Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What Would Judas Do?

Here it is, Palm Sunday, and one of the lead stories of the past week--on ABC News, in the New York Times, and in a special on the National Geographic channel--has been the recently released translation of The Gospel of Judas. Let's just call it Easter "synergy."

Having taught the Gnostics for years as the major part of a prelude lecture to Augustine's Confessions in my Classical Political Theory class, I've been a sucker for the story of the second century (?) text of Jesus' "secret teachings" to Judas, his special disciple and close friend. I haven't yet gotten a chance to read this gospel, but from the media accounts, it suggests that Jesus fully expected and maybe even authorized his own betrayal by Judas, who was redeemed despite his act. Much of the coverage of this story has revolved around whether or not, like The DaVinci Code, it can claim to be "true" in an historical sense. That, I suspect, is the least interesting--and plausible--part of the tale. Odds are that, like most of the "gnostic" gospels, it post-dates the four Christian gospels, penned between 70 AD (Mark) and 100 AD (John), by at least a few decades. (The one notable exception, The Gospel of Thomas, may have been a key provocation for the writing of John, as Elaine Pagels has argued.) But it does reflect some of the creative diversity of religious experience associated with the early Christian movement, much of which the budding Church would eventually disavow as heresy, thanks to the effort of Irenaeus and others to define a set of precise dogmas that could serve as reliable organizational principles for an institutional religion.

As a protestant Christian with a healthy anti-authority streak, I have to admit having a mixed reaction to this dialectic of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. The gnostic texts represent both (a) a flourishing of the individual religious imagination, opposing the conformity of the Church as "mediator" of salvation, and (b) a significant "Greek" deviation from the main contours of Christian faith, often denying the physical world and the tragic suffering it entails in the name of a radically "spiritualized" conception of the soul and its divinity. No surprise then that writers as diverse as Eric Voegelin and Harold Bloom have isolated "gnostic" tendencies in American protestant religion and its offshoots: the Puritans, the Mormons, Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists, and even Southern Baptists. Christianity, I suspect, can never escape from this kind of fragmentation, while at the same time never ceasing to think that it must, which is why we get an ongoing whip-saw of betrayal and repression. But who is the real betrayer in this dialectic? Is it the churches that restrict Christian experience or is it the sects and the believers who substitute their own idiosyncratic judgments for those of the churches' approved experts? And how do we treat those on the other side of the divide? This is the question of Judas. If there's a positive lesson for Christians in this new gospel, it may be never to underestimate the power of divine forgiveness for sin, nor to overestimate our own powers to grapple with human frailty. Confident Christians should probably be reminded that Peter, symbolic foundation of all institutional Christian churches, "denied" Jesus no less than Judas "betrayed" him. To live is to betray, and while the wristbands may ask, "What Would Jesus Do?" the sad example of Judas more closely resembles the universal experience of Christians themselves.

Garry Wills offers a striking political parallel for this in today's New York Times, where he writes that,

THERE is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

Wills adopts the Kierkegaardian position here (who would have known!), contending that Jesus' teaching was neither political nor even "moral" in the practical conduct, family-values sense, but instead was radically eschatological, or what the dour Dane once dubbed in Fear and Trembling the "teleological suspension of the ethical." The demands of man always crumble before the unpredictability of God and His transcendence. But can we, like Wills, confidently separate our religion from our politics? Isn't his anti-politics nonetheless a politics? Wills certainly seems like a good "separation of church and state" liberal in his day job writing academic history. Isn't his own just one more futile attempt to follow Jesus when, in reality, we are all doomed, like Judas, to render our religion (or irreligion) political? In other words, to be a Christian is to embrace the moral and political tragedy that to live is to betray. There may be no one who exemplifies this kind of religiosity better than Tom DeLay, of course. The more he proclaims his "Christianity," the more he seems to betray it. And yet, his story is less the exception than the rule--the Christian dialectic of betrayal writ large. While I'm happy condemning him politically, I'll try to remember the Gospel of Judas before my faith casts too many stones at his.


At 10:14 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Great post. I’d just like to add that the idea of an original "Church" has never been anything other than idealizing a past that never existed. Rather there was the Church at Jerusalem, the Church at Antioch, the Church at Alexandria, the Church at Rome... We can see this even in the N.T. writings where controversies over doctrine began immediately. Should believers eat the meat offered at the pagan sacrifices -- one of the most reliable sources of protein for the ancient common man? Did the gentiles have to be circumcised? Of course the process of what writings to include in the canon was also contentious and has never really been agreed upon. Different churches or worthies in different cities took different positions on just about everything. The later genealogies of popes were just following ancient practice to establish a legitimate chain of succession... I believe the earliest reference to the universal (katholikos) church was by the bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius in a letter ca. A.D. 110 to the church at Smyrna, but even in that letter he's arguing against the "heretics", meaning the reality was quite different than the ideal. So ab initio there never really was one church or one church doctrine to "conform to" and it was only after the interventions of Constantine after A.D. 323 that one could more properly speak of the Church. The Gnostic gospels, including the newly published Gospel of Judas, ca. second-third centuries of our era, are just one more reminder of how many different sects there were and how they could not even agree on basic things such as, "Did Judas betray Jesus with the latter's approval?". I'm also not familiar with the particulars of the writing, but at first glance it seems to me to be consistent with the theology of an ultimate plan in everything -- an attempt to keep a unified kosmos rather than have dualism.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Paul, I agree completely. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, often search for a "primitive church" that does not exist, or that is more present-day projection than anything else. Christianity may be especially problematic on this front, because unlike either Judaism or Islam, it is primarily a religion of "faith" and not "law." The Christian gospels do not themselves claim to be revealed truth (as does the Koran), but are diverse human witnesses to that truth, incarnate in Jesus, who like Socrates never wrote and only left the accounts of followers--in the Xian case, at a good generation or two removed. Add in the textual disagreements between gospels, the embelishments from one to the next (Mark, the first, being the most spare), and you've got some real difficulties of discerning historical truth. Judas, for example, gets no direct mention in Paul's letters and no real story in Mark. He's only fleshed out in the later gospels, especially John. So no surprise that his myth would flourish and develop in gnostic texts.

In many ways this situation parallels, but in a much more extreme way, the search of the political conservative for an "original intent" in the Constitution, one that almost always turns out to have been far more fragmented and contested than that theory's advocates want to believe. I'm not an historical relativist, but I do think that the history is always more complex than the slogans.


Post a Comment

<< Home