I finished Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan. This will be somewhat of a rambling post. It will have a degree of structure, but it will also take tangents.
Pagels refers to a statement by Tertullian that Christians asking questions is dangerous, for that can lead to heresy. Questions that Tertullian did not care for pertained to the origin of evil, why God allows evil, and the origin of human beings. Tertullian knew that detractors would object that Jesus encouraged people to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7), but Tertullian’s response was that the purpose of seeking is to find, namely, to believe in Christianity. So why not accept Christianity at the outset, he wondered, rather than continuing to ask questions, which displays dissatisfaction with the answers that the faith provides?
Tertullian’s stance will probably shock a lot of my readers, as it shocked me, a person who likes to question and who does not care for the authoritarianism of conservative Christianity. But I can see a degree of value in Tertullian’s sentiment, not because I am concerned about “heresy”, but rather because I think that there is something to be said for settling down with a belief system, rather than continuing to search.
At the same time, even when settling down, I’d like to learn and to grow, otherwise I’d be bored. And, according to Pagels, Gnostic Christians sought something deeper and more profound within Christianity than the forgiveness of sins, for they held that it was also about finding the divine within. I can see the attraction in that. It would be nice to believe in more than “I’m a sinner and I need forgiveness”, to think that I have some hidden value or am on an adventure of discovering who I truly am.
Now for a couple of tangents. First of all, using as a launch-pad Tertullian’s concern that people will ask questions about the origins of evil, I’d like to note that Pagels a couple of times in this book refers to early Christian views on providence and the source of evil. Justin Martyr did not believe that God caused affliction but rather that Satan did so. Tatian, according to Pagels, “allows for accident in the natural world, including disasters, for which, he says, God offers solace but seldom miraculous intervention” (page xv1). And Origen also shied away from attributing the suffering of innocent people to God’s will. Some problems he believed were “accidental byproducts” of providence (page 141); other problems were due to the free choice of people and supernatural beings. Origen held, for instance, that demons and evil angels often instigated human evil and natural disasters. But Pagels says that later Christians had a stronger view of God’s providence.
Second, my impression of Pagels’ discussion of Gnostic Christianity is that she treats it as a reaction to mainstream Christianity—-that some were seeking deeper things in Christian writings. This is particularly true in her discussion of Valentinus. At the same time, she also appears to believe that Christianity was quite diverse early on, and she says that an edition of the Gospel of Thomas predated what became the canonical Gospels (though she agrees that there were additions to the Gospel of Thomas that came later). But does she truly believe that the historical Jesus could have been a proponent of finding the divine within?