Gnosticism 101

April 13, 2006

Well, I just love it when new early Christian documents are discovered. If you haven’t read about The Gospel of Judas being discovered, you can do so here

Document Is Genuine, but Is Its Story True?

In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal

Excerpts From the Gospel of Judas

Karen King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, is quoted in two of the three articles. I’ve taken two of her classes and really really really think she is just a wonderful professor and scholar. I wish I wasn’t language-disabled and I would learn Coptic, Greek, and Hebrew and apply to study early Christianity at Harvard in hopes of studying with her (and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza who is my advisor and another favorite professor). The Harvard Divinity School website list two places where Prof. King is online talking about the Gospel of Judas. You can find that here

Prof. King’s specialty is early Christianity, and in particular gnosticism. The Gospel of Judas, along with the Gospels of Thomas and Mary (and a bunch of other documents that I know nothing about) are often put into the category of “gnostic gospels.” Since Karen writes a whole book on what gnosticism is, I feel like it isn’t easy to sum up here. Her book is What is Gnosticism? and is a bit of an academic read, but still worth it even if you aren’t in divinity school. I think wikipedia also does a reasonably good job here of offering a short introduction.

Gnosticism is a historical term for various mystical initiatory religions, sects and knowledge schools which were most active in the first few centuries AD around the Mediterranean and extending into central Asia.

These systems typically recommend the pursuit of mysticism or “special knowledge” (gnosis) as the central goal of life. They also commonly depict creation as a mythological struggle between competing forces of light and dark, and posit a marked division between the material realm, typically depicted as under the governance of malign forces, and the higher spiritual realm from which it is divided, governed by God and the Aeons.

I think that Karen’s basic argument is that gnosticism is a modern invention in order to help us better understand and categorize early Christian texts. As I understand her argument, there weren’t a bunch of people running around in antiquity calling themselves gnostics. Rather, from the very start of Christianity there was a struggle to define what “Christianity” was and what it meant. Those who wrote The Gospel of Mary or The Gospel of Thomas, for instance, had one understanding of what “Christianity” meant. Those who wrote Matthew or Mark had another understanding.

The Gospel of Judas (and the other “Gnostic” gospels) are part of a bunch of early Christian writing that didn’t make the cut into what eventually came to be understood as “real” or “authentic” Christianity. There was fighting and arguing and eventually those who “won” portrayed it as if they had been right all along and all along had been “in charge” and that “those others” had obviously been heretics the whole time. But this was not the case. There was never one Christianity from which all other “versions” emerged, but rather, from the beginnings of what we today call Christianity, there were a plurality of visions as to what this meant and how this new way of understanding things should be lived out. The Gospel of Judas is from one way of understanding what “Christianity” meant that did not eventually “win” and was, thus, considered heretical by the “winners.” Of course, I’m sure I’m one of the few people in any divinity school, or in the United States for that matter, that has not read The Da Vinci Code which, although fiction, deals with a lot of these issues.

One more thing while I am on my early Christianity kick. I use quotes around “Christianity” when referring to it in antiquity because the term Christianity took a while to be a word that was used by “Jesus-followers” to refer to themselves or to be referred to by others. There is tons of debate as to when it started being used. For a good while those people who we would today probably call “early Christians” understood themselves as a part of Judaism, not a new religion. The question as to when groups began to either be identified or identify themselves as “Christian” or when it makes sense for scholars to begin to call groups “Christian” continues to be a highly disputed point. For more on the issues involved on understanding when “Christianity cease[d] to be Judaism” or “when and why Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism stopped considering themselves and recognizing the other, as belonging to the same religion,” see Gabriele Boccaccini, “History of Judaism: Its Periods in Antiquity,” in J. Neusner (ed.), Judaism in Late Antiquity 2 Historical Syntheses, Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1995: 279-302 (as cited in Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004: 2. Again, while pretty academic, if you are at all interested in early Christianity (okay if you are really interested) Judith Leiu’s book is just great.). For more on Christian identity formation, particularly as it relates to the term Christian, see Lieu, 1-26, 240-241, 250-259. Anyway, I’m getting off track here but I figure if I learn all of this in school, I might as well try to share it with somebody.

That’s it for Gnosticism 101 today.

Unitarian Universalism

April 10, 2006

I thought I would do a small section on Unitarian Universalism — what’s going on out there in the blogosphere, at the UUA, and in UU congregations.

The UUA Board of Trustees will be meeting in late April. Thier agendas and minutes and all sorts of other interesting stuff is available here.

