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Beyond Belief

Book Review

Dec 14, 2010

Like all good metaphors, the title of Elaine Pagels' 2003 book, Beyond Belief, resonates with multiple meanings. With respect to the purpose of the book, two meanings are most relevant: "beyond belief" as (i) the acceptance of a belief beyond an empirical basis, by an appeal to faith; and (ii), seeking beyond faith and testing a belief as broadly as possible, by examining it historically. With these two meanings of "beyond belief" in hand, we find they serve also as an outline of Pagels' own life. As a teenager, Pagels tells us, she was drawn to Christianity for social reasons, finding comfort in the faith based "assurance of belonging to the right group." Moving into adulthood, Pagels' religiosity became increasingly intellectual, and she tested her faith and reason by the academic study of theology. Today, Pagels works as a Professor of Religion at Princeton, and has published a number of popular works, including: The Gnostic Gospels (1979); Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1989); Reading Judas (2007); and is presently at work on Revelations. Thus, observing Pagels' personal and professional journey, we appreciate that Beyond Belief is constructed along a continuum of spiritual and historical inquiry; and that this same continuum guides the book's five chapters; considering the Nicene Creed; examining "Gospels in Conflict"; asking if Christianity rests on "God's Word or Human Words?"; reflecting on orthodoxy and the "Triumph of John"; and studying all of this in context: "Constantine and the Catholic Church."

The purview of these five chapters spans multiple disciplines and many millennia, working historically from foundational Christian texts to recent scholarship, while also crosscutting orthodoxy by the lights of present day sociology and psychology. To these ends, Pagels' endnotes and bibliography are prolific in quality and quantity, with a total of 410 notes applied to 185 pages. References range from early primary sources to modern articles, and from philosophical treatises to social investigations, thus revealing not only the depth of research, but also an admirable interdisciplinary tact. Accepting the scope and personal investment of Pagels' in this work, we may also regard her research questions seriously.

At the most general level, Pagels questions why Christians accept the documentary canon, and the very notion of canonicity itself. Since medieval times Christianity has been based atop a set of official codices, traditionally presented by church leaders as a group of authoritative revelations and religious truths. Contrary to popular belief however, Pagels asserts the Christian canon developed not by divine revelation, but by political machination. Specifically, Pagels asks why the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John became canonical, while the gospel of Thomas was suppressed. In developing her answer, Pagels focuses on the Gospel of John, and the activities of the people connected to the second century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus.

Regardless of factional associations, all Christians were subject to state persecution, but remained disunited because of competing -- though Christian -- beliefs. Fighting persecution and contention, Irenaeus and his followers sought to consolidate disparate groups, and to unite all Christians under a single set of teachings. Chief among these was the Gospel of John, which Pagels believes was "written ... to refute ... Thomas." Accordingly, John was promoted and Thomas renounced not by the lights of divinity, but by the criteria of utility; for John's words could support unity as Irenaeus conceived it, while Thomas' words lay beyond the bounds of unitary belief. Thus many popular writings were denied canonicity and even destroyed, and those who "enshrined ... John within the New Testament ... decisively shaped -- and inevitably limited -- what would become Western Christianity." In this way, the basic criteria of canonicity were sociopolitical, and the formalization of the Christian canon was theological insofar as any particular theological point suited the programs of church and state officials.

As evidence for her claims, Pagels elaborates on the historical progression of the movement towards canonicity. At the most obvious level of exposition, the author cross-examines the content of the now canonical gospels with the Gospel of Thomas, and connects their content to the words and acts of contemporary religious actors. However, while gospel comparisons are an important feature of Beyond Belief, much more important are Pagels' perspicacious social and epistemological commentaries, which use historical examinations as a basis to scrutinize the conscious and unconscious social and political motivations of Irenaeus, his followers, the gospels' authors, and those who contributed to the demarcation and promulgation of the New Testament.

Looking at an example of Pagels' analysis, we find that in her study of subconscious motivations and their relationship to the process of canonicity, Pagels reasonably inquires how Irenaeus could encourage "believers to tolerate ... variations of viewpoint and practice" but also vociferously reject variations. In answer, she notes that Irenaeus' mentor, Polycarp, was burned for his beliefs, and that Irenaeus' efforts to construct "the shelter of a community" were undertaken not by a logician, but by "a young man thrust into leadership of the survivors of a group ... after a violent ... persecution." This claim relies heavily on psychological and social insights, and her point is well made. In this connection, Irenaeus' endorsement of John while building his "shelter of a community" is analogous in many ways to Pagels' "belonging to the right group," and exemplifies the enigmatic motivation to seek protection in social relations.

Building on her analysis of such motivations, Pagels traces the social process of canonization from Irenaeus to the Council of Nicea, and applies sociological analysis to historical facts. Directing us to ask how "leaders laid down the fundamental principles" of Christianity, Beyond Belief looks beyond the claims of Irenaeus' successors, and studies the impact of their operational context on their beliefs. Enlightening observations on primary and secondary sources are made, and rounded out by essential philosophical remarks; remarking most importantly that early church leaders were -- just as we today are -- largely unaware of the underlying circumstantial motivations and processes by which justifications and beliefs are accepted or rejected.

Stylistically and compositionally, Pagels' arguments, evidence, and presentation combine seamlessly, though her task is a considerable one; for Pagels asks us to embrace not only doubt about the Christian canon, but also to meditate on Thomas' Gnostic doubt, and to adopt skepticism as a method in general, and therefore test -- and even abandon -- what might be our most sacred and fundamental beliefs. Specifically, Beyond Belief tests popular religious and historical beliefs, and we as readers must therefore submit to a line of inquiry that may, in the words of Thomas; "destroy" our spiritual "house" such that "no one will be able to build it [again]" -- at least not using the same foundations. In this aspect, Pagels' method might be compared to Descartes' skeptical method, in that Beyond Belief offers a striking examination of first principles, and deconstructs popular beliefs that have attained the status of axioms.

Considering Pagels' method in the de- and reconstruction of canonicity, her basic message is perhaps best captured in the words of William Godwin, who observed; "the human mind is incredibly subtle in inventing an apology for that to which its inclination leads." By its scholarship, prudence, and accessibility, Beyond Belief is highly recommended reading, and offers hope that historians and theologians alike may come to understand and accept that the process of canonization -- as well as the process of human faith and belief -- falls short of being divine, and is "incredibly subtle" indeed.

Part of the series: UWO