Is There Life After Death?

Another in a series of reflections by our theologian-in-residence, Dr. Jim Goss

For several days after the death of our older daughter, I continued to hear her voice telling me she was all right and that I did not need to worry about her.  Periodically, sometimes out of nowhere, I hear her voice and feel her presence.  Other members of the family have had similar experiences.  I talked with a woman, who works in a hospice care facility, and she told me she has heard numerous such experiences from persons she has counseled.  I know all such occurrences could be explained as psychological wishful thinking, but it did not feel as if I were making all this up, and the abundance of testimonies by others leads me to wonder.

I did not always take such visitations after a loved one died too seriously.  The first time my skeptical attitude was challenged was when I was a seminary student.  In the church I served part-time I visited a woman whose young child had died.  She told me she was not grieving much because her child had appeared to her and reassured her that there were many others with her who loved and cared for her.  I listened while keeping my skepticism at bay, for I knew whatever else was going on inside the mother, she obviously was healing from the loss of her child.  At that time I thought she was hallucinating, but now I am not so sure.

My skepticism about such experiences stemmed from my accepting the worldview of scientific materialism that was prevalent in the universities.  I was taught that the mind (or soul) was a creation of the physical brain and that it had no independent reality of its own.  Francis Crick, the biologist who discovered the double helix of the DNA molecule, is an example of the materialist view.  He says,

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “YOU,” your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[1]    

The materialist offers evidence for their view of the mind.  If one is on drugs, the mind is affected.  If the brain is damaged, the mind does not function in its usual manner.  Such experiences are “proof, so I was informed, that when the brain dies, so does the mind.  Consequently, there cannot be any life after death.  Any auditory and visual appearances by a deceased person would be explained away psychologically.

Some process theologians agree that the soul or mind does have new experiences after death, but claim there is something called “objective immortality.” According to this view, God experiences everything we experience from moment to moment and upon death, the full person we were is now forever included in God’s memory.

Hypothetically, God could make use of that memory in any number of ways.  If I am in grief over the loss of my daughter, for example, God could comfort me in my sadness by communicating to me in the form of my daughter.  I would have no way to distinguish my actual daughter’s voice in my mind from one used by God.  Objective immortality would mean that although my daughter did not survive death, her memory is forever within God’s own being to be used in whatever loving way God chooses.  I find this view feasible even if there is no other form of life after death.

However, when a person contemplates life after death he or she usually means some kind of subjective immortality.  That means a person would continue to have new experiences, continually integrating new insights into one’s soul.  Such a view would have to challenge the notion that the mind or soul is simply the creation of the physical brain.  The soul and physical brain would have to be interrelated yet independent aspects of a human’s existence in the world.

There are a number of studies that advocate the mutual interaction of mind and brain that do not make them identical. One is “Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation,” a work by Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, and co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center.  He coined the term “mindsight”  to describe the human capacity to perceive the mind of one’s own and the mind of others. He claims the mind can change the structure of the brain and the brain can change the structure of the mind.

Those working on “near death” and “out of body” experiences also support the mind’s interaction with the brain, but do not reduce the mind to the physical brain.  Such points of view could open the possibility of life after death.[2]

But there is one more issue at stake.  Plato believed we are born with immortal souls and so do the Hindus, who accept the everlasting life of the Atman or self.  The biblical tradition, to the contrary, speaks of the resurrection of the body, not the endless life of the soul.  Personally, I think neither the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body is a viable option.  The former is no longer philosophically defensible, while the latter is a mythological assumption of another age.

I believe the soul is something that is formed in the process of living.  It includes the depth dimensions of our bodily and mental activity that is formed into meaningful experiences from moment to moment.  If this soul-making process is cherished by God, then it is possible that the continuation of a person’s soul-making will occur after death.  If it does, it is because it is within God’s power of love to “resurrect the soul” and continue to give it life.  Both objective and subjective immortality are workable from process theological assumptions, and I am open to both.

Nothing that I have written proves there is life after death. But I no longer accept the materialist view of life, and that means I am open to the reality of my daughter’s visitations and to the possible continuation of my soul-making after death. 

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.

[1] Quoted by David Ray Griffin in “The Christian Gospel for America,: p. 79.

[2] For an extensive treatment of these issues see David Ray Griffin, “Parapsychology, Philosophy and [2] Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration.”


Is There Life After Death?

