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Will Reading Nag Hammadi Texts Weaken My Faith?
by Shirley Paulson, PhD
I grew up learning that my parents—or my church—or God—had answers for my life questions. Early on I learned this saying from Jesus in the Bible: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9 and Matthew 7:7).
I think I still believe the truth of Jesus’s teaching here. Maybe that’s the difference between a believer and a non-believer. My faith says there is an ever-present divine reality that is ever-ready to reveal itself—what is good and true. I still turn to God (whom I think of as ‘supreme good’) to find what is best for me and my community. I lean heavily on God for guidance, even when I don’t see evidence of it—yet.
Leaning on God or science?
Where else is there to turn for these answers? Even though I live by the best current scientific understanding of things, I don’t think science has as many answers as God does. Quantum mechanics has exposed the limitations of Newtonian science. And quantum physicists tell us that the phenomena of quantum physics lead to more questions than answers. They remind us that there’s an element of mental activity behind the action of things. But neither neuroscientists nor transhumanists can tell us how consciousness occurs—for this we need the divine Wisdom.
Learning to trust God’s goodness has been a positive experience for me. But this deep faith raises a basic question. If we lean on something that differs from empirical knowledge, does that mean we are irrational—or Christian fundamentalists? Does strong faith necessarily result in fundamentalism?
Characteristics of fundamentalism
A quick check with Wikipedia notes that fundamentalism “indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. . . . characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions.”
There are several self-directed quizzes online to evaluate whether strong faith has resulted in a personal commitment to fundamentalism. For instance,
- Is there only one true religion, the one I follow?
- Do I think of others as those who will ultimately adopt my beliefs?
- Are texts or scriptures outside my tradition faulty?
- Can anyone outside my tradition correctly interpret my sacred text(s)?
- Can my sacred text(s) be translated correctly in another language?
If the first three questions are answered with ‘yes,’ and the second two questions are answered with ‘no,’ then it is very difficult to communicate with others. The problem with fundamentalism is that it shuts down conversation and relationship-building.
I had never considered my strong faith in God (i.e. good) would make me a fundamentalist. But these questions make me wonder if I had allowed a close relationship to God to create barriers to meaningful relationships with anyone outside my specific faith tradition. It’s true that I did grow up in a religious bubble. I had many friends outside my faith, but when it came to discussions of faith, I found real conversation partners only within my religious community.
Reading Nag Hammadi texts challenges the fundamentalist position
Then the introduction of the Nag Hammadi Library impelled me to investigate the fundamentalist questions for myself. First, the books in the Nag Hammadi collection are not in the Bible. Second, my church has nothing to say about them, because the church teachings were established before the Nag Hammadi texts were discovered (in 1945). Third, a few of the texts are wildly contrary to my basic theological position, but many are strikingly similar. They appear to have been early Christian texts that modern Christians never knew before.
How should I think about some of these words of wisdom that may well have come from Jesus but never made it into my church’s canon? It was an odd feeling to read them without some official voice interpreting them for me. Several passages sounded quite similar to the voice I know in the Bible. But they weren’t sanctioned by any authority.
Interestingly, the more deeply I looked at them, the more color and texture they brought to the stories I already knew from the Bible. But they were new voices. Here is an example of a thought-provoking passage from the Dialogue of the Savior (one of the Nag Hammadi texts):
One who does not first understand water knows nothing. For what use is there for such a person to be baptized in it?
One who does not understand how the wind that blows came to be will blow away with it.
One who does not understand how the body that a person wears came to be will perish with it.
How will someone who does not know the Son know the Father?
All things are hidden from one who does not know the root of all things.
(Dialogue of the Savior, 133:22-134:20).
There is no religious authority to interpret this for me. So, my guess is as good as yours. I think it points toward the kind of faith I learned as a child—but with different words. It tells me that if I ask, I will find answers beyond the present earthly knowledge. It confirms my faith in the God (or whatever we would call God) who speaks to the questions that are unanswerable by the worldly sciences.
Maintaining faith without fundamentalist tendencies
This kind of passage exposes the fundamentalist belief that real truth can only be found in certain texts, or that only certain interpreters can explain them. They push me to listen to—and value— voices outside my traditional boundaries.
What is especially liberating about this for me is that I know these texts don’t belong to any other competing faith tradition either. All Christians ‘own’ them on an equal footing. It means everyone can translate, discuss, interpret, and pray over them. We can choose whether they would strengthen our faith or shake our faith.
If our fundamentalism is shaken even while belief is strengthened, then we are free to communicate the depth of our beliefs with others.
Shirley, this is awesome. Very helpful for my ministerial council work in the city of Monrovia, CA.
Not to mention, my own understanding and practice of Christian Science. ❤️??