gopnik has a sharp eye for realpolitik:

You can’t help feeling, along with Pagels, a pang that the Gnostic poems, so much more affecting in their mystical, pantheistic rapture, got interred while Revelation lives on. But you also have to wonder if there ever was a likely alternative. Don’t squishy doctrines of transformation through personal illumination always get marginalized in mass movements? As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues.

The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.

For it to become the Religion of (Roman) Empire, early Christianity had to be tamed and institutionalized. Its fate was domestication for purposes of power and consumption.

Baptism of Emperor Constantine

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4 thoughts on “Christianity Hot & Cold

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Yet on a hopeful note, while evolution seems to point to authoritative, Buddhism, Christianity and Marxism were rebellions against the authority at their times. Thus we can hope new rebellions knock down the established religions.

    I loved the Marxism & Christianity analogy.

  2. Cris Post author

    As Gopnik correctly points out, these movements (Buddhism, Christianity, and Marxism) were rebellious or subversive only early on. Rebels are usually killed and subversives nearly always co-opted. Do you think Scientology is a new movement that might qualify? I kid, I kid.

  3. soma

    Religious are united in a force most call God. This force can be a force for good change or bad, but the problem seems to be that they start to break up God into different hypothesis by taking the infinite and putting narrow structures around the pieces.

  4. J. A. Le Fevre

    You do find some entertaining topics. Doubt Scientology will get the traction required – not enough dispossessed in its habitat. Jesus was simply trying to reform the local Jews, it was Paul that took his message (some say Paulism) to the dispossessed of the gentiles (largely slaves and women) where it caught on (few bother to usurp a movement before it catches on). Marxism, while a troubling fomenter of civil disorder among its targeted industrial serfs, got its real successes among later day semi-feudal agrarian states when it found champions there. Having far more wealth being generated, the industrial states chose to extend the franchise by sharing more of their gains, diffusing most of the strife. Rest in comfort. I see no champions among the dispossessed for Scientology. Where we do see a rise of champions is in the Middle East, where rather than embracing a new or even inclusive theology (such as Scientology), they chose instead an old and exclusive one that is self limiting by design.

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