Monday, July 21, 2008

Jesus and the Lost Goddess - a review

Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

While I was hauling this book around work with me on my lunch hour, one of my coworkers commented that the title seemed engineered to appeal to a particular kind of trendy new age holism. Not having finished the book, I agreed, because for the most part, the book reads like a pop-religion or pop-psychology screed along the lines of "You can feel good if you just DO THIS!"

I picked it up as a sort of exercise in background, trying to dig up information about Gnostic cults in history and in historical practice. Jesus and the Lost Goddess actually has very little in it about either. Mostly, it concentrates on the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics, and I get the impression that even this information has become, in the authors' hands, a highly synthesized blend of several Gnostic traditions.

Before reading Jesus and the Lost Goddess, I read a very rigorous (and kinda hard to plow through) history of Gnosticism titled A History of Gnosticism, by Giovanni Filoramo, so I couldn't help comparing the two. In contrast, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is sort of lacking in meticulousness even with its extensive footnotes. It reads with an ideological slant, and indeed the authors freely admit that they're arguing for you to think about religion and Christianity in a different way.

Freke and Gandy begin in a gushy way, extolling the virtues which the mystically oriented Gnostic Christians possessed over the rigid hierarchical church that followed. I distrusted it automatically, because it played to my least civilized atheistic prejudices about organized religion.

I also distrusted it because the authors stated that they were uniquely qualified to write this book, being mystics in addition to academics. This intimates, of course, that anybody who isn't a mystic couldn't understand the subject matter as well as they do, or to go even further, that anyone who doesn't believe just doesn't "get it". I've always thought the argument that spiritual feelings are unique to the believer to be a dodge used to explain away lack of precision.

Lastly, they use the word "whilst" a lot. I mean, a lot. As trifling as that sounds, it really grated on my nerves. It sounded precious to me, as if the authors were trying to achieve a sense of authenticity through outdated language usage.

Around page ten or so, though, the author's academic training finally started to kick in, and provided me with some interesting points that kept me reading.

The first thing that really drew me into the text was their definition of trends within religious traditions as Gnostic vs. Literalist. I think by "Gnostic" they mean "Mystic", but they used the word Gnostic because they were connecting their entire premise to the practice of Gnosticism, a brand of Christianity that was pronounced heretical early in church history. Specifically, Gnostics tend to view their religious training as allegorical, and seek points of commonality with other faiths, whereas literalists believe their religion's mythology is historical truth, which leads them into conflict with nonbelievers.

The next points that interested me were their support of the non-historicality of Jesus and their discussion of the non-literalness of Christian myth. I had never actually read any scholarship to support this particular (and widely shared) prejudice of mine: that Jesus sounds very like a lot of his contemporary pagan mythical figures in the particulars of his story (or his history, as it were). It was interesting to see their concise and convincing (if not exhaustive) look at the subject in this way.

The main point of this text is that all myths - Pagan, Christian, and Jewish - are at their root teaching tools that describe the nature of reality to us, and that Pagan philosophers and radical Jewish theologians created a Jesus myth by combining aspects of the myths of Joshua, Mithras, Ra, Dionysius, Orpheus, and other dying-and-resurrecting godmen that suited their social goals. Later, this very successful Jesus myth was co-opted as historical truth by the new Christian (and once Jewish) literalists, who suppressed (sometimes violently) dissenting versions of the myth as heresy.

"For Plato the Demiurge is not a negative figure," say Gandy and Freke, "but the original Christians pointedly distanced themselves from Jewish Literalism by deliberately portraying the demiurge Jehovah as an ignorant deity under the higher authority of Christ and Achamoth." pg 153

The authors draw connections between thematic elements, plotlines, and the language in various versions of the Jesus myth and the myths of the previously mentioned Godmen. Put in the context of the sophisticated Pagan philosophy of the times, which eschewed literal interpretations of myth, and a cosmopolitan trading culture that extended beyond the Mediterranean, trading and commingling ideas, their hypothesis doesn't seem out of the question. In fact, in their footnotes, they note that it isn't even original, having existed in one form or another for a couple of hundred years.

To me, the nature of Jesus' reality is a moot point. Six of one, half-dozen of another. The definition of who the real Christians are, the cool hippie Christians who use Jesus as a teaching tool or the square, institutional-man Christian who insist on his historical reality, reminds me of the familiar doctrinal squabbling between the Protestants and Catholics about who the bestest Christian is.

Who had the best intentions? Well, it will never be known at this point, because the hippy Christians lost out and the power structure that evolved created the history we have. Why did the hippy Christians lose out? Maybe because while Gnosis is good soul food, most people would rather have a full belly, and a working power structure is better at achieving that end than a feel good philosophy. Maybe it was because they drove themselves to ideological extinction by splitting philosophical hairs.

But that's editorializing.

Would the Gnostics have built a better Christianity, as Freke and Gandy seem to think? Who knows? I'm not convinced, as oddly convincing as their distilled argument here is. But then, I'm a skeptic.

But, after reading both books on the Gnostics, I found their worldview curiously enticing, I think because it is so structured when talking about things that we rarely have a handle on. Freke and Gandy portray them as unabashedly positive:

"Time is the evolving cosmos, which is 'ever laboring to bring about the ideal, planning to lead all to an unending sate of excellence." - Plotinus, pg 137.

"Love is what happens when we connect deeply with another sentient being because love is the way we experience the mysterious paradox of being the One appearing to be many. Love is the mystery aware of the mystery..." - Freke and Gandy, pg 182.

As interesting as their historical and philosophical arguments are, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is ultimately another polemic about the best way to be religious. The essential message is "Be eclectic and intelligent and undogmatic, like the Gnostics, and then everybody will be kinder to each other because their natural goodness will naturally rise to the surface."

The authors recommend no ethics or behavior in particular (although various Gnostic cults recommended many particular things, often conflicting). They bring a don't-worry-be-happy sort of gospel that I regularly employ merely to keep myself sane.

But I don't misunderstand my coping mechanisms as either scientifically or academically based.

In the long run, insisting that God wants us to "not worry and be happy" just seems like a new literalism. A kinder, gentler literalism, stressing cooperation between competing religious traditions - but ultimately a literalism because it ignores the very fact that some people just need old-time religion to get by. Some people need routine and structure and hard and fast rules. As long as we're being tolerant, I suppose we need to be tolerant of them, too.

The Gnostics' (and the authors') utopian message in the end leaves me cold - because if anything, uncovering utopian hippies in the ancient Middle East simply proves that the utopian urge is as old as civilization. Yet it's never succeeded in creating the perfect Star Trek world where no one fights and nobody goes hungry, because utopias ignore the animal nature of human beings. One of the stress points of this kind of Utopianism is that nature is a good thing, but not if it's red in tooth and claw. Which is how nature, including humanity, really, really is. Especially when backed into a corner. Should I be comforted that everybody, in their heart of hearts, means well, if I am a casualty of war?

Although I share the authors' distrust of fundamentalist religion, and even felt strangely nourished by their shrewish diatribes against the doctrinaire and the humorless, I think examining how different religions negotiate their interrelationships is a more worthwhile strategy for peacemaking than insisting on yet another modus operandi for belief.

I am ultimately grateful, however, that the authors have given me permission to feel reverence for mythology, to treat it as serious business in the same way I try to learn from literature or history, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the story is, or how insane the reality. I have often thought it curious that as much as I distrust religion and its institutions (and, sometimes, it practitioners), I find no real fault with the New Testament. I loved Jesus Christ Superstar! It's nice to be able to feel like I am able to claim a use for the story without having to claim the baggage that comes with its history.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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