Another in a series of reflections by our theologian-in-residence, Dr. Jim Goss

Scholars are in agreement that one of the major images used by Jesus in his ministry is the ‘Kingdom of God.” For some the term refers to a place over which God will rule with justice and love. Politically it would be like a Commonwealth. For others it has more of a verbal meaning that might best be translated, “the reigning of God,” which emphasizes the ongoing activity of God’s presence in the world.  

Many biblical interpreters argue that Jesus expected the Kingdom to come in the immediate future. In Mark 13, for example, Jesus is instructing his disciples about cataclysmic events taking place that will culminate in the following events:

“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (vv. 24-25).”

Jesus concludes his prophetic announcement by stating: “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” For Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the end of the world is at hand. Other “Son of Man” predictions found in the gospels likewise point to a future intervention by God.

In spite of these passages in scripture, many scholars do not believe that Jesus actually said these things. It is possible that the author of Mark took the title, “Son of Man,” from the book of Daniel and put it into the mouth of Jesus. The author of Mark wrote during the time of the war between Israel and Rome in 66–70 C.E., when there was heightened expectation that God would intervene and save Israel from its enemies and restore the world to justice. By the second century when the intervention did not take place as expected, the apocalyptic fervor died out. Orthodox Christianity kept the idea of a final judgment but abandoned the notion it would take place soon. At different times in history expectations of the end of the world became intense and steps were taken to prepare for God’s final judgment,. The nineteenth-century Adventist movement is just one of many examples.

I do not find the notion that Jesus was an apocalypticist very convincing. There are more trustworthy sayings than this questionable one added by Mark. One of them is in Luke 17: 22–21. “Being asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was coming, he answered them, ‘’The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Low, here it is!’ or ‘There’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” This passage indicates very clearly that Jesus did not look forward to an apocalyptic ending of the world. Instead, he found the Kingdom already in their midst.

Another saying of Jesus is found in Matthew 12:28: “But if it is by the spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Jesus, who was a healer, believed that healing is an experience of the Kingdom of God. Consequently, the Kingdom is not an event at the end of the world, but a present reality in human existence.

The Gospel of Thomas also supports the presence of the Kingdom here and now: Jesus says, ‘If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sky,’ then the fish will proceed you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside you and it is outside you” (Saying 3). The Kingdom, then, is not a place but an experience that it can be found by anyone who is willing to look beyond the surface. On the one hand, it is a utopia, a word which means “no place.” On the other, it is omnipresent—it is everywhere.

In Thomas 77, this understanding of the Kingdom is emphasized even further: “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This Thomas saying could be interpreted as “pantheism,’ meaning the world and God are one in the same reality. But I find the Gospel of Thomas to be an advocate of “panentheism,” which means God is in all reality, but whose mind transcends the world. For Jesus, God’s presence is found within all of nature and within the depths of the self (or soul).

To experience God within ourselves is to discover a depth within us in which the divine presence seeks to entice us into soul-making.[1] God’s active communication to us would be God’s soul energizing our souls. Many of the programs and methods employed by “integrated spirituality,” including concerns about aging, physical forms of mediation like Tai Ji, Yoga, Reiki, centering prayer and singing bowls, are designed to foster this inner encounter with the Kingdom. So do art, music, theater, movies, poetry, myths, dreams, scientific imagination, and novels. To be moved deeply in any endeavor awakens the soul to incarnate God’s life into our selves—to experience the Kingdom of God. Some encounters with the inner world will require one to face one’s dark side or shadow, but God is there, too.

The discovery of God in nature means that the souls of all the finite entities that exist in the universe also encounter God’s process of soul-making. Ecological responsibility for the greening of the earth and actively responding to dangers climate change are of utmost importance to God since the world is God’s body. For Jesus, the world is God’s sacred playground, and to harm the world is to injure God. God’s Kingdom is present in sunrises and sunsets, walks in the woods, strolls on the beach, in birds and plants, working in the garden, and in quarks and electrons. To find God’s love in all times and place is to experience God’s Soul- -the Kingdom of God.

John Dominic Crossan’s two books, The Historical Jesus” and “Jesus” are excellent interpretation of the mission and message of Jesus.

[1] See my previous essay on, “Does God Have a Soul.”

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.

Another in a series of essays by Dr. Jim Goss

The images we choose for God enable us to more meaningfully understand our experiences of soul-making–our spirituality–and for me, beauty has been of utmost importance in this endeavor.

In his widely influential dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato describes how beauty enables the soul to escape from its tragic descent into the world. The soul, he argues, originally existed in a pure state and free from all encumbrances.  But some souls fall into matter and become imprisoned within the human body. A soul captured within the flesh of a human being gets caught up in the injustice and evils of the world. Consequently, it forgets its true reality. To remember its origins the soul must be awakened out of its unconscious slumber.  The task is to free it, return it to its original state, and this is where beauty comes in.

Plato celebrated the ancient mystery rites of Eleusis, the most famous ceremonies of Ancient Greece, that celebrated Demeter’s search for her daughter Kore in the underworld.  Demeter’s successful descent symbolized the emerging of light out of darkness, of spring out of winter, of life out of death. Plato describes joining the procession of Athenians walking down the “Sacred Way” to the bay where he was initiated into Demeter’s rites.  Upon reaching Eleusis there is an all-night vigil.  Eventually, they enter the Telesterion, a great hall, in which the final ceremonies take place. The culminating vision occurs when a door is opened and the light of a great fire blazes out creating an ecstatic vision.

Plato describes his experience of the night’s events, “we gazed in the moment of final revelation; pure was the light that shone around us, and pure were we, without taint of that prison house which now we are encompassed.” [249-251] For Plato this vivid experience was one of immense beauty, a beauty that awakens the soul to remember its true nature.

While I do not share Plato’s view of the immortality of a pre-existent soul, or the body as incarcerating the soul, the experience of beauty as awakening the process of soul-making has been vital to my own Christian spiritual self-understanding.  In spite of the dominance of my left-brain that wants all things to be rationally understandable, it is my right-brain experience of dreams, visions, metaphors and parables that have had the most powerful affects upon forming the depths of my soul. 

Let me describe one of my most intense experiences.  In my first year in seminary I was struggling with a number of issues, not the least of which was what I thought about God. I wondered if I should really study for the ministry or maybe get a teaching credential instead.  My relation to my father, who had been an alcoholic when I was growing up but who stopped drinking the day I decided to go to seminary, was still not very good. I was uncertain who I was or what I should do with my life.

I decided to go for a walk in the botanical gardens near the seminary. I sat on a bench and my emotions poured out of me. After cleansing tears, I had a great vision of beauty: all of the flowers and plants in the garden became a harmony of color and concord.  Even the lizard that ran by became part of the kaleidoscope of beauty.  I felt a great sense of bliss, which I interpreted as God’s presence within me and all of nature. My soul was alive again and I knew I was moving in the right direction.

In my quest to understand the reality of God I eventually turned to Whitehead’s metaphysics through the work of John Cobb, Jr. and David Griffin, who helped me replace the traditional Western views of God that I had rejected.  But while I gained valuable rational clarity, “process theology” seemed too abstract to satisfy the aesthetic longings of my soul.  A branch of process theism, called “theopoetics,” brought the experience of beauty into the forefront and aided me in the continuous process of soul-making.

Theopoetics began upon a reflection Whitehead made in Process and Reality: “[God] does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” [p.346] To view God as a Poet is not a definition, but an image that awakens the imagination to see beauty manifested in all of reality.  In music, the arts, poetry, myths, scriptures, fiction, films and dreams, in walks in the forest, in the colors of sunsets and in the plumage of birds the divine harmony is evoked.  God does not exhaust creativity but fosters its presence throughout the universe, and entices the depth dimensions of life to actualize themselves within the soul.

Everything that exists has creative power to do good, to create beauty, or to do evil and enhance ugliness.  God as poet takes up all of the disparate experiences of the individual entities that comprise the universe moment by moment and fashions them into a harmony.  Everything that exists helps create the world; it is not solely God’s work.  As the Master Artist, as the Great Symphony Conductor, as the Soul of the Universe, God alone saves the world through a profound, hallowed poetic imagination.

Ruben Alves, one of the first to advocate theopoetics, states: “I can affirm God has to exist.  There is too much beauty in the universe, and beauty cannot be lost.  God . . . wanders through the universe picking and gathering up all the beauties and guaranteeing that none will be lost, and saying that all that was loved and lost will return, and be repeated.” [Transparencies of Eternity, p. 24.]  A surplus of beauty, a cosmos, must be the work of an artistic imagination pervading all that is.

The process of soul-making, of adding depth to one’s experiences in each moment of one’s life, is greatly enhanced by the experiences of beauty in all its forms.  Thankfully, there is enough splendor for all of us to be initiated into the vision that awakens our souls.

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.

Does God Have a Soul? 
by Dr. Jim Goss

To ask whether God has a soul requires us to have some sense, not only of God, but of the soul as well. In classical Greece the soul, or some part of it, is that portion within humans that is immortal and lives on after the death of the body. The biblical tradition, to the contrary, does not believe the soul is independent of the body. The soul refers to the life that God gives to a person and it is always found within a body. If something survives death, then it would be the continuation of God’s gift.

Paul in the New Testament favors a resurrection that includes body, spirit and soul, but not flesh (1 Cor. 15). He refers to the new life after death as a “spiritual body” that has neither flesh nor blood. Since a spiritual body is alive, it has soul. For some moderns, such as psychologist Carl Jung, the soul is simply another name for a person’s personality or moral character.

My own view is somewhat different. I believe the soul is that part of our selves that provides depth, purpose and meaning to experience. The soul is not a thing but is a perspective on life that brings unity out of the multiplicity of events in our daily living. A person’s soul is constantly changing for good or ill with each new experience and is comprised of all the various experiences we have integrated into our selves over time.

Now how does human “soul-talk” apply to God?

Whenever we inquire about whether God has a soul, we have to use analogies from human experience, because we have no other way to talk about God’s own being. One of the prominent biblical analogies, found especially in the Gospel of John, uses the image of God as a Father who loves his Son. Consequently, the use of a family analogy becomes a way of understanding how God cares for us. If we love the Son, we love God, and both the Son and God love us. To participate in that love is to acquire Eternal Life from God now and in the future. If soul is that capacity in a being that gives depth, meaning and purpose to experience, then God has a soul—God’s eternal capacity to love.

Another analogy goes back to Plato who uses the relationship of the human mind to the body as a way of understanding God’s work in the world. For Plato the Demiurge (God) creates a World Soul that gives intelligibility to the universe. In the Timaeus, he states: “This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.” Plato believes the universe is alive and God’s soul is found in humans, animals and plants, all of which form a cosmic community. The mind of God creates the body of the world and provides it with soul.

Not everyone in the ancient world accepted Plato’s view, but the real challenge began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the view that the universe is a complex machine that is not alive. A universe devoid of God and life leaves humans, who feel and think, without any corresponding equivalent in nature. For Neo-Darwinists, like Richard Dawkins, evolution proceeds by chance and mutation. There is no purpose or goal in the unfolding of life. The universe is soulless, and existentialists, like Camus, could refer to “the benign indifference of the universe.”

New developments in twentieth-century physics, biology, and botany revive for some the belief that the universe is alive and that some form of subjectivity and intelligence could be found in plants and animals. Process theism affirms that view and revives Plato’s analogy of the world soul to develop a new understanding of God’s activity in the world. To claim that God has a soul and that it pervades the universe is an important basis for the “integrated spirituality” offered by our church.

For Process Theism God is di-polar: God has a mind and a body. From this assumption, a new view of God emerges. Here is how it is worked out: each cell in our body is alive in itself and combines with other cells to form molecules, tissues, and organs like the brain, which makes the human self a complex community of cells. What happens in the cells affects the rest of the body and mind. If cells become damaged we could experience pain or suffer from a disease. Therefore the cells affect the way the mind thinks and feels. The mind, on the other hand, may affect how the cells operate. A person who is under mental stress can damage cells, while a person practicing mindfulness may create a healthy environment in which the cells may thrive. The interaction between mind and body, which occurs from moment to moment, is what provides us with purpose, depth, and meaning. It is soul–making.

Using the analogy of the interaction of our body and mind, we gain insight into the reality of God. God imagines all the ideal possibilities that the universe could possibility actualize. Out of the welter of that information God seeks to communicate to all the entities that make up God’s physical body—the universe—and to persuade them to pursue the ideal that is envisioned. Because the entities that make up the world all have freedom and power, they usually do not live up to the ideal set by God.

What, then, should God do about the world’s failure to live out the ideal? In order to know what to do next God must feel what we experienced in each moment in order to understand how to help us in the next one. On the one hand, God influences us; on the other, what we do is taken into God’s reality and influences God. God has an affect upon the universe and the universe has an affect upon God. This means that everything we do shapes God’s own life.

In this interrelationship between God and the world, God’s soul is at work. In each moment there is a multiplicity of experiences taking place in the world and God takes them into his own being, brings them into harmony and produces great beauty. The soul of God in its depth dimension is the beauty of life. God’s soul is what gives unity and order to the world. The world is the result of God’s soul-making.

For anyone wishing to pursue these issues in depth, I recommend a book by David Fideler entitled, Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence.

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.


What Kind of Power Does God Have?
By Dr. Jim Goss

The wife of my best friend, who was dying of terminal disease, said she wanted to ask me a question, which was, “Why is God doing this to me?”  I did not think it was time for a complicated theological discussion, so I tried to answer as simply as I could.  I asked her if her husband, children, family or friends who loved her wished for her to have this illness.  She knew they did not.  “Why,” I asked, “do you think God who loves you would want you to suffer?”  She was a religious person who attended church regularly, so I knew at least she would think about it.  She asked because she had accepted the notion that God has omnipotent power to control all events: disease, wars, earthquakes and anything else that happens.

In many of our hymns, creeds, and prayers God is termed “omnipotent,” which is an unfortunate description to attach to God, for it makes God responsible for all the ills of life. The term is not found in scripture but the term “Almighty” did appear in the King James translation of the Bible because it mistranslated a Hebrew title for God.  In Genesis and Job God is called, “El Shaddai, which means God on high, but was translated as Almighty.  From that time the term “omnipotence” or “almighty” became a fixed attribute of God.

The belief that God is omnipotent comes from expanding the kind of power that is wielded by emperors and generals: the power to coerce people into submission, for ordinary persons are powerless in the face of overwhelming power.  Consequently, whatever God decides to do is unstoppable.  That view depicts God as a tyrant who is capricious and arbitrary, even though God is thought to be good.  If God is omnipotent, then Camus is right: our response is to rebel against a Being who not worthy of worship.

But nothing in scripture indicates that God is omnipotent.  God’s purposes are often thwarted by the human actions exemplified in the mythic story of Adam and Eve who are banished from paradise for disobeying God’s command.  God has power but not the power to control all events or to remove the freedom of humans.  So if God is not omnipotent, then what kind of power does God have?

Jesus, Paul, the Gospel John, and Letters of John all emphasize that God is love, a claim that leads us to inquire into the power of love. A striking difference between the power of love and omnipotence is that love does not coerce. Love supports, encourages, lures and is empathetic. Love does not seek to control the freedom of another. Rather it boosts the other’s confidence and creativity. Love is the power to persuade not the power to intimidate.

If God is love then the power of God is not omnipotence and God does not rule as a Tsar. For Jesus, the term Father is used for the relationship between himself and deity, an intimacy in which love is the foundation. God’s power entices us to fulfill our destinies, to advance our creativity, and to bring purpose and meaning to our lives. God’s power is the power to help all to exercise their freedom to create communities of compassion and justice. But God’s power is resistible and humans have the power to do that which is not in their best interest.

For Process Theology[1], all things that exist, from subatomic particles to the most complex living beings in the universe, have some degree of power to fashion their own existence. God is not the sole creator. All entities that make up reality help to create the world as it is. It is the conflict that occurs between creatures who exercise their power in conflict with others that is responsible for the evils in life. God may try to persuade persons to use their power in loving ways, but not everyone is persuaded. Cancer cells, for example, are not willing to live in harmony with healthy cells and the conflict may lead to death. Even God cannot coerce cancer cells. 

The sufferings of an afflicted person are felt in God’s own life who seeks to bring healing through the actions of those in the medical profession and other healing persons. God does not want people to suffer accidents, to cause wars, or to harm the eco-environment. As a God of love, God does not want those types of things to occur, but the task is to help us so we find the power to resolve conflicts and to heal and comfort those in need. God’s own agony over our failure to respond creatively to God’s aim for our lives is symbolized by the cross. But our hope lies in this: since God’s love never ends (1 Cor. 13), love will win in the end.

The tradition that has embraced God as an omnipotent Being has caused great harm. It fosters unrealistic expectations and prevents persons from accepting responsibility for the care of the earth. I would like to see all such references to “almighty” and “omnipotence” deleted from our hymns, our creeds, and our prayers, so we may exalt in God’s image as the loving Father/Mother who is supremely worthy of adoration and worship.

[1]Process Theology is based upon the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne who challenged the classical form of theism where God is considered transcendent and supernatural.  For them, and those who espouse process theism, God is actively involved in all of reality and works through the natural processes of life.  For anyone interested in a more comprehensive discussion of the issue of God and power, I recommend two books:  Robert Mesle, “Process Theology,” and Daniel Day Williams, “The Spirit and Forms of Love.”

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence. He is Professor Emeritus of the Religions Studies Department, California State University, Northridge.

“Why We Ought to Read Early Christian Writings Not Included In the New Testament Canon”

By Dr. Jim Goss, Theologian in Residence

In the 1960s when I was an Associate Minister at a United Methodist Church in Southern California one of the members of the congregation asked me, “When are we going to open the New Testament canon?”  I told him it would never happen, but now I think it is time to do so.

The word canon comes from a Greek word that means “rule” or “standard.” The  New Testament canon is a list of the religious writings deemed authoritative by the leadership of the church in the fourth century. Up until that time there was a wide variety of writings popular amongst different Christian groups. After the decision was made about which writings would become authoritative—the formation of the canon– then there was an all-out effort to destroy all those documents that were now deemed heretical. It is estimated by some scholars that over 80% of the writings read by Christians in the first four centuries were destroyed.

Scholars are aware that some of the reasons given for what writings were considered authoritative were erroneous. For example, they assumed the gospels were written by disciples or companions of disciples of Jesus. Mark was thought to have written down the memoirs of Peter, Matthew was one of the disciples, Luke was a traveling companion of Paul acquainted with the leaders of the early church, and John was the beloved disciple of Jesus. Those claims have not held up under critical scrutiny, for all were written anonymously and the current titles added later. Furthermore, the letters of Timothy and Titus were added because it was assumed they were written by Paul, but very few scholars today accept Pauline authorship of those works. So while the canon of the New Testament contains valuable and important information about the beliefs, practices, and leaders of early Christianity, they do not represent the full range of Christian thinking, nor do they have the authenticity assumed by the fourth-century bishops.   Events have opened up new possibilities.

In 1945 a collection of writings was uncovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt that contain copies of some of the documents that had been banned and destroyed. For the first time, we have access to the writings that some early Christians thought were vital to their faith.  The Gospel of Mary we examined last Spring and the Gospel of Thomas we will study this Fall are two of the documents rejected by the church that give us insights into the diversity of early Christianity. For some who are looking for alternative ways to understand the Christian faith, these new texts open the door to reconsider the canon.

Let me briefly contrast two of the possibilities. The Orthodox Church, based primarily on the Gospel of John, claims that Jesus is God incarnate who came into a world of sin and darkness, caused by the fall of Adam and Eve, to reveal the truth of God the Father, and whose sacrificial death overcomes the alienation between God and humanity. Through the teaching and sacraments of the Church, administered by the ordained clergy, a person of faith could participate in the salvation established by Jesus.  For many, this view represents the heart and soul of Christianity.

Other early Christians had different beliefs. They also thought that the relationship with God had been damaged, but the cause of the “fall” and the plan of redemption were different.  Humans, they believed, are so caught up in the everydayness of life that the precious treasure within their souls is drowned out by the cares of the world.  That treasure is the presence of God that is not only within each individual but throughout nature as well.  Humans need help to recover God’s inner presence and that is the mission of Jesus.

The role of Jesus is that of a wisdom-teacher whose task is to awaken people to the presence of their hidden, inner God. If one grasps Jesus’ message and integrates into one’s consciousness, then the bond with God that one has had from birth is restored.  Since neither sacrament nor creeds determined one’s faith, the role of bishops and church councils would not help in uncovering the God within. It is found through experience and imagination (what in Greek is called “gnosis”).  Such a view is a form of mysticism and is found in the Gospels of Mary and Thomas.

By opening the canon to include other early Christian works, we have new visions to consider in our journey to find the depths of ourselves within the reality of God’s own life.  The diversity of early Christianity was one of its strengths and we are now in a position to recover some of its alternatives.

A gifted scholar and popular teacher, Dr. Jim Goss serves as DCC’s Theologian in Residence.  He is Professor Emeritus of the Religious Studies Department of California State University, Northridge.


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