General Assembly is taking place in St. Louis this year, June 21-25. I’m going. You can find more information about it here.

Another blogger, who calls herself ChaliceChick (lots of bloggers have cool pseudonyms, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it — the best I could think of was CatWoman because I love my kitties, but I thought it either made me sound like Batman’s girlfriend or a very lonely old woman)….But, back to the point, ChaliceChick hosted a “contest” she called “Fix UUism” on her blog in January. I must say that I don’t love the title because it implies that UUism is broken, which I don’t think it is. I mean, all religions have places they can grow and improve. As do we. But I’d say it isn’t broken. I’m not staying on point well, am I? The POINT is that even though I don’t think UUism is broken, there are some great and intersting ideas here about how we can improve. Some I just thought were funny. Some possibly helpful. It also reminded me of all the little political debates and tensions within our Association. Sometimes I feel so niave —
Why can’t we all just get along? Maybe it is also because bloggers (not me of course) are a little harsher than I like sometimes. Anyway, it is enlightening if you have a few moments.

Ever wonder what the greater world is saying about UUs? Unitarian Universalists in the media tracks how UUs are reported on in non-UU media. It describes itself like this: A frequently updated guide to stories about Unitarian Universalists from other sources around the web.

Other sites of interest:

The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for the Earth. This is the organization that designed and monitors The Green Sanctuary Program which First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro is involved in.

Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group describes themselves as follows: The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism calls us to “respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” We of UFETA understand that we human beings are only a single strand in the intricate web of life. Like wolves and whales and hummingbirds, we are fragile and perishable, and each species depends on the earth for our survival. While our Unitarian Universalist principles affirm the “inherent worth and dignity of every human being” and call us to seek “justice, equity and compassion in human relationships,” we extend those principles to include other species who also possess an intrinsic value—whose well-being is vital to the whole—and whose rights should parallel our own. You can visit UFETA here

Gustav and Mary

April 8, 2006

This is a picture of our baby Gustav and our former foster kitten Mary. She was found in the road in Needham and brought to a vet. The man who found her thought she was dead, but she was freezing and starving, poor little thing. She was nursed back to relative health at the vet and then through Second Chance Shelter in Jamaica Plain we were able to foster her until we found her a permanent home. While she was with us, Gustav decided he would take care of her and be her Mommy. They ate together, slept together, and if he couldn’t find her he would walk around and make little noises that I think translated to “Mary! Mary! Where are you? Come ouuuuttt.” and she would come out of hiding and nuzzle him. This is a picture of him giving her a bath, as he did each day. They both loved it. Mary now lives with a forever-home as the “daughter” of Liam and his wife, a couple in Porter Square, and Ginger, their other cat is Mary’s new Mommy.

Sorry, Nothing Uplifting Yet

April 5, 2006

But now that the BBC site is back up we find that the bird flu has been found in German poultry. Not long before it is here in the old USA. How are you preparing for the bird flu? It is always good to have 14 days worth of food and water in your house anyway. If (or perhaps I should say when) the bird flu becomes the human flu, it appears that most people believe that they should not go out. Including to work. Which might be a reasonable thing to think. You won’t find me out and about when the chance of contracting this thing seems to be even a little likely. However, I work at a church and not for the just-in-time system that gets groceries to our store, gas to the gas stations, and all that sort of stuff. But, studies show that many who DO work in these sorts of very important jobs might find it best not to go to work either. And this will mean a serious disruption in our just-in-time system. So even if you would LIKE to go out and get groceries and refuse to be scared into staying in your house (akin to people who refuse to leave their homes even if a hurricane appears to be coming) it may not matter because there may not be food on the shelves. So stock up on those yummy canned foods, pastas, and, my favorite, those thai lemongrass chili soups that you just have to add hot water too. And get some jugs of water too. It can’t hurt and then you won’t have to borrow food from my stockpile.

Read the article about the bird flu coming to Germany here:

p.s. Call me crazy, but with mad cow and the bird flu, it seems like we could solve a lot of problems by not mass-farming animals, ehh? Just an idea. But that is another post.

On Chronic Illness

April 4, 2006

Today, I preached in the Billings Sermon Competition here at Harvard Divinity School where I am studying. I was not chosen as a finalist. As Wolfgang (my partner) pointed out to me, I’ve not been feeling well, and I am feeling particularly poorly today and I shouldn’t take it too hard. Not enough time to practice in the midst of preparing an already-late paper and doing work for The Kettering Foundation and visiting a friend over Spring break. But, for me, as I told Wolfgang, it just adds salt to the wound. What is the wound you ask?

The wound is being sick again. I do not have a cold, the flu or any other normal thing that I would really actually be glad to have. Slowly, over the past six months (or maybe even a year) my body has started to slow down… again. From age about 15ish until my early 20s I struggled with a chronic illness — constant fatigue, finger nails falling off, teeth falling out, naseau, vomiting, headaches. None of the twelve doctors that I saw was ever really able to figure out what was going on. As one doctor said, “All your tests indicate that things are just really out of wack.” An endocronoligist I visited said, “I’ve never really seen anything like this,” and declined to take me on as a patient.

So, not winning the sermon contest, to me, just represented one more thing that was marred by tiredness, headaches, exaustion. One more thing that I would normally enjoy and be glad to do that became an exausting ordeal, only not to work out well in the end. I got some test results in the mail on Saturday, the first tests I’ve taken since 2003, and they were, as I should have expected, out of wack. I feel as though seeing that on paper reminded me that I am not just tired, not just a little lazy (as chronically tired people will tell you that they often feel), but that I am actually “sick again,” the phrase itself a reminder that neither I nor my doctors have yet to come up with any name for this.

I do not write this to complain, but rather to help us appreciate our health, our vitality, our freedom to do and be without pain. I have had had some sores on my lip and in my nose for the past week or so, and it has reminded me how much we can take for granted the simple fact of our bodies cooperating with us. I know that there is another young woman, not far from my age, in our congregation who suffers from chronic illness, and a young girl who has had to and will continue to face chronic health issues. And, I imagine that there are others that I am not aware of, that none of us are aware of who carry silently in thier bodies the burden of illness… of dis-ease. Given this, I’ve decided to change my sermon on April 23 from the topic of sustainable living to healing. I hope that this won’t only be a sermon on healing, but rather a service of healing. I’m thinking of ways to involve the congregation in the service. If you would like to participate or have ideas, or have wisdom or stories that you want to share, please be in touch either via comments or email.

A Quick Fun Post

April 4, 2006

You knew it had to happen. Since FUUSM is full of animal lovers, and I happen to be the human of four amazing kitties, I thought I would share my joy (and some cuteness) in a little post today. Meet Annie, our eldest kitty who, and I’m not kidding here, has a low metabolism. As you will see in future posts, our other kitties are fit. Annie eats the same amount, but somehow just gets a little bigger than the others. You are seeing a kitten picture of Annie at 12 weeks and then, bless her little heart, a picture of her at almost six years. Her birthday, we estimate, is around this time. She was adopted from a shelter in Ohio with her brothers Luke and Tyler, who, sadly, had tragic and untimely deaths. If you are looking for a kitten or cat to adopt, a great place to look is Introductions to Gustav, Leo, Grace and… all 17 of our past foster kittens are to come in future months and years. Stay tuned. Elizabeth :)

The Future of Women and Gender (and Feminist) Studies in Religion

April 2, 2006

I am notorious (to myself and family at least) for using email to procrastinate on writing papers. I suppose I will now have to add writing on my blog as one of those tools of procrastination. Nevertheless, one thing I would like to share is this link which takes you to a talk posted on the Harvard Divinity School website. You can actually watch and listen to the talk on Real Player which most computers already have installed and which can be downloaded for free if you don’t have it (go here to download and click on “free download”). About twenty minutes into the talk yours truly speaks for about 10 minutes (or less) about the future of women and gender studies in religion. As is the case with my sermons, I remain relieved that the talk didn’t go badly. If things aren’t disasters, I consider them at least small successes. But it might be that the talk went well, which makes me really excited. I enjoyed doing it.

If you would like to see it, you need to open it in Internet Explorer by clicking on this link or the link above. It does not work in Firefox. While the talk is in “academic-ese” and my talk and the other folks on the panel are speaking to a relatively specialized audience that is familiar with all the people and ideas that we’re talking about, the point of my talk which I get to at the end is that the future of women and gender studies in religion (which I argue should also include feminist studies in religion even if it wasn’t in the title) must take into account “everyday people” and not be what I call “intellectual gymnastics” for the fun and enjoyment of academics. This is a very important point to me in my work in studies and in my work in ministry. We must connected what we study to what people do, how they live, and, in particular, to the problems of suffering and aching in our world. I hope that this will be an ongoing theme on the blog, but today it will just have to be the start of a conversation because I must get to writing my paper, which, incidentally, deals with connecting our life of study to our spiritual life and to the problems and issues of the world.

Enjoy the beautiful spring! Peace, Elizabeth


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