While walking in the woods, you might unexpectedly come upon a quiet pond, and pause to consider the passing clouds mirrored in the still waters. As I was reading an intriguing book on the gnostic Gospels, my thinking took a direction that surprised me. The Gnostics spoke with a dissenting voice in earliest Christianity, and they strongly criticized the Church orthodoxy. Yet, as I explored further into this story, I found myself reflecting on the Church and its formidable role in providing stability as well as spirituality through the centuries. Reflection led to an appreciation for what this continuity meant.
The Jesus of the gnostic Gospels appeals to an elite mind set. Their portrayal of him is painted with brushstrokes and pigments imported from the East. Jesus in these Gospels is a detached figure, dispensing spiritual sayings, often cryptic, like a Zen master. He advises looking inward for truth.
The Church knew human nature better. The New Testament tells a story of a very human Jesus, whose works and words speak to ordinary people in a language that appeals to our feelings. He does not contemplate the world from a distance. He enters people’s lives: healing the sick; saving an adulterer from stoning; challenging the dogmatic Pharisees to reclaim the spirit in the law. His teachings are interwoven with his acts, and so we do not just hear his voice, we get to know him. Eventually, he suffers pain and dies a human death.
Where the Gnostics challenged the few to lonely self-examination, the Church provided an institution with a hierarchy, invested with authority and constancy, to which ordinary people in a village might relate. No heroic effort was required to be a member of the Church. Through the New Testament, as interpreted by the Church, common ethical standards were established that would last across a millennium and more. What a different Western world would have resulted if the Gnostics had splintered Christianity.
This appreciation of the Church’s historical role is not to minimize its shortcomings and excesses, notably its patriarchy and its belittling of women. However, in history as it really unfolds, faults are often unavoidable under the historically given circumstances, even if regrettable from the viewpoint of a later time. Any movement that endures for a long period will need a Reformation. No institution made up of humans will be as pristine as the waters of a pond on a quiet summer day.