A gospel for the postmodern

For two hours last Sunday, I watched with great interest the National Geographic documentary on the lost Gospel of Judas.  I have since read the English translation of this Coptic text.  Unlike my brother, Fr. Ambo David, I am not a biblical scholar, and so I will turn to him for historical context when we meet today, Easter Sunday.

Strictly from a sociological standpoint, I think the discovery of the Gospel of Judas makes Christianity a far more interesting religion than what centuries of metaphysical theology has made of it. It restores to it a powerful historicity. It makes it less dogmatic, and it creates room for more interpretative readings of the Scriptures.

The Judas gospel brings us back to those scattered faith communities at the dawn of Christianity that drew their inspiration from the telling of the life and work of Jesus Christ.  Numerous gospels were then in existence, reflecting the specific longings and aspirations of the various early peoples who became the first Christians.  Many of these vanished from memory as Christianity acquired a dominant place in the world.

At one point in its growth, the leaders of the Church decided to standardize its teachings.  They chose certain gospels from the many that were circulating.  This could not have been a smooth and orderly process; it is likely that in the course of the centuries some books were added to the Bible and some were dropped.  This makes sense if one thinks of Christianity as a living religion.

The Judas gospel is fascinating because it shows how some of the early Christians regarded their religion.  To the Gnostics, for example, Christianity was a form of secret knowledge, an optic through which one could get a glimpse of the invisible world.

In this lost gospel, the disciples are shown vying with one another for

Jesus’ special attention.  Among them, it was Judas Iscariot who seemed to manifest the greatest potential. Jesus notices him and takes him aside.  “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.”  He then tells him about “a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit], which no eye of an angel has ever seen, no thought of the heart has ever comprehended, and it was never called by any name.”  (The National Geographic Society, 2006)

The recovery of the Judas gospel fits well with the emerging spirituality of a secular and less authoritarian age — the age of interpretation rather than of dogma. It is probably threatening only to those who insist on an authoritative reading of the Scriptures and claim an exclusive franchise for such reading.

Apart from the fact that this gospel depicts Judas in a good light, showing him to be Jesus’ loyal confidant in the fulfillment of the prophecy of his redemptive death on the cross, the image that is projected of Jesus is itself quite extraordinary.  He sometimes appears before his baffled disciples in the form of a child.  He laughs at their puzzlement.  He tells them: “How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.”

The writer Umberto Eco has a term for this.  He calls it the “religiosity of the void.” Instead of a knowable personal God, what draws the faithful is a God who “cannot be named, not because he cannot be described with any of the categories we use to designate the things that are….He hides himself, is ineffable, can be drawn upon only through negative theology, is the sum of what cannot be said of him; in speaking of him we celebrate our ignorance and he is named at most as vortex, abyss, desert, solitude, silence, absence.”

This kind of spirituality, Eco believes, is becoming widespread in those societies where neither institutional religion nor revolutionary ideology nor positive science has provided any useful guide to human progress.  In short, this is the spirituality of a crisis-ridden age.  Eco thinks of it in very dark terms, as the cousin of various forms of neo-millenarianism, which in some instances project “a mystical scenario, requiring suffering testimony, martyrdom, purifying bloodbath.”

Eco’s pessimism, however, is countered by another Italian, Gianni Vattimo. It is ironic that some of the most creative analyses of the crisis of institutional religion are coming out of Italy, at the very seat of the Holy See. Here where the future of religion is endlessly debated, this Heideggerian scholar who remains a steadfast Christian has stood out as an optimistic voice for the compelling message of Christianity.

Against the brooding scenario that his compatriot depicts, Vattimo describes what it means to be a non-metaphysical Christian: “The commitment to Christ’s teaching derives from the cogency of the message itself; he who believes has understood, felt, intuited that his word is a ‘word of eternal life’.”  To Vattimo, that message – “the only truth revealed to us by the Scriptures, the one that can never be demythologized in the course of time – since it is not an experimental, logical, or metaphysical statement but a call to practice – is the truth of love, of charity.”

It would be interesting to see what role the lost gospels will play in the re-imagining of Christianity. The Gospel of Judas appears to purge guilt from religion by contextualizing it.  If the place vacated by guilt is filled in by love, the effect can only be a more inclusive faith.

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