Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The First Garden

It was beautiful, a great place to live, plenty of food, no killing. There was no death. Nothing bad could happen; evil was just a possibility.

Then the "serpent reared his ugly head" (but looked beautiful). Our first parents ate the forbidden fruit. In that act they were cast out of the beautiful garden: they knew evil. (In the Old Testament to know a woman was a sexual act, usually an illicit one that led to some kind of mischief.)

An angel with a flaming sword was placed at the gate of the garden Gen 3:24.

Outside it was nothing like the garden; the place was covered with thorns and thistles. We had to get our food by "the sweat of our brow" (we had to work!!; we had to work hard!!!). Labor became painful. We had the freedom to kill and eat the animals (but that has led and leads to all kinds of mischief).

When the Son of God came we learned that through his sacrificial death we may be saved. It was said to be the only way (John 14:6). Through the death of Jesus we might be 'saved' and at the end we might go to Heaven.

But others said there was another way: if you learn and live the "wonderful words of life", you have another destiny. When the disciples asked Jesus about the end, he replied

"For where the beginning is, there shall the end be. Blessed is he who shall stand in the beginning, and he shall know the end and shall not taste of death" (verse 18).

If you stand in the beginning: strange phrase! Does that mean to brush by the angel with the flaming sword and regain the garden, where there is no death?

Two theories for mankind's salvation: 1) through the sacrificial death of Our Lord, 2) through the psychic change by which we enter the kingdom of God, which Thomas says is here right now, where there is no death.

These two viewpoints collided and competed in first century Christianity. Some say the Gospel of John was written to put down the theory of Thomas; John wrote that belief is what matters (Pagel's Beyond Belief); Thomas looked to the inner experience.

In the fourth century the "Church Fathers" (called by some of us the servants of Constantine) decided that John was right; Thomas was banned (and passed out of existence for 1900 years).

Two theories of salvation: either or? what about both and?

The Times they are a-Changin'.


Twyla said...

Have you read the gospel of Thomas? If so, what is your opinion of it? I've been toying with the idea of reading it for myself, but am not sure it holds anything of worth.

Larry said...

Yes, Twyla; my opinion of it is quite high. I have a copy of it on my website with considerable commentary, which I edit day by day. (I would appreciate your comments on it.)

The gospel of Thomas is considered by many scholars to be written in the first century, probably in Syria, where people's vision and worship of Christ was far different from that of the western world, who came to dominate our Bible.

In early days conflict raged between Thomas and John. Some think John was written to put down Thomas, and if that be true he succeeded, at least by the 4th century when the canon was closed and Thomas was excluded-- and anathematized.

Thomas believed that our faith stems from our personal experience (looking within). He omitted most or all of the 'supernatural' stuff of the four gospels.

Twyla said...

Fantastic! I'll go there and check it out. Thank you so much for the info about Thomas.

crystal said...

Hi Larry. That's interesting. I don't know very much about Thomas ... maybe we'll read it next in the scripture study group?

Larry said...

I'd like that, Crystal. We'll have to wait and see. John is about believing in Christ, and Thomas is about looking within and finding the twin within yourself.

Meredith said...

I, too, would be excited to read Thomas.

Novice to scripture, this passage is new to me: "For where the beginning is, there shall the end be. Blessed is he who shall stand in the beginning, and he shall know the end and shall not taste of death"

I am awestruck by is beautiful. It reminds me of somthing I read just today, the Buddhists would call "unborn and undying." This phrase was likened to the metaphor of the sky, which is always here, never beginning nor ending, neither born nor dying.

If we were to consider the kingdom of God to be like this, we enter a consciousness where we realize that we are already here now, in the kingdom of God! And further, we realize that We were never apart, and we shall never leave.

I'm excited to read Thomas, as you can tell it intrigues me greatly. I already wondering if it might be true that we will see a merging of truths from Thomas and John - alluding to the same truths but in very different styles. For example, you wrote, "John is about believing in Christ, and Thomas is about looking within and finding the twin within yourself." I see these not as two opposing viewpoints, but rather a instance where both are true - a reference to believing and embodying our own Christ consciousness. I now recognize that Jesus alluded to this very notion many times throughout John.

Thank you for this interesting post, Larry.

James Chang said...

Hi Larry.

Some scholars have argued that Thomas was written about the same time as "Q," making it much older than John, and hence the theory that John was intended to be a refutation of Thomas. I doubt the existence of such a drastic difference in orientation between the two.

Personally I think the faith-work dichotomy really was introduced by Paul, in his Epistles. On the other hand, BOTH John and Thomas insist in inward experience. In fact not even the synoptics were that different in this respect. Thomas wrote about where the Kingdom of God is, it is not beyond the heavens, neither is it beneath the waters. Luke explicited claimed that the Kingdom of God is within us.

Then we owe John a complete new narrative regarding the Creation. It is a spiritual narrative (as opposed to the natural/carnal one in Genesis.)

It is here that we realize the rigid legalistic writing style of Paul. When Paul speaks of faith, he was essentially regarding it as a "speech act," (e.g. when you promise someone in a conversation, your speech is your act) and thereby making faith almost like a work. He has made faith into some kind of visa by which we may enter into the Kingdom. He described faith in legal terms.

But when John spoke of faith, he spoke of the oneness of the Father and Son and the oneness of the "natural man" and the Father through the Son. He spoke of the Light that enlightens every man in the world, even if they recognize it not. He spoke of the born-again experience through the Spirit. The Spirit is like the wind, according to John's narrative, it comes and leaves, and no one know where it is, though they may hear its sound.

Isn't this beautiful?

A good reconstruction of the canonical Gospels was done by Leo Tolstoy, and the result is a small book "The Gospel in Brief." In it Tolstoy captured the essence of the Gospel pretty well, namely, that Christ has come to teach his people himself to set them *free.* Freedom comes only when the "natural man" is transfigured into the "spiritual man" by Christ through the Spirit. Through the natural man we have fallen short of the glory of God, it is through the spiritual man, namely Christ Jesus that we are restored to what we ought to be.

Larry said...

Thank you, Meredith, for pointing out to me the congruence between Thomas and John; I needed that corrective to my thinking.

Ellie has been disagreeing emphatically with some of my emphatic statements about John requiring 'belief' in certain intellectual propositions as a way of discrediting the journey inward (which Thomas represents).

I got this from Elaine Pagels, who made it her thesis in her book, Beyond Belief. IMO it contains a lot of truth, but not the full truth. I think Meredith's suggestion that both approaches are true is much closer than the thesis of Beyond Belief.

Meredith said...

James Chang,

"The Spirit is like the comes and leaves, and no one know where it is, though they may hear its sound."

Yes, this is very beautiful.

I love to give this a little space and let it really sink in...

Thank you for your insightful comment, James. Nice to Meet you!

Larry said...

James, thanks for your comment. I have two issues to join with you on it:

1)I don't think the faith/works dichotomy quite represents the two viewpoints of Thomas and John we're discussing here: one is about belief and the other about a personal experience.

Faith as I perceive it is not at all about belief, but about trust in a Way, which is something very different from believing in the intellectual propositions set forth by Jesus in his Discourses. (In this blog you may find a number of discussions of the subject of faith vs belief.)Quoting James: "the devils also believe, and tremble (2:19).

I certainly agree with you about the beauty and spiritual power of John's gospel. I do object to the 'all-too-common' belief of many pious folks that you must subscribe to a number of propositions that IMO don't relate directly to the Way.

2)I don't believe that Paul regarded faith as a speech act; what he wrote about faith is voluminous and admittedly complex. Some of his material is just as beautiful, poetic, spiritual, and powerful as anything John wrote. That's just my opinion, you understand.

James, I appreciate your comment and hope for the pleasure of much theological (and other) conversation with you in the future.

david said...

Howdy Larry.

In one of his epistles (i forget where) old George Fox wrote that he passed through the flaming sword aand all creation suddenly had a different smell to it.

Just thought I'd add that to the old mix.

marana tha

James Chang said...

Thanks Larry. I agree with you that the dichotomy here (alleged by Elaine Pagels) is not the familiar faith/work one, but rather intellectual convincement of the trustworthiness of the articles of faith of the Church vs. inward experience of the Light of Christ.

Nevertheless, when Christ met the crowds in John 12, he admonished them to cling to the Light and walk in the Light and be children of the Light. Here I somehow get the impression that after all, true faith ought to be "completed in" inspired work/walk. And we also see herein the unity between inward experience AND faith.

Faith in a sense means trust in the Holy Spirit without reserve. And where could we even encounter the Holy Spirit except in our inner self (Cf. Meister Eckhart, from whom God hid Nothing)? Thus, faith requires inward experience as a prerequisite. Once our conscience has been subdued and incorporated into the Spirit, whenever our thoughts are "acted upon" an object, it ought to be conducted in such a way that it is approved by the Spirit. Same with our works. It is then that we reach full communion with the Divine.

And how amazing it is that all these have been covered in John. Communion, Faith and Work.

So instead of the Evangelical position that faith leads to inward experience, I believe it's the other way round. We have not found Christ. It is Christ who has found us.

Regarding whether a person could explicit reject certain teachings of Christ and still be in full communion with God, I think Robert Barclay has answered the question in such an eloquent way that I could never have done.

P.S. We also read a lot about how we become "free" in the Spirit. ("And Truth will set you free.") There is a terribly Marxian tone here in the Gospels. And many other traditions, such as Neo-Confucianism, also have similar things to say. In a sense I do believe that the Holy Spirit also speaks through people who are not of the Christian faith.

david said...

Hello James-Chang:

There is a terribly Marxian tone here in the Gospels

Its even more overt in the book of Acts. And I'm not so sure what is so terrible about it. From each according their ability and to each according to their need is a fundamental spiritual principle.

2 Corinthians 8:12-15:

For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."

James Chang said...

Thanks David-William. One thing I think we should pay attention to though, is that Marxism isn't all (or even primarily) about materialistic welfare or even egalitarianism (Marx was explicitly anti-egalitarian and referred to egalitarianism as "vulgar").

In my humble opinion Marxism has to do with human bondage and freedom; freedom from alienation and fetishization instead (a slightly vulgar example here--why is my relationship of the shop-clerk exclusively determined by the banknotes in my pocket and the goods in her hands? Aren't we first and foremost human beings?)

david said...

My knowledge of Marx is mostly second hand I'm afraid so I bow to your wisdom. I get my socialism form Tolstoy -- and the apostle Paul.

Marjorie said...

Just wanted to say 'hi' Larry!
These comments quickly exceeded my ability to understand them -- though I was wondering whether John Sanford reflects Thomassian thought in his works, specifically The Kingdom Within.

Larry said...

Good question, Marjorie; I'll have to take another look at The Kingdom Within and get back to you.

Jon said...

Larry, the Thomas translation/interpretation I would recommended is The Gospel of Thomas, trans. with commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup. (Link is to my review.) Leloup is an authentic mystic in the Orthodox tradition, who has no axe to grind with the church, and whose own awakening gives him authentic insight into the issues in Thomas.

This is the one that's beyond belief! :-)

James Chang said...

I would like to thank David-William for bringing up Tolstoy. I remember that Tolstoy once wrote a book "The Gospel in Brief," which essentially is a condensation and redaction of the Gospels. The message in Tolstoy's version of the Gospel is quite similar to Thomas' vision. I sincerely recommend this book to anyone who's interested in the mystery of human freedom and bondage.

Larry said...

Thanks, Jon. I have it and agree: it's great.

$10 from Amazon as I recall.

Larry